Julian Gordon Mitchell [born 1968]

MITCHELL, Julian Gordon (born 1968)


circa 2000

oil on canvas panel / 20 inches by 16 inches

Through no direct intent, British artist Julian Gordon Mitchell has become the most represented artist in the collection. Five of his Surrealist paintings have come from three different donors—entirely coincidental.

Some of Mitchell’s works are more Impressionist in technique; others focus on the objects in the composition and their often complex contradiction. In this untitled work, the viewer is left to sort out what the elements are, how they relate, and, ultimately, what they are intended to do—if anything. Non sequitur.

Whether to Wither or Bloom

“The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”
― H.L. Mencken

Consider the scarab.

Two weeks from tomorrow, I shall enter a classroom, introduce myself and suggest that our task for the following sixteen weeks will be gaining some appreciation for architectural history. I have done this forty-seven times already but fear that I can’t do it again with any conviction whatsoever. To imagine we can deal other than superficially with architecture from prehistory through the Middle Ages in that short time is folly; I once thought it possible, but no more.

Texts have come and gone; I must have used eight or ten so far. This semester we’re using one by Richard Ingersoll. [If it were Robert Ingersoll, I might feel more confidence, but don’t ask why.] With the author’s guidance, we’ll use nine or ten chapters to investigate chronologically the standard sequence of styles in the Western Tradition—with occasional asides (parenthetical insertions) of comparative matter from other non-Western cultures. The problem may be that I’m no longer interested in the canon of orthodoxy; heresy is my preferred point of view these days.

Frankly, I’m having difficulty building any enthusiasm whatsoever for tracking the evolution of Gothic cathedrals, from their Romanesque origins to, say, Beauvais or Köln. I can and will do it but I’d really rather not. It would be far more beneficial (and, probably, far more fun) to analogize the hierarchy of Gothic rib types to those rudimentary names we give two-bys in Western Platform framing: it’s the inclination of our species to organize things into ranked systems that students should appreciate, because learning whether a lierne fits into a tierceron or vice versa will serve them very little beyond the first exam. Or perhaps we should explore the philosophical question of why Mies van der Rohe is any more “logical” than Bruce Goff.

FaceBook reminded me of something I’d written a few years ago about how easily I can be distracted by shiny things in my peripheral vision. Searching for some arcane bit of information the other day—a google image search for what I cannot now recall—I stumbled almost literally upon an image of the Scarab Club in Detroit, Michigan, a 1928 Arts & Crafts building by architect Lancelot Sukert. Who the hell was Lancelot Sukert and why should I not invest several hours answering that possibly pointless question?

Quite aside from a mysterious architect—mysterious solely because I am ignorant and do not wish to be—it also raises other interesting issues, like Detroit’s economy which encouraged such architectural flights of fancy a hundred years ago and its “fall from grace” that cannot provide an economical water supply to all its residents today; or how this inner-city neighborhood has changed during the club’s ninety years. Or how Mary Chase Perry Stratton’s Pewabic Potery plays into the Scarab story. Or why we can no longer afford brickwork like this. Or, most importantly, why I would much prefer to devote an entire class period to exploring those and many other questions of little if any consequence with a room full of people who may need their curiosity stoked. Life is too short not to follow your instincts and mine is getting shorter each day.

In Agincourt, I’d been looking for masonry precedent that would help me complete Asbury United Methodist church, a 1920 building influenced by Dutch Modernism (though God knows by what mechanism), and I’d found a German example from about 1925 by an architect who, it turned out, had actually interviewed to become Hitler’s architect but failed the entrance exam. Imagine what you’d have to do to achieve that dubious historical status. When here it was all the time, at 217 Farnsworth Street, Detroit, MI 48202. Dutch Modernism or German Expressionism (a la Chile Haus in Hamburg by Fritz Höger) are the places I needed to explore but who has time in a sixteen-week ARCH 321 chronology of Western architecture to consider them, when I barely have time to mention wattle and daub.

There are those who have implied, indirectly, that I’ve misspent my time here on Planet Earth. Properly directed, I could have achieved Full Professorship twenty years ago and, just maybe, be more than an academic hanger-on lurking in a place I clearly do not belong. And don’t try to contradict me, because I know the truth of it.

So there’ll be a third and very likely final Agincourt exhibit in October, to which you are all invited, though I can’t say what precisely there will be on the walls to make the trip worthwhile. Maybe, just maybe, there will be an acknowledgment that Lancelot Sukert drove through town on his way to Omaha, stopped for pie and coffee at the Bon Ton, and sketched something on a napkin that I retrieved from the trash.

“One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”
― James Joyce, Dubliners

“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”
― C.S. Lewis

“You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories.”
― Garrison Keillor, Pontoon

Thom O’Connor [born 1937]

© Thom O’Connor

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

O’CONNOR, Thom (American / born 1937)

“Tranquility (1)” from Wizards & Cabalists & Mystics & Magicians, a portfolio of ten etchings on Arches paper, with frontispiece, three text pages, colophon / edition of 200


etching on paper / 4 7/16 inches x 4 13/16 inches (image)

Printmaker Thom O’Connor was born in Detroit but has invested much of his productive life in Albany, NY. We are fortunate to have two individual prints in the collection, as well as this folio of ten. All are representative of his work in the 1960s, which tend to have been mystical portraits (in this case, quite literally) etched at an intimate scale. They make an interesting comparison with the similar etchings of artist Robert Marx.

The Stationary Traveler

Jamiroquai and Dune¹

Cecil Elliott, long-time chair of my department and a friend of this project despite having died three years before its beginning, often spoke of his ideal retirement habitat: as the proprietor of a hybrid bar, bookstore, and travel agency. Well, we have little need for travel agencies these days and the on-line site that dare not speak its name has virtually eliminated independent neighborhood bookstores, so if he were alive today, Cecil would be operating one of the world’s oddest drinking establishments. And that would be me on the second stool from the end.

He possessed a peculiar sort of mind, the kind that could satisfy an appetite merely reading a recipe in a cookbook or epicurean magazine. From our conversations, I know that he could also travel without moving, through evocative writing by the likes of Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, or Jan Morris. I recall one of our earliest conversations; a discussion of London — a passion we shared — and an obscure restaurant near the V&A: Daquise, a Polish restaurant with a French name. Just talking about it transported each of us back to that place and to a meal savored a second time. No thanks to British band Jamiroquai or the “Holtzman Effect” of folding space in Frank Herbert’s Dune, Cecil and I both enjoyed the benefits of traveling without moving.

I can visit Agincourt, despite its non-existence, as often and whenever I like: during those 3:00 a.m. epiphanies that punctuate my dreams, or the tedium of an especially pointless meeting. [Dr Bob has warned about packing for the move, however, and calling United Van Lines.] I wrote the death notice and obit for Maud (Mrs B. F.) Adams during one of those impromptu transmigrations. And I could “see” The Obelisk on axis with one of the entries to Asbury Methodist Church as I designed the building and imagined its context. Portions of the city are that vivid. Some are sketchy at best; others terra incognita.

All of this is overture to a current enterprise: writing about Mesopotamia, that flood-prone neighborhood in Agincourt’s southwest quadrant which seems precisely the kind of place my friend Howard would have known as a boy. Now, if my writing were only half as good as Jan Morris, I could take you with me.

¹ Sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it.

Karl Schmidt [1890–1962]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

SCHMIDT, Karl (American / 1890-1962)

“In Brittany”


charcoal, ink and wash drawing with varnish / 6 3/4 inches by 5 5/8 inches (image)

Karl Schmidt was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on 11 January 1890 and began drawing and painting when quite young.  After graduating from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he traveled to England where he studied art and painted land- and seascapes of Cornwall and the coast of Brittany. While in England he probably came under the influence of the arts and crafts painter Frank Brangwyn and, in turn, Japanese art through Brangwyn’s association with Yoshijiro Urushibara.

Schmidt returned to the US and was a resident of Boston and Worcester until 1915 when he moved to Santa Barbara, California where he was associated with the group of painters who worked in California artist Alexander Harmer’s mission-style studio. In California, Schmidt expanded a decorative painting style in which he abstracted landscape forms, rendering them as flat planes of color thoughtfully arranged within his compositions. His approach suggests the influence of the art of Arthur Wesley Dow, whose method was disseminated by the many Dow students who settled in the Los Angeles area in the early twentieth century. In 1918 he joined the Navy and served in the Bureau of Aeronautics. He later pioneered construction of lighter-than-air craft and rose to the rank of commander.

Karl Schmidt died in Los Gatos, near San Jose, California on Sept. 26, 1962.

Julian Gordon Mitchell [born 1968]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

MITCHELL, Julian Gordon (born 1968)

“Dinner with Dennis”

date unknown

oil on canvas panel / 24 inches by 18 inches

“There is another world, but it is in this one.” ― Paul Éluard

A fourth surrealist work by Julian Gordon Mitchell makes him the best represented artist in the collection—though without intention. One British gallery has offered the most succinct statement of the artist’s work: “Julian Gordon Mitchell is an English artist who uses painting as a window into an imaginary, dreamlike world. His work is sometimes macabre, often unsettling and invariably crafted with obsessive care. His unique pictures make conscious references to the European canon of painting as well as metaphysical and surreal art.”

Great Aunt Hester’s beach house at Mantoloking

The Shingle Style Today: Or the Historian’s Revenge

In the spring of 1971 I was still a grad student at Columbia University in NYC, living at 1419 John Jay Hall—in a 1917 building with vintage elevators only one of which worked at any one time. There were days that neither was in service and you packed carefully for the day, praying that seven or eight flights down you didn’t realize something left behind; in that case I usually continued down and bought a new one.

Across the hall from my room were two interesting guys. One was totally blind and just as completely obnoxious. He had a pneumatic typewriter that embossed the paper with a braille pattern. That alone was a revelation; the annoying thing was his choice to rev that baby up at 3:00 a.m., the time of day being of little concern to him. Suffice to say, it made a hellacious racket. One day when the elevators were out of commission, I heard his cane tap-tapping up the stairs as I was on the way down. Whereupon I briefly entertained this thought: If I pushed that prick over the rail, no one would ever know. It was a good feeling.

The other grad student across the hall was John Carrigan, an affable philosophy major who just happened to own a car, which, on Manhattan Island, was no small resource. John’s family owned a vacation house in Greenport, the end of the Long Island railroad on the island’s north prong and one weekend I was his guest for some much needed R&R. I mention this because it and one other vacation “cabin” are my only experience with that sort of lifestyle (a word I use with caution). So, when writing about Anson Tennant’s 1912 vacation at Mantoloking, I have to reach back to those three days.

With a little photo-shopping, this borrowed image will do nicely for Hester Tennant Farnham’s beach house at Mantoloking, site of a 1912 summer visit by the Iowa branch of the family. The background is surely flat enough for the coastal sand bar that accommodates Mantoloking and string of other summer hamlets along the Jersey Shore, but I think it needs better entourage as well as some sand. For late-19th century “Shingle Style” picturesqueness, however, this is hard to beat.

Still working on Mrs Farnham’s place in the Tennant family tree.