Synecdoche was a word I hadn’t known; it created one of those special occasions when the OED stepped down from its keystone position on the shelf.
Figures of speech exist in astonishing array, a good many more than the half dozen we learned in 8th-grade English from Rose Spelman. But synecdoche was patient with me, waiting to enliven the language of old age. I’ve mentioned it here before: a substitution wherein the whole represents the part, or the part, the whole. We refer, for example, to the long arm of the law. You’ve seen an example on TV if you recall the Koehler plumbing commercial where the pretentious client produces a faucet from her purse and challenges the architect to “design a house around this!”
I bought a painting on Ebay, refugee from a flea market, with mine the only bid. Who can say what draws us to a work of art, especially a marginal one with a chunk missing from one edge and an embattled frame that might have been sprayed with radiator paint. These and other blemishes conspired against its sale, but I’m from Chicago, the Second City, and drawn to damaged goods. That’s where character lies, if not charm.
The painting? It’s a landscape, an urban vignette seen from a second-floor window, across a street, a yard, an alley, toward the irregular backs of two-story commercial fronts facing the other way. It’s late winter and the Currier & Ives snowfall has long since crusted with dirt and the soot from soft coal fires. A Christmas tree thrown on the berm (or boulevard or parkway or whatever you call that stretch of grass between the sidewalk and the curb in your neck of the woods) is the only sign of life in an otherwise unpopulated landscape.
The artist’s palette of red, yellow and blue was dull, muted in the overcast morning light. It’s not the weekday morning of work or the weekend morning of worship. This is the Saturday of sleeping in; of the faint hope that groceries will hold out until market day. A good day to write letters or read that Christmas gift. A good day to paint the view from my window. I have carte blanche here: Neither location nor artist are identified, so the choices are mine.
The view, I think, is westward across First Street NE. The house on the left and its yard belong to the Hemphill-Folsom mortuary, a once proud house given over to grieving and goodbyes. I can just make out the service stairs and porches of apartments above the Broad Street businesses, but not sure which is which. I know it’s a Saturday morning in February, but what year? Nineteen forty-two, the first year of the war (and three years before I was born), when Agincourt’s first casualties came home to funerals just across the street. This must be the work of Carl Wasserman, too old to have fought in the war, but young enough to know some who did and to mourn. Perhaps this painting was his way.
The palette and technique remind me of Cy Running. Anyone from the Red River Valley knows Running, Saint Cy in these parts, if Lutherans could be persuaded to canonize the recently deceased. Running established the art department at Concordia College where he and his students set the tone of art hereabouts for thirty years or more. The colors, the rough woodcutty brush strokes, even the prosaic small-town subject are his. Wasserman was Catholic, but perhaps the middling Midwest perspective from Main Street trumps religious affiliation. Shades of Garrison Keilor.
Carl’s painting joined the Memorial Collection that year.