(Snail-mail letter from Joy Center mailing for March/April, 2015)
You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born. Rainer Maria Rilke
I have found it, the holy grail. Actually, it wasn’t me who found it. It was my cousin Abby, a milliner who has lived in New York City for most of her adult life. She discovered this golden chalice of information in the archives of New York City’s public library, right in the midst of Manhattan, this letter written by our grandfather in December of 1918. It’s not like I haven’t seen letters written by him before — I’ve been on a Grandpa quest these past nine months, sifting through and soaking in a wealth of information left to me by my father (Abby’s mother’s twin and Grandpa’s son). I’ve read published essays about my grandfather and by my grandfather, letters he wrote to his mother and to his sister from London and Paris, letters to art dealers, letters from other artists, and remembrances, too, by his friends and fellow artists after he died in a car accident in 1925. And I’ve perused through the pile of art that I have inherited. You see, that’s how I knew Grandpa, as an artist — internationally known during his lifetime and remembered for his etchings, engravings, pen-and-inks, lithographs and watercolors. And these etchings and watercolors and theater posters adorned our walls when I was a little girl. And the grandfather who created this art died more than thirty years before my birth when the twins were four. And to us, his kids and his grandkids, he was more Famous-Artist-Myth than flesh and bone.
And that’s why I’ve been questing, to make Ernest Haskell, my grandfather, real for me. And he was becoming real to me, this artist grandfather, before cousin Abby, two weeks ago on a Saturday morning while she and I sat in a booth eating breakfast in her Harlem neighborhood IHOP, handed me excerpts that she had copied from a letter she discovered in the public library archives. During the autumn months of my quest into our family’s own archives, as I read the letters that Grandpa wrote home to his sister from New York and London and Paris, I found myself delighting in his exuberance and his humor and the determination he possessed to learn from the great artist masters during his lengthy period of self-study. I found myself adventuring alongside him as he sailed the waters of Casco Bay near the salt-water farm that he owned and loved and handed down to us, his ancestors. I found myself admiring his integrity and his ability to cave out for himself a handcrafted life on his own terms. And, in late January, my husband Cam and I flew to California for a five-day trip tracing Grandpa’s trail to Sequoia National Park, to the very spot where Grandpa, one hundred-and-one-years ago, etched in copper plates the mighty Sequoias. And then, we followed his path to the coast, to Big Sur and Monterey where he lived and created art among the windswept cypress. Yes, his life and his art were already becoming real to me before this trip east to New York two weeks ago, to the city where he spent many of his winters, where he connected with other artists and art dealers and curators of art and the theater people he would immortalize in posters.
So what was it about this letter written by Grandpa in 1918 that made me fall head over heels in love with him? (And was that what I’d wanted to do all along, not just to make him real, but to like him, to heart-open tears-in-my-eyes love him, not just as artist, but as person?!?) It was less than a year since his wife had died in the 1918 flu epidemic and he was sole parent to two small children and he was hurting for money and writing to a friend with connections to patrons. There was a vulnerability in this letter written by my grandfather, now an artist in his forties who had become well-known and acclaimed for the etchings that he had been creating for much of the last decade. He was telling his friend that he had devoted himself to these etchings created in the tradition of Rembrandt, that he knew he had a gift, that a man’s eyes would only allow him to continue for a limited time, that he thought that fifty more etchings would complete his work in this medium. He continued to say that he knew that etching wasn’t a popular art form of the time, that it was the era for the modernists, that he could make money doing portraits and oils, but that his heart was in etchings, that it was the gold that he possessed, the talent that was his, the treasure that he must manifest.
That’s when I knew I was in love with my grandfather. He wasn’t seeking fame and fortune. He wasn’t following popular trends of the time. He wasn’t choosing the easy path of creating art that would sell. He was listening to his own heart, and honoring his talent. And I’m not sure whether he found the patrons that he was seeking. I don’t think so. We have never found evidence to indicate that he did. But I’ll tell you this — in the next seven years, the years before his accident, he did complete an amazing collection of etchings, etchings that critics have felt are his finest pieces. He did it! He did what he had set out to do. He did it while parenting those two children and marrying again and fathering the twins and living with integrity and guts and humor. And the last lines of the letter are the ones that make me cry, the lines that bring the whole quest home for me. He was telling his friend that he was not creating this art for the present moment; he was creating this art for future generations. And oh my goodness, here I am, nearly one-hundred years later, reading the letter. I am the future that he was creating for. We all are. And to me, it’s not just the art. Though I’ll tell you, it is a treat to dive deep into these etchings. It is something else, too. It also is a treat to dive deep and to discover a mentor, a role model, a friend, someone who can hold your hand and cheer you on as you, too, listen to your own unique and precious callings. I discovered that Ernest Haskell is indeed earnest, and is such a friend.