Petrol, again

This artsy, soft-focus image of a gas station somewhere in Arkansas reminded me that the earliest purveyor of gasoline and healer of the newfangled automobile has yet to be fully designed. There have been a few jabs at it but nothing has taken. Aspects of this station have caught my eye and may very well become part of Cliff’s Garage.

Before it became a necessity, the auto was a mixed blessing. Early internal combustion engines were simple machines that could be disassembled and put back together with little fear that a few miscellaneous parts would be left on the bench. Before the 1950s, when cars became much more complicated, my dad could do both with his eyes blindfold—I’ve watched him and marveled at both his ability and the simple logic of the engine itself. But there was always the matter of fuel: gasoline was highly combustible, whether in the tank or stored for later use. So the private garage tended to be detached from the house itself—not unlike the kitchen during Elizabethan times—or specially insulated (strengthened) to contain an explosion. I’ve just returned from a student field trip to Chicago and a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1908 house for Frederick C. Robie; the Robie’s three-car garage was necessarily attached to the house proper, and the servants’ rooms were placed immediately above it, which required a reinforced concrete barrier between the time bombs below and the maid and cook sleeping fearlessly above.

For those lucky enough to own a car but lack the mechanical ability to keep it running smoothly, the local mechanic served two valuable functions: auto repair and the storage of fuel a safe distance from residential neighborhoods. I wonder how Cliff Pherson’s neighbors felt about the establishment of his business circa 1938 in the depths of the Depression.

Entries related to Cliff’s Garage touch on several topics:

Robert C. Skunt (active 1960s)

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

SKUNT, Robert C. (active 1960s)

“Two Men” 


woodcut / 6 1/2” x 3 1/2″ / edition of 50

“Two Men”, a three-color woodcut by artist Robert Skunt, was part of a projected set of playing cards—a fund-raiser for the Community Collection itself. Instead, it became an auction of limited edition prints and probably raised more money than the cards themselves would have generated.

Andrew Hendricks (contemporary)

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

HENDRICKS, Andrew (contemporary)

“The March of Progress” 


marquetry / scraped & engraved tabletop fragment, color pencil / 7″ x 10 1/2″

Andrew Hendricks describes his own process using found materials:

My work focuses on the exploitative relationship people have with the natural world and how this relationship shapes the manufactured landscapes around us….

[The] two-dimensional work is executed on stained and finished wood panels reclaimed from cast-off or broken furniture. Employing reductive intaglio techniques from my printmaking background, I use tools like scrapers and engraving burins to remove the layers of old finishes, stains, and veneers with the objective of adding as little as possible back onto the piece. Just as nature is reduced to create these objects, I further reduce the objects to reveal their true nature.

As with Michael Paul’s haunted painting “People talking without listening“, Hendricks’ marquetry draws on the ubiquitous telephone pole, in this case its rhythms along country roads or the lengths of urban alleys, representing a communication mode on the list of endangered technologies—if not those already extinct. Viewers under the age of, say, twenty-five, are likely to find little meaning in their repetitive cruciform shapes. For others “of a certain age” these will conjure memories of Burma Shave signs.

Karl Wasserman [1900-1972]


[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]

WASSERMAN, Karl Franz Joseph Maria [1900-1972]

“The Apothecary”


opaque watercolor on illustration board / 19 inches by 14.2 inches

The line between art and illustration is thin, if it exists at all. In the 19th century, however, fine art (painting especially) distinguished itself from the crass commercialism of mere illustration. Paintings like “The Apothecary,” for example, were intended to accompany magazine articles, to act as “stills” from a novel, or to appear on dust jackets; they advertised products, plays and films. They never appeared in museums or galleries. Not until Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth established the Brandywine School, that is.

Karl Wasserman’s gouache painting advertised “The Apothecary,” a play co-written by Agincourt activist Abel Kane and Miloš Švec, World War II refugee from occupied Czechoslovakia. In 1943, Švec evaded Soviet forces and made his way through Italy to Casablanca; then secured passage to the United States and an adjunct teaching position at Northwest Iowa Normal. During the fall semester of 1944, Abel Kane assisted with the adaptation of Lékárník, Švec’s symbolist novel of political corruption. Ticket sales for “The Apothecary” and free-will donations supported shipments of food, blankets and winter clothing to Europe.

The Normal College archive transferred this painting to the Community Collection in 1973, memorializing long-time faculty member Karl Wasserman.

Erich Heckel (1883-1970)

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

HECKEL, Erich (1883–1970)

“Der Richter” / The Judge


woodcut / 6 3/8 inches by 5 1/8 inches / edition unknown

Considered one of Germany’s finest Expressionist artists, Heckel was a founding member of Die Brücke (The Bridge). This print titled “The Judge” may be a posthumous printing. Despite that possibility, however, it is an important addition to the collection, acquired during a trip to Europe in the late 1970s.

How Cities Happen(ed)

October 25th will be on me soon enough, so it’s none too early to strategize the Agincourt exhibit theme.

Both previous exhibits (2007 and 2015) created Agincourt, rather than having been about creating it. The blog, which came along in 2010, was an effort to record the process before it fades any more from memory. Now it seems exhibit #3 may combine these in a penultimate self-reflective moment.

How Cities Happen(ed)

Much of what’s going on around me, what I walk and drive through each day, is a laboratory in urban design. I watch it emerge and wonder, How did this happen? but have no ready answer. Indeed, I’d be suspicious if anything did quickly come to mind. For the time being, I’m allowing the present to stimulate my thinking about the future, the direction that cities (the one where I live, particularly) seem to be developing, and also how in hell we got ourselves In this predicament.

There is a recent phenomenon called “The New Urbanism” which at first encounter smote me with its nostalgic wand. It portends to replicate or, at minimum, build upon those aspects of pre-WWI town-planning—small scale, neighborhood-ing, “Father Knows Best”—to create new communities like Seaside (used as the setting for “The Truman Show”) and Celebration, both in Florida. They have been financial successes for their investors, but on further exposure I’m suspicious of their demographic footprint.

Some New Urbanist communities have been sociologically self-selective. Ave Maria, also in Florida—is there a theme here?—has been consciously oriented toward conservative pre-Vatican II Roman Catholics: it has one church, the center of community life, and will never have another—non-Catholics need not apply. I have neither argument nor track with restrictive communities, but at least Ave Maria is up front about it. A place like Seaside, however, is another matter altogether.*

“Organic” is a word often used to suggest the way that cities develop. [Notice I did not say “grow”, because it may well be that contraction is involved.] But biologists will surely correct any suggestion that organic growth is freewheeling and open-ended. It ain’t. Nature plays by a set of rules even more rigorous than pinochle. Patterns of growth are contained within the seed before it leaves the pod and falls upon the earth. If conditions are appropriate, it will germinate, take root, and yield its own offspring in turn. Human intervention may enhance its success rate, because Nature is impassionate about such things.

Alys Beach

I’m not an economist and neither are you, I suspect. In fact, you can’t become one at my own institution of higher learning, because they eliminated that department a dozen years ago. [Ask me why, some time. Because Capitalism is the commodification of everything and economics provides a framework for understanding and beginning to question that reality.] So I looked at Alys Beach, a “New Urbanist” community also in Florida.

A large portion of Alys Beach is already occupied and there seems to be an effort to market property, both lots and houses, on a drip feed to maintain market stability and growth. A visit to their website—find it yourself; I’m not on their payroll—shows ten or twelve available properties. I chose one nearer the beach—all their listings indicate which side, north or south, of Route A30 the offering is situated—and made note of the following:


AC24 Sea Castle Alley is shaded in the center foreground. There will be other building sites between it and the beachfront.

  • property address: AC24 Sea Castle Alley
  • lot size (it is currently vacant, as are its neighbors): approx. 2500 sq.ft. (that’s 50 by 50)
  • price: $2,834,000 (about $1,133/sq.ft. or just under $8.00/
  • deed restrictions are probably embedded elsewhere in the website, but, as they say, if you have to ask you can’t afford it; looking at some of the homes for purchase, however, a reasonable guess would be a construction cost 1.5 to 2.0 times the cost of the site. So be prepared for a $7-8M resale price tag when it comes on the market.

The median price home in Florida in 2017 was $288,000/$213,400 (asking versus purchase price), or about $163/sq.ft. for a considerably more modest home than you’ll find at Alys Beach. To put that in perspective, a median priced home in these United States in 2014 was $188,900. At Alys Beach, that will get you one hundred and sixty-seven square feet of the almost-beachfront lot I mentioned above—not even enough to accommodate a single-stall garage; barely enough to camp on.

86 South Charles Street and its 4-bed, 7-bath, 4789SF will set you back a cool $5.85M

Alys Beach is among the newest iterations of New Urbanism, so it may not have been modeled after the earlier community of Seaside. There, it was implied that a short walk from home or apartment condo would take you and the kids to the local Malte Shoppe, where the waitperson or the burger-slinger lives in the apartment upstairs—except that a visit to Zillow or Redfin reveals that one-bedroom rental is, in fact, now a condo selling in the vicinity of $900K. That waitperson or fry cook is actually living in a trailer park ten miles up or down the coast.

If all this betrays my politics, then you don’t know me very well, because I am a Democratic Socialist and have admitted that here and elsewhere. And my choice of Alys Beach or Seaside or Ave Maria and any of the other examples of New Urbanism may have stacked the deck to favor my point of view; there certainly are other more modest applications of NA ideas, away from expensive beachfront property and in dense urban areas. I just haven’t found them yet. Nor am I the only one who finds the NA notion offensive.

So a potential theme for Agincourt #3 might well be titled “The Old Urbanism, or where our cities went terribly awry”—as if I had a plausible answer.


“The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover will be yourself.” —Alan Alda.

Five years ago on election eve, Howard couldn’t stand the suspense. I can identify. So I thought you might enjoy the column he wrote for the Saturday following, November 8th, 2008 and this one published two weeks after that, on November 22nd. It concerns the woman on this Canadian $100 bill—not an actual bill, but one of a series proposing better representation of women.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor


My election eve dog-walking two weeks ago took Digger and me past St Joe’s. Choir practice lured us in for a few unseen minutes in a back pew.

Gerry Leiden was rehearsing the choir for a performance of his oratorio “Shananditti”, an exceptional yet all too common story of the earliest encounters of Native North American people with the first European colonists. Indigenous people were ill-equipped for diseases to which Europeans carried immunity. Common childhood diseases like measles decimated entire tribes. Among those were the Beothuk of maritime Canada: Newfoundland and Labrador, whose last surviving member Shananditti died in 1829.

Three women—Shananditti, her mother and sister—were captured in 1823, but two of them quickly died. Coming eventually into the household of a sympathetic listener, W.E. Cormack made a list of Beothuk vocabulary which, with two other lists, has been compiled into a single source, last surviving evidence of a lost people.  What survives is one master wordlist of 325 glosses plus twenty-one numerals and the names of months.

The extinction a language (like Cornish, for example, in the southeast of England) is a sad and reflective moment for humankind, for there surely are concepts that cannot be expressed in any other way. But the disappearance of an entire people is cause for mourning of a different kind. Leiden’s oratorio (a large-scale musical work for orchestra and voices, typically a narrative on a religious theme, performed without the use of costumes, scenery, or action) consists entirely of Beothuk words — a syllabary — their world rendered through the rhythms of speech; a language not heard for nearly two hundred years.

If my recollection of Musicology 101 still serves, Czech composer Leoš Janáček would not allow his operas to be translated into other languages, believing that the spirit of his culture was as clearly expressed in its language—the rhythms and sonority of its speech—as in any other art form. So Gerry Leiden has used words of a dead people to bring them to life again, even if for only an hour. Please reserve either next Friday or Saturday evening, December 5th and 6th, for the premier performances of “Shananditti” at Saint-Joseph-the-Carpenter Episcopal church. You’ll be rewarded.

PS: Seating is limited, so get your tickets early.

Janáček with his wife Zdenka, in 1881

signature written in ink in a flowing script