Member Blogs > ten pound island book companyA Very Special Collection

  • Sun, 09 Nov 2014 12:39:49    Permalink
    A couple of weeks ago, on the Exlibris listserve, the resident genius and presiding spirit of the rare book and special collections worlds, Terry Belanger, published summaries of presentations at the “National Colloquium on Library Special Collections.” The roster of speakers featured luminaries such as Stephen Enniss (The Ransom Center), Jay Satterfield (Dartmouth), Mark Dimunation (Library of Congress); and our own Ken Lopez.
    It interested me that, according to Terry's reports, these people spent a lot of time talking about archives. And it was even more interesting to hear them repeatedly asking, “What constitutes an archive?” Because, obviously, the nature of an archive has a lot to do with determining its use in a special collections setting.
    I mention all this because I have recently discovered a rich and meaningful archive. The problem is, I don't know how it would be stored or cataloged or used.
    Back in 1970, when the Amerikan Empire seemed to be teetering on the brink of collapse, many young people fled this country for the wilds of Canada. Such was the case with my friend Barry. He was an artist, and he had no intention of passing his days living in the land of Nixon and his ilk. After years of saving every nickel that came his way, he had enough to buy an old farmhouse on 100 acres in Nova Scotia, to which he and his wife moved in the early 1970s. Several years later my wife and infant son and I went up there for a week's visit. We were people of such importance, with such busy schedules, that our week stretched into two months.During the time we were up there, I helped Barry build a studio on a ridge overlooking the farmhouse. We built it out of old barn parts and angle iron and lag bolts and, because we didn't know any better, we overbuilt it.
    The years passed. Barry and his wife had two children, and then the marriage fell apart. He moved back to the states, married again ( to a very capable professional woman), had another child, and kept painting. The lovely, sturdy old studio building endured, and each summer he and his family drove up to Canada for the season, and with them came all the junk they'd accumulated over the past year, since there was no room to store such stuff in crowded New Jersey apartments. 
    This went on for years. The kids got older; the two girls became artists. The son became an actor. When Barry and Wife Two took up permanent residence in Greece, their children were dispersed across continents. I became steward of the studio in Nova Scotia and used it as my writing camp for years.

    There it sat, chockablock full of all the stuff Barry had accumulated in his early days as a painter and sculptor, and all the stuff from his first marriage, and from his ex-wife, and two girls, and then all the stuff from New Jersey - the new wife and son. Last year Barry's oldest daughter decided she'd make the studio her permanent residence and workplace, so I moved my writing camp to my property across the road.Then, this past summer, Barry, and his second wife returned to the US for a vacation and, with the second daughter, came up to Nova Scotia to visit the first daughter and the old studio.  Barry descending the stairs from the Gibson Memorial Library
    And what they did while they were there, besides reminisce, was sort through the mass of stuff that had accumulated over the past half century.
    In fact their sorting was a very real form of reminiscence, because the stuff they were sorting was the stuff of their lives over that half century.
    Files of letters from the 1960s to the 1990s provided the explanatory narrative for the clothing, household goods, furniture, books, old tools and bits of material dating back to the building of the studio, camping gear, a mound of dead cars out in the field, funky old advertising signs and interesting objects that were saved for possible inclusion in Barry's sculptures, sewing machines and acres of fabric for the fabric artist daughter's work, china and silver – hand me downs and artifacts from the second wife's family, drawings and paintings by Barry and by his two artist daughters. It was their biography, as a family, written in objects. The Gibson Memorial Library (second floor of the studio)
    The place was a living museum, and dawned on me then that it was also, in the broadest sense, an archive of enormous cultural value, documenting, as it did, the lives of a mid-Twentieth Century bohemian family. An undisturbed record of a family raised, nurtured, and enduring on the fringes of American middle class society.
    I'm sure that the lives of Jasper Johns, Andrew Wyeth, and Andy Warhol will be adequately documented, but what about the lives of other artists who, though equally committed to their art, did not win international fame? Wouldn't these lives – wouldn't archives such as this one - have a great deal to tell us about the culture from which the great art of the Twentieth Century emerged?
    I've spoken with Barry and his wife and the kids, and they all think it's a great idea. Now all I need to do is get Steve Enniss and a couple of eighteen-wheelers to haul the contents down to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin. There they could build a replica studio to hold the contents of the original studio, just like they did with the marvelous recreation of the painter Francis Bacon's studio in the Dublin City Gallery  Francis Bacon's London studio, meticulously recreated
    Then the original studio building in Nova Scotia would be empty, and I set up my writing camp again.
    Next week - The Boston Book Fair

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