Schonbek, It Is In Your DNA


I was talking on the phone with my Mom this morning to get the latest poop and I found out that my Grandma Birmingham (my father's mother) worked in a printshop up until the early 1980s.  It was a simple operation that printed whatever jobs came in the door.  She worked on everything from business cards and promotional material to holiday cards.  My Mom says Betty saw it as largely a job.  A diverting of her creative talents as an artist.  I must have been aware of this at some point, probably when I was a teenager but I had completely forgotten about it.  Being reminded of this piece of family history really makes my day. 

What I remember most about my Grandma B was that she was, as I mentioned, an accomplished artist.  She attended Cooper Union in the 1930s and painted her entire life.  I distinctly recall her painting in the summers on Block Island and I have hanging in my house her painting of the house we rented for several summers overlooking New Harbor, home of The Oar, a great bar to drink Goombay Smashes while watching the boats come in and the sun slip below the horizon.  Late in her life, she was doing abstracts of street scenes, like of the line of rowhouses I live in now, in the manner of Cezanne.  She was always evolving and exploring personally and artistically.

When my Grandfather died, his mania for paper had pretty much taken over the house.  Entire rooms were packed with old newspapers, playbills, Petty and Vargas calendars, Pratt & Whitney publications (where he worked for years), and sports programs, including a copy of the program from the 1941 World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers.  My Grandfather meticulously kept score and in this program Mickey Owens's dropped third strike is dutifully recorded.  He seemingly threw nothing away.  For example, he had every playbill for every theater event he and my Grandma ever attended.  Hundreds.  He kept the front pages of various newspapers documenting historic events:  Hiroshima, the Moon Landing, the JFK Assassination.  His penchant for what I hestiate to call hoarding is now my obsession with book collecting.  My "orderly" archive always threatens to devolve into his "disorder" and "clutter."  His archive and mine are of course related.  Such relations are messy and complicated.  Bibliomania courses through my bloodstream, like ink.  It is in my DNA.  Soon after my Grandfather's death, my Grandma cleaned the entire house and had a working art studio built as an addition to the back of the house, full of sunlight and color, as opposed to the black and white of newsprint.  As a college English major coming down from Boston for Thanksgiving dinner, I realized pretty quickly that it was her room of her own.

So I am happy to re-learn that my love of print, typography, and the appreciation of printing as an art form was also a foregone conclusion.  I was born into it.  Besides my Grandma's sketchbooks and artwork, another item that was handed down to me after her death was a copy of Oscar Ogg's The 26 Letters.  I always appreciated the book as a memento of my family history (like her copy of Adrienne Rich's Diving Into The Wreck or Elizabeth Bishop's Collected Poems - which I have thought about deeply in relation to my Grandma's personal history and what those books say about her and her passions and aspriations), but after speaking with my Mom this morning the Ogg acquired further layers of meaning and importance. 

Books as objects do that over time.  They collect and accumulate dust, memories, and history.  Print is never fixed.  It also never dies.   

JB

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