Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Welcome to the Collage

During the past year, I’ve returned to creating collages from cardboard and magazines, an art first learned in a class at the Rhode Island School of Design.

It was the summer of 1974. Let me recall some of my “firsts” that summer:

- Read the poems of Dylan Thomas
- Drank coffee
- Met a lot of people from all over the country
- Spent time in a college town
- Understood that drawing light is like capturing movement on a page
- Grasped the oneness that flows from shared experience 

We were encouraged to check out an exhibition of faculty work. On the wall beside one painting, someone had scribbled in pencil, “If this painting could talk, it wouldn’t say anything.”

Everyone floated in and out of the dormitory rooms. Coming upon a group of friends, you would start by saying, “Hey people. . .” It took me a long time to shake that habit.

We girls wore peasant blouses and faded jeans with holes in the knees. Everyone roamed over College Hill, the beautiful green neighborhood that encompasses Brown University and most of RISD.

But coming around to collage – that was what I learned best that summer.

We started with a shirt cardboard cut in half. Nowadays many men request that their laundered shirts be returned on hangers but in those days folded in a box was typical; thus the cardboard.

The vast tables in the sunlit studio were covered with magazines, wallpaper books, and fabric.

The professor kindly persisted with me even after I produced several pieces that weren’t at all what she wanted. They were patchworks of color that looked like quilts. She dismissed them as pretty pictures.

Playing around one afternoon, I realized that a collage is a place to go. Step inside, it says, come on in. There’s music playing. It’s calm. It’s crazy. It’s a day in the country. It’s a room in a house where you can sit and look out the window. 

The collage starts with large shapes that fall into place because you know where they belong.

You already can tell that it’s autumn because of how the light falls across the floor.

Or it’s winter. The sky is full of snow which means there’s all the time in the world as it was when we were growing up.

It’s the end of the day at the beach when the wind picks up and the sun wheels toward the horizon.

Or you want to be alone.

As the collage grows, available space dwindles and assumes more challenging shapes. Things become complicated. It’s all part of finding your way to the place you’re evoking.

That’s life inside a collage.

Collage by Claudia Keenan

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A Syracuse Story

West Genesee Street, Syracuse, 1900

Jane looks out steadily, as if you hadn’t just surprised her by opening the case. She’s trapped in a daguerreotype, surrounded by a decorative brass mat. No rings yet adorn her fat fingers. It is 1860 and she is wearing a complicated day dress with ridiculous plaid puffs along the sleeves and a shawl and drooping headdress.

A scrap of paper is stuck to the velvet; faint message from the past:

PJ Bumblebee the hardest customer in Rochester City. He came to Oswego to ask consent. His courage failed. He finally concluded he would not marry at all.

Now it’s clear – she is waiting for the Bumblebee. 

PJ finally gets courage and she accepts. They move to Syracuse where he starts in men’s furnishings. He builds a fabulous shop with counter cases made of French plate glass and walnut. He employs tailors who work all night sewing Continental style suits. The business grows and PJ becomes a wealthy man.

Three daughters were born: Neeltje, Annabel, and Jessie. 

They didn’t come in a rush; 1864, 1870, 1877. PJ and Jane made sure that their daughters rose to the top of Syracuse society. There was a lot of money. The city’s economy flourished with the salt industry, banking, diverse manufacturing, and Syracuse’s development as a railroad center.

Debuts and balls, the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts,  summers at Saranac Lake, an expansive home on West Genesee Street . . . 

No wonder that Neeltje (known as Nellie), who married Henry Elmer of West Springfield, Mass., in 1890, brought her son and daughter to Syracuse for such protracted visits.

I just don’t understand how Henry and Nellie met. He hardly ever left his house, let alone West Springfield.

In the meantime, Annabel and Jessie married Syracuse men and continued to enjoy busy lives close by their parents. When PJ died in 1902, he knew they could afford lifetime upper-crust memberships. Their husbands prospered. It helped that they were well-launched by wealthy fathers.

Annabel married a man named William Buell Gere, the son of William Henry Harrison Gere who served in the New York State Legislature, worked as New York State Division Engineer, and made money in iron and salt.  

William B. Gere spent his career as the secretary and chief inventor of the Merrell-Soule Company, which developed a modern method for creating a powdered milk called Klim (milk spelled backwards). William B. Gere also led the invention of low-moisture canned mincemeat (“None Such”) and vegetable and soup powders, as well as new types of canning and food packaging. He held numerous patents, including one for pumpkin powder. He died prematurely in 1915. In 1927, Borden acquired Merrell-Soule.

Jessie married a man named Alfred Howlett Durston, Ph.B., Yale, 1899; class president. Son of James Franklin Durston, president of Lefever Arms Company, a Syracuse gun manufacturer best-known for its hammerless shotgun. Alfred worked in the factory and sales, and as secretary and vice president. He received a patent for a gun cleaner in 1902. It looks like Lefever produced automobile gears as a side business for some years. In 1916, the Durstons sold Lefever and reincorporated as the Durston Gear Corporation with Alfred as president, a position he held until his death in 1926.

And then there was “poor Nellie,” stuck in tiresome West Springfield with her in-laws living right next door on Main Street. Her husband Henry had attended the public schools and worked at a hardware store, then for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. He obviously adored his hometown, serving as school trustee, town selectman, and treasurer of the West Springfield Co-operative Bank.

After Nellie died in 1926, he married Lilian. A schoolteacher, she had been a boarder in the Main Street house for some years. She lost her first fiancé in World War I.

Henry never made a lot of money or held a patent.

His glory days arrived while he served as treasurer of the town of West Springfield. 

During World War II, Henry defied New Deal fiscal guidelines for local governments yet managed to secure the town’s largest cash balance in 170 years. 

It’s family lore that The Wall St. Journal cited this achievement in an editorial, but no one has been able to confirm that.

See post 2/10/16

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Well Jess you have got the best of everything

North End Bridge over the Connecticut River, seen from West Springfield, 1900

Jessie already seemed wise beyond her years by the time her brother was born. Their parents, Henry and Neeltje, were 40. The children had four grandparents, two great-grandparents, and a dozen aunts and uncles who had treated Jessie as an adult since she was small. 

When John came along in 1901, her maternal grandfather, Pieter John Brummelkamp, wrote to her from Syracuse:

My dear Jessie, What news did I hear. I must have dreamed it that you have a Brother. Am I right or wrong. If I am right then enclosed you will find a Bill. Go down the street and buy him a pair of boots and tell him to get up and shovel snow. If you haven’t any snow tell him to come to grand Pa, we have got plenty. Well Jess you have got the best of everything. It isn’t everybody that can have a Brother. Love to Ma & Pa, PJB

Two cities dominated the children’s early years: Syracuse, N.Y. and West Springfield, Mass. In both places Jessie came down from a long line of Jessies. Her mother’s mother, sister, and great-grandmother all were Jessies. Her father’s mother was a Jessie and his great-great-grandmothers both were named Jessie. 

This particular Jessie, born in 1894, would be the end of the line; married late, no children.

The families wore their homes like badges of honor, posing for photographs on Easter Sunday, the afternoon sun shining right into their eyes. 

In Syracuse, they composed themselves in lawn chairs with the photographer clear on the other side of West Genesee Street so that the figures are barely recognizable. 

In West Springfield, they sat under an enormous beech tree surely 200 years old.  

Jessie and John’s parents were not an obvious match. Neeltje thought West Springfield unfashionable and decamped each year for the social season in Syracuse where she stayed and stayed, often bringing the children with her. They moved between the sumptuous décor and service of the Brummelkamp home and rough-and-tumble West Springfield where John chopped down a dead apple tree, repaired a canoe, and fetched sugar from the A & P when they were down to two lbs. 

Neeltje was one of three beautiful daughters whose mother was one of five lovely daughters. PJ, a stocky immigrant from Utrecht, had business with Jane Brewster’s father and fell madly in love with her. 

After PJ and Jane married, he brought her to Syracuse where he built a successful men’s furnishings store. He ran it until 1883 when Governor Grover Cleveland appointed him superintendent of the Onondaga Salt Springs Reservation.* In 1890 PJ was photographed “at camp” in the Adirondacks, wielding a fishing rod and dressed prematurely like a Rough Rider.

Onondaga Salt Springs, 1908

After PJ died in 1902, some thought that Henry and Neeltje might grow closer but that was not to be, for Neeltje spent even more time in Syracuse with her mother.

As Jessie later said of herself, she was “born raised” and largely brought up John. 

She enabled him to carve out a childhood. 

She insisted that her father take his son skating on the Connecticut River during the long frozen winters. 

She encouraged John to become manager of the high school baseball team and apply to Tufts because he hoped to be an engineer. 

She appreciated John’s enthralled interest in the future although her manner and views always marched resolutely out of the Victorian past.

*Jesuit missionaries first discovered salt springs around Onondaga Lake, about 6 miles northwest of Syracuse, in the mid-17th century. Between 1797 and 1917, the Onondaga Salt Springs Reservation produced more than 11.5 million tons of finished salt.

See post 2/17/16

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Remembering Andrew Patner

My friend Andrew Patner died one year ago today at the impossibly young age of 55. He was a pitch-perfect cultural critic and fine writer.

Over time his intelligence brightened and deepened, and his knowledge of everything: music, literature, politics, race, religion, his beloved native city of Chicago – EVERYTHING – expanded, along with his natural ability to be reflective.

The author of an imaginative study of the radical journalist I.F. Stone, host of a wide-ranging radio show, “Critical Thinking,” on WFMT-Chicago, and producer and host for Chicago’s NPR affiliate, he wrote about the arts for the Chicago Sun-Times for more than two decades.

Andrew definitely knew how to stir the pot. He was a superb interviewer. With his persistent curiosity, intuition, and understanding of social problems, his work evoked that of his friend, Studs Terkel.

Unfortunately, for various reasons he and I had not been in close touch for many years. I’ll regret that forever.

But thankfully and happily, I remember the moment Andrew first stepped into the office of the Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper of the University of Chicago. It was September 1978. That year the paper felt particularly reinvigorated. 

We ran more investigations, hit the administration harder, expanded coverage of arts, literature, and sports, and increased space for serious issues in the surrounding community. Of course, our masthead was one-quarter of the size of most that appear on campuses today.

Now here came Andrew, who had grown up in Hyde Park. His perspectives on the neighborhood, university, and city were astonishing. It was always worth talking to him about a hunch or a story; well, really about anything.

He had an elegant generosity. He shared ideas and insight, bestowed encouragement and praise, and made time for rumination, speculation, and, perhaps most delightfully, debunking.

He and I shared a wistfulness about having been born too late for the student movement of the 1960s. Along those lines, we pored over volumes of old newspapers crammed on the office shelves, and pried our way through dusty wooden file cabinets looking for photos of the action we missed. We talked about the past. And we even got up close to some of the people who were deeply into the scene.

Since the twenties, the Maroon office had been located on the top floor of a neo-Gothic hall that resembles, as a university PR officer once wrote, “a Tudor English manor house.” One entered the building through a cloistered courtyard, perhaps bought a cup of coffee at the bakery on the first floor, and hurried upstairs. Someone was always there, perhaps even banging out a paper for a class.

We had no thought that the worn oak desks and chairs, floorboards that lost their varnish years earlier, manual typewriters, and an endless supply of yellow copy paper would someday not be there. Maybe we hoped for a few electric typewriters. But who could imagine that the newspaper wouldn’t always come to life in this perfect office with leaded casement windows and ivy that occasionally crept under the sill?

Now it’s all computerized and located in the basement.

But in my mind’s eye, Andrew stands in that faraway room; 19 years old, caught in the afternoon light, turning toward us, starting to smile, starting to speak. 

Drawing by Claudia Keenan

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