Art favorites: Obsession

Obsession grew on me.

The painting is an optical illusion that even when you know it is an illusion, you swear it isn’t. When I initially approached the painting, I felt a bit queasy. Then I realized it was almost three-dimensional.

Wait, was it a three-dimensional painting? No, it wasn’t. I looked at the painting from the side to confirm. No, it isn’t three-dimensional. Then I looked at the painting straight on. Parts of the painting jumped out at me, as if it was not on a single plane. I looked again at the painting from the side. Then straight on. Then from the side.

I was hooked by this piece of art. And bothered by its real flatness and unreal dimensional quality.

Obsession
Julian Stanczak (American, born Polish, 1928-2017)
American (1928-2017)
1965
Indianapolis Museum of Art

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Book review: Our Family Dreams: The Fletchers’ Adventures in Nineteenth Century America

Often the names of streets, parks, and neighborhoods point to the history of a city. Fletcher is one such name. In exploring the local history of Indianapolis, I routinely encountered the name Fletcher.

I learned about the Fletcher family plot in Crown Hill Cemetery and heard stories during tours. I drove down Fletcher Avenue and found myself wandering Fletcher Place when I trekked the cultural trail. I discovered a stunning portrait of Louisa Fletcher, a descendant (granddaughter?) of Calvin Fletcher, who moved to Indianapolis in the early 1800s, at the IMA. Booth Tarkington, a playwright buried in Crown Hill and with a theatre named after him, was married to Louisa. Calvin’s diary is an early historical source of sorts of Indianapolis. Wherever I turn I seem to encounter the Fletchers.

Somewhere, I do not remember where, I learned about Our Family Dreams, an account of the Fletcher clan. I was immediately intrigued.

The book is a delight and a disappointment. A disappointment because it focuses on only the 19th century. I was left wanting more and wondering about the clan in the 20th century. (Louisa doesn’t appear in its pages.) A delight because it is a deep dive into the two Fletcher brothers (Elijah and Calvin) and along the way provides insights in 18th and 19th century life, the political and cultural realities of the country, and early Indianapolis.

Smith starts his story with the patriarch of the family, Jesse Sr., who moved to Vermont to start a farm. His life was consumed with hard work, but he never really got out of the shadow of debt. Despite (or perhaps because of) his poverty, he recognized the value of education, even for girls. Several of his children were educated, either through his direct financial support or from the support of older siblings who were educated and out in the world seeking success.

The focus on Elijah and Calvin provides a fascinating insight into different cultural areas in the US before, during, and after the Civil War. The Fletchers in Vermont were an anti-slavery family. When Elijah left home to seek his way in the world, he was headed to Raleigh for a teaching assignment but stopped short in Virginia, where he took to the southern way of life.

Calvin, in contrast, headed west, eventually ending up in the new city of Indianapolis, which was located in a nominally anti-slavery state. (Indiana’s status can be debated; the legislature was dominated by pro-slavery Democrats and Hoosiers along the banks of the Ohio River often sympathized and sided with pro-slavery sentiment. However, Indiana sent one the largest numbers of soldiers to fight in the Union Army and was constitutionally anti-slavery. See blog posts that mention slavery in Indiana.)

The two brothers stayed in close contact over the decades, each residing over family dynasties of a sort. Elijah quickly became a plantation owner in his own right. Calvin was a lawyer, farmer, landowner, and pillar of the community. Whereas Elijah supported and condoned the owning of slaves, Calvin in his legal capacities helped some slaves brought to Indiana attain their freedom. (According to Indiana law, when slaves were brought to the state for residency—as opposed to transiting through the state to another destination—they automatically gained their freedom. At least in theory according to the law. Reality was a different matter.)

Snippets in the stories about Calvin resonate with history that I have encountered in my explorations of Indiana. In Ohio, Calvin lived with and studied law with a lawyer, reminiscent of the tales I heard about how men studied law in Madison on the Ohio River. As a young lawyer, he rode the circuit in Ohio and Indiana.

His household, once he was established as a pillar of society, consisted not just of family but of servants. And he took in widows and orphans for periods of time. Although I hadn’t encountered other historical figures in my travels who housed random widows and orphans in their own home, it was not uncommon for wealthy men to establish special houses for widows where their basic needs were met.

The story about how Calvin ended up marrying his first wife was enlightening. He realized he needed a helpmate through life but was torn about who it should be. He approached the task of getting a wife more as a rational choice rather than a matter of the heart. He was clearly concerned about status—a wife could improve one’s status or hurt it. He was originally drawn to a student of his but she was from a poor, ignorant family. She would not raise his status, but she could be a project, a person for him to educate and mold. His dilemma seems strange from a 21st century perspective. Frankly, with his attitudes, he seems like a condescending jerk.

As someone in the early years of Indiana, he was, to my chagrin, a land speculator, even owning land as far away as northwest Indiana (Michigan City). (My disappointment is that he was part of land speculation in Indiana that stole land from the native Americans and sold the land for a tidy profit.)

He was anti-slavery but racist. He supported the liberation of slaves and their rights but like Lincoln, believed that once freed, they should return to Africa. He kept out of debates in the 1844 presidential election but refused to support the anti-slavery Quaker ticket. He thought, perhaps rightly, that the Quaker ticket would only succeed in splitting the other tickets. (Neither other ticket was ideal: Whig Clay from pro-slavery Kentucky or Democratic pro-slavery Polk.) He also employed former slaves on his farm.

Indiana was settled with lots of Germans and was populated with numerous breweries. German societies such as the Athenaeum in Indianapolis that celebrated culture and education were common, but at least in Calvin’s day, the Germans he encountered seemed not to be of this class. He viewed Germans as ignorant and backwards and thus looked down on them.

Calvin was involved in the nascent banking industry as a banking president. The early banking industry, as I learned in my explorations, was anything but above board. Banks were meant for the wealthy elite, not the common folk. Often they went belly up and were dens of corruption. Calvin though is portrayed as an above-board kind of guy. I wonder more about his role in the early banking industry in Indiana.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of what he described as internal improvements (what we now refer to as infrastructure projects.) He actually visited the Erie Canal in New York and thought that canals would be better than railroads. (Railroads would only last a couple decades, he thought. He must have realized the error of his judgement; he was at one point on a railroad board.) As with banking, I wondered what his involved in the doomed canal projects in Indiana was. Indiana’s ill-fated attempt to build canals throughout the state ended in failure and the state’s bankruptcy.

Smith mentions in passing the Panic of 1837 and how it contributed to a depression that lasted until 1843. Again, the early financial history of Indiana—and Calvin’s role in it—would be fascinating to learn. My impression is that the state bankruptcy due to the flawed investment in canals led to the panic and ensuing depression, but I am not at all certain that the banking industry didn’t contribute to it as well.

Calvin watched politics and society become more and more divided in the 1840s. He was a staunch abolitionist but not everyone (or most people?) in Indiana shared his views. The protestant churches started to split into northern and southern branches around this time period.

He was friends with Henry Ward Beecher, a Presbyterian minister who preached against slavery. (The Presbyterian Church split into northern and southern branches over the issue of slavery in 1861.) Henry is incidentally the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the anti-slavery treatise Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Calvin was not only an abolitionist, but he was active in temperance and education reform movements, the latter a topic dear to the Fletcher family in general. In the 1830s Horace Mann initiated educational reforms in Indiana. In 1852, Indiana finally established free education. (See blog posts about education in early Indiana.)

Through Calvin’s correspondences with his brother Elijah, we get a glimpse into the political and social realities of the decades leading up to the Civil War. Calvin feared that annexing Texas, which wanted to allow slavery, would lead to war in Mexico and upset the balance of slave vs. non-slave states. He ruminates on John Brown and his attack at Harper’s Ferry. His son Elijah, now a preacher in a church in New Albany in southern Indiana, recounts the pro-Confederate sympathies of his congregation. (Many Hoosier families along the Ohio River were split, with fathers supporting one side and sons the other. Despite this, pro-Confederate sentiments weren’t sufficient to support a Confederate raid into Indiana.)

The pro-Union governor Oliver Morton turned to wealthy businessmen and community leaders to help gather troops, supplies, and funds for the Civil War. One person that Morton turned to was Calvin, whom he enlisted to gather munitions.

Although in his 60s, Calvin traveled to Canada to gather munition for the cause. Given his advanced age (he died at 68), Calvin tried to avoid being further pressed into service. When Morton wanted him to travel with him to Terre Haute, he sent his son Miles in his place. On that trip, Miles was tragically killed by a passing train.

Calvin mentions the train that stopped in Indy on its way to taking the newly elected Abraham Lincoln to Washington DC. Given Lincoln’s status as saint in modern times and their (later?) shared abolitionist view, I expected Calvin to be pro-Lincoln. If anything, Calvin seemed lukewarm about Lincoln. He actually met Lincoln briefly at the White House, but the meeting did not leave him with a great impression either of Lincoln or his administration (!). (Interesting, brother Elijah met Jefferson at Monticello and was less than impressed by him.) When Lincoln’s funeral train stopped in Indy on April 30, Calvin and his wife did pay their respects as Lincoln laid in the Indiana statehouse.

The stories of his children are equally fascinating as the history he lived through. Although he attempted to instill deep morals in his children and prized education, on the whole his children did not turn out as expected. Those from whom he expected great things seemed to disappoint but those who seemed disappointing turned out quite well.

On the whole, his sons wanted to distinguish themselves in battle during the Civil War rather than stay and help with the family business. Calvin rarely mentions his daughters. Maria married Cyrus Hines (who served in the Civil War and post-war practiced law with Benjamin Harrison). After Maria died in childbirth, her sister Lucy married Cyrus—a marriage that Calvin disapproved of.

His son Billy, originally a disappointment, distinguished himself after being captured during the Civil War. He used his medical training to help anyone he could during confinement. Following the war, he became a respected pillar of society, setting up different institutions in Indianapolis.

Calvin also found himself trying to right the ways of errant siblings and nephews, which he wasn’t always successful in doing. His brother’s daughter Indiana pleaded with him to obtain a pass to the north for her. (She was located on her late father’s plantations during the war.) Understandable given his role helping Morton and the side he took in the Civil War, he mainly stayed silent, never satisfying her request. He and his branch of the family had chosen the Union. Elijah and his branch had chosen slavery and the Confederacy.

In all the book is a fascinating look into different political, societal, and historical elements of the US—all through the prism of the Calvin and Elijah Fletcher families. Much that is mentioned weaves with histories and customs that I learned elsewhere. The book did raise other questions and left me wanting to learn more about the Fletcher family and their role in Indiana and American history.

The Holly & The Ivy, 2018

Attending the Indiana Landmarks holiday concert has become a tradition for me. Enjoying wonderfully talented musicians and singers in a beautiful setting—what’s not to like?

Doors were scheduled to open at 7pm. Come early to get your preferred seat, they advertised!

They lied. Well, sort of.

I showed up at 6:45 and the auditorium was already half full. Huh. Doors must have opened at 6:30 or even 6:15, I thought. Mental note to come even earlier next year. (Usually I arrive early enough to park in their lot and walk through the neighborhood to enjoy the historic buildings.)

As usual, the concert did not disappoint. The program listed many of the same people. Some new performers. Other performers from past years were missing. (The trombone player who hams it up was noticeably absent though his soprano singing wife performed.)

Mark Herman who normally plays the organ through the silent Halloween films joined the roster this year. Two other singers who are choral directors in the Indiana school system filled in for Rick Vale, the usual co-host who was missing due to a cold. (Kayla Shoemaker and Jennie Swick were great additions with their beautiful voices!)

Randall Frieling and Rick Vale usually co-host with friendly comedic banter between them. With Rick absent, Randall was forced to ham it up on his own, which he did a very good job of.

The Circle City Ringers were back with many familiar faces in its ranks. Their bells are a delight to hear—even they mixed it up with a song that involved choreographed tapping of sticks and stomping (…which earned playful ribbing from Randall).

Phoenix Park-Kim and Randall performed a couple duets on the piano. They are always amazing. Listening to Phoenix play solo is a true joy too.

The 1892 organ was put to good use with Mark’s and Randall’s playful competition of church vs. theatre organ playing. (I haven’t really considered the difference before. Organ music is organ music, right? Well, no.) Mark even coaxed the organ into imitating a train for an adaption of Santa Claus is Coming to Town (on a train rather than a sleigh.)

One thing I realized as a listened to the performers and watched them sing and play was how much they enjoyed what they were doing. Most of them had smiles coming from deep inside. They truly enjoyed what they were doing. And I truly enjoy performances where performers are carried away by their own enjoyment of performing.

The attendees of these annual Indiana Landmarks holiday concerts are truly blessed. The musicians and singers who perform actually perform around the country and the world. Herman plays globally and Frieling has played in such venues as Carnegie Hall. (I noticed the Frieling is now listed as associated with a Florida church rather than his previous Anderson church.) Thankfully they all find their way back to Indy.

Judging by the crowd, I am not the only one who appreciates their talents. I would encourage you to join us next year, but I don’t want the concert to become too popular. Best to keep it a secret than to spread the news of world-renown performers appearing in our Indiana neck of the woods for a holiday concert.

Art favorites: Plate with black on black feather design

I was first introduced to Maria Martinez at the Swope Art Museum in Terra Haute, Indiana. Her pottery is quite striking. So I was delighted when I stumbled across a work of hers at the re-opening of the Design Gallery at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Plate with black on black feather design
Maria Martinez
Native American (1887-1980)
1950-1960
Indianapolis Museum of Art

Art favorites: Mushrooms on a Blue Background

Mushrooms on a Blue Background is stunning for its boldness of color and shapes. It seems deceptively simple, as though anyone could have painted it. But this just isn’t the case. Rather the painting shows that talent can make something look so simple that isn’t.

I love the shades of blue and brown, the shadows that the mushrooms throw, the lines around them delineating their boundaries—and how all of these make the entire painting pop.

Mushrooms on a Blue Background
Marsden Hartley
American, 1877-1943
1929
Indianapolis Museum of Art