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In Search of Lorenzo Lawrence

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

In Search of Lorenzo Lawrence is a story about identity lost and found. Dr. Elden Lawrence (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota) is a Dakota scholar and writer. For the past several years, Elden has been doing research in the MHS collections, trying to find out more about his ancestor Lorenzo Lawrence, who played a key role in the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. Lorenzo Lawrence is an enigmatic and controversial figure. Well-known in the 1860s, by the late 1880s he disappears into the mists of time. Elden is slowly piecing together the puzzle of Lorenzo’s life. His biggest thrill came in September 2008 when, through a chance meeting with a stranger, he found a photograph of Lorenzo Lawrence.   Directed and produced by Ellen Miller and John Fulton.

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Woods, Words, and Art

Friday, May 15th, 2009

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

In 1950 the Japanese created the title of Ningen Kokuhō or Living National Treasure for select artists who are both masters of their craft and keepers of an important aspect of their culture. As a local wood engraver and fine press printer,  Gaylord Schanilec is such a living treasure.

The Minnesota Historical Society Library recently purchased the deluxe edition (one of 26 copies) of Schanilec’s latest work –  the complicated, beautiful and unusual book Sylvæ. The book combines Schanilec’s artistic and printing prowess with Ben Verhoeven’s research and printing help to document twenty four varieties of trees on Schanilec’s 20 acres near Stockholm, Wisconsin. The book was acquired with the generous support of C. A. Weyerhaeuser Funds. The book, along with a selection of wood prints, plates, and tools used to create it, are all on display in the Library Lobby now through the end of July.

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Cameron Booth?

Friday, May 15th, 2009

Cameron Booth

Portrait of a Soldier, 1918

Oil on board

In 2008, the Historical Society was the grateful recipient of a generous gift from Eva and Michelle Terrell, Portrait of a Soldier, by Cameron Booth. An extraordinary early painting by one of Minnesota’s best known 20th century artists, this oil sketch portrays a somewhat gaunt, uniformed soldier with a piercing gaze. It is signed with somber formality “George Cameron Booth, A.E.F. (American Expeditionary Force) France, 1918.”

Cameron Booth was born in Pennsylvania in 1892 and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1912 to 1917. Following his service in World War I, Booth accepted a teaching position in 1921 at the Minneapolis School of Art and made Minnesota his permanent home. Throughout his lengthy career he exhibited widely and received recognition for his artistic ability and teaching experience.

But, is this painting a portrait of an anonymous soldier, or a portrait of the artist himself?

We do know that Booth was indeed in France in 1918. The formality of the signature reads more like a title (or an epitaph) and the description on Booth’s draft registration card (bald, blue eyes) matches the person in the painting. But the painting’s history after its creation is mostly unknown. Before arriving to Minnesota, it was in a private collection in California and misidentified as a portrait of another Minnesota artist Adolf Dehn. The painting has been shown to a number of people who knew Booth in his later years but the results have been inconclusive.

The earliest image of Booth in the Minnesota Historical Society’s photograph collection is from the late 1930s—nearly twenty years after the portrait was painted. Similarities between the portrait and the photograph certainly exist but until a picture of Booth from the same time period is located, the work will be identified simply as Portrait of a Soldier.

This recent acquisition is the 55th painting by Cameron Booth in our fine art collection of more the 6,000 works of art. Many thanks to Eva and Michelle Terrell for this gift to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Brian Szott, Curator of Art

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A Working Class Poet Is Something to Be

Friday, May 15th, 2009

First I’ll begin with an apology to the faithful readers of this blog. It has been too long between entries and I promise that will not happen again. There was an unusual confluence of good news leading me to rest on my laurels and bad news resulting in a furlough here at the MHS. [Op-ed: Please feel free to contact your elected officials to lobby for the resources necessary to maintain the high quality of the Historical Society.]

We also apologize for missing National Poetry Month and will make up for that by nominating an extraordinary work that qualifies for our canon; for anyone’s canon.

Thomas McGrath. Letter to an Imaginary Friend. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1962.

Born in North Dakota in 1916, McGrath became our Walt Whitman with the publication of his “pseudo-autobiography,” Letters. McGrath was a working class, radical, political poet, which usually damns one to obscurity, and this may explain why his work is not better known. But most critics agree that McGrath’s politics do not interfere with his art and in fact his experience as a farm boy, logger, rider of rails, shipyard welder, labor organizer, and soldier (as well as Rhodes Scholar) provide him with the raw material to write work that is as historic as it is insightful. The work is sensual, lusty, and manly (just in case you, dear male reader, might be poetry adverse). “Love and hunger!-that is my whole story” is a line from the book. Nature also plays an important part in McGrath’s poetry as it did in his life.

Sometimes at evening with the dusk sifting down through the
And the trees like a smudge on the white hills and the hills
Into the hushed light, into the huge, the looming, holy
Night:–sometimes, then, in the pause and balance
Between dark and day, with the noise of our labor stilled,
And still in ourselves we felt our kinship, our commune
Against the cold.

McGrath would go on to add parts II, III, and, in 1985, part IV to this narrative epic poem. All four parts were published in a definitive text edition by Copper Canyon Press in 1997, seven years after the poet’s death in Minneapolis.

To further entice you to read McGrath see the article about him from the New York Times Review of Books.

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1955 Ford Customline Sedan

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Three-dimensional objects in the Society’s collection come in all shapes and sizes. While most are small enough to display in a glass case, others take up more room. Such is the case with one of my favorites, a 1955 Ford Customline Sedan. The car is one of our most recent acquisitions, and currently is on display in the Minnesota’s Greatest Generation exhibit. The Ford has a special use history, having belonged to three generations of a single family. While that story is told in one of our podcasts, in this space I’d like to focus on the car itself.

The Customline series was Ford’s mid-line entry. It was fancier than the spartan Mainline, but not as well-equipped as the Fairlane model. Ford built more than 235,000 four door (or “Fordor,” to use the company’s clever spelling) Customlines in 1955, making it one of the most popular models. The 1955 cars are distinguished by their wrap-around windshields and “egg crate” grilles, as well as their optional seat belts and air conditioners – both Ford firsts that year.

This car is somewhat unique among our objects in being so well-documented, beyond the family’s own recollections. The car’s serial number, A5PG167947, yields all sorts of information once it is decoded. The “A” identifies the engine as a six-cylinder overhead cam with 101 horsepower. The “5″ denotes the model year of 1955. The “P” designates the place of production as the Twin Cities Assembly Plant in St. Paul. The “G” identifies the body style, while the numerals indicate the car’s consecutive unit number. Other codes reveal the car’s body type, trim work, and color – “Mountain Green” in this case.

The sedan is equipped with a three-speed “Fordomatic” automatic transmission, an AM radio (added in the early 1970s but of the appropriate vintage), and Ford’s “Magic Air” system, which allowed the cabin to heat up and the windows to defrost much faster – certainly handy in Minnesota. While the car does have seat belts, they are after-market add-ons, and not original Ford components. Other custom features installed by the owners include plastic seat covers, a Goldy Gopher window decal, and a loud klaxon affectionately described as an “oogah” horn.

All in all, it’s a pretty special piece. The car was built in Minnesota and driven in Minnesota by the same family for three generations. It relates to transportation, manufacturing, and – in the context in which it is displayed now – post-war consumer culture. And did I mention that it has just 42,300 original miles?

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

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1955 Ford Sedan: Vehicle for Family History

Monday, May 4th, 2009

Collections Curator Matt Anderson presents the story of a 1955 Ford Sedan MHS acquired for the Minnesota’s Greatest Generation exhibit. The car was purchased new, and then driven by three generations of the Bergan-Carr family before arriving in our collection. Oral history, family photos, and film of the St. Paul Ford plant add to the story.

Read more about the car’s technical specifications in a separate post under “Our Favorite Things.”

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An Ounce of Preservation: A Guide to the Care of Papers and Photographs