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Monthly Archives: June 2011

The show within the show

The question du jour is simply this: When does an accumulation become a collection?

That question comes to mind at every gallery opening I attend, whether museum, commercial gallery or student-related senior show. Is the body of work presented cohesive? And the question is just as valid for a one-person exhibit or group showing themed by medium or subject. Proposing an answer is always the task of my first round of viewing.

It must also be a question on the mind of employers reviewing the resume-portfolio of a prospective employee–say, for an architecture graduate in this recent economic downturn. [One of the best in recent memory was done by Jeremiah Johnson, a 2009 graduate who found a good position a few months ago. You should look at Design Heap, his blog here at posterous, a friggin’ paradigm of cohesion.] I haven’t put together anything even remotely akin to a portfolio in decades, so I can’t claim my own work–verbal and non-verbal–to have the cohesion I hope to see in others.

Come visit my house some time and tell me if the stuff that hangs on the walls–the art that I’ve accumulated since I was a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma in 1964–has achieved the status of collection. Whether the work is my own product or acquired from others, that question is even more problematic, my objectivity clearly being called into question.

And now I must appraise the cohesion of the Tennant Memorial Gallery, the emerging collection of art from Agincourt that will be “a show within the show” in October 2012: more than forty works in various media that I’ve acquired from diverse sources, pretending to be a public collection from the gallery of a small Iowa town.

The most recent acquisition probably reveals a bit of how my mind works (when it does) and how successful that “collection” may be.

Nightcourt

This nine-by-twelve oil on cardboard is untitled, unsigned, undated. But I hope it is also not unworthy. Why I acquired it at all is the greater mystery, since it is certainly not a pleasant or easy subject, nor does it fit with any other work in the proposed mini-exhibition. Three Pilgrim-clad characters carry a stretcher bearing a golem-like figure in a snowy winter landscape. Lit only by the moon and a hand-held lantern, they pause in the grim task at hand. The composition, admirable; the technique, both quick and sure. There is no laboring the point: this brief study could easily have become a larger, more detailed studio work of considerable merit. I am no art historian, so the date might be anywhere during the last 125 years, but the “school” suggests Howard Pyle, Brandwine, and the estimable Wyeth clan. The subject matter is surely theirs, precisely the sort of illustration that might have enhanced a short story by Washington Irving. [I should be so lucky as to have acquired a Pyle or Wyeth by accident!]

My success in cohering this small anonymous work with others in the show-within-the-show will depend upon its story, the narrative integration of this painting with the nature of the place where it resides and the collection of which it purports to be a part. My initial thoughts are few:

  • Could this painting have any connection with the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693? Their 400th anniversary was acknowledged a few years ago with a remarkable landscape competition that you should see. This small study might have been related to the 300th or 350th anniversary.
  • I also wonder how it might connect with more recent commentary on Salem–say Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” for example, which is as much a comment on Salem as it is on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt begun in April 1954. I recall seeing those televised hearings on my family’s first television set and being very frightened by them, as a child of nine.

I’ve tentatively titled this painting “Night Court” as a comment on those and other historical witch hunts, as well as contemporary quests for any whose values are out of alignment with our own–say a presidential candidate who seeks to investigate the anti-American values of the sitting president.

Leave it to me to make something political out of this. Though that is something that Art has often done more succinctly than any other medium.

Warming up to Arnold Shoenberg

It was a still August night in 1966, I think. I was living on West Symmes Street in Norman, Oklahoma, renting a room from the mother of my old roommate Leroy.

Mrs Starr had moved to Norman because her oldest son Leroy was a pre-med student at the University of Oklahoma. Her husband Captain Starr was in the air force while she held down two jobs and rented rooms to college students like myself. That’s the simple story.

The more complex version goes something like this. Leroy’s dad “Uncle Ray” was divorced from his mom. In fact, Uncle Ray had been married five times to three women, in this order: A-B-C-B-B. There were three boys from the first marriage, Leroy, a middle son (I forget his name) who was in the Marines, and David, still in high school. David lived with us on West Symmes, as did the daughter of Uncle Ray’s second, fourth and fifth wife, Aunt Verna, though she had been fathered by someone other than Ray.

Leroy had flunked out of his sophomore year, not so much a party animal as someone in heat. It was the Vietnam War and a lot of guys from college got called up, which meant there was an equivalent number of lonely War Brides on Leroy’s radar. The semester before Mrs Starr came to town, he and I rented a shotgun house on Eufala but that was the semester he took Microbiology and Elementary Russian while simultaneously hosing three women, claiming to be engaged to two of them. I’d be drafting away on the dining room table when Lee (as he preferred to be called) came in from one “date,” shit-showered-shaved and went out on the second one. I hoped he was using protection. In fact, I imagined waking in the middle of the night with a shotgun up my nose, held by some Army sharpshooter looking for revenge. “You want the guy at the other end of the hall” was my rehearsed response.

Then Mrs Starr came to town, rented this big ol’ house and allowed me to rent the “granny” bedroom in the back left corner of the ground floor; I can’t have paid more than $25 a month. It was a big foursquare Okie house with no insulation and windows that refused to seal out the state’s endemic red dust. That August night I was the only person home and had decided to do some vacuuming. Windows open to welcome the scant moving air; vacuum sucking dust bunnies from under my bed; stereo blaring Arnold Schoenberg’s “Piano Concerto,” I was suddenly freaked to hear what I assumed was someone humming along with Schoenberg outside the bedroom window. I turned off the vacuum and the humming stopped. Carrying on with my housekeeping, the humming started again and I was shocked to realize two things. First, it was me doing the humming. And, second, the Schoenberg concerto actually has a melody! I could hum it for you right now.

Schoenberg1910

Those of you familiar with Schoenberg will know that he invented serial music, a reaction to the romanticism of the age; his serial music seemed cool and dispassionate in contrast with the syrupy emoting of his near-contemporary Rachmaninoff. Shoenberg began each new work by arranging the twelve tones in an octave (all the white and black keys between C and C, for example) in a “tone row,” using each tone only once. That “row” was manipulated by 1) raising it a fifth; 2) inverting it; 3) inverting the fifth; and sometimes playing it backwards. All the work’s melodic and harmonic development came from these somewhat arbitrary rows. Yet there I was, humming along as though it were a title song by Andrew Lloyd Weber. Later that week I checked the conductor’s score for the concerto from the music library and began to understand intellectually what had been an intuitive response to the recording. This summary of Schoenberg’s method is pretty lame, so look for a copy of Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey by Allen Shawn (brother of Wallace Shawn of “My dinner with Andre” fame). Shawn does an exemplary job.

“What the crap does this have to do with anything,” you may wonder. Actually, I write it today apropos of nothing, except that I’m reading Anne Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made, in an effort to make sense of the 20th century’s most controversial author–during her lifetime and since–and think that Schoenberg is going to help.

If I can warm up to Schoenberg, can Ayn Rand be far behind? My gut reaction is No.

The Night They Raided Pinsky’s

In 1976 North Dakota decided to allow games of chance—blackjack, pull tabs—so long as the proceeds benefitted non-profit organizations in the arts and social service. Many rushed to fill the void, but its ranks have been thinned and the industry stabilized in the past thirty-five years. This symbiosis between virtue and vice is just one more way that North Dakota stands apart from her sister states.

I had lived in Fargo just five years but long enough to have done some research on community history (it’s a curse that I need to  know things about the places I live) and found a wondrous parallel with Fargo in the 1890s: Few are aware that Dakota Territory was the divorce capitol of the U.S.

When Dakota entered the Union in 1889 as two states, it’s difficult to imagine two more different places coming from a common source. As one  bi-centennial book observed: “Everyone in North Dakota thinks that everyone in South Dakota is somewhere to the right of Genghis Kahn. While everyone in South Dakota thinks that everyone in North Dakota is a Bolshevik.”

All things considered, I live on the right side of the 46th Parallel.

Fargo and her sister city Moorhead, Minnesota, developed an interesting relationship after 1889. North Dakota was admitted as a dry state, so Fargo’s two breweries and several dozen bars had to relocate east of the Red River of the North. But the new state’s laws concerning divorce were the most liberal in the nation. An odd but completely understandable symbiosis evolved where Fargo harbored all the prostitutes and Moorhead accommodated all the bars. Liquor and Lust!

There was an area along North Third Street near the river that was called “The Hollow.” Home of at least three houses of prostitution, the most famous (notorious?) was run by an African American named Madam Melvina Massey, a proud, bold business women who had the audacity to ride unescorted in an open carriage. Cheeky!

Meanwhile Moorhead’s bars multiplied until there were more than fifty of them within a hundred yards of the three bridges that connected our two communities. For added convenience, there was a shuttle service at closing time called the Jag Wagon: patrons in advanced states of inebriation were apparently stacked like cord wood on the flatbed wagon and summarily pushed off at the several hotels and “sporting houses” on the Fargo side.

Municipal authorities knew about these houses of ill repute. In fact, city council records suggest an actual institutionalization: 1) Fargo’s red-light district called The Hollow was defined and delineated by city ordinance; 2) the houses were regularly “raided” by Fargo police, a representative sampling of the girls was taken to municipal court, dutifully fined and released; and 3) the fines were applied to the city’s public schools. These so-called fines were a de facto tax on vice that was invested in the virtue of public education.

I rest my case.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Public Works

Threaten people with a powerpoint presentation on urban infrastructure and you’ll clear the room in a heartbeat: “Gee, thanks, I’d rather have a root canal.” It’s difficult to build enthusiasm for wires overhead and pipes underfoot until they go awry. Out of sight is out of mind—until a Friday afternoon in August, 1929, that is.

A city work crew had been busy all week trenching Sixth Street N.W. for a sewer line. Municipal services hadn’t yet reached all of Agincourt’s edges, but this had been a low priority project and was put off until some of the hottest days of summer. About 2 p.m. the last block between Agincourt and James avenues was half trenched, when the tractor and backhoe fell into a vaulted brick passage about six feet below grade. City records gave no hint that the tunnel existed. Enter Sheriff Pyne.

It was a quiet summer afternoon. A lot of folks had already gone to the lakes. Then, there was a sudden flurry of activity next door at the orphanage—a suspicious scurried loading of trucks. Someone called the cops and before long Sheriff Pyne showed up, disappeared into the tunnel and came out the orphanage back door with two guys in cuffs. By this time, several mystified neighbors had gathered. So had the good Sisters of Saint Jerome’s Orphanage.*

Jeromeemiliani1

You might know there’s a convoluted tale here. Agincourt seems to have more than its fair share.

Sal Lipinsky

Ten years earlier, a mysterious benefactor had come to town: Salvatore Lipinsky.

Lipinsky/Pinsky/Pink—he was known by them all at one time or another—had been born about 1875 in an orphanage at Cicero, Illinois. His Italian mother died giving him life; his father, a Russian Jew, had been a part of the Chicago underworld. Sal (or Sol) was sheltered by the Sisters of Charity, unaware of his gangster father until someone spilled the beans. But how, when and to what degree Sal got involved in gang activity is unknown. What is certain is the indebtedness he felt toward the people who were “family” for his first eighteen years.

Prohibition brought Lipinsky to Iowa—with mixed consequences. The orphanage he built on NW Sixth Street accommodated two dozen children and four Sisters of Charity who cared for and educated them. The good Sisters were active here into the early 1940s. What was less obvious was their source of income—accidentally revealed by the Public Works project on the street beside it: a two-story “speak easy” and casino had been carefully concealed in the orphanage basement!

For nearly ten years, liquor (and presumably a modicum of lust) came and went through a tunnel that ran west under Sixth Street to an innocuous garage behind the Sunset Tourist Court. How the hell do you build three hundred feet of brick-vaulted tunnel without anyone knowing? One answer is tempting: several people must have known, some of them in law enforcement, when a balance was struck between virtue and vice. The profit derived from what could be called a victimless crime benefitted hundreds of blameless children.

Let’s hope none of them felt an obligation to join the Chicago mob.

The idea for this story came from a conversation with Mike Larson when he was an associate at Klai+Juba in Las Vegas. Thanks, Mike.

*Saint Jerome Emiliani [1481-1537] is the patron saint of orphans and the abandoned.

Paper Trail 2.1 (Agincourt Street Railway Co.)

The NITC enterprise was an easy story to tell, since I’ve had such a long-term love affair with the interurban phenomenon. I was a teenager when the old Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee made its last run and recall the wave of nostalgia that overcame me when I did a Chicago-to-Waukegan round trip during its last week of service. Somehow I was keenly aware that an era was passing. And how strange that I should have lived long enough to witness its return.

[This is going to sound very strange, but I actually got verklempt at the first sighting of the Minneapolis light rail one afternoon as a train passed the city-county buildings on its way to the warehouse district.]

That being said, the door was open to a likely NITC predecessor: an Agincourt street railway—i.e., trolley. There was often a parent-child or sibling relationship between such public utilities, and with the power companies that supplied them. I expect that Howard will have something to say.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Sick Transit, Gloria

Budget cuts and evaporating subsidies—remember those?—are changing the face of America. But the folks who call these shots aren’t likely to be inconvenienced by them, especially concerning public transit. Let’s face it: the odds of being run over by a HumVee are much higher than being sideswiped by a bus.

I stumbled—almost literally—over a piece of local history yesterday, a paving project on Fifth Street NE. Three blocks of asphalt pavement have been removed, revealing some of the city’s last 19th century brick pavers and, unexpectedly, remnants of our old street railway. I’m old, but not old enough to have ridden on those rails; the last trolley made its irregular figure 8 about the time I was born. A quick trip to the Fennimore County History Center provides a basic outline of public transit in Agincourt.

It seems there have been two transit lines in Agincourt: an abbreviated horse-drawn line in the early 1880s and a larger electrified system that opened in 1898. The horsecars ran on Broad Street from the Milwaukee Road depot through downtown to Fifth Avenue North (now Ralph Avenue), then turned west to the County Fairgrounds. At 5¢ a ride, the company barely broke even. Any money saved on an economic road bed, however, was spent several times over on the line’s endless expensive repairs. Someone should have given them a cross-stitched sample for Christmas: “A stitch in time saves nine.”

Fourteen years later, the Agincourt Street Railway Company’s stockholders were young enough to have ridden the old horsecars and recalled their endless delays and interruptions. So this stock company built for the ages—witness a substantial hunk of track that is still in place a hundred and twelve years later.

The route negotiated in 1898 is curious, avoiding several of the densest business blocks and largest concentrations of big houses. The latter is no surprise, though, considering the memories of horse poop and the fear of metal-on-metal noise and inconvenient times. What we got for its first ten years was an irregular loop pressing the city limits on the east and north. Introduction of the interurban line in 1909 added a smaller loop on the southwest side and allowed service to the industrial sector. During the 1920s and even into the Depression Era, we had become a community of commuters.

Establishment of the Normal School in 1919 fit neatly into the company’s long term goals. By the late 20s, seventy-five percent of Agincourt’s residents lived and worked within two blocks of a trolley stop. But by the late 40s a national conspiracy of auto manufacturers (Henry Ford), tire companies (Goodyear and Goodrich) and petrochemicals (Rockefeller) effectively put trollies and interurbans out of business. And most of the rails were dug up and recycled as the tanks, planes and jeeps that won the Second World War.

How’d they miss those blocks on Fifth Street?

Howard’s allegation in the last paragraph is all too true. Some times they really are out to get you.

Paper Trail 2.0

Published sources which reference various aspects of a community’s history are virtually without limit. Witness the story of interurban transport in the U.S.

According to Messrs Hilton and Due in their publication The Electric Inturban Railways in America, “Iowa had 489 miles of interurban lines, the greatest mileage in any state west of the Missippi except Texas and California. The Iowa interurbans in general resembled West Coast lines much more than the Midwest lines; their development of substantial carload freight business at an early date enables them to survive the coming of the automobile much more successfully.” Their assessment provides much useful information for me to conceive the interurban that served Agincourt.

Some of Iowa’s lines continued passenger service into the 1950s and there was ongoing freight service as recent as the 1960s. I could have ridden on one of those babies.

Toledo_interurban

So I’ve been able to imagine the Northwest Iowa Traction Company in fairly specific terms and to even write its brief history (in the style of Messrs Hilton and Due) as it would have appeared in the above mentioned book.

Northwest Iowa Traction Company

When the Milwaukee Road threatened reduction of passenger service on its Agincourt Branch in 1909, The Northwest Iowa Traction Co. quickly incorporated and projected an ambitious route from Fort Dodge to Sioux City, a distance of 131 miles, that would link Iowa’s two largest rail hubs in the northwest. Building westward Fort Dodge, the line reached Agincourt by fall and Storm Lake the following Spring. Hourly service began in April 1910. When right-of-way beyond Cherokee proved too costly, the extension to Sioux City never materialized.

A syndicate of Agincourt investors held more than fifty percent of company stock and several of its board also served as directors of the local electric utility, the lines major power source. NITC operated on city streets in Agincourt to reach the station-headquarters at Broad Street and Louisa (formerly First Avenue SW). The company also operated a commercial hotel and restaurant adjacent to the station; a short branch (1 mile) seasonally served the County Fair and Chautauqua Grounds northwest of the city. Other seasonal service reached the cluster of resorts at Sturm and Drang.

Connection with the Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern Railway at Fort Dodge provided transfer service to the capital and other points in central Iowa, including the Iowa State College at Ames. NITC sometimes used combination cars to carry passengers and freight, a profitable sideline during the 1920s. Passenger traffic stabilized during the Depression and improved somewhat through World War II. Operations ceased in 1948; the seventy-six-mile right-of-way was abandoned and the rolling stock sold to the Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern, which survived for only six more years. [excerpt from Hilton & Due, Electric Interurban Railways in America (1960), p364]

Fortunately, there are many postcard views to help me design their depot at the southwest corner of Broad and Louisa and to weave several other stories into that building’s design and construction and subsequent history.

Recoleta

During five days in Buenos Aires early this month, I visited Recoleta Cemetery four times. There is simply no way to describe it.

Recoletaba

Laid out in 1822 and enlarged at least five times since with gridded extensions, Recoleta has become what the English tour guide described as the most expensive real estate in Buenos Aires. There are very few, if any, vacant lots. If you find one that is empty or essentially abandoned, it’s available for about $60k but it’s taxable, so be prepared to set up an escrow account to pay the annual real estate taxes.

There are a few notable residents, including Eva Peron, but most of them would be unknown to a gringo audience such as we were. Despite its crowding and nearly bi-centennial status, however, there are ongoing burials. We saw inscriptions attesting to interments within the last five years. But look elsewhere for Protestants or Jews; this is an exclusively Roman Catholic city of the dead.

Other than hoards of tourists, the other permanent residents are feral cats, which inspired a design project that may finally get me in the mood for coping with the three cemeteries at Agincourt (The Shades, Saint Ahab’s and the Hebrew Burial Ground). It seemed to me that all those cats deserved far more than they were likely to get from the current management: being swept up and thrown out with the trash when their short lives were over. I found an under-utilised plot, less than two meters wide, that will become a mausoleum for those careworn cats who keep down the rodent population.

Recoletacats

Perhaps they’d like it to be called a mouse-oleum instead.

Mother Martha Mary

An article in yesterday’s Forum (“a local newspaper” according to four-term Fargo mayor Herschel Lashkowitz) tells of a youngish guy in Grand Forks—a former chef to the stars—who is divesting himself of everything to join a religious community. No more $300k condo with custom kitchen and conversation pit. No more HumVee. What would motivate such a decision? Was this a binary choice or merely one from an array of possibilities? I hope it works out for him and God.

Then I recalled a piece by my friend Howard from the sesqui-centennial series. Let him tell you about it.

“A few figs from thistles…”

Howard A. Tabor

A Good Woman

There is a portrait of my great-grandmother holding a caliper in a wistful side-lit Vermeer-ish pose. I wonder if it evokes as much speculation from others as it did when I was a little boy. Do I remember her or merely the stories that have swirled about this remarkable painting? She died when I was three years old.

Martha Corwin Curtiss was born near Mason City, Iowa on 16 June 1868. Home-schooled on the family farm by her parents, she married Augustus James Tennant in 1888 and bore four children. By all accounts she was a good woman.

Her portrait attests to this, if such vanities are credible. The artist, Forrest Wentworth, posed Martha so that the light renders her permed but thinning hair as a nimbus, an aura of saintliness, as she studies the divider that once belonged to her only son Anson. The sinking of a ship had taken him away in 1915, and the succubus of grief took her husband Jim four years later.

Martha Tennant was inclined toward the positive, the here-and-nowness of every situation. Horizons energized her; boundaries did not. And though she lived comfortably, her greatest capital was human: her parents, siblings, husband, children, extended family and friends. She knew many remarkable people and was more inclined to tell entertaining insightful stories about them than to talk about herself. She knew, for example, Reverend Frances Manning, Agincourt’s pioneer priest. And Annabelle Miller, its pioneering madam. She worked with Maud Adams, Cissy Beddowes and Doc Fahnstock to improve the lot of women and children. She fought the abuse of animals and earned the reputation of an endearing eccentric. She worked within established systems of power (bishops, businessmen, politicos); she worked outside, beneath and beyond them in ways it is not for me to share.

And then her world veered suddenly toward the wrong, the dark, the unthinkable. Within four years she lost her husband and her only son—her anchor and her sail—while family and friends wondered how she would cope. As always, her course of action was unexpected: Martha Corwin Tennant (née Curtiss) joined a religious order and became Mother Martha Mary, SSM.

Monasticism crosses most denominational and even some sectarian lines. There are communities living the Rule of Saint Benedict, for example, who identify as Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox. And their style isn’t all that dissimilar from Buddhism. Anglicans revived the monastic tradition during the 19th century rediscovery of their Catholic roots—including the Society of Saint Margaret, founded in 1859 and already transplanted to North America by 1873.

As a widowed mother of four, great-grandmother sought special dispensation for membership among the sisters and a special mission here in Agincourt. She joined the society in 1920 at age fifty-two and turned her special skills and the homeplace itself to hospice work, aided by her sisters-in-law Phoebe and Sophie Tennant. Regarding habits, however, she neither wore one, nor changed her habits of mind, going forward as if the tragedies of loss were mere interruptions. I wonder if most of her contemporaries ever knew she had become a nun. Widow’s black can look like that.

My great-grandmother, the nun. There aren’t many who can make that claim.