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Monthly Archives: June 2014

Edward R. Sitzman [1874-1949]

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[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]

SITZMAN, Edward R. [1874–1949]

Sentinel

c1910

watercolor on cardboard / 4 inches x 17 inches

Sitzman was born in Cincinnati but received his artistic education in Indianapolis; he is recognized primarily as a Hoosier artist. This diminutive watercolor titled “Sentinel” must have been done during a visit to the East Coast, however, possibly in New England where such granite behemoths are commonplace.

The presence of galleries in Agincourt was sporadic before WWII. More likely sources were the furnishing departments of great 19th century department stores in Des Moines, Omaha and St Louis. This was acquired from the Younker Brothers Department Store in Des Moines. Their former building was listed on the National Register in 2010 but was destroyed by fire in 2014 during renovation.

Arthur Machen and “The Angels of Mons”

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By a happy accident—such things happen extraordinarily often to me—I discovered this book today: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War by Welsh author Arthur Machen. I’d been searching for images of mediæval archers, the sort who had fought the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and succeeded in defeating the French, despite their insufficient numbers. Estimates of the inequity between the two sides, the English and French in what became the decisive battle in the Hundred Years War, range from 2:1 to 5:1, though recent research has favored the former. I hoped to find an image to use for the weather vane atop the Fennimore county courthouse.

Machen’s book has little to do directly with the battle that had taken place near the French village of Azincourt six centuries ago. Rather, it had been written in the earliest days of the Great War, World War I, in the days immediately following one of the first skirmishes of the British Expeditionary Force near the city of Mons on 22-23 August 1914. I’ve not had the chance to read Machen’s story, but there is the story of his story, which proves to be even more interesting.

Britain had entered the war thinking the defeat of Germany would be accomplished in short order. But the Battle of Mons brought them up short and forced a reassessment. Machen had written a work of fiction for the Evening News. Published without notice that it was fiction, Machen’s story was taken for truth and spread widely, despite his efforts to correct the misunderstanding. The legend he had inadvertently set in motion was this: That the qualified British victory at Mons had occurred only through the invocation of Saint George, who came to Britain’s rescue with a row of phantom archers from the Battle of Agincourt who tipped the balance in Britain’s favor.

Arthur Machen accidentally achieved what I have always hoped for my own vision of Agincourt, Iowa. Perhaps it may yet happen.

Then, again, perhaps not.

 

Arden Burdock [active 1950s]

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[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]

BURDOCK, Arden [dates not known]

Still Life

c1950

oil on cardboard / 26 inches x 20 inches

The spirit of mid-century Modernism is underrepresented in the Community Collection. But what might account for this?

First, the majority of pieces have hung on the walls of our homes, businesses, and institutions; they represent a cross section of “taste” through the community’s history. But there is little correlation among a) the date of a work, b) the date of its acquisition by a local owner, and c) the date of its arrival in the Community Collection. Compound these factors with the variety of sources for the artworks themselves—pieces got during travel; as gifts (for weddings, anniversaries, etc.) or inheritance; from local sources or galleries in Chicago, Des Moines, Omaha—and few patterns emerge. A complete history may never be written.

Arden Burdock’s “Still Life” is one of very few mid-century pieces and, happily, it is a good one. Secondary colors prevail (pastel green, mauve and orange) over primaries, and those are also misty and muted. And the composition, though asymmetrical and angular, is also tempered with gentle curves. The boldest textures are reserved for veins on the philodendron leaves. And the whole is suffused with the hazy light of a late summer afternoon. Burdock was a regional artist, a native of Storm Lake, who attended Northwest Iowa Normal and took instruction from Karl Wasserman during the 1940s. She might have had a career in art but chose instead to pursue her father’s career in optometry.

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].

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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.

MCCT

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.