Sunday, March 26, 2017

My favorite things 13

My father was only one generation off the farm, and there was no art in his family tree, but some mysterious impulse made him into an art lover.  In his lifetime he must have bought hundreds of paintings, prints and sculptures, and he raised us kids to be both art lovers and art collectors.  I think the first original work of art he ever owned was this very big (48 inches wide plus frame) painting of Saginaw, Michigan, where Dad grew up and my sister and I were born.

It shows a view of the West Side of Saginaw, looking across the Saginaw River from the park on Ojibway Island where we used to go to play.  The tower in the center of the picture is the Saginaw County Court House, three blocks down from the house where my grandmother lived.  The steeple towards the right of the picture is Holy Cross Lutheran Church, where my parents were married and my sister and I were baptized.  The big building whose black roof occupies most of the skyline in the left-hand part of the picture used to be Ippel's department store, upstairs of which my grandmother lived for decades after she had to leave the house on Fayette Street (the Ippel's building burned down many years after she died).

Dad had been involved with a local art organization and when they decided to hold a contest, sometime around 1950, he was the judge.  His payment was the winning painting (although maybe I have that wrong, and he didn't like the winning painting so he got the second place...).  In any case, this picture hung over his desk in six different houses until he downsized both the picture and the desk, both of which came to me, the picture fitting perfectly on top of the desk, shrinkwrapped together in a truck.

I don't have a lot of nostalgia for Saginaw; we moved away when I was 6 and after my grandmother died there wasn't much reason to go back.  But I love the painting, because it was the start of something extremely important in our family: a love of art that has burned bright for decades and continues to illuminate our lives.

The artist is W. C. Brethauer, whom I cannot find any trace of on Google.  I hope that he was proud to get the purchase prize in the local art contest.  I wish that he knew how much we all have loved that painting for almost three-quarters of a century and with any luck will continue to do so for a long time.

P.S.  I wrote earlier this week about encountering my father's name in a book, and realize that I should have included a link for those couple of readers who might be interested in his career in typography.  For Jan Q and others, here's his obit from the New York Times.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A surprise in a book

I've been reading a fascinating book called "The Newspaper in Art," which traces the long history of artists using it either as subject matter or as raw material.  Although artists were incorporating images of "news" publications as early as the 16th century, the Impressionists were the ones who really went to town, painting all kinds of people reading papers in their daily life.

Paul Cezanne, The Artist's Father, 1866 

Mary Cassatt, The Artist's Mother, 1878

The Cubists also loved newspapers, but they cut them up and pasted the pieces into their paintings as a clever way to achieve double meaning.  The paper could represent a shape, and at the same time the newspaper story could reference an idea or event.

Pablo Picasso, Guitar and Wine Glass, 1912

I had a great time reading the book, which consisted of three separate sections, each written by a different commentator.  One of the writers decided to wind up his section with a kind of miscellaneous discussion of how modern newspapers have been affected by art, which I thought was a kind of lame non sequitur that didn't really hold water, but I was getting to the end so I dutifully read it anyway....

... and was surprised to find the guy talking about my father!

I'm not sure that any other reader of this book found much of interest in this paragraph -- it doesn't really have much to do with fine art -- but I liked it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Dissed again in the news

Found in the New York Times last week, in a story aboutf the alternative minimum tax:

"In a tax system with enough loopholes to fill a macramé tapestry, the idea was......."

I guess "tapestry" has become an all-purpose word for something made out of fiber that hangs on a wall (and to be fair, some people who make quilts, who should know better, use "tapestry" as a substitute for the Q word).  But macrame is not tapestry, and it chops me to see the technical terms of my field continually misused by people who search for a clever simile without knowing what they're really talking about.

I was further amused at the oh-so-correct use of the accent in macrame.  When we were all doing macrame, back in the day, none of us used an accent, nor do we today.  So that kind of adds insult to injury -- not only do you misuse our words, you misspell them, in the most la-di-da way.  Kind of like the grand lady slumming in a soul food restaurant who orders chitterlings.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

My favorite things 12

Several years ago my son gave me this little gizmo as a Mother's Day present.  It has a heavy base with a non-skid gripper surface on the bottom and two arms fitted with alligator clips that bend every which way.  You use it to hold onto whatever needs holding onto -- here it's holding the end of a braided cord that I'm making out of selvages.

I've used it to hold my knotted constructions, turning it as needed to work from the back as well as the front.  I've used it to hold my Christmas ornaments while I zapped them with a heat gun (just had to remember not to touch the metal for a few minutes until it cooled down).

I've used it to hold up directions or other notes in front of my workspace and to hold the middle of a twisted cord that I needed to turn back on itself.  I can't remember what all else; my little holder lives on my worktable and gets called into service all the time.  It's surprising how many projects benefit from a third (and fourth) hand!

The little magnifying glass can be positioned between you and your work, but I've never needed it; miraculously the reading lenses of my bifocals allow me perfect focus of my sewing machine needle, my worktable, and all the places I hold my handwork.  I'm blessed to be able to thread needles, rip seams and take really tiny stitches without outside assistance.  So I have made a little felt hood for the magnifier, which serves as a pincushion and needleholder, but took it off for this photo.

My son found the gizmo at Radio Shack, it says on the base, so apparently its original use was to hold electrical components while you welded them together (at least that's what we did when I took electronics back in the olden days of tubes).  I'm told that the same kind of device is essential equipment for fly-tying, if you're into that, so maybe you could get one at the Bass Pro Shop, Radio Shack having demised.

It's one of those tools that you have no idea you need until it appears in your workspace, and then you wonder how you could ever live without it.

Friday, March 17, 2017

A week on retreat -- and not much to show for it

I got home yesterday from a week at our twice-yearly retreat, just 25 miles down the road but so far away in mental distance.  It doesn't seem that I accomplished very much at all -- mainly I read through a huge pile of newspapers, cut out this many little clippings for my daily art and other found-poetry projects

and put a foot-high stack of papers into the recycling bin. But yes, it takes three full days to accomplish that much, and I didn't even get the little clippings sorted and filed.  And I brought home another stack of papers that still haven't gotten read.

I did come across interesting things in the pile that I should have noticed months ago.  Here's one that made me crabby.

It's from an art review in the New York Times of a show by Nari Ward, a sculptor who immigrated to New York from Jamaica and who has worked extensively with themes of African culture coming to the new world.  The photo shows an installation of bricks covered with painted copper.

photo from New York Times

The reviewer comments, "African-American history is embedded everywhere. The colored patterns in the floor installation are derived from 19th-century African-American quilts....  The quilt patterns derive from African textiles."

Well, I beg to differ.  Perhaps the artist was inspired by a Bear Paw or Shoo-fly quilt made by an African-American -- those traditional quilt designs were no doubt popular among quiltmakers of all ethnicities -- but those patterns did not derive from African textiles.

It's just another example of people who don't know much about quilts being glib -- and wrong.  (And on that same note, the other day I saw an announcement about some woman giving a speech about quilts used as code on the Underground Railroad....)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

My favorite things 11

In the olden days, of course, printers had to set all their type one letter at a time.  It took a while to do a book, because you wouldn't own enough type to set more than a couple of pages at a time (especially if the book was about St. Francis Xavier or explorers' expeditions or zebras -- think about it: a font of type included lots and lots of lower-case es but only a few xs and zs).  Even after the invention of the Linotype in 1884, which allowed printers to set a whole line of type in one chunk of metal, there was plenty of single-character type in use.

But the development of phototypesetting shortly after WW2 eventually made both the Linotype and the older single-character type obsolete.  Even the smallest printshop switched to photo type (often called "cold type") as soon as possible; it cost less and required way less tedious labor.  So in the 1970s and 80s the flea markets of America were flooded with old type, both wood and metal, as old-style printers got rid of their old-style type or went out of business.

My dad was a typographer and loved type in all its many forms, and had the prescience to realize that the old stuff was going to disappear.  He bought lots and lots of type, including some really huge letters that must have come from a printshop specializing in billboards.  He gave me these big wood characters in the early 70s and they have had a prominent place in all my living rooms ever since.

The ampersand is 21 inches tall; the K is 17 inches.

The wood is still smooth, with pretty sharp edges; you could print off it easily and probably get a good impression.  But it also has the fabulous patina of years and years of use.  The printing surfaces on both pieces are probably close to their original color, although you can tell that they have a lot of ink in their history.  But the recessed background areas, which weren't cleaned as carefully because they never touched the paper, are darker and stained, with their own non-shiny patina.

I own lots and lots of smaller wood type with similar characteristics, much of which I still use to print with.  But I'd give my left arm for more of these big guys.  I'm sure if I hunted on eBay or other specialty sites I could find some, but it would certainly cost 100 times what Dad paid for these.