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Creative Process


On its way, even as I write this, is a book of essays on the creative process. These days, an essay is about all my attention span can tolerate. While I wait to learn what other more facile minds than mine have to say on the subject, however, let me share a remarkable episode in serendipity: creating the portrait of Martha Corwin Curtiss Tennant [1868-1948].


Architect Anson Curtiss Tennant was the second child and only son of Augustus James Tennant and Martha Corwin Curtiss. Creating a family tree for young Anson was a relatively easy task [it appears elsewhere in the story thus far], and the process was helped by a happy accident on a well-known auction site.

Sleuthing one day among the real photo postcards—cards reproduced photographically, not printed—this portrait appeared, identified only as having been produced by “The Society Studio / 731 On the Boardwalk / Atlantic City”. The subject remains anonymous and probably always will, but her rôle in the Agincourt story was sealed at first glance: she of the side-lit Vermeer-ish pose would be Anson’s mother, Martha. Lucky for me that unidentified postcard portraits are unpopular unless the subjects fall in special categories (Native Americans, Asians, Blacks, etc.) or doing special things (posed with a dog, horse; felling a tree, for example). I won the auction and Martha came home to Agincourt from where she had clearly gone astray.

She languished in an archival envelope for more than a year, until the afternoon I brought her to coffee at the Rourke Art Museum, one of the Sundays when I worked the reception desk. During the habitual three o-clock coffee, I showed the card to our friend and collaborator Mr Jonathan Rutter, wondering if he could translate the rich tones and lustrous metallic salts of this postcard—safely verified by costumer Peter Vandervort as from the 1920s—into a formal portrait, a piece of material culture for the project, which was then not very far along outside my own sketchbooks. Jonathan accepted the task, and over a year later I saw the remarkable result, though with a different background than you see it today.


Now illuminated from both side and back, Martha still gazes wistfully beyond the frame, holding a caliper once used by her son Anson, a pose all the more poignant because at that time she believed him to have gone down with almost two thousand other passengers in the sinking of RMS Lusitania. Jonathan knew the story and must have seen in the postcard portrait the same gentle forbearance that had drawn me to it in the first place. The prop—the caliper; a tool of the architect’s trade, then if not now—was entirely Jonathan’s contribution to the moment. I have lived with this painting for several years and used its qualities to further the story of the Tennant family in general and Martha in particular as a force in development of the community during the sixty years she lived there. Looking back on the process today, I wonder that a simple postcard and basic narrative could yield something so rich with possibility.

Everything old is new again

Simultaneous with the portrait of Mrs Tennant came another artifact directly related to her son Anson: the stained glass window at the entry to his architectural office, designed and crafted by another friend of the project, Mr Dan Salyards.

Anson Tennant’s office opened in 1912 in the second floor of the Wasserman Block, remodeled to his specifications as a studio-residence. Its dutch-door entrance announced the young architect’s sympathies with the then current Arts & Crafts movement and confirmed what they would find within. The phrase “Als ik kan” was the mantra of the A&C and is often translated from the Flemish as “To the best of my ability” or “As best I can”. Dan accepted the challenge and disappeared as Jonathan had done for some months, coming back with not only the phrase (in very appropriate fraktur lettering) but also with, of all things, a caliper, quite independent of Mr Rutter’s incorporation of the same thing. What you cannot see in this rear-lit view of the finished window are two of my own offerings: the fulcrum of the caliper is a 1912 U.S. quarter dollar coin, commemorating the year Anson’s office opened, and the solid element on the lower right is a carpenter’s square, formerly owned by Anson’s maternal grandfather Corwin Curtiss, who had taught him the rudiments of carpentry and woodworking.

Phase Next in this serendipitous process will be twofold: creation of the actual door that holds the window and the design of the studio-home that it announced. It all depends, of course, on the creative collaboration of rare folks like Jonathan and Dan and others who cross my hapless path.


  1. I recall seeing the painting of Martha Tennant for the first time: how astounded and pleased I was for its character. Jonathan had reservations, however; most artists do. He wondered, for example, if her hands (remember they’re not in the original postcard) might be too large. I said “No, those are the hands of a woman who worked.” It seemed important that Mrs Tennant not be a person of privilege; not be someone for whom things were done. Whether that was accident or intent on his part, I can’t say. Perhaps just another happy accident—like meeting Jonathan in the first place.

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