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Monthly Archives: September 2011

Family Trees

Anyone claiming to be a close relative of mine is mistaken—though I can’t imagine the upside for making that claim. I am the only child of an only child on my father’s side. And those of you who know me understand that my family has only one side, virgin birth being especially difficult when only the father is involved. It’s complicated.

Perhaps the greatest satisfaction I get from the Agincourt Project, then, is creating families. Having none of my own, families fascinate me. Anson Tennant, for example — the architect of Agincourt’s first public library — required context for his presence in the community. He needed a family, which has now grown to seven generations, and that family has broadened laterally as characters became necessary for new building projects.

It’s often difficult for me to recall which came first: the buildings or their client-owner-occupant-designer-builders.


“Portrait une famille”, Gabriel Spat (undated but circa 1925; oil on canvas)

This remarkable painting has recently entered the matrix. Untitled but bearing a pencilled notation “portrait une famille” on its back, I thought immediately of Mary Grace Tabor, Howard’s aunt and founder circa 1950 of Agincourt’s Montessori school (through the creative energies of Carol and Vince Hatlen). While she studied Montessori’s methods in New York in the early 1940s, Mary Grace met Kurt Bernhard, recently widowed Frenchman with an infant son. He and Mary Grace married in 1944 and had two children of their own.

Bernhard’s emigration to New York City involved an escape from Nazi-occupied Paris following his first wife’s death. So I wondered if this portrait une famille could have been his first wife’s family, the Sobieskis, mid-19th century Polish emigrants who had become thoroughly French-ified by 1920 when the portrait was painted. So, over dinner tonight with Milton at Rhombus Pizza, the Bernhard-Sobieski branch of the Tennant family tree materialized (as the thai chicken pizza simultaneously disappeared before our very eyes):

  • Peter/Piotr Sobieski [1887-1951], seated, a winemaker of modest means in the Alsace-Lorraine
  • Klara Franciszka neé Markiewicz [1891-1980] his wife, standing beside him
  • Irena Sobieski [1917-1969], standing at her father’s right knee, perhaps aged 4
  • Clotilde Sobieski [1919-1943], seated on her father’s lap, perhaps 2; she later married Kurt Eugene Bernhard [1917-1999] who subsequently married Mary Grace
  • The Sobieskis’ oldest child Adam [born 1909] is not in the painting

In case you’re wondering, Klara Franciszka Markiewicz is my grandmother and those are her dates. Adam Markiewicz was my grandmother’s youngest brother. And Sobiesk is the name of the mortuary that handled some of my family’s funerals. Everything in my life experience is fair game; no really great name is ever wasted.

Can I help with your own family tree?

Change of venue…


For reasons that are both simple and unbearably complex, convoluted and ugly, the next Agincourt exhibit “Homecoming/Coming Home” will not be staged at the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead, Minnesota. If anyone has suggestions for another venue, please let me know, since we have invested considerable energy (and money) in conceiving the exhibit and working toward that October 2012 public opening.

I hope to hear from many of you.

Tangent Lives (Part 1)

During the past few weeks, Howard has made furtive references to two Agincourt characters who influenced community affairs at the turn of the 20th century: Edmund Fitzgerald Flynn (one-term Agincourt major during the 90s) and his widow Amity Burroughs Flynn (maven of the visual arts until her death twenty-five years later). Seems he’d like to tell us more about them.  

“A few figs from thistles…” 

by Howard A. Tabor

Shinn, rhymes with “Flynn”

During the early 1950s while Mason City native Meredith Willson travelled the backroads of Iowa researching the book for “Music Man,” his car broke down in Agincourt. It was Friday noon and Cliff Pherson didn’t have a starter in stock for Willson’s car. So while he waited for the part to be bused from Omaha, Willson checked in to the Blenheim and hung out at the Koffee Kup, “rumor central” in 1950’s Agincourt.

Folks wondered why he was so interested in local history. 

In those days, the Koffee Kup was usually packed with pie aficionados on weekends, the only days they baked our apples using the legendary Borogrove Sister’s pie recipe—a lucky accident for Willson. And by another happy coincidence, Hal Holt happened to be on the premises that particular Saturday.

Hal told me they spent three or four hours in a back booth doing what he did best: regaling an audience of one or 100 with his encyclopedic command of local lore. While other old timers stopped by to fill gaps or spar with Holt about a detail recalled differently, Willson took notes on napkins, placemats, bank deposit slips, whatever scrap was handy. Only two or three years later did Hal figure out Willson was writing the script for “Music Man,” which premiered on Broadway in 1957.

Hal’s name never appeared in the musical’s credits. He was never the sort to look, so I did.


Amity Burroughs Flynn

Everyone knows the plot of “Music Man”: shyster salesman bilks small town into buying musical instruments; scheme backfires when perp falls for local librarian. The success of Willson’s musical comes from his uncanny ability to tap the American character, but two of those characters may have been drawn from Agincourt citizens: Mr and Mrs Ed Flynn.

Mayor George Shinn, played with doofy endearing pomposity by Paul Ford in the 1962 film, echoes the stories still told locally about one of Agincourt’s own mayors of the 1890s, Ed Flynn (whose story I’ll share next week). But Hermione Gingold’s portrayal of Mayor Shinn’s wife strikes even closer to home: Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn must have seemed eerily familiar to those who remembered our own Amity Burroughs Flynn.

Mrs Flynn’s role in community arts can still get grundies in a bundle. The timeliness of Ed’s passing is still hotly contested, but he left Amity well enough off to dabble in things that interested her—i.e., satisfied her vanity, which was considerable. Used to dabbling in the arts, she ruled the Arts Section at the Fennimore County Fair and exerted undue influence at the Memorial Gallery. Some folks couldn’t wallpaper their living room without Amity’s approval. I can’t watch “Music Man” without a special chuckle.

Self-righteous to the end but slightly impoverished, Amity Burroughs Flynn left us not as elegantly as Ed had done twenty-five years before. But a Greek chorus of her acolytes surrounded the open casket in near-flagelation, mourning the loss of their muse. She joined Ed in their mausoleum, still the only one at The Shades and barely seen behind unkempt forsythia she herself had planted.


Leave it to me to muddy the waters.

Because I prefer to use what many call “military dating,” today isn’t 9-11, Nine-Eleven, or Nine-One-One. It’s the eleventh day of the ninth month of the 2011th year in the Common Era. (“Common” to whom has never been very clear.) As the Nation, even the World, pauses to note what happened ten years ago, I wonder how Agincourt is acknowledging this day and, moreover, how those events had affected approximately 25,000 Iowans in the days immediately after the WTC event itself.

Listening to NPR coverage today, I recollect an earlier blog about Faith versus Belief; I’m more inclined toward the latter. Faith, for me, connotes assurance—as in “Blessed Assurance” from the popular hymn tune—and if there is one thing living has taught me, it’s the assurance that human nature is hardly trustworthy. Call me a cynic—people have said far worse—but trust in my species has often been misplaced.

Belief on the other hand (and its verbal form “to believe”) is forever optimistic that we can and probably will do the right thing. Whether through enlightenment, embarrassment or outright coercion, people (individuals, peer groups and societies at large) will exercise their critical thinking and make a choice for broader benefit with minimal sacrifice. Abraham Lincoln said it best: As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. There are, however, many in political life today who wish to be my master. And my faint remaining faith in humankind is shaken by those who will use today’s commemorative moments for ideological gain.


Just about this time in 2007, Vince Hatlen and I were enjoying coffee at the NDSU Memorial Union, when our colleague Bakr AlyAhmed stopped to say hello and ask what we were doing. Sketch books vying with coffee for space on the small table, Vince and I were discussing his contribution to the upcoming Agincourt exhibit, a collaboration with his wife Carol on a Montessori school and its backstory, set in the 1950s. Bakr wondered if Agincourt needed a mosque. Yes! I said with enthusiasm and no hesitation whatsoever, of course we did. Agincourt had welcomed Somali refugees in the 1990s and new arrivals from Darfur were finding their place in the American matrix as we spoke. Their numbers didn’t concern me (an accurate count, that is) but their very presence supported visibility in our midst of a useful resource for their ongoing acculturation—and ours, for that matter. Acculturation is a two-way street where I come from.

Bakr’s contribution to the exhibit of October 2007 was a sophisticated, self-assured Islamic Center on land near three other places of worship (Baptist, Methodist and Reformed Judaism) in the precise relationship with civic life envisioned by the city’s founders. His design’s only idiosyncrasy was palm trees in the elevation drawings—highly questionable in Zone 5. 

It was two or three years later, circa 2010, that a high tide of primitive religious sanctimony reared itself across America: building permits for new mosque construction in the U.S, they demanded, should be denied, even rescinded! Give “those people” a place to meet and identify with others of “their kind” and who knows what nefarious consequences might result. The same can be said, of course, for Pentecostals, Fundamentalists, Catholics, Quakers and other religious perspectives that conceive for themselves an annointed interest in public life. It seems particularly odd that I—a certified, card-carrying unbeliever—have imagined this community of Agincourt and invested a spiritual diversity resonant with the American spirit at the founding of our country. 

So what’s going on in Agincourt today on the tenth anniversary of WTC? A public assembly on The Square, with traffic blocked so the crowd can be seated on Broad Street (and thereby incommode those for whom the day is like all others; nothing special). Speechifying done; children’s essays and poems read and consigned to history’s catacombs; the harmonies of bands and choirs fading into dusk; Civil Religion confused and conflated with denominational doctrine, the citizens of Agincourt step back into normal lives that are hardly normal and, perhaps, never will be again.

It’s the new Normal and we’re not used to it yet.

Collect (verb, transitive)

In the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, each book—the written word itself—is a subversive thing; a thing to be burned. So each member of the underground becomes a book, commits it to memory and passes him- or herself on to someone of the next generation.

There are some today who would purge our libraries of “dangerous” books, strip our galleries of challenging, offensive images; they would eliminate certain words from discourse, or shift their meaning to control and redirect speech in approved channels. These people frighten me.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Everyone has played jenga: remove a wood block from the tower of blocks but leave the tower standing, more precarious with each removal, until it collapses and the game is done. There’s another sort of exercise—a renga—which derives from a form of Japanese poetry but involves both addition and subtraction.

In a jenga, each player adds something to the evolving composition—a line to the poem, a note to the melody, an object to the assemblage. The parallel with jenga, however, sets an arbitrary optimal number of components that can be added to the assemblage—say twenty pieces. So the twenty-first play must also involve a subtraction; for each new component, another must be removed so that there are always twenty in the composition. Someone begins the process, and each subsequent player modifies that direction in sudden or subtle ways; each choice is influenced by and responds to what has come before.

Agincourt’s community art collection has been that sort of exercise. We just haven’t reached the optimal number yet.

A Community of Art

From the eighteen or twenty pieces gleaned out of the 1912 G.A.R. exhibit, our community collection has grown to nearly 200 works, mostly two-dimensional, mostly paintings. But its renga-like evolution has been hard to follow. Some players have bullied the process; tried to dominate the course of play beyond their own involvement. Amity Burroughs Flynn was such a one.

Mrs Flynn, widow of Agincourt mayor Ed Flynn, believed herself the arbiter of taste hereabouts. Coming from Boston (or so they said) to Agincourt in the 1890s, the Flynns cut a broad swath through local society, made some money, wielded some political influence, and then Ed died suddenly during his first term as mayor, while petitions circulated for his impeachment. Flynn’s widow, Amity Burroughs Flynn, stayed on, unsullied, living large among those who had bought the Flynn mystique. Her pronouncements carried weight among those who sought her approval. Luckily, however, Flynn’s narrow view of what constituted Art seems to have been largely overlooked.

When Mrs Flynn retired to her atelier in the sky in the 1920s, Karl Wasserman returned from school in Chicago to join the faculty at Northwest Iowa Normal; in truth, he became an art faculty of one and remained for more than twenty years. Wasserman advised the informal group who managed the collection, but his greater contribution engaged students with the art itself: arranging exhibitions and writing interpretive essays. Never has a modest collection received such loving attention.

Growing at a rate of less than two new works each year, the collection has never been large or pretentious. And as “Modernity” changed the public face of art after World War II, our collection must have seemed increasingly conservative. When it was noticed at all, “Landscapes and Livestock” was the best that could be said—according to one anonymous letter-to-the-editor of 1953. Modern abstractions are present in the collection but tradition plays a larger role, appropriate I guess for a small town in the sticks. It cannot have begun with this intention, but at some point each addition seems to have explored our sense of place and time.

In the next installment, I’ll introduce you to the collection’s categories and a handful of its works.

If Bradbury had chosen art rather than literature as the vehicle for his story, what artwork would you become? 



The Tennant Memorial Gallery

I’ve asked the question before: When does an accumulation of things become a collection? When and under what circumstances do the parts become a whole? When, indeed, is the whole greater than the sum of all its parts?

More years ago than I care to admit, I put together a portfolio of my undergraduate design work. It’s creepy looking at your own stuff, wondering what glue holds it together, other than some binder bought on sale. So, I’m interested in Howard’s perspective on the Tennant Memorial Collection: more than fifty artworks still hanging in the gallery designed by his great uncle Anson Tennant in 1915. 

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Field Trip

In the latter 1950s, when I was twelve or thirteen, my father made a business trip to Chicago and asked me to come along. We stayed at a smaller hotel between Wabash and Michigan, just within earshot of the El and walking distance of the Berghof, where I may have had my first schnitzel (which I’d once confused with schnauser, but that’s another story). Simply walking through the city’s urban canyons, though, was excitement enough, because Uncle Anson had already regaled me with stories of the city where he studied architecture and even known the legendary Louis Sullivan. That may have begun my love affair with buildings; if not, it surely cemented it.

On Saturday, however, with dad’s business safely concluded, we went to the Art Institute, up the broad steps between its two bronze lions and into the biggest building I’d even seen. My most vivid memory was an afternoon seated before George Seurat’s enormous painting “An Afternoon on La Grande Jatte,” so large and significant that it was given its own room—or that’s the way I recall it. On a hard bench about twenty feet in front of it, I sat immovable, transfixed, while my father visited the surrounding galleries of French Impressionism. He knew where to find me.

As an habitual reader of the comics, I knew that that part of Saturday’s Plantagenet was made of thousands of tiny red, blue and yellow dots; articulated when I put my nose to the newsprint but blended into all the colors a twelve-year-old can understand when viewed at arm’s length. How many times had I stood and walked toward the Seurat until its familiar shapes of people and shrubs dissolved into a stew of colored bits, and then back again to the bench, watching their flatness become round and fully formed.

When Becky Fletcher asked me to write about the Tennant Memorial Collection in the old public library, as the collection celebrates its centennial, I recalled that afternoon. Our collection is very unlike the Seurat in one respect: its pieces are small and hardly known beyond the walls where they hang. But in another way they are quite similar: because, viewed from a distance, the individual parts may indeed become an organic whole.


“Art is what it does, not what it is.”

In 1911 someone organized an art exhibition in the G.A.R. Hall of the old Fennimore County court house. A social space with cavernous fireplace and high beamed ceiling, the room was often used for receptions and lectures before the Civic Auditorium was built by the WPA. My family contributed a few pieces, as did many other Agincourt families; there is a surviving checklist of about two dozen works—probably of no great significance to anyone beyond their owners. But with the Masonic Lodge fire and the laying of plans for a new public library, the project grew to include a memorial gallery where a public collection of art might be on semi-permanent display. Great grandmother Martha Tennant got involved and persuaded our family to underwrite a large part of the additional funding required for such a civic amenity. Uncle Anson had entered that anonymous competition (with an orthodox Carnegie-era free-standing library building) and then modified his design significantly after he won the commission in early 1914.

Great grandmother must have been a persuasive woman, because she managed to convince those families who had loaned works for the month-long GAR exhibit to contribute those pieces as the core of a public collection. There was no danger of competing with the Art Institute of Chicago (or similar institutions in Des Moines and Omaha, for that matter) but it was a benchmark in our growth as a community and, in its own small way, a first step in the emerging City Beautiful movement that would dominate the 1920s. Managed by the new public library board, that core of twenty-plus works (mostly paintings) now numbers almost two hundred that still hang, a few at a time, in a room built for that purpose and dedicated in 1915. Telling the story of that collection, its evolution and the names of those who guided its acquisitions will be my task in the next few weeks. When questions arise, as they always do, I’ll post them here and hope for your help in telling its truth.