The Accidental Artist
Cata-blogging

I’m fairly certain that most people would find cataloging artwork to be incredibly monotonous. In fact, even though cataloging Jim’s work is a part of the plan that I’ve been pretty excited about since my project first took shape, I sometimes think it’s just too boring for me, too. That is, until I actually look at it on a larger scale and am blown away by how cool it actually is.

The thing about having a digital catalog of an art collection, is that, once you have slogged through all the entry work, everything you know about the art is suddenly searchable. Peripheral facts about Jim’s work—like how many pieces use a certain material or what percentage if the work have specific colors—that before I could never know off the top of my head, are now only a word search away. Even easier is to sort pieces by different data, such as location or approximate creation date.

Right now, I am using an archival database from the Museum Archive Software Project. The program, created by part-time historian Jim Halpin, is free for the basic edition and an easy upgrade to the premium with the purchase of Halpin’s book. (The upgrade, in my opinion, is definitely worth it, if only for the ability to add pictures to your database.) Compared to other professional cataloging software packages, which can run from upwards of $800 to a full $5,000, Museum Archive’s software is an obvious choice for non-profits, historical societies, and personal projects.

Granted, Museum Archive’s software may not be as fancy as more expensive options—though I have used PastPerfect, and there’s not too much difference—and it only works on PCs. On the other hand, Halpin is very in touch with his creation and readily available through email if you have problems. He also seems to think of his program as a work in progress and is open to users’ suggestions.

Obviously, despite my complaints of boredom, I’m kind of having fun here. I can organize and read Jim’s artwork in any way that I want, and I can easily get in touch with Halpin’s “customer service” if I have any trouble. Basically, I’m very happy with my in-progress digital catalog. With it Jim’s work will become infinitely more accessible. Now, if I could only finish it faster….

The Lost Conniff

What a month! I hope my absence hasn’t left you hanging too much. After the success of my Kickstarter, I started work as soon as could. (Those of you that were able to contribute $10-25 to the project should be receiving your rewards soon!) My adventures in cataloging and conserving began with a couple of visits to New Jersey. I spent my time there assessing the damage of much of the work, setting up a photo area, and taking pictures. Next, just this past week, I traveled to the Midwest to see pieces that Jim has given to his children and grandchildren, my aunts, uncles, and cousins.

To be honest, I had mostly planned my Midwest trip in search of a piece that I had only heard stories about. Last summer, when I first began talking with my grandfather about his art, he told me the story of some of his pieces. One of these was the tale of a piece that had been missing since the day that my father first saw it. When my brothers and I were young my family often traveled to visit my grandparents. On one of these trips, according to Jim, he had just finished a piece involving prints of Jesus being crucified cut out and arranged like a wreath. He tells its story best:

Unfortunately, despite all my searching, I could not find the piece in New Jersey. My cousin, however, had another clue. When I described the work to him, he said he had seen his mother with it at their home in Michigan. Apparently the piece was so shocking that, upon finding it hidden in my grandparents’ house, my aunt had taken it back to the Midwest with her to try to have it psychoanalyzed. The hunt was on.

I emailed my aunt to set up a good time to visit and see what other art she had. At first she said she only had a couple of innocuous pieces—nothing involving a repeating, bleeding Jesus. In fact, she didn’t even remember the crucifixion piece. I was disappointed but still wanted to see her other pieces. Plus, I had already bought my tickets.

Luckily, when I arrived in Michigan my aunt had realized her mistake. (My cousin, her son, may have had some hand in it.) While I examined the other pieces she had brought out for me, she began looking for the piece.

Unfortunately, when I left Michigan, the wreath of crucified Jesuses remained stubbornly hidden. My aunt promised to continue looking. Though the chances that it has fallen to pieces in some dark corner of a garage are high, I hope, like so many Old Masters, that someday this “Lost Conniff” will come back to us.

Art-etry: Combining Poetry and Art

About a decade ago my grandfather gave me a couple of his pieces as a gift. At first glance, they seemed to be typical of his many, whimsical works. They were brightly colored, had little regimented structure, included several imaginative creatures, and were made of “junk” objects (in this case, bottle caps and the pull tabs of juice cartons).

It wasn’t until I turned the pieces over (and consulted Google Translate and a friend fluent in French) that I discovered each piece had a little bit more than I had thought. On the back of each of these works was a poem by Jim. The poems, which elaborated on the piece on the front, combined Jim’s two favored forms of expression, mixed-media artwork and poetry. Read the poems after the break!

"Quand on demande 

'Ou sont les neiges de l'antan?'

C’est alors que  

Je fais une pause et 

Je me souviens 

du printemps prochain 

qui d’une maniere qui 

d’un autre reussit 

toujours a suivre.” 


"When we ask

'Where are the snows of yesteryear?'

It is then that

I pause and

remember

the next spring

which in one way

or another manages

always to follow.”

"Voici

mes petites fleurs qui n’etaient jamais

des iles de la mer lointaines

qui aussi n’etaient jamais

autrement de

pendant que j’ose

peut-etre revasser.”

"Here

my little flowers that were never

the islands of the distant seas

that also were never

other than

while I dared

maybe to daydream.”

"Crazy"

My project is kind of strange for my grandfather, I think. I didn’t tell him too much about it before it started—I didn’t want it to interrupt his life or his work—but as he has become more aware of it, he’s begun asking more questions.

Most recently, he sent me an email suggesting a slight edit to the wording in the video I created for my Kickstarter. “A seemingly minor expansion,” he said, “of the “crazy” reference in your else quite professional pitch would head off any risk in the wrong hands.” He proposed that I add to my description of him, “…(actually, it’s a delusion more than one of his clients gratefully come to realize is a hidden feature of his DNA.)”

Of course, as I explained to him, I do not think that my grandfather is “crazy.” It’s obviously not a useful or kind word to use to describe anyone with any kind of mental illness, even if they aren’t a relative, and it certainly is not descriptive of Jim. He has always been an active and fully functioning member of society without any signs of mental disability. Yes, the things he creates (and sometimes the things that he says) can seem off topic or a little eccentric, but they don’t speak to his mental status. Jim’s creativity stems from an imagination that seems to never end but, thankfully, doesn’t obstruct his participation in the world.

Someone “crazy” would not have been able to support a wife and large family for much of his life. A “crazy” person couldn’t be almost entirely self sufficient as a nonagenarian. And I doubt that, were Jim “crazy,” he could have inspired a grandchild’s life-long passion for art through his own magical imagination.


The Curse of Creativity

Earlier this week my grandfather emailed me and asked if I might be able to help him move some boxes that are going to be delivered to his house. Decades ago he sent off years of media research and writing out to the University of Wyoming’s American Media Center in Laramie. Unfortunately, they no longer have the space to keep the 60 to 70 boxes that he sent to them and are sending them back to be stored in his home.

Of course, I am happy to help out—at 91, he probably couldn’t lift one box, let alone 60—the problem is that Jim doesn’t really have the space to store his papers either. In fact, the contents of those 60 to 70 boxes will be only a small portion of the “important” papers that crowd my grandfather’s home. Okay, many of them may be truly important. Some are for taxes, some are correspondence with well-known politicians, but some are important only as relics of another form of Jim’s creative output.

 

Lying on the floor of Jim’s office, mostly around his IBM Selectric typewriter, are scraps of paper filled with first drafts of poems or beginnings of final versions that had typos too glaring to fix. These scraps show Jim’s process as he ventured into a more verbal form of creative expression. He wrote hundreds of poems—some he kept for himself, but most he sent out to family members in the same way that he sent the Panta postcards to David.

Those that my family received mostly involved talking animals or misunderstood monsters. The characters went on strange adventures my brothers and me or had silly conversations with my grandfather. He wrote most of the poems in rhyming couplets that were easily accessible for young children and highlighted the playfulness of the work. But, no matter how silly they may have seemed at the time, the poems, as well as the colorful doodles that sometimes accompanied them, have the same original, whimsical nature of the visual art pieces and deserve to be cared for in the same way as Jim’s artwork.

 

Of course, conserving a poem is different than doing the same for a visual art piece. While the physical preservation of the original poem and the paper on which he typed it is important, publication of a poem can also conserve it intellectually. Several years ago, however, my father tried to get help my grandfather publish a book of his poetry and encountered many of the same problems that I had when attempting to get Jim’s help in restoring his art. Just as my grandfather had a tendency to sneak new parts onto the artwork that he was helping me fix, when my father suggested that he edit a line of a poem for publication, my grandfather would end up writing an entire new poem. Jim spent his life working as an author, so it may seem odd that he would be unable to edit his literary work, but actually these two types of writing seemed to have no connection for Jim.

 

If you look at the poetry as a kind of a branch of his visual art, on the other hand it all starts to make sense. In the writing—and art—that Jim produced simply for himself, rather what he wrote in order to support his family, Jim’s urge to create is so overwhelming that he can’t hold it back. When my dad or I asked him to fix a portion of a piece that he so enjoyed creating in the first place, he was unable to keep himself from continuing to create something new on top of the original. Maybe he thought he was doing what we had asked or maybe his imagination just got the better of him and he lost track of the original goal, but it became obvious to my father, just as it did with Jim’s visual art and me, that, when working with his art, my grandfather’s creativity overpowered all reason.

Unfortunately, without Jim editing his own work, the idea for the book of poems has gone unrealized. We still talk about it, and we still have the boxes of poems, sorted for subject matter and waiting to someday be read and preserved in the public memory. But until that time comes around, the least we can do is preserve the works of art that they are and keep the stories alive in our own minds.