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Community Collecting 1.1B


More than once — what I mean to say is, more often than not — the on-line auction site that dare not speak its name has come to Agincourt’s aid: there is an astonishing variety of art there, and many of those pieces have suggested their own involvement with the Agincourt story; that is, they have told me why they want to be here.

It’s the nature of the Agincourt Project that the membrane between place-making and story-telling is both thin and porous in each direction; for me, at least, one has the ability to trigger the other. So while I’m browsing images on-line or scanning the offerings at auction sites, the gears engage, wheels turn, and I see the trajectory of a story — not the story; simply a story — inherent in the object that overfills my mind’s eye at that moment. It may be the seed of a story was quietly waiting a visual form, or just as likely that the image wants to speak and I have but to listen — though listening is an art I have yet to master.

Can it be that there are already one hundred and ninety blog entries in the “Landscapes & Livestock” category? I’m shocked! Because that means there are at least that number of works in the Community Collection, and when the project is complete I’ll have no place to store them. It also complicates finding an introductory example of how the process works. Scanning their titles, I wonder if Jerome Atherholt’s painting “Mrs Schoenfeld’s Cat” could be a way in.

Agnes Schoenfeld had become part of the story in another context: a story of journalist Howard Tabor’s exploratory walk through the city in 2006, the walk that resulted in the first of his Sesqui-centennial Series articles. Agnes Schoenfeld owned a cat named Clara, who became that character.

Clara made a habit of appearing from nowhere at just the right moment to avert disaster: darting from beneath a hedge, for instance, at the exact moment someone distracted by her sudden appearance hesitated stepping into the path of an absent-minded motorist. Of course neither Mrs Schoenfeld nor Clara’s benefactors were any the wiser for their good fortune. Fate often works that way.

Howard’s story predated the encounter with this painting by at least a few years. But Clara (named for my grandmother, if you must know) needed another opportunity to appear in the evolving narrative. Then, one day while reviewing some art images, I happened upon this intriguing work by Maryland artist Jerome Atherholt (who either did not receive my emails of inquiry or chose not to reply). All that action in the painting’s front picture plane might distract you from seeing the cat at the stair landing on the far right. Mr Atherholt may not have known that animal personally, but I knew in an instant it was Clara and that she had stopped half-way down the stairs to watch the faeries in the darkened room below. You and I can’t see them, of course, but animals sensitive to the spirit world know them well. Clara hasn’t simply paused on her way down; she’s watching them intently. Atherholt’s painting, by the way, did not have a title when I acquired it, but Clara solved that necessity.

This is an example of character finding form.

A WORD ABOUT ART ENTRIES. Blog entries for art usually treat a single work, and its information evolved a characteristic form: 1) ARTIST, last name first, and dates, if known; some artists are fictional; 2) TITLE OF WORK, in quotation marks if known,otherwise without quotes if provided by me; 3) DATE, as specific as possible; 4) MEDIUM and SIZE, height preceding width, in inches.

The narrative which follows is a blend of truth and fiction; we’re leaving any conclusions to you. Artist bio is reasonably accurate and drawn from galleries and other on-line sources — except, of course, for those handful of artists who are also fictional. The PROVENANCE, however (the story of how the work came to become part of the collection) is entirely fiction. But those associations often reinforce a story line, add intent to the acquisition, and generally contribute texture.

Now let me offer its opposite, a form finding its character.

Occasionally the challenge has been incorporating a piece that registered fairly high on the weird-o-meter, such as this unidentified, untitled painting of a ritual that is hard to comprehend, let alone explain. There is something creepy going on here and, frankly, I like it. Most of the characters are dressed like Pilgrims, but I’m hard-pressed to imagine a group of our Founding Fathers carting a cadaver around by moonlight. The resulting story ignited a host of interrelated characters:

  • The ritual-in-progress seemed more like a play than real life. Why not relate it to the 250th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693.
  • But a theatrical treatment of that blotch on American history would make a great deal more sense if related to current events. Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” was a metaphor for the Army-McCarthy hearings of the 1950. Why not another?
  • Agincourt already had a character with multiple axes to grind, a Leftist labor leader from the 1920s named E. G. Fromm (that’s Evelyn Grandbois) and her son by an unspecified father, Abel Kane. Could she have begun to write a play linking the present and past?
  • Let’s allow this painting to be a sketch for the conclusion of Act 1 of Fromm’s “Night Court“, a work she never finished due to illness. But which the founder of Agincourt’s community theatre Seamus Tierney had hoped to complete and produce toward the end of the 1950s. E. G. Fromm is based on no one in particular, but Tierney is a thinly veiled reference to our friend James O’Rourke, who would have signed on to all this in a minute.

This beautiful painting, probably a sketch for a larger more detailed work, was simply too fine to pass up. It also arrived with title: “Diana at Work“. Artist Seymour Remenick had studied at two schools before his arrival at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and he might have painted this undated work at any one of them; I’ve arbitrarily dated it in the 1950s. We can assume that Diana knew him as either a student or fellow artist.

[Incidentally, the PAFA plays a disproportionate part in the Community Collection. I can’t say why; it just does.]

Since Remenick [a real person, by the way] would have had no direct connection with Iowa, it was reasonable to assume Diana was the link; that this was a painting of her as a student; and that she was the connection to Agincourt. Balancing the various races and ethnicities of Greater Agincourt has concerned me (as a White man of Northern European origin), so I have often taken the opportunity to broaden that mix. The Village of Grou, eight miles or so northeast of Agincourt, was a hamlet settled by the Dutch [precedent having already been established at other points in Iowa] and it seemed reasonable to link her with that community.

Surnames are always interesting, often referencing geographic origins or occupations. “Baker” is obvious, while “Cooper” only suggests that one of your ancestors made barrels. Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch physicist, mathematician, and inventor in his own right, came to mind, so Diana Huygens she would be, and a little more investigation of given names gave her parents the very Dutch identities of Gerrit and Truus. OK, OK, those familiar with Dutch Modernism may recognize those as having been appropriated from architect-furniture maker Gerrit Rietveld and his client Truus Schröder-Schräder.

All of this opens several interesting avenues for embellishing the story: Who were the Huygens family and how was their daughter enabled to study art at such a prestigious academy? How would a female art graduate in the late ’50s and early ’60s have made her way in the world. And, frankly, what was the state of art education as traditional ways and wherefores made space for a more modern approach to art education and art itself. So, in this case, a work of art yielded a character and she has yet to find a well-defined place in the Agincourt firmament.

A great many works have come to the collection in ways that need little justification: gifts for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries; purchases during travel; in at least one case, an exchange of art between artist-friends. And, one imagines, there are at lest as many reasons for their donation: vanity and ego; several are memorials; and probably more than a few came from inheritance (just because my parents liked this piece of shit doesn’t mean I have to live with it!). Tastes change but that doesn’t necessarily mean the art is inferior. “Taste” varies and shifts from generation to generation.

At age seventy-four, it may be optimistic to have long-term goals. But if I’m allowed that luxury, one of mine is a comprehensive catalogue of the Community Collection for my own vanity, if nothing else. After all, these have been collected by me, rather than through the fiction outlined in Ellen Weise’s history Landscapes & Livestock: a brief history of the Community Collection.

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