I seem to be on a bender today about ecclesiastical architecture, especially the set of modest Episcopal churches built in Dakota Territory during the last decade before statehood. The process of researching this topic has consumed a lot of time since it began in the early 70s and it’s high time I did something about that. Promises have been made (to myself, to Dr Bob, among others), so it has become a matter of “Put up or shut down.”
A couple of entries back, I offered the word “prosopography” and suggested you might look it up. According to Wikipedia, prosopography
is an investigation of the common characteristics of a historical group, whose individual biographies may be largely untraceable, by means of a collective study of their lives, in multiple career-line analysis.
Without having heard the word, it seemed to me that the cluster of Dakota churches would be better understood through the lives of those who had both made and used them. Robert and Wynona Wilkins’s vantage was one-dimensional, dare I say myopic? Uncomfortably incorporating material culture into their denominational study [God Giveth the Increase], but with no explication of what those buildings more completely represented; indeed, with little awareness of how buildings actually happen. It may be that I have waited too long to make this point and offer another perspective on diocesan history, as well as in the field of architectural history itself.
Faith & Form: Victorian culture on the northern Great Plains
The working title of my manuscript may be too expansive. I am, after all, writing primarily about Episcopalians. But what you might be surprised to know is the disproportionate role that Yankee Episcopalians played, not only in the day to day life of northern Dakota, but in the very formation of the two states in 1889 from a territory that hindsight suggests ought to have been split by a north-south line, rather than an east-west one. The interests of Fargo, for example, have far more to do with those of Aberdeen than they do with the Black Hills or the Badlands. For those inclined toward “What if” history, try to imagine how an East Dakota and a West Dakota might have evolved economically, socially, politically.
If the historical event of statehood was a fulcrum, it was Episcopalians who tipped the balance.
The more material I gathered on these churches (in Fargo, Bismarck, Buffalo, Jamestown, Lisbon, Mayville, Pembina, Lakota and Devils Lake, and others outside the 1897-1889 time frame), the more logically it fell into categories of interest and agenda. The 150+ biographical squibs have settled into four sections (perhaps chapters) tentatively titled
- “The Landed Gentry”—a small but high profile presence here of Britons who had come from the landed gentry and even the nobility in the Old Country
- “Bishops and Pawns”—clergy in an hierarchical denominational structure, moving at times like chess pieces
- “Sticks and Stones”—architects and builders, carpenters, masons, etc., some of whom straddle those categories before the practice of architecture was regulated by the state
- “Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker”—the diverse laity in each community who served on vestries and building committees but who also had “day jobs” as newspaper editors, estate agents, bankers, lawyers, grocers, farmers, ranchers and, yes, politicians
The narrative that I intend to weave from these groups will, in my view, represent a fuller picture of life in Dakota during a few of its more strategic years.
Further on the topic of “Process versus Product”, I should post something on the tentative manuscript toward a monograph on Dakota Territory’s cluster of Episcopal church buildings, one of which—the former St Stephen’s church in Casselton—had sparked my curiosity. Never an Episcopalian and barely a Christian at the time the project began, my own spiritual point of view has drifted ever leftward to the point of no return. Religion and I are not even in the same book, let alone the same page.
That being said, it is an ongoing fascination to me why I spend (invest?) so much of my research energy in religious architecture. Churches (and for that word you should also read “mosque”, “temple”, etc.) may be my favored building type because they, as a species, represent some of the best and much of the worst in recent architectural history—say the last two hundred years.
Take, for example, the Anglican cathedral at Coventry, a Modernist design which replaced the 14th century original destroyed by German bombing on 14 November 1940. A 1950 competition—whose full results have never been published, to my knowledge—resulted in what might be called a “compromise candidate”, a design neither fully Modern, not sufficiently derivative of the Middle Ages to satisfy traditionalists. Basil Spence (now Sir Basil [1907-1978]) bridged the mid-century gap betwixt the streamlines of the modern and the traditions required by liturgical needs and the wants of heritage, of continuity with the church founded by Henry VIII. There is a book about it in my library, though I haven’t laid eyes on it in years, titled Phoenix at Coventry, and there was, as you might imagine, considerable coverage in The Architectural Review, still my favored English-language architectural periodical. The foremost British critic at mid-century was Rayner Banham [1922-1988] whose assessment of the Spence design is lodged permanently in my rolodex as the single most incisive observation of late 20th century religious architecture in general, if not Coventry in particular: He called it “a gosh awful, ring-a-ding God box.” Take that, Modernity, and put it where the sun is unlikely to cast its warmth.
Happily, I have been to Coventry—twice, thank you very much; first with my friend Marilla Thurston Missbach and again with Richard Kenyon, a.k.a. Crazy Richard—and each encounter put me at odds with Banham’s renowned and incisive criticism (who was never knighted but should have been). In this borrowed Wikipedia image, you can detect Spence’s strategy to link past and future: the ruins of the earlier building lie at the lower right, liturgically oriented east-west, while the Spence design stretches north-south, with a porch bridging between them. I won’t burden you with details of the full program(me); suffice to say there are more than a few nods to emerging post-war Socialism and remarkably few direct references to established class structure, Coventry being a solid working-class city.
Art played an enormous role in the new cathedral, with contributions by major British artists such as John Piper, John Hutton, Graham Sutherland and the notorious sculpture of “St Michael and Lucifer” by American-turned-British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein—yeah, he’s Jewish, but so was Jesus. The question becomes whether the whole, the entirety of the cathedral complex, surpasses the sum of its parts. Speaking as an outsider—neither British nor Christian—I’m inclined to say yes, without much qualification. But you might look it up and give me the perspective of a younger, less jaundiced eye.
But what, you may well inquire, has this to do with Dakota’s Episcopal churches, other than the denominational connection? I’ll get to that in a minute.
One of my earliest recollections of North Dakota—and among the most memorable—was an evening in the fall of 1971. Jim O’Rourke invited me to drive from Fargo twenty-five miles west to Casselton. His friends Jim and Sharon Verdorn had just relocated from Seattle, as I had from New York City. It was a crisp evening for my first foray into the state, admittedly only half way across the county, but it was all new to me.
Driving north on Casselton’s Langer Avenue, we turned right at a corner dominated by the most delightful building I had seen in my ten weeks as a new Dakotan: not the bland and bloated 1950s box of St Leo’s church—sorry, Romans, that church is an ungainly lump unworthy of its purpose—but instead I refer to the split fieldstone jewel in Leo’s ominous shadow. A sign announced it as the Casselton Mennonite church but I suspected otherwise and that suspicion grew into a forty-year research effort which is still underway. One wonders: Is a long attention span better than a short one?
My fascination with Leo’s diminutive neighbor simmered for eighteen months or so, until the spring of 1973 when curiosity got the better of me. It always does. But without reviewing those early files all I can say tonight is this: 1) the church in question had been built for Episcopalians (no surprise there) and 2) the architect had been some guy named George Hancock. Imagine my surprise when it turned out I was living in the second-floor apartment of Hancock’s own home on North Broadway. Coincidences like this are more common that you might suspect. What I do recall about the beginning of this project is that my first letter of inquiry was written in March 1973. So, do the math and calculate that I’ve been researching this small Gothic Revival building for forty years and five months. Should I be embarrassed? Yeah, I should and, yes, I am.
The evolution of this project has shaped my entire thinking about architecture. Buildings are more than objects. Indeed, my exploration of St Stephen’s (its original name) led me to nearly a dozen other Episcopal churches constructed in Dakota Territory during the 1880s. And those, in their turn, became a constellation of biographies; the dozens of people associated with their design and construction, operation and maintenance; short biographies of the priest at the altar and the vestry coordinating the fund-raiser and painting the trim. There are now more than one hundred and fifty biographies of varying length (and veracity, I should admit). And it seems there is a word to describe this organic method of mine: prosopography. Look it up some time.
When I began this project, a prime source had been God Giveth the Increase, a diocesan history by Robert and Wynona Wilkins, both Episcopalians and one a professor of history at the “other” university in North Dakota. I was twenty-eight and fresh from grad school—albeit in a professional program, not an academic one—so Professor Wilkins’s response to my inquiry was no surprise. Lightly veiled in his letter were several questions: What could a non-PhD possibly contribute to a topic already definitively treated by a real academic? What could a non-Episcopalian have to say on the subject of diocesan history? What could an “architect” have to say in the realm of authentic, i.e. pure, history? And why was someone from the cow college poaching where it dare not go?
For my part, the curious thing about the Wilkinses’ book was simply this: The text used buildings—their construction, operation and maintenance—to trace the denomination’s evolution over a hundred years; vintage photographs of these fascinating buildings illustrated the story. But nowhere did the name of an architect appear, nor did the word “architect” even appear in print. Architecture, apparently, is important, but it springs spontaneously from the brow of bishops. Frankly I was offended, but my umbrage and fifty cents will get you a piss poor cup of coffee.
The point of this diatribe, if there is one, is the matter of process versus product. Forty years of one begs for a little bit of the other.
[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]
BURR, George Elbert [1857-1939]
etching / 4.5 inches by 3.75 inches
George Burr was among America’s most renowned etchers of the early 20th century. Though he was born in Ohio, Burr’s career is associated with Colorado and the high deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. This print—inscribed to Eugenia Campbell and dated St Patrick’s Day 1930—may be outside the numbered edition.
The Community Collection now numbers more than two hundred pieces accumulated since the first exhibit in 1912. And the documentation is relatively complete for the majority of works. But George Burr’s etching is one of the few exceptions. Burr has no known connection to the community and Eugenia Campbell is equally unknown. We hope the collection’s centennial celebration will bring more information to light.
There is beating in my chest a muscle that, until nine weeks ago, had not been well. Now, when I am lying quite still on my pillow, it beats with such vigor that I actually vibrate. I resonate.
I have asked my doctor about this and he tells me that this is the new normal. So, my new old heart has caused me to reëvaluate much that had been the way things were.
The connection here is tenuous, whispy, but as I have lain awake most nights thinking of the life that was and that which lies ahead of me, a phrase has wafted in and out of consciousness: “the thing itself”. It offered no connection with recollected experience, so I had to look it up. “The thing in itself” or Noumenon comes from Immanuel Kant, who I cannot recall reading—ever—and if I had, his words would have passed before my eyes like bad 19th century wallpaper. Now I vaguely understand it to be the difference between the object in your hand—your hand itself, even—and the English word “hand” that you and I have agreed to call it for useful, productive conversation.
Imagine we have met for the first time. We have each come from separate worlds, lacking any common experience. My culture was unknown to you; and yours, to me. We had no shared frame of reference. There existed no Berlitz travel dictionary of useful phrases to enable even the most rudimentary exchange. We must begin with the thing itself, each thing, and build a new relationship.
So we stand on the beach where one of our ships has crashed; perhaps both of us are castaways. You pick up an object—a recently caught fish that had been flopping on the shore when we first met—and hold it out to me, seeking a name for the thing itself. “Fish” I say, and you cock your head to the side in consideration, responding “Glorb” as our shared view begins to take shape. But what I took to be a creature that lives in water, you took to mean a thing that we might now enjoy, roasted with herbs over a fire of brush gathered from the beach, as our first meal. What I had taken to be the thing, you saw not for itself but as an experience that we might enjoy together, because you were hungry and I was not. You meant “Food”.
A third alien had been observing from behind a shrub and stepped forward at that moment, offering “Bleth” as a contribution to the dialogue, not because he saw a sea creature, nor even the potential main course of a meal, but because it had been flopping about on the beach and was now quite still. Our mutual friend was observing that the fish had once been alive and was no longer. Bleth = Dead. The thing in itself had not changed but each of us had construed it differently: a thing; a commodity; a state of being.
My purpose here is private for the time being; it is for you to take as you see fit, not necessarily as the thing itself. It does, however (and as you might imagine), have everything to do with Agincourt; with the game we play of offering and naming and altering one another’s consciousness and being changed. A few have come to the sandbox with the innocent intent of strangers on a beach and I am glad for that.
Recent life events have encourage me to consider the medical history of Agincourt.
Doc Fahnstock wasn’t the community’s earliest health provider; we know him primarily for the three-way relationship he had with Maud Adams and Cissy Beddowes at the turn of the 20th century. Fahnstock’s predecessors are, as yet, unidentified. To be sure, some of those early characters claiming medical ability were charlatans, purveyors of snake oil and worse (about which Howard has written before), but surely there were others who, with caring conscience, provided invaluable public service in what passed for the Medical Arts in the 19th century.
Howard and I seem to have at least one thing in common: the subjects of our research and writing come to us. Such was the case in his column last Saturday.
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
The nose knows
Agincourt’s earliest burial ground, The Shades, was barely established when its first interments came home from the Civil War. I’ve written before about Agincourt’s first war casualty, John Beddowes. From his burial in the fall of 1863 onward, the cemetery’s chronology has been our own; a record, if not of our arrival, at least of our departure. So Rowan Oakes and his history seminar students at Fennimore County High are tackling that history for the cemetery’s 150th anniversary in October.
Our family were frequent visitor to The Shades. On Memorial Day, our mother would take Catherine and me there to care for the graves of relatives and friends; we’d pack a lunch and make a day of it. And during each visit, I’d invariably wander off, returning with questions about who so-and-so was or why there were so many burials in 1918. The cemetery became, for me, a card file of local history—though the “cards” were granite chunks. One of the more unusual burials is in Section 16, near the pond, on the Cuijpers family plot: a simple granite square incised “Poppy 1948”.
I’d recently heard a radio broadcast of “L’incoronazione di Poppea“, Claudio Monteverdi’s opera about Emperor Nero’s hapless wife (she’s kicked to death in the final scene), and wondered if there had been a connection. No, mom explained—though, in her view, some operas ought to be recognized as cultural cadavers and mercifully buried; it was dad who loved opera—Poppy was neither a questionable work of art, nor even a child of the Cuijpers family. Poppy was a dog, perhaps the only canine honored with interment at The Shades. The question of what service had warranted such a burial waited years for an answer.
HENK CUIJPERS, M.D.
The arrival of Henk Cuijpers in Agincourt is a story for another day. For the time being, let’s agree that he graduated from the University of Iowa Medical School in the mid-1930s and began his practice here soon after.
A surgeon of some skill, Dr Cuijpers developed a remarkable record of success in the treatment of cancer at a time when operations were brutal and long-term survival unlikely. Our great aunt Clara in Mason City endured a mastectomy that filleted her like a trout and required weeks of physical therapy to regain use of her right arm. Family had encouraged her to see Cuijpers, but Clara insisted on doctors she knew; but I think her diagnosis might have been different here. “Medicine is medicine,” she would say, and go on about X-rays and mustard plasters. What Clara didn’t know—what most of Agincourt and the State Medical Association didn’t even suspect—was Dr Cuijpers’ principal diagnostic tool: a Shepherd-Corgi cross with an olfactory gift for sniffing out cancer cells.
Poppy the dog materialized at the Cuijpers’ kitchen door one weekday morning, hungry and craving human contact. Lacking collar or claim, Poppy fit quickly into the family of four (Henk, his wife Marilyn, and their girls). But when Poppy first appeared at Cuijpers’ office in the Medical Arts Building or how he discovered her diagnostic skills is the stuff of folklore. I’m following some leads and will get back to you as the story develops.
In the meantime, bring flowers—poppies might be appropriate—and some dog treats to her resting place at The Shades.
Better yet, shelter a homeless animal of your own.
Once again, ancestry.com has been my salvation.
Using two alternate spellings of the Moldovan family name, I had located a fairly wide variety of genealogical documents—immigration and naturalization records—that suggested a relationship between Gabriel Spat (a.k.a. Salomon Patlajean) and Naum or Numa Patlagean, a sculptor two years older and likewise from Chişinau, Moldova. It was tempting to link the two, since both had lived and worked in Paris. Serendipity led me to additional information.
The vast majority of genealogical sites like ancestry.com and familysearch.com (both accessible for a fee) come from the efforts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormons), who have sent their representatives around the earth to gather fragile and fading records of our presence on the planet. They do this for one of their most important temple ordinances that allow them to baptize the dead, an activity not without controversy in the gentile world. As a member in good standing of the church, for example, I would be able to act as proxy for each of my ancestors and grant the benefit of Mormon baptism to those who passed on prior to the New Dispensation given by Heavenly Father to Joseph Smith in the mid-19th century—regardless, one might add, of the wishes of those who are presumably already safely ensconced in the afterlife. It may be one thing to offer this service to my own relatives, but the LDS church has baptized many historical figures like George Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr., who could feel otherwise inclined. In my own research into the Episcopal church presence in Dakota Territory, at least two Episcopal clergy have shown up with after-death LDS baptism that I suspect they might have rejected. It turns out, however, that there are other groups interested in recovering and preserving genealogical records.
There has also been a significant worldwide effort to collect the records of Jews scattered across the planet in the Disapora and lost during the Nazi Holocaust. And such has been the case with the region of eastern Europe called Bessarabia, which happily (for me) includes present day Moldova. A slight complication comes from the shifting boundaries in that area, for it has been culturally and linguistically Romanian but also Russian territory during the Soviet era and is now an independent state. So documents there, in addition to suffering from the fragility of age and the menace of war, are also recorded in two alphabets: the Roman and the Cyrillic. So it shouldn’t have surprised me to accidentally find the name Патлажан transliterated “Patlazhan” and the confirmation I had hoped. Birth, marriage, voting and death records from Moldova corroborate what I had suspected (or at least gave me a plausible leg to stand on) linking Numa (born 1888) and Salomon (born 1890). The quest isn’t over (there are still school records to pursue), but I’m better than half way there.
I am cursed with many things: an enthusiastic disorganization, difficulty maintaining focus and a tendency toward hoarding. One thing, however, more than compensates for those negative characteristics: I am fortunate to have an intense and insatiable curiosity.
The investigation of artist Gabriel Spat might have gone no farther than the accumulation of the three or four very brief biographies found on the internet. Collectively, they are disappointingly general, ambivalent, and (dare I point a finger at the work of my betters?) non-committal.
I might have stopped when genealogical sources revealed his origins: neither in France nor the United States, as had been speculated, but in far more exotic Moldova, former Romanian territory that had become Soviet and is now an independent, though impoverished, independent state. At some date following his emigration to France, Salomon Patlagean combined the initial of his given name with the first three of his surname. S+PAT=Spat. Frankly, I was feeling pretty smug right then. But with a whole new avenue of research opening before me, there was no choice but to follow where it might lead.
With some assurance I can tell you this. Salomon Patlagean (also spelled “Patlajean”) was the offspring of a well-to-do Moldovan Jewish family who owned a cement factory. In a pogrom of 1905, Salomon’s father was blinded, which may have been interpreted as writing on the wall to leave their native Chisinau for a place of greater tolerance. Two young Patlageans—Salomon, born 1890, and Naum, born two years previous—were enrolled in the local art school, an institution of some distinction, especially for sculpture. It’s reasonable to think that Naum and Salomon were brothers: same surname, similar education and both emigrated to Paris by the roaring 1920s. Genealogical sources have failed to confirm this, but the LDS church hasn’t yet pillaged Moldovan archives for all their documentary resources; and the Moldovan National Library wants some up-front cash for research at their end. Apparently they don’t take VISA cards or PayPal.
Immigration records reveal other members of the family relocating westward to France, and at least two of them are identified as “artist” or “sculptor”. Creative clan, the Patlageans.
Pushing the envelope a bit farther—by which I mean OCLC or WorldCat, the online catalogue of the Library of Congress—and by using both the Patlagean and Spat surnames, Gabriel Spat’s place in the cultural cauldron that was Paris in the ’20s emerges. He interacted with Louis Delluc (1890-1924), an early innovator in French cinema. Salomon (i.e., Gabriel Spat) designed the cast bronze profile of Delluc for his tomb in the cemetery of suburban Montrouge/Bagneux. Research success can sometimes be frustrating, however, for Delluc and Spat collaborated on a publication both small in size and few in number—Vedettes mondiales de l’écran or World Stars of the Screen—with an introduction by Delluc and caricatures by Spat. It is frustrating to know that one copy exists in a public collection: the French National Library. Wanna bet they’ll be fun to deal with?
I have the will, so there must be a way.
Shortly before my surgery, I had a coffee conversation with Mark Strand about several things, including the Agincourt Project. We discussed many of its components, including “Landscapes & Livestock”, the show-within-the-show lent by the Tennant Memorial Gallery. I hoped (and still do) that there would be a catalogue of the 50+ pieces in the exhibit and that we might find someone to write the introduction, someone other than a character created for and from the moment. Mark suggested Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, whose name I recognized but whose work I did not know. With a track record in the better-than-acceptable range, I crafted a letter to Schjeldahl, ferreted out a mailing address for the corporate offices—I continue to hold a position that real mail (words on paper) trumps e-mail every time, a misguided belief I know, but there you have it—and sent the query on its way. Then, my bad health intervened and I temporarily lost track of this initiative.
For those like myself, not necessarily wedded to a view of American culture as seen from the east bank of the Hudson River, I did some preliminary sleuthing on Schjeldahl to understand why Mark Strand had suggested him. Foremost, I suppose, he was born in Fargo and lived in several smaller towns in the Red River Valley. Schjeldahl’s father Gilmore Tilmen Schjeldahl was himself a native North Dakotan and erstwhile student at the Agricultural College. Having departed the state, however, and made some success in business, the renamed and some might say uppity NDSU awarded G. T. Schjeldahl an honorary Doctor of Science degree in 1970, the year prior to my arrival in Fargo. The senior Schjeldahl’s reputation (and presumed wealth, otherwise why would the honorary degree have been offered) was based on inventions in “plastics, adhesives and circuitry.” As a potential question in “Jeopardy” you should know that G. T. Schjeldahl owns the patent for the plastic-lined air-sickness container more popularly called the barf bag. Where I come from that is one hell of an accomplishment.
So, with these few facts in mind, here is what I wrote to lure Peter Schjeldahl into the Agincourt matrix:
07 June 2013 [four days before my surgery]
Dear Mr Schjeldahl,
Meeting Wednesday with my friend and former colleague Mark Strand, your name arose in connection with a current and ongoing project. Professor Strand remarked that your family had an earlier connection with NDSU, so I felt emboldened to write. A little sleuthing revealed that your father received an honorary degree in 1970, the year before I arrived and began my own tenure at what was then still called “the A.C.” by my older neighbors.
During the summer of 2006 I was musing about the late work of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. I teach (as you can see from this letterhead) in the architecture program at NDSU, but I am a Chicago native and was nurtured there on more Sullivan than currently survives. My thoughts in 2006, however, were of Sullivan’s late work, especially the small-town banks in Ohio, Minnesota and Iowa, which I discovered later. Given his clients and audience for those eight or nine small commissions, I wondered why Sullivan had never been asked to design a Carnegie-era library; he was surely in the right place at the right time. Since my degrees are in architecture (though I never sought a license to practice) and because I teach both architectural history and design studios, my next question about Sullivan was simple: How would he have approached the Carnegie library type—one of our most formulaic. If you have read this far, I hope you will both enjoy and appreciate the answer.
I set myself the task of designing a Carnegie era public library circa 1914-1915 somewhere in the Midwest. Because Sullivan had done five buildings in Iowa and would be recognized there, I settled on an Iowa site but chose to imagine a typical mid-nineteenth century town, rather than an existing one. And that choice has had interesting consequences. “Agincourt” would be its name, and the plan I conceived was drawn from cultural geographic studies as a last gasp of the Enlightenment. One mile square and inspired as much by Philadelphia as by typical nineteenth century railroad towns, Agincourt became the basis for several seminars on town formation and design studios exploring the full range of American architectural history from 1850 to the present. What made these more than academic exercises was the inclusion of narrative: each project—building or landscape—had to tell its own story. Students were encouraged to imagine detailed scenarios surrounding their designs: their clients and users, designers and mechanics; the socio-economic and technological contexts that shaped them. The first fruits of these classes became an exhibit at one of our local art museums.
On October 25th, 2007—happily the 592nd anniversary of the actual Battle of Agincourt, decisive confrontation between the English and French in the Hundred Years War—we celebrated the Agincourt, Iowa Sesqui-Centennial with at least two dozen contributions by students, faculty, recent graduates, artists and friends. No 150th anniversary could be celebrated without music, however, so we reached out to New York composer Daron Aric Hagen and commissioned a sesqui-centennial fanfare for brass, which was premiered that night by members of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony. Daron has become a Facebook friend, and we now honor him as Agincourt’s Composer-not-in-Residence. I’m pleased to report that “Agincourt Fanfare” has gone on to be performed elsewhere and may find its place in the repertoire. What brings me to your door toady is the next phase of the Agincourt Project: a second exhibit at the Rourke Art Museum titled “Homecoming/Coming Home.”
Each component of the next exhibit (now scheduled for January 1915) will explore the much-abused work “home” as a theme. We have much underway, including designs by students, faculty and friends of the project. Daron Hagen has written a new work to premier at the opening: Shakespeare’s speech from the mouth of Henry V on the eve of battle, titled “We Happy Few” and set for baritone and piano. Another important component of the show concerns the role of art in small-town America, especially during the years before World War I, and that, ultimately, is my reason for writing you today.
My design for the Agincourt Public Library incorporates a community art gallery, a memorial by the imaginary local family who were benefactors of the project. During the last eighteen months or more, I have become fascinated with what would have hung on those walls. Who in Agincourt decided what was art, and from whence did it come? From my own modest collection, but primarily from eBay (of all places!), we have accumulated more than fifty pieces—mostly paintings and prints and some of it quite good—that will form the “show-within-the-show”; where each piece in some way interprets the evolving notion of taste in a rural community. Many are anonymous; others are signed but may have been “re-purposed” to fit the narrative. They include, ostensibly:
- pieces brought to Agincourt by emigrants from Europe and the eastern U.S. (i.e., nostalgia)
- portraits of judges, the college president and other members of the community (i.e., vanity)
- art produced by Agincourt doughboys fighting World War I and pieces otherwise acquired during travel (i.e., memory)
- art as barter (i.e., commodity)
- as wedding or anniversary gifts (i.e., gratitude and honor)
- art as a statement of accomplishment or standing in the community (i.e., status)
This show-within-the-show is titled “Landscapes & Livestock” and will probably include fifty works (some by listed artists John Edgar Platt, Susan Knox Ricker and Colin Campbell Cooper), each beautifully framed and matted by our Smithsonian-trained conservator. A catalogue is planned, for which we hope you will consider writing the introduction. My contributions to this project have been many, though not always competent nor well-considered, and I will take on several more, no doubt, before the doors open in January 2015. But this one element—the evolving importance of art during the last one hundred and fifty years of American history—is so far beyond my scope that I genuinely hope you will find some larger purpose in our request and entertain the thought of playing with myself and others in the sandbox of history that Agincourt, Iowa has become.
With humility, audacity and gratitude for your forbearance this far, I am,
Ronald H.L.M. Ramsay, Associate Professor
When I reached out to Daron Hagen in 2006, it seemed to me that he had three possible responses: 1) hit the delete switch; 2) suggest I seek serious counseling; or 3) say “yes”. His was an enthusiastic #3. In the present case I expect that Peter Schjeldahl has opted for #1. But recent events in an entirely different area have helped me understand the bullet we may have dodged.
On July 24th, Schjeldahl posted an op-ed piece on the New Yorker website regarding Detroit’s bankruptcy and what might become of the city-owned Detroit Institute of Art collections: His informed opinion was that, like other “assets”, the DIA collections—valued conservatively at $2billion—should be put on the auction block to satisfy the city’s massive debt. As you might imagine, reaction from various sources was highly critical, with several calls for his dismissal as art critic for the New Yorker. Schjeldahl has since seen fit to retract his view, but one wonders about ongoing fallout for his reputation.
Since the Tennant Memorial Gallery and its home-grown collections are a similar but modestly scaled municipal asset for the City of Agincourt, I wonder if our friend Howard Tabor may have something to say. Stay tuned.
By the way, Mr Schjeldahl did not see fit to reply. I’m kinda glad. My grandmother warned me about playing with that sort.
Lately I’ve thought it would be better to change the names invoked here in the off-chance that I appear bitchy.