With This Printing Press, I Thee Wed

Elspeth Pope's "wedding ring"
Elspeth Pope’s “wedding ring”

To say Dr. Elspeth Pope was a lover of letterpress would be an understatement. She was a book artist, a maker of printed cards, and a printer of broadsides, and used letterpress freely in all of these media. She named all of her dogs and cats after typefaces. When her future husband proposed to her, he gave her the option of an engagement ring, or a printing press. Ever the enthusiastic printmaker, Elspeth chose the press.

After meeting Dr. Melissa Hardie, who had founded an artistic residency in Great Britain, Elspeth created an American chapter. Elspeth’s Hypatia-in-the-Woods, located in Shelton, WA was a residency for women in the arts, that recognized women’s need to separate their artistic selves from the special and intense demands of their home lives, and gave them a space to focus on their work.

I think of her as the Florence Griswold of the West. Like Florence Griswold’s house in Old Lyme, CT, Elspeth’s residency attracted some famous names. One is Nikki McClure, who generously donated a lithographic plate from her residency to use in a recent event sponsored by Artist Trust. I was lucky enough to pull a print from Nikki’s plate on Elspeth’s “wedding ring” press.

Pulling prints is always exciting -that surprise of never quite knowing what you’re going to get – but it was extra exciting to be a part of this community, to feel on a tangible level the sensation of women, makers, and doers paying it forward for others. Even just for one night.

365 Days of Art: December 23 – Vincent Cuts Off Ear

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

December 23, 1888

After an argument with his housemate and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh cuts off at least part of his own ear.

Many details are missing or unclear, since Vincent himself has no memory of the incident.

We know that Gauguin and Vincent are housemates, and that Vincent has been dreaming of this artist residency for some time. These two strong personalities clash, and as they continue to fight, Vincent probably becomes distraught as he realizes Gauguin wants to leave. There is probably a final confrontation earlier in the day. That evening, van Gogh cuts his left ear with a razor, either removing the entire ear, or a good piece of it. Ear wounds are known to bleed heavily, and he begins losing a large amount of blood right away. He bandages the wound, wraps up the ear, and delivers it to a brothel where both he and Gauguin are clients. (The local newspaper reports that van Gogh has given the ear to a prostitute with an instruction to guard it carefully). He goes home, collapses from loss of blood, and is discovered the next morning by the police.

At the hospital, Vincent repeatedly asks for Gauguin, who never comes. In fact, they never see each other again. Gauguin notifies Vincent’s brother Theo, and tells one of the policeman investigating the case:

Be kind enough, Monsieur, to awaken this man with great care, and if he asks for me tell him I have left for Paris; the sight of me might prove fatal for him.”

Vincent is able to return to the Yellow House by the beginning of January, but suffers repeatedly from hallucinations all month long.

Fun Fact: Gauguin discusses the incident in his memoirs, though many historians find his account to exaggerate his own role in what contemporary doctors have called Vincent’s psychotic break. For example, Gauguin says that Vincent attacks him with a razor prior to cutting his ear, and that Vincent’s instructions ask for the ear to be delivered to Gauguin.

Governor’s Island, New Art Destination

Outdoor installation, hanging from trees on Governor's Island

Mia and I spent a day at Governor’s Island over the holiday weekend, and it was a treat. The island has gone from military installation to art destination in a few short years, and it’s a great place to relax, get away, and indulge in some art.

Let’s get this out of the way first–it’s incredibly easy to get there. The ferry leaves from Lower Manhattan next door to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal (also from 33rd Street and Brooklyn) and took exactly nine minutes from shore to shore. No joke, impatient New Yorkers. And once you arrive, it’s a delight for walkers and bikers because there are almost no vehicles (the occasional golf cart carrying Personnel from Somewhere doing Something excepted).

Everything looks like art from Governor's Island, even the industrial shipping containers

The island is made for strolling along fairly circuitous paths; there is no Manhattan-style grid. You can’t even see where you’re going, since the paths wind so much, and that lent some charm for us. There are picnic opportunities, a beach bar with sand and volleyball courts, and strolls along the waterfront. For art, there are wide-open spaces ripe with sculptural installations, like the current work by Mark di Suvero.

The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council uses studio space in one of the many former military buildings; artists can be found lingering outside doorways that lead to studios or pop-up galleries. Even though Manhattan is only nine minutes away, Governor’s Island has the feel of a remote artist’s residency. By that, I mean the chance for calm and reflection, away from the everyday experience. There is a gravitas to the stately buildings, and some of the more residential ones physically resemble the buildings at the Vermont Studio Center, with their front porches and low-key vibe.

Governor’s Island hosts artists’ sales, festivals like the NY Electronic Arts Festival and is worth checking out.

Bonus: the ferry is free!
 
 
 
 

The Florence Griswold Museum

Florence Griswold House, Image courtesy of Mia Grottola

What a delightful afternoon at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, CT.

I’ve been out of the CT loop for a while, but I was pleased to learn that the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company donated their excellent collection of 190 artworks to the Florence Griswold Museum in 2001. (I remember visiting the collection at the corporate offices in Hartford during college, and am glad to learn that they’ll be cared for and displayed in the museum context. While it was kind of fun to see art lining the corporate hallways, much of it was tucked away and unviewable in private offices, and the process of booking a viewing appointment to look at the collection was a bit tedious).

This donation created the need for a beautiful new wing, and expanded the holdings of the Florence Griswold Museum into CT and regional artists, not just former members of Miss Florence’s art colony.

A nice wing, and worth the trip, but the heart and soul of the Museum are the vestiges of the old artist colony that operated from 1899 to 1937. Plying one of the few trades available to respectable unmarried women, Florence Griswold opened her home as a boarding house, not expecting that it would come to gain a reputation as one of the preeminent art colonies in the country, and the home of American Impressionism. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.

You can tour Miss Florence’s house, as it’s been restored to its 1910 glory. There are pluses and minuses for this choice of date: it allows for electricity and running water (which were installed that year) but Miss Florence’s harp sits by the window, silent and stringless, because it suffered an injury prior to 1910 and was never restrung. A pity, and it hints at the financial prospects of an unmarried woman who was always “this close” to poverty. Indeed, when she died in 1937, her belongings were put out for auction on the front lawn in order to pay some debts.

Although tours of the new wing and the grounds are self-guided, we were led through the house by two lovely docents, Kay and Charlotte, whose knowledge of that time period, the artwork, and the players involved, runs deep.

Areas on view are the VIP guestroom, where Woodrow Wilson frequently stayed (his wife was part of the colony), Miss Florence’s bedroom, the parlor, the main hallway which still functions as a gallery, and the dining room.

There, the table is set, and you can imagine that this was once a boisterous room. The character is shaped especially by the painted panels on the doors and walls around the room. This was part of a beautification-slash-thank-you project that the artists undertook, and shows the range of their personal styles. The spirit of friendly competition is also evident: artists challenged each other to make “companion” panels, one matching another in style and subject matter, for example. Or my favorite story, the one where the artists all decided to turn around a panel which was painted by an artist who didn’t pay his bill. The panel not only faces the wall and is hidden to this day, but to add insult to injury, another artist was allowed to paint the back of the original work. This proof of how strongly the artists felt toward Miss Florence, and their protective feelings for her, was touching.

In the parlor, I learned about a game called Wiggles, which sounds something like Exquisite Corpse, but maybe even more fun. One artist begins (as in Exquisite Corpse) and draws a few lines, then passes it to the next player/artist. Unlike Exquisite Corpse, though, each artist gets to see what came before and embellish it, eventually creating a truly collaborative drawing. Here is an example credited to William Chadwick; you can see the hands of the different artists by the different line weights and types of pens.

The rooms upstairs are now gallery spaces and show works by such colonists as William Chadwick and Childe Hassam.

William Chadwick was my favorite and there are some gorgeous works there by him: one with a red couch (which can be seen downstairs though it has been reupholstered in keeping with the 1910 dateline) and another of a woman with teal wallpaper behind her head. He had a great, dramatic color sense.

When you walk around the grounds and riverfront, make sure to swing over to Chadwick’s studio, a little building on the grounds. While I was in there, I had dreams of my own rustic little [future] space, with a nice study easel, a long table for mixing paint, a couch for napping or socializing, a table for framing, a desk. Not fancy, but workable. That’s the life! Someday.

This was a great museum and all of the fun-loving videos and photos of the artists brought back memories of my residency at The Vermont Studio Center. It’s great that places like Miss Florence’s exist in the world.

Maura McGurk’s First Solo Show: Pride and Prejudice, An Exhibition on Gay Bullying

Maura McGurk’s first solo exhibition will feature paintings created in response to gay bullying.

McGurk began this body of work in fall of 2010, on the heels of several suicides by teenaged boys who had been bullied by classmates. These suicides were well-publicized due to their sheer number and proximity in time: five suicides in the month of September received national attention, though possibly up to ten were documented in the US that month.

McGurk was shocked and saddened by this news, particularly the story of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year old who killed himself after being secretly filmed during a date and subsequently outed by his college roommate.

“I couldn’t get him out of my head. Imagine, he had just begun his freshman year–he wasn’t even a month into college”, said McGurk.

Around this time, McGurk went to the Vermont Studio Center for a month-long residency, where she began working on paintings that expressed her remorse about Tyler.

“I began the first painting by stenciling alot of words–literally quoting events–because this story was so specific, and involved texts and tweets and name-calling. But as I delved deeper into the story, I began unleashing colors more than words, and using dripping, dangling shapes and unsettling colors like yellow-greens to show the heartbreak, rather than talk about it.”

As an abstract painter, McGurk was surprised to realize that human figures were emerging in these works, though not necessarily in a realistic style. Legs appear in two paintings–In Secret, where they are bent at a vulnerable angle, and Fragile, in which a pair of cartoonish, spindly legs parade on their own in a field of green paint. Another, more classically abstract painting, Encounter, calls up the human figure less directly by using pinks and flesh tones, and a ferocious pencil scribble to suggest limbs and bodies in motion.

McGurk acknowledges that such expressive bursts of drawing in many of the paintings came from a sense of urgency and upset over the suicides. “The drawing within the paintings was a way to let out the heartbreak I was feeling for these kids. Just a very immediate, reflexive kind of thing that came from not knowing what to do with this terrible sense of loss. Sadness for kids I didn’t even know. Most of the paintings are built up slowly and thoughtfully, layer by layer, but sometimes I was too upset to work slowly and then the pencil came out and dug in.” Indeed, some of the pencil marks are not drawn lines at all, but desperate and furious tracks carved again and again through the paint.

The public is invited to the opening reception of Pride and Prejudice, on February 22, 6:30 – 8:00 pm, at the Sapphire Lounge in New York City.

For related content, please also see:

Maura’s Lavender Menace Paintings, related to gay issues
Maura’s Sketchbook Project
Maura’s It Gets Better Project video

Meditation Update


Many of you followed my adventures in meditation while I was at the Vermont Studio Center–my first concerted attempt to unplug my brain.

I have to confess that even though I loved the Meditation Studio there, saw the benefits of meditating, agreed in principle with how it could be helpful (especially for artists), and borrowed a book from the meditation library…I have slipped since my return to NYC. Just a couple of vague attempts, and no real commitment to carving out the time to do it. Meanwhile, life can be stressful here and I’m not quite as relaxed as I was in Johnson, VT (go figure!).

But suddenly, in recent days, meditation has been the buzzword from all corners.

It keeps coming up in conversations with friends. Dr. Oz said it should be everyone’s New Year’s resolution. I went to a tax seminar for freelancers the other day, and even the accountant urged us to meditate.

That’s when I knew the universe must be telling me something, and that I needed to make room again in my life for it.

Stay tuned; I’ll report on my progress!

In With the New

For anyone wondering what’s been going on in the studio since I returned from the Vermont Studio Center, I do have an update. I’ve been busy moving into a new studio, which will give me more space for larger work.

As we all know, the artistic diaspora in New York City is continuing to spread (see this interesting article about how and why New York is losing its artists to more hospitable places like Cleveland)…I’m now located in the Bronx, where the rents are pretty good, and there is space to be had.

I’m still working on getting storage racks for my paintings, but everything else is coming along, and fresh new panels will arrive in the next few days to paint on!

Vermont Studio Center: Return

My month at the Vermont Studio Center was fantastic in every way: the scenery, the friends I made, the visit across the border to Montreal, the time to focus completely on my painting.

Having the chance to appreciate weather, instead of cursing it as I run back upstairs (four flights!) to get my umbrella.

Being reminded of how nice it is to see dogs that look and act like dogs–playing in the river, chasing each other, running–rather than being carried in designer bags, wearing boots and sweaters, and looking either nervous or pompous (depending on the dog).

Discovering interesting new details, such as the rows of metal flashing that cover Vermont roofs, which cause the snow to melt and slide off the roof in stripes (!).

Even better, I was calmer and more focused. Happier. I resolved to figure out ways to take these feelings back with me into the “real” world, so that I didn’t leave the best parts of myself in Vermont, suspended in a month that would all-too-quickly fade into memory and come to seem unreal.

In Vermont, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do: I wanted time and space in which to paint, and I wanted to relax, to shake off some accumulated stress from my old job and the hurry-up lifestyle of NYC. Check, check, and check. The whole purpose of the Vermont Studio Center is to give you time to work, and the quiet pace of Johnson was exactly what I needed–slow enough to make life easy, but not boring.

I realized that in my “real” life, what I wanted and what I was doing were not in alignment with each other at all. My job was competing against what I really wanted to do (paint) and that part of my life couldn’t be taken seriously–by me or anyone else–as long as I was squeezing it into the margins–after 5:00 PM, on some weekends, in between the usual transactions of daily life.

Although I know I’m coming back to my usual errands, chores, and concerns, I am committed to making sure I stay in alignment at home.

Here are some observations and lessons that I think will be worth taking back with me:

I like working big.

Sometimes I can’t check off everything on the to-do list. That’s OK.

Avoid the temptation to reflexively check my Facebook and email. This is a waste of time and energy.

Don’t put on TV to “relax” (I know myself; I just get sucked in). I watched it twice in a month and that felt like plenty (though I did miss Dexter!)

Try to limit multi-tasking. My apartment is small, so with one sweeping glance, I can see all the things needing my attention: computer, food, shower, laundry, dustballs under the desk…try to focus and finish one thing (which is more satisfactory anyway) instead of jumping around.

I think I’ll do better if I develop more of a schedule.

After living with total strangers for a month and being on my best behavior in the house, I realized that I could be kinder and more helpful to Mia.

Look around.

Appreciate things.

I made the right decision to leave my job. I am happier.

I am extremely lucky to have had this time at the Vermont Studio Center, and I’d be happy to give any specific advice about the program to anyone considering a residency there.

Vermont Studio Center-View from the Red Mill

Vermont Studio Center: The Fleeting Image

In Which We Laugh at a Technical Difficulty While Discovering a Metaphor for Artmaking.

Last week, I attended a lecture at the Vermont Studio Center by the painter Yvonne Jacquette. (Check out this article for more info on her paintings of aerial cityscapes).

Near the end of her talk, the Powerpoint and digital projector were put away because Yvonne wanted to show us some thangka paintings which were not in digital form. The Beseler opaque projector was turned on; it provides for the projection of books and other paper items, using a series of lights and prisms to reflect the image onto the screen.

I’d never seen anything like this beast before; all told, even though it sat on a tabletop, it seemed to be bigger (certainly heavier) than anyone in the room. And it was loud, very loud. There was a door which opened from the back, like the door to a wood-burning oven, which, when opened, poured out hot light into the darkened lecture hall. There was a presentation tray underneath, made of industrial-looking metal rollers, on which the reproduction of the thangka painting was placed.

As Yvonne began to talk about the thangka, the internal fan (necessary in the face of those white-hot lamps) blew the card off its centered position on the rollers. We watched it get caught up in the blast of wind, like a leaf on the street, until it caught on the interior wall of the projector. From there, we could see the corner of the card and the metal rollers, but that was all.

Undaunted, the projectionist opened the door and adjusted the image, then closed the door again. The image again was forcefully blown away and out of reach of the lights and prisms. We could see evidence of it, a shadow, a shape, but not the image itself.

The projectionist, quicker this time, again opened the door and repositioned the little painting. The door was firmly closed and once more, we watched the projection screen as the gust of air took the painting out of our sight. Again and again, the projectionist tried, but the little painting stubbornly refused to be seen.

The audience laughed at this unruly little image.

While people continued to give advice and fiddle with the Beseler, I realized that this was a great metaphor for artmaking: it’s the place where the patient, the stubborn, the curious, the diligent, and the frustrating all collide. Where sometimes you know what you want to happen, but it just won’t materialize, despite your best efforts. Although the process might seem perfectly straightforward, there’s always something that keeps running ahead of you, just out of your grasp. The fleeting image.

Usually when this happens in the studio, you just have to make do with something else; your hand makes adjustments to contours, position, relationships between parts. Sometimes something major needs to get covered up, or sometimes a piece is put aside entirely in favor of something new and different. These solutions, which may not be what you had in mind, usually turn out just fine in the end. (Sometimes, better than fine).

This calls to mind a Richard Diebenkorn quote:

I can never accomplish what I want – only what I would have wanted had I thought of it beforehand.

Because no one could stabilize the image in the opaque projector, Yvonne’s talk ended there. Fortunately, most of what she had wanted to say seemed to have been said already. Afterward, a small crowd gathered around the Beseler projector to marvel at its dimensions and laugh at the momentary chaos it had caused. We left the lecture hall.

I walked back to the studio, thinking about runaway images. Time to try again.

Vermont Studio Center: Evolution of a Painting

A peek inside the artist’s studio…

I tend to develop a painting intuitively and reactively…I don’t work out a plan ahead of time, or plot a composition on paper first. I begin by diving in and sketching out shapes with paint. When I step back and look at the painting, I’ll react to what I’ve already put down on the painting surface, and either make complementary shapes and colors, or cover up what I’ve already done and make new ones. Sometimes that even means turning a painting upside down, or changing its orientation from horizontal to vertical. Most of the painting is in the editing process–this eliminating of things that no longer work, and adjusting to add what does.

In thinking about the story of Tyler Clementi, and in general about gay people who are often asked or required to hide who they are, I chose an uneasy green to convey anxiety. (Someone suggested that the green was “institutional”, which added another layer of meaning–all the better!) This anxious, institutional green covers previous layers of activity (you can see vestiges of them peeking out, or see their texture covered by the green). Some activity takes place out in the open; some is covered. The greenish-black and the reflexive scribbling with pencil are meant to be jarring, emotional notes.

One of my beliefs is that a painting needs to be beautiful on some level, in order to capture a viewer’s interest and get him/her thinking about concepts and ideas inherent in the work. Making an ugly piece about war, for example, works for Goya or Otto Dix, but it’s not my way of getting into a work. I like to suggest a mood or moment through color, interplay of shapes, and quality of lines. While I don’t go too far in one direction by allowing my work become merely pretty, I also try not to go too far in the other direction by covering everything in black. I prefer to be more evocative, rather than to answer the question too quickly.

I think of it like a book: you want people to keep reading; you don’t want to give away the whole story on the first page.

For this painting, I took a photo of my progress every time I stepped away from the studio for an extended time (meal break, overnight). What you’re seeing is an arbitrary moment, not necessarily a critical juncture in the painting process. As I carted my work home from Vermont Studio Center, I could hear some misbehaving from the jumble of paintings in the backseat, so I’ll have to assess whether any touch-ups are needed, but as of now, this is the story of this painting:

Vermont Studio Center: Montreal

I like Montreal. It’s a walkable city, with interesting neighborhoods (next time, I want to spend more time in the Latin Quarter) and a charming feel. We had time for just two museums and a gallery or two, but it was great to see “new” artists who don’t appear frequently in American or European collections. Three discoveries were Master of the Female Half-Lengths (how’s that for a name?), Brendan Lee Satish Tang, and Pierre Durette.

Master of the Female Half-Lengths
Brendan Lee Satish Tang
Pierre Durette

We were greeted as natives everywhere: French first, and a friendly switch to English when it was proven necessary. I thought that was a nice, polite touch that made us feel at home. Here are some photos from our walks around town:

Vermont Studio Center: England Brothers

This is a true story about the small world we live in, about memory, family, roots, and the power of art.

It started around the breakfast table at the Vermont Studio Center. My friend Peggy Sapphire and I discovered our mutual connnection to the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I was born there, she had visited it as a child, and she excitedly leaned over to tell me about her great affection for it.

This has never happened before, so first, a word about my birthplace and my somewhat complicated relationship to it. When people ask where I’m from, there’s a slight mental pause on my part before I say I’m originally from Massachusetts. Not “Pittsfield”, just “Massachusetts”. I was born in Pittsfield, it’s what my passport says, yet I only lived there until I was four or five, and my memories are hazy at best. I remember in glimpses: our street, walking to the Dairy Queen after dinner, the smell of a bakery with turquoise trim and shiny glass cases with revolving cakes, seeing the huge dragonfies at Onota Lake, looking at Queen Anne’s Lace along the side of a road while on a walk with my aunt Anne, and a bright pink stucco church which seemed out of place in New England–but fascinating because of it–even to a four-year old.

We left Pittsfield for another town in Massachusetts, of which I have stronger memories because I was older. But I don’t say “I’m from Sterling” because my connection there seems tenuous as well: we kids were forbidden to develop the local accent, and we moved out of the state entirely in four more years, to a town in Connecticut on the Massachusetts border. My roots do feel as if they are planted somewhere in Massachusetts; I never, ever lay claim to being “from” Connecticut, even though that’s where I spent most of my childhood, and it’s where my parents still live, thirty years later.

Besides my lack of strong memories, the other disconnect to my birthplace is that my parents’ glowing descriptions of Pittsfield absolutely do not match up with what my own eyes told me about the place when we returned as visitors for family events.

Pittsfield is like many New England towns that thrived along an industry (for some, it was a mill; in our case, it was General Electric) then crashed when the industry left. Many of these towns, like Pittsfield, are still trying to get back on their feet.

When my parents grew up there in the 1940s and 50s and returned after college in the 1960s, GE was headquartered there and Pittsfield was hot. My parents told tales of excitement along North Street, of happy people socializing in a vibrant downtown, of summer vacations, from that era.

When we returned for family occasions in the 70s and 80s and less and less as time went on, I saw abandoned buildings, some with plywood for windows, some blackened by fire. There weren’t many people on the sidewalks that I recall, but the ones I saw seemed to shuffle around unhappily. I saw broken windows, empty warehouses, ugly industrial spaces with too many wires overhead. Nothing felt nice. No additional pleasant memories related to the city itself were planted alongside the old glimpses I’d retained.

It seemed impossible that just a few short years earlier, this had been a fun-loving utopia for my parents. Their stories, unfailingly and glowingly complimentary to Pittsfield, took on the air of hyperbole, even propaganda, over the years because of this disconnect. My sister, brother and I (the ones closest in age to me were born there too; the youngest two were born in Connecticut and have even less connection there) couldn’t understand the old Pittsfield, their Pittsfield. We sometimes teased them for creating a fantasyland that didn’t match up with the current reality, one that didn’t seem like it ever could have. Once, when we wanted to make it sting, we said we knew the river had caught on fire from all the chemicals GE had dumped in it. My mother maintained it didn’t happen; I don’t think my father had an answer for that.

I don’t remember my parents ever acknowledging the existence of the newer version of Pittsfield, one where the river caught on fire, where people were out of work, where kids my age battled cancer they’d gotten playing in contaminated yards. My sister, brother and I denied the existence of their version because we couldn’t believe their stories when our own eyes told us differently, and my parents denied the existence of the contemporary version, maybe also because the difference was too jarring.

I will admit that looking out the car window a couple of times a year is not the best way to judge the city. Given the stress of major holidays, the travel, the vigorous fighting that would likely have been occurring in the back seat, the steamed windows from too many people being in the car for too long, my father’s violent sneezing on the way home because of my aunt’s cats, Pittsfield probably never had a chance from this vantage point.

If you were to Google Pittsfield, you’d see that it has received more than a few votes for “Worst City” in the US, with some bloggers outdoing themselves to put it down. There’s no denying that there are alot of things to say along these lines.

So it’s in this context that my friend Peggy began to excitedly talk to me about Pittsfield. She’d gone there as a child in the early 1950s and spent a couple of summers at Buckley Farm, down a dirt road in Lanesboro. She was a city girl, a New Yorker, going to visit the countryside with her brother, without her parents.

I wished I could have said Oh sure, Buckley Farm, but I didn’t know it, not even from my parents‘ stories.

She went on to say that she’d written a poem about Pittsfield, specifically about England Brothers’ Department Store. I remembered England Brothers from driving by, and also because one of my uncle’s very best friends was a direct descendent from the original England Brothers. I didn’t know her well because my uncle moved away for college and never moved back East, but her name was always present in family lore. England Brothers also appeared in many of my parents’ stories, as a prominent landmark by which other locations were described, and also as a backdrop for other activities since everyone seemed to meet there.

Peggy promised to send me the poem. As it turned out, the occasion for writing it was the demolition of England Brothers in the late 1990s.

Her poem was beautiful, a tribute to early years and adventures, well before Pittsfield’s downturn. I learned about England Brothers in detail for the first time, and I hadn’t realized how hungry I had been for the information. In my parents’ stories, it had merely been a shorthand notation: they’d never described it because they didn’t have to; everyone knew England Brothers.

The poem also named several of Peggy’s friends and acquaintances from those summers, and one name caught my attention: Inez. There was an Inez (pronounced I-nus by our family) who was my grandmother’s best friend. I don’t remember my grandmother because she died when I was a year old, but Inez, no last name needed, was a familiar character in the family stories, just like England Brothers. In the poem, Inez also didn’t have a last name and therefore couldn’t be immediately identified. Peggy and I wondered if they could be the same person. After all, how many women named Inez could have lived in Pittsfield, Massachusetts at that time?

I sent the poem to my mom, her twin sister, and my uncle. I also asked if Peggy’s Inez could be “our” Inez. To clear up that mystery, it was generally agreed that there must have been another Inez in Pittsfield, based partly on the fact that “our” Inez wouldn’t have inspected anyone’s hands before dinner, as Peggy had written. The other responses were immediate, enthusiastic and grateful: memories of the sprawling system of overhead tubes which was used as a delivery system in the store, along with blueberry picking at Mickle’s Grove and a place called “blueberry mountain”, my grandmother’s blueberry pies, were shared and elaborated upon. I learned more about myself: that all of my baby clothes were from England Brothers; it was where I went to visit Santa for the first time. My uncle’s friend weighed in from Oregon to say how proud and touched she was to hear of the prominent place her family’s store held in so many lives and memories.

Peggy Sapphire in Dave Nelson's studio

I shared my family’s excited memories with Peggy. With each new email, she was more delighted. We convened over meals, telling the story with its latest chapter to whomever happened to be sitting nearby. Peggy always thanked me again for sharing my family history (such as it was, imperfectly remembered by me) and embellished the poem with additional memories:

…the beautiful scarves on display at England Brothers

…bringing lunch, consisting of a couple of sandwiches, and sitting down among the cow patties to eat them. In response to several wrinkled noses, Peggy chuckled deep in her throat and exclaimed: “They smelled sweet, what did I know, I was from New York!”

…running along the lane to deliver news of a baby’s birth, and feeling the importance attached to that responsibility, as well as the intimacy it conveyed. She was now one of them.

One morning she asked if I’d been born in the local hospital. Yes, Berkshire Medical Center, I said. This was a fact that I knew, a detail regarding my hometown about which I could be firm. Peggy recounted how her brother had once gotten his foot sliced in a hay baler or some type of farm equipment. No one had remembered to warn the city boy to beware the sweeping blade and his foot was injured quite badly. After describing the injuries and treatment at the hospital, Peggy nodded and said with quiet appreciation, They took good care of him.

You know, I was only the third baby whose father was allowed in the delivery room, I offered. We had both been treated well there.

These stories, these snippets of real information, made Pittsfield seem more alive and maybe even likable to me. I could finally begin to understand, through Peggy’s affection for it, and the round-robin comments via email, the affection that my parents had felt, that many had obviously felt. I could sense this affection, and Pittsfield itself, weave a bit more into the fabric of my own past.

It was during this conversation that I started crying at breakfast, a quiet but persistent reddening of the eyes and tip of my nose, and welling of tears around the rims and lashes. I felt overwhelmed by these connections to my family: picturing my mom, pregnant with me, shopping for my baby clothes on her lunch break, picturing a tiny baby me, sitting on Santa’s lap. Picturing my dad, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, Inez popping into England Brothers for some necessity, going past the Ladies Department, stepping on the creaky floorboards, looking up at the tubing system zipping along, saying hello to all the other neighbors and family who had likewise stopped in. I felt indescribably close to my family, engaged as we all were, from different parts of the country, in reading this love poem to Pittsfield, appreciating it, allowing it to spark deep memories and feelings, circulating it to others and then reporting back again.

It is a gift, Peggy said, with quiet emphasis on each word. It is a gift to be able to be brought into your family like this. It’s very rare for a writer to hear how her words are received.

Peggy, the gift is mutual.

 

Peggy’s Sapphire’s poem is included here with her gracious permission. Please visit her website to learn more about her and her writing.

England Brothers

England Brothers Department Store under the wrecker’s ball.
Main Street, wide with maples and hanging petunias.
England Brothers under the wrecker’s ball,
two-story wood and brick since 1857.

Lulu, wherever you are, do you remember
the day you took me there? Pittsfield, Massachussetts,
your birthtown, your Main Street, your England Brothers,
your mama’s and
your mama’s mama’s.

Dark wood floors, old bones creaking under me that day,
the New York City kid, up a dirt road for two weeks
on your grandpa’s dairy farm, your grandma’s kitchen.
Zeke washing up sudsy at the kitchen sink.
Inez checking my hands for washable dirt. Their round dining table
with room for everyone, including me, plenty for all of us,
brown gravy, sliced roast beef with juices running over,
cream from the barn and a million fresh blueberries
for dessert, remember Lulu? Didn’t matter the best bushes were
found near sweet smelling cow pies.

England Brothers under the wrecker’s ball,
vacuum tubes carrying messages and money
in a loud whisper from the small office upstairs, to the beautiful sales ladies
standing behind glass cases with mahogany trim, selling scarves
and linen hankies, silk slips and sachet bags. Upstairs the piles
of Hudson Bay blankets, softest wool I ever touched,
making believe we have to choose between strawberry red
with buttercup yellow, or milk white with new-grass green.

Lulu, best friend in the summer of 1951, the fattest girl I knew.
I walked ahead pretending we weren’t together. I’m sorry.
I thought I was beautiful that summer, first time in my life. It was
your cousin George, my pioneer boyfriend, his farmer hands clumsily
up my blouse where none had gone before, whose image
consumed me with hungers I couldn’t name.

England Brothers under the wrecker’s ball.
Today’s photo in the paper, five decades later.
Is that you, Lulu, buying the last
of the porcelain tea cups and gilded saucers?

I’ll gladly walk with you, Lulu
side by side, arm in arm. Wait for me, we’ll
show them all how we push open the double-doors of
heavy oak with the solid brass hinges and
promenade into the cool air of the Ladies Department.

England Brothers forever.

Peggy’s poem was originally published in The Country and Abroad.

For more information on Dave Nelson’s paintings, pictured above, go to www.dnelsondesign.com/paintings.