New Furniture & the Family Art History

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

(Originally written the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I just delayed editing and posting…)

We trimmed the tree this evening — Christin, the cat, and I. Which put a punctuation mark on the end of the Thanksgiving season 2012.

It’s the first Thanksgiving I’ve actually spent in New York since I moved here. Every other year I’ve always taken the bus out to my grandmother’s place in Northampton, PA to keep her company. We would usually hang out, chat about things (politics seems to be a favorite), and crash the neighbor’s Thanksgiving feast. A good time, but also a little isolating. Christin had her family and other folks over for Thanksgiving several years ago, but I felt obligated to be in Pennsylvania, so I had to miss the feast (although I did get to witness the aftermath, coming back that Friday).

We’ve got this new place, though, now. It’s a bit more comfortable. Has a bit more space. So Christin and I are, for the first time, actually fairly excited to stick around here for the holidays for the first time. (I also go out to Pennsylvania every year for Christmas.) The summer and fall have also just been a busy mess for us. On top of all of the effort we put into finding and moving into the new place, we also had the European travels, cat-health-related chaos, my weird little health scare — and then just the usual tough work schedules, teaching, etc. The idea of adding a bunch of travel into the mix kind of makes me want to pull my hair out at the moment. Or, at least, the idea of adding a bunch of travel on the same days everyone else in the country has travel plans. So. We’re sticking here.

But. I can’t leave Grandma to the wolves, so Christin and I took a trip out there last weekend. Now, my Grandmother is a sweet old woman. I’ve written about her before on the blog. She’s 95. Pennsylvanian German. Spent her career teaching kindergarten. And just comes out of a very different world than we’re used to today. She’s always lived in Northampton, a tiny town in the hills just outside of Allentown. But which also happens to be a stone’s throw from New York, Philly, and to a lesser extent Washington, DC. Both isolated and a little off-the-map, but also surprisingly well connected to the world. Isolated enough that it’s just a little tough finding time to make the two-hour bus trek out there, especially for Christin, who is just as busy as I am but doesn’t have quite the direct family connection. Unless. There’s a good reason.

So we’ve moved into this new apartment. It’s well larger than the old place. So we’re on a bit of a furniture quest. And we’re also feeling a little more financially together, so we’re getting less and less interested in cheap options like Ikea. We’d like stuff we can keep.

So. This fact collided quite conveniently with the fact that my Grandmother is constantly pushing me to take whatever I want from her home if I need it. Furniture, housewares, art, food, etc. I’m the only child of my Grandmother’s only child, so there’s no competition and no one to really ask except my Mom, who has already taken all she needs for both homes my folks live in (Austin, TX and Elliston, NL). The main issue: Grandma’s stuff doesn’t really match what we’re after as far as furniture. It’s kind of mostly from the 70s and 80s, stuff that you’d kind of typically think of older people during that tie owning. A little rustic. Oddly-colored. Weird patterns. Christin’s been kind of moving towards a mid-century modern aesthetic, over here, anyway. And it’s a little off-putting for *me* to think of dismantling anything in this home. For one thing, so much in my Grandmother’s house has just Always Been Like That as far as I’m concerned. Every corner of the place has memories packed into it from when I was five, thirteen, nineteen, twenty-three, thirty, etc. The idea of making any major changes is kind of shocking, like I might accidentally shatter the structure upon which these memories have been hung.

But. It turns out that Grandmother did finally have something of interest to Christin. My Grandfather and her had a kind of artists’ studio in their basement. Art runs deep in the family and my Grandfather taught high school art for many decades and both of my Grandparents ran a pottery business, as well, in the late 40s and 50s. (I don’t know the full story on this.) So there’s family art all over the place. And this basement area was the workshop. So unlike the rest of the house — very traditional, old-fashioned, etc — the basement kind of feels like some hip little zone from the 50s. Functionalist, mid-century modern furniture (including several homemade pieces). Easels. Desks. Art supplies and art books everywhere. Bright fluorescent lighting that seemed so stark and cool when I was younger. An old TV (at least, there always was back in the day — I think it’s gone, now). Just one of those places where paint has already kind of been lightly splattered on everything, so you feel comfortable being there, potentially making a mess of your own. Some of my very strong memories of being at the home with my Grandparents come from being down there — I used to love it as a kid exactly because of this kind of out-of-the-way clubhouse feel. I could go down and draw with my markers or paint or whatever and just do my thing. Again, I’m an only child, so that kind of semi-isolated play space where I can just explore alone is very important to my psyche. (Still is.) And that’s also where my Grandfather would on occasion give me art lessons. I remember vividly doing watercolors with him when I was quite young and in my early teens doing some sketching exercising and finally sort of “graduating” up to oil paints. (It still pains me a bit that I put up one oil painting I did down there — a kind of boxy, geometric, abstract face-thing that I remember quite liking — that I hung this painting on the wall at my undergrad co-op, the House of Commons, and just simply forgot to retrieve it during the tumult of graduating and moving out. Maybe someone grabbed it and it’s still hanging somewhere that know one knows where it came from. Maybe it wound up in the trash. But it’s one of those things where, wow, one time starts chugging along and people start passing along you just wish you still had. Can’t keep all things, though, and it’s the memory more than the object itself that’s important, I suppose.) Anyway: Lots of memories packed down there. The first computer I owned, a Colecovision ADAM, also wound up down there when I graduated up to a Mac Classic sometime during junior high school. I used to spend a considerable amount of time clickety-clacking away at the old thing until it finally gave up the ghost sometime after I entered undergad.

Anyway. Let’s rewind back to “mid-century modern furniture.” When Christin heard about this stuff from my mom, suddenly we had a very good reason to rent a U-Haul and go spend the weekend with Grandma. We love Grandma, but the fact of the matter is, killing two birds with one stone is always preferable to killing just one bird with one stone — especially if one of those birds is shaped like helping furnish the new apartment and the other bird has the turnkey-like shape of visiting Grandma around Thanksgiving. So, yes. U-Haul rented. Weekend with Grandma. And, in the end, two small 50s era couches are now sitting beside me as I type this (right around the Christmas tree that we installed yesterday and trimmed today). How to describe them? Angular. Two seats wide (love-seats, although I’m hesitant to call them that because they’re much more functional like they wouldn’t feel out of place in the offices of Stering Cooper). Thin frame, painted black. Thinnish square cushions that my Grandmother sewed simple red plaid fabric over sometime in the 70s (which Christin hates but other people, including myself, seem kind of like). Nice. A little flimsy — I’m staying off of them until we have a chance to secure them and make sure they’re strong — but basically in good shape. The cat loves them.

Christin doesn’t visit Pennsylvania with me very often, so Grandma also enjoys stocking her up on family lore and just Tales of the Pennsylvania Dutch while we’re out there. It’s kind of funny: I feel I’ve heard these stories so often that they’re background noise to me, almost. To the piont where I actually know the stories much less well than I *think* I do, simply because I kind of tune them out a little bit or we just don’t talk about them at all anymore, they’re such old news. So it’s nice to have Christin there to hear things for the first time.

This visit we got the art history of the family. Which, like I said, is something I’m kind of loosely aware of but the information’s kind of stale in my mind. Last Saturday evening Chrstin and I got tour of my Grandmother’s art archives. Lots of paintings in the basement. Many by my Grandfather (including a very large mosiac of a small town city block which, as I understand it, had been hanging at the local high school for decades with the agreement that upon my Grandfather’s death it would be returned to the family), but also quite a few nice oilpaintings of landscapes by my Grandmother than were very accomplished. It was a nice reminder that this woman, who has been Very Old for most of the time I’ve known her — and the entirety of the time I’ve known her while I’ve been an adult, that this woman was my age at one point. Had a career. A talent with art and a desire to use that talent. It’s interesting to be reminded of those echos in myself, especially from people who didn’t directly raise me (although I did see them an awful lot — see above: Only child of an only child). Christin were also struck by a couple of the reverse-paintings my Grandfather had done (most of their art dates from the 50s and 60s). I’m not exactly sure of the process, but as I understand it, one paints the “reverse” of a black-and-white image with wax or something and then paints over the entire canvas with black paint. Then, one peels away the wax and the black paint only remains where there hadn’t been any way. The result is kind of a woodcut print-like feel, but not quite as rough and angular — more flowing and organic like a painting. Anyway — we liked these and we asked if we could take these for the apartment and we did.

A quick aside about my Grandfather’s art style. And maybe this is an example of that part of Pennsylvania both feeling out-of-the-way and globally connected. Okay. So my information is wildly incomplete, but my understanding is that my Grandfather holds a BA and Master’s in art. First person in his family to attend college. But well-studied. In 2003 when I went to Berlin and stayed with Brenna, we wound up going to an exhibition about “Die Brücke,” an art movement in just-barely-pre-WWI Germany. And my first though was, Holy shit — this stuff looks like the style of art my Grandfather made. Bold colors. Impressionistic, but on the angular and abstract side of the spectrum. Especially the landscapes (I don’t think my Grandfather did that many paintings of people, if I recall). My Grandfather’s stuff wasn’t exactly like that movement. It tended to be much less visually shrill to my eyes and also, like I said, less interested in people. And, ultimately, he worked in all sorts of different styles.

Now, I have no idea if there’s an actual connection or what. But. He was born in 1913. So studied in college around the early-mid 30s. Just enough time for movements like that to have grown and left Germany and made their way to exibitions in the States (in nearby New York, for example). I don’t know if he had any awareness of that movement, but I think it’s the first time I’d considered his works — which always seemed old and distant to my child’s eyes — as something done related to an at-the-time contemporary movement, something new that he was seeing that he wanted to emulate. His works don’t resemble much at all the much more folksy PA Dutch works that my great-grandmother and *her* mother did that still exist in our various family homes. Those tend to be needlepoint scenes of farms and covered bridges and quilts. But they got informed from somewhere. And it’s interesting to think of him getting these signals from these contemporary art scenes in Europe and trying to participate in what he saw. A little hard for me to articulate, here, but that style of painting (or, more broadly, “visual communication”) was quite cutting-edge and boundary-busting at the time, I imagine. And it’s maybe a little hard for people of my generation to get particularly excited about paint on canvas when we live in a world of art and creativity that’s being violently pushed along by several related technological revolutions sort of happening at once. But that feeling of frission he felt might not’ve been dissimilar to how I felt getting into electronic music and experimental stuff in high school and college and feeling like it connected me to some bigger cultural movement that was afoot. Anyway, this is all hypothetical. Sadly, my Grandfather died about ten years ago — to early for me to have had these sorts of reflections.

Anyway. This is getting long.

My Grandmother also showed us her collection of pottery pieces from when she and her husband ran their pottery business (late 40s, 50s) — including a few plates with scribbly designs done by my four(-ish) year old mother. She also took Christin through some of the PA Dutch symbology on the plates. The PA Dutch make plates for births and marriages, and there are things like the three droplets (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), the wavy line (“life has its ups-and-downs”), and distelfink (a stylized finch representing happiness), etc. I like hearing about the Pennsylvania Dutch stuff, simply because I don’t otherwise feel particularly culturally interesting, so it’s kind of neat to have this connection to an odd little American sub-culture. (My Grandmother’s family has been living right in that area of Pennsylvania for something on the order of 400 years — the old family home is apparently on the National Register of Historic Places.) We took no pottery. I wanted to let my Mom take a look at everything first, and I felt too nervous about the chances of that stuff breaking.

Finally, quilts. I’ll be fast, here. Grandma took us through the quilt collection — all made by the family. Christin picked out a nice one made by my great-great-grandmother in what we’re ballparking to be the 1870s. It’s a traditional starburst pattern, done with small patterned pieces of cloth mostly of the pale yellow, orange, and blue colors. And, to my shock and amazement, the thing looks like it could be brand new. Very well-preserved.

I’m running out of steam, here. It’s been a long week and it’s about 1am. I could keep babbling on and on endlessly with various thoughts about this and that.

I have a pre-New Year’s resolution to blog weekly. We’ll see how that goes.