We live in the Age of Relativity.
Absolutes safely consigned to the scrapheap of my modernist past disolve before my eyes. Were they an illusion in the first place? I’m inclined to think that relatives, on the other hand, may be all that matter—especially to those of us without any.
As the only child of an only child, family fascinates, and that fact may account for an extensive family tree generated by the project’s first invention, Anson Tennant. To understand his character, the thrust and trajectory of his action, it seemd a family was required. And once that idea took hold, all bets were off.
Genealogical software is designed to follow a blood line from a single progenitor through multiple generations to the present day. Or they’re designed to follow bloodlines from a single person (such as myself) backward through generations of parents, grandparents, etc., as far as documents will carry us. In so many of my projects, the relationships of family and friendship are lateral, not linear, and so software programs and data sheets such as these have been useless. Instead, I craft large spreadsheets like this and cut-and-paste as opportunity permits and need requires. For others, this may offer all the excitement of bathroom tile. For me, it hits at the multi-dimensionality of narratives in the landscape: the palimpsest of stories that layer the land and help to explain the patterns of architecture and urban development that drive this project.
Let me tell you what I see:
- Marie-Hélène Cachemaille would have been an auspicious beginning for any family tree. The Cachemailles are Huguenots, French Protestants driven to the Channel Islands and other tolerant lands during French religious persecution. Her daliance with someone named Tennant—Burke’s Landed Gentry lists five candidate families—and the consequent “inconvenience” of a pregnancy must have been bought off with a lump sum settlement; she never married. Despite that, Marie named her son Gaudeamus—”We are grateful”—and his bastard endowment made the family’s relocation to New Jersey possible shortly after the American Revolution.
- Was Gaudeamus Tennant a better father because he had never known his own? His first wife Jemima Watrous, the daughter of his business partner, died birthing their third child; he then married his sister-in-law Sally, who raised the children as her own.
- Of the three boys—Pliny, Virgil and Horace—the youngest and oldest founded Agincourt in 1853 and transplanted the Tennant name to Iowa. (Virgil “went West” to the gold fields and disappeared.) Horace Tennant and his wife Euphemia Ball bore three children who lived: Augustus James, Sophie and Phoebe. I can make a few observations here: 1) giving birth was a hazardous occupation in the 19th century; 2) infant mortality was high; and 3) I’m obviously drawn to 19th century names we haven’t heard since the Civil War. Euphemia? Honestly.
- Martha Curtiss Corwin was born near Mason City, Iowa and home-schooled. Of her own family, I know only that her father Curtiss Corwin was a recreational carpenter whose love for wood and its working influenced his grandson Anson; his carpenter’s square is preserved in the stained glass window to Anson’s old office. Martha married Augustus James “Jim” Tennant in 1888 and bore four children: Lucy, Anson, Molly and Claire. I have wanted to explore courtship in the 19th century—when marriage was as often a matter of identifying good breeding stock as it was a consequence of love—and I wonder now if their courtship letters have evaded history’s landfill. Do you think?
- Of the four Tennant children, Lucy married businessman/industrialist Ben Tabor; Anson became the architect-hero of the Agincourt Project (designer of, among other things, the old public library building); Molly married her sweetheart Burton Lloyd (subsequently manager of the transit company) and little Claire avoided death from typhoid fever in 1905 to marry Mike Oliphant. Molly’s and Claire’s families need a lot of fleshing out. But here I should also apologize for the preponderance of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic names that play so large in U.S. history. Diversity will find its way, if you give me time.
- For example, Lucy Tennant‘s daughter Mary Grace Tabor travelled east to study the teachings of Maria Montessori, where she met Kurt Eugene Bernhard, WWII refugee from France, widowed and raising a son. Here was an opportunity to link Agincourt with a world torn by war, enriched by the stories of GIs and Victory Gardens.
- Artifacts continue to play their part, in this case an eBay acquisition, a painting by Gabriel Spat titled “Portrait une famille” (which I read as “A family portrait”, though the eBay seller called it “Portrait of my family”). Shown seated is a man, on his lap a child, and standing behind and beside him another child and his wife. The war had brought Bernhard to New York but taken this family from him: his in-laws the Sobieski’s, Piotr (Peter), Klara (Clara), and their three children Adam, Irena and Clothilde, shown as the child in her father’s lap. French citizens of Polish ancestry are fairly common—remember Chopin was born Chopinowski and was himself a part of Poland’s “Great Emigration” during 1830-1870, the same emigration that brought my own Polish ancestors to America. I’m not a Sobieski (a noble family name in Polish history); merely a Markiewicz. But you’re going to love the Sobieski portrait.
- Genealogies can grow unexpectedly. For the 2007 exhibition, the Larson sisters (with family connections to the Fargo Air Museum) wondered if there might be a pioneer aviatrix or two in the Agincourt story. Glancing at the blank space on the genealogy’s left, it was a simple matter to give Howard’s dad Warren a pair of older sisters, the “Pioneer Daughters of Flight” Phyllis and Ella Rose Tabor. I’m not sure what became of Ella Rose, but Howard’s Aunt Phyllis died just this year at the age of 100. I recall Howard writing about the election of 2008, an anxious evening he chose to drop by her house for some promised jars of green tomato chutney. Intimate asides of this sort are commonplace in the Agincourt narrative.
- My friend Howard Tabor himself is writing a piece on his great-uncle Anson, one of the series “Ghosts of Christmas Past” which is hard for him, since writing about family seems so self-serving; some sort of justification or even boasting. I had originally killed off Anson Tennant, architect of the Agincourt Public Library, sending him to Europe on the strategically departing RMS Lusitania, until Dr Bob my shrink wondered “Does he have to die?” I have to admit saving Anson from what ought to have been certain death has been both humanitarian and fruitful for the story line, as it begged the question “Why had Anson chosen to become an architect?” and that answer has been a goldmine for both story and artifact. It also afforded the possibility that Anson had married. So he was rescued in the North Atlantic by a Basque fishing trawler (read Mark Kurlansky’s Basque History of the World if you think this is a stretch), taken to port and nursed back to health in a convent hospital. Amnesia and WWI kept him from rejoining his family in Iowa; in fact, they believed he’d been lost in the Lusitania sinking and acted accordingly. Nursed to health by Graxi Urrutia (her name means “foreigner” or “not from these parts”, by the way), thirteen years his junior, they had three children—Alize, Mikel and Aitor (that’s Alice, Michael and Hector to you)—before his memory returned at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. I’m anxious to imagine the family’s reaction to a telegram from the State Department revealing that Anson had been found and their discovery of four new additions to the extended Tennant clan. And what do you suppose twenty-one years of amnesia did to the now middle-aged Anson? In the Basque country—Euskadi, in the Basque language—he had become a carpenter, and I suspect that’s what he did on returning to Iowa.
- Howard’s sister Catherine LaFarge lives with her husband Jim and their children (number and names to be determined) in rural Vermont, where they produce “Alouette” brand maple syrup. Look for it on your grocery shelves.
Mark Roelofs created his own Agincourt family, the van der Rijns who hailed from Holland and came to Agincourt to open a department store. Somewhere I have Mark’s van der Rijn tree. But I do recall that he needed to marry off one it its members, so we played yenta one afternoon and linked our two lines, so to speak. Damned if I can find that connection right now.
There was a time…
Each year our department receives a number of posters for lecture series at various schools of architecture around the country. I’ve noted several, not because the lectures or lecturers made me eager to attend, but because their graphic design was hopeless. If the intent of a poster is to 1) apprise the public of programs or products that might interest them, and 2) provide information on the when- and whereabouts of those events, the place where those products can be bought, they were dismal failures. Deconstructivist graphics seem far more intent on their cleverness at the expense of conveying actual information.
There was a golden age of posters beginning in the 1880s with the invention of lithography and the discovery of analine-based inks, more intensive and exotic colors like Magenta and Paris Violet and London Green (or is it the other way around?). It began with figures like Toulouse-Lautrec and lesser-known but no less talented Germans (Hohlwein) and British (the Beggarstaff Brothers—James Pryde and his brother-in-law William Nicholson). Americans joined their company as did virtually every nation that participated in the larger Art Nouveau movement.
The Art Deco and Moderne were outlets for advertising art. And the Bauhaus and deStijl are well represented. Some of the most recent figures were Americans David Lance Goines and Lance Hidy. All of which leads me to wonder about economically printed advertising art in Agincourt.
Surely the local vaudeville and movie houses announced their feature films and acts. De Bijenkorf’s Department store had sales. The interurban and trolley lines enticed ridership. And certainly the circus came to town once or twice.
Lately I’ve been concerned about the beige-ness of architectural models, despite their three-dimensionality. So I hope we can entice a graphic designer or two to provide the necessary color that’s not in my repertoire.
Richard Hovey’s poem “Taliesin, a Masque” inspired Frank Lloyd Wright’s romantic imagination, fired his own belief in the artist as divine creator. Wright chose the Welsh bard’s name for his home in Wisconsin built to enshrine an extra-marital affair and broadcast his exceptionalism to the world. That torch later passed (with an unfortunate twist) to Ayn Rand, but that’s a tale for another day. Hovey writes:
So God makes use of poets: Teach me then / to fashion worlds in little, making form / As God does, one with spirit—be the priest / Who makes God into bread to feed the world.
That phrase— “to fashion worlds in little” —does inspire me, though I make no Hoveian poetic claim. Yes, Agincourt is, in its way, a “world in little”. But I have fashioned it as a microcosm; a place that plays withrules, rather than breaks or ignores them. Two additional cases come to mind that drive me more then Hovey does.
Fine printer Henry Morris (no relation to the Henry M. Morris who invented Creation Science) devoted his career to exquisitely crafted, limited edition books published by his Bird & Bull Press in Newtown, PA. As an April Fool invention one year, Morris fabricated the island nation of San Serriffe, ideally situated in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa.
From the prosaic and pragmatic terminology of his craft, Morris has imagined a printer’s “world in little” whose capital Bodoni and major harbor Port Clarendon are typefaces; it’s binary islands are Upper and Lower Caisse. And, of course, he has populated it with a publishing industry disproportionate to its size and situation. For a book on San Serriffe, Mooris even printed currency and cast coins:
A copy of the book (with currency and coins) is here in my library. Stop by and I’ll show them to you.
My other inspiration is Donald Evans [1945-1977], born with me but gone too soon. Sickly and ex-patriate, Evans died at thirty-one in an Amsterdam apartment house fire. But not before showing us any number of imaginary lands through philatelic art: Nadorp, Amis & Amants, Republica de Banana, and others evocative of the tropics and so unlike drizzly Amsterdam.
Evans has crafted intimate postage stamp profiles in ink, pencil and watercolor, with a range of denominations expressed in local currency. His stamps in series often portray themes like mushrooms or palm trees. A framed Evans stamp on my wall is likely to happen shortly after I win the lottery.
These are minds I admire. And their imaginings inspire the minutia that might yet hint to the world that Agincourt exists—or might have.
The gears are turning even as I type.
Our friend Jonathan Rutter is in town for the holidays and, not incidentally, a hugely successful opening at the Rourke Art Gallery. His work will be up through January, so I hope you might find time to visit and bask.
We had wondered if his orthodox icon of Saint Ahab would materiallize—it didn’t—among the products of three semesters at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. Ah, so. Jonathan stopped by today for a cup of holiday cheer (coffee, actually) and talk of painting Ahab for the exhibition next September. Huzzah! For no other good reason than curiosity, I googled “Saint Ahab” again and found something troubling.
When the time came to designate Agincourt’s Roman Catholic parish, I struggled to avoid saints names traditionally associated with ethnic groups. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, is often chosen for RC parishes that serve the African American community. David was from Wales; Patrick from Ireland; and George hailed from England. Then there are the connections between saints and parts of the anatomy. My grandmother’s parish in suburban Chicago was named for Blaise, parton saint of those suffering from diseases of the throat. So, blame the stray cosmic particle that shot me through at the moment Ahab came to mind. A hasty google search suggested he was unclaimed by the catholic (i.e., universal) church as someone worthy of veneration. So Ahab it would be. I crafted Ahab’s hagiography with that in mind.
Recently, however, I happened upon a nasty link between Saint Ahab and the Christian Reconstructionist movement—those who wish not only to transform the United States into a Christian nation (a proposition I will resoundingly resist), but to impose its own brand of Sharia Law. Homosexuals, for example, will be executed in a Reconstructionist America.
R. J. Rushdoony, an Armenian immigrant to the U.S., was the founder of the CR movement, now carried on by his son Mark and son-in-law Gary North (a former House staff member for Rep Ron Paul, no less). “Calchedon”, the official website for Christian Reconstructionism, offers, among other publications, a polemic by RJ Rushdoony titled “The Gospel According to Saint Ahab”, available as an MP3 for $1.99 (which I am unlikely to invest in such a loony tunes organization, no matter how much I might want to read it). Happily, my invocation of Ahab as saint predates the Rushdoony use by three years.
For the record, then, Ahab was imagined in 2006 on his own merits and has nothing to do with Christian Reconstructionism. Really.
It’s the second day of winter and the middle of the academic year, so I have no business (but every reason) to think about those lazy langorous days of summer.
This etching by Latvian-born artist Ruth Kerkovius has recently become part of the Community Art Collection displayed at the Tennant Memorial Gallery—one of fifty works that will be loaned to the next exhibit of the Agincourt Project; you’re all invited—so I wonder what minor event of no consequence whatsoever will emerge from its hazy over-exposure. Who enjoyed this repast and one another’s company? And where have they gone? In the meantime, let me tell you about the Community Collection.
In the fall of 1912, before there was a memorial gallery, Amity Burroughs Flynn* organized an exhibit of artwork borrowed from the homes of Agincourt’s citizens—paintings and prints that in their modest way represented artistic taste or judgment in the community. The show was hung in the G.A.R. Hall at the northeast corner of the 1889 courthouse and remained on display through Thanksgiving. It was such a success that Mrs Flynn and her committee thought it might be made permanent; the seed of a community-based collection to heighten cultural awareness in a town at the edge of the wider World of Art.
Mrs Flynn cajoled several of the original lenders to donate a few pieces, the core of a permanent collection. Then the committee acquired one or two new pieces each year until today, when there are more than two hundred works. Two thousand thirteen celebrates a hundred years of such accumulation. My challenge has been managing the evolution of the collection: wondering how new works were acquired (by gift, purchase, theft, abandonment); imagining the personalities involved, their agendas, the changing sense of what passes for beauty—and the inevitability that my own taste contaminates what should have grown organically through a hundred years and that I have failed in that regard.
Kerkovius herself was born in 1921, educated at Munich and emigrated to the U.S. Google suggests that she’s still living in New York at the age of 91. Unsigned and/or anonymous works give me the latitude to invent artistic careers, but in this case (the etching is signed) I’m obliged to imagine when and how her print found its way from New York City to northwestern Iowa. And whether the locals value it as much as I do.
Incidentally, there will be a catalogue at the 2013 exhibit and a more complete development of this story.
*The story of Amity Burroughs Flynn is told elsewhere in this blog, as well as that of her late unlamented husband Edmund FitzGerald Flynn.
What can I say about women? I am not one, nor would I know how to be one.
There are so many quotes about the nature of history—what it is and who decides—that I can add little to clarify things. The Greeks understood history as Clio, one of the nine Muses, a daughter of Zeus (supreme divinity) and Mnemosyne (memory or recollection) who, along with the other eight Muses, represented inspiration for literature, science and the arts. This helps, especially in that the personifications of all this inspiration are women.
Exposed as I was to the Christian, rather than the ancient Greek tradition, I am drawn to the Old Testament rather then the New, where women are regarded differently.Yahweh visits Old Testament women in their homes, at their hearths, tending their children, and they laugh at Him! Try that in the New Testament and see what Paul has to say. [“Pauline” is an ironic name for a girl, don’t you think? Now Martha, on the other hand….]
The first (but not the earliest) woman I had imagined in Agincourt was Martha Tennant, mother of the character I had invented to be architect for the Carnegie-era library a la mode du Louie Sullivan. She grew from the necessary backstory that Anson Tennant required, and I, as always, was aided along the way by images gleaned from eBay. One day, my standard search turned up this studio postcard portrait of an anonymous woman, identified only by the source: “The Society Studio, 731 on the Boardwalk, Atlantic City”. With apologies for the oxidation that has made it more lustrous than lush, here is the woman who became Anson’s mother and who grew in her own right as a person of power long before the Nineteenth Amendment.
The Druids recognized four stages of womanhood: infant, maiden, woman, crone (a noun now with negative connotations). So I invoke here the druidical sense of a woman-become-sage, whose life experience has already awarded her one foot through the pleroma. This photograph has already been transformed by our friend Jonathan Rutter into a tempera portrait that was part of the 2007 Agincourt exhibit and will be shown again next September (deus volens). In the meantime, I need to flesh out Martha’s life.
Did you know, for example, that she became a nun?
MARTHA CURTISS CORWIN TENNANT
Scraps of Martha Tennant’s biography are scattered throughout this blog. But in recent entries she’s identified as the cohort of a Sac & Fox medicine woman, a restauranteur, a madam and an imposter priest—good company, if you ask me. Eighteen months ago Howard Tabor (Martha’s great-grandson) devoted a column to her, so rather than repeat it here, you can follow this link and read a fragment of the life inspired by my postcard find.
I’ve never known anyone quite like her. It would be inaccurate to claim she was like my grandmother (who raised me and ought to be credited for my few finer qualities), though Granny has shown up here in other guises. Yet it was relatively easy to imagine Mrs Tennant and her accomplishments; what I don’t yet know are the chinks in her armour, those moments of weakness or indecision that brought her low, and especially how she turned adversity to advantage, as women often do.