Monday, February 27, 2012

a notebook mystery

Work avoidance is an art form, as I've noted before. I'm in especially fine form today in that regard, sitting here at the exclusive Center for Research at Dilettante Enterprises International at 11:16 AM, still wearing my Scrabble pajamas, sipping on reheated butterscotch coffee and listening to my new album, "Classical Goes to the Movies: 50 Blockbuster Hits", busy trying to decide what Rev and Donata will be snacking on in the deceptively lighthearted limo scene of my chapter 67 rewrite.

One of my various little fixations of late is an old notebook I found within a box of papers from my late grandmother's estate that I hadn't fully examined until recently. I love a good mystery, and that's just what this is. It takes the unassuming form of a putty-gray paper folder, the kind with built-in brass brads for holding three-ring punched paper. The folder's edges are wavy, fraying and amber to about one-quarter inch all around, not bad, minimal decay from its several decades' wait for me to find and preserve it. On the cover, in an almost-familiar female hand from a generation preceding mine, is the title, "History of Art 190-B". A typewritten outline-form class syllabus is clasped and apparently complete within its covers. No expert am I in the history of document duplication, but the typing is in black and predates modern photocopying, not to mention the fragrant blue-inked ditto-machine handouts of my own school years.

Front and back, from first page to last, the neatly-typed outlines are gloriously dense with student sketches and marginalia. These notes were written quickly and very informally in both pencil and ink during lectures that probably included images of various works of art on an overhead projector.

What lectures, what instructor? At least that much is known: Contra Costa Junior College West Campus (I'll ask my father when they changed its name to Community College), Instructor Mr. Eakle. More about him in a moment.

Nowhere in this notebook can I find the student's name. Therein lies the first mystery. The handwriting is like that of my late mother, and yet not quite, and it occurs to me the handwriting in those days seems to have varied less from person to person than that of today. I know my mother went to CCJC, as did my father, but my father doesn't remember her having studied art history there, despite her interest in art. And there's something telling about the lack of her name anywhere; my mother was almost obsessively fond of putting her name upon everything she owned, at least during the years I knew her.

Did my Grandma (her mother) take this class? The handwriting is similar to that of hers, but I would need to study it more closely. Did she enroll in a college course in art once her children were grown? Possibly, but for other reasons that doesn't seem quite right either, although she was a librarian for decades and definitely interested in the arts. Did she run across this notebook during her time of employment at the San Pablo Public Library? The college wasn't far away so this was geographically possible. Did she rescue it from the lost and found, or a dustbin? That's certainly possible given her personal habit of hoarding books and printed matter.

From the mention near the end of the notes of the modern artist John Marin that gives his death as 1954, we at least know the syllabus of the mystery student was from no earlier than that. This now rules out my mother, who was married in 1952, busy having me in 1953, and more or less stuck at home until she got her driver's license and her own little Austin America in the late 60s.

Tabling the nagging question of authorship for now, I forge ahead online, in this, our Glorious Era of Information, and within seconds learn something quite wonderful about this mysterious fellow Eakle.

From the website I find the following notes:

James Eakle studied at the University of California 1939-1943, 1950 (MFA); California School of Fine Arts from 1947-1948 (BFA) under Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhart. Eakle spent his entire career as an art instructor and eventually head of the art department at Contra Costa College where he hired many well known active Bay Area artists to its faculty including David Simpson, John Battenberg, and Robert McLean. He continued to paint until his death in 1997.

--end quoted material.

My own art history teacher during my community college days, a gentleman named Bruce Watson, was quite good at presenting similar material. I wonder if Eakle was gifted at the lecturn and conveyed enthusiasm as well as his obvious acumen? He studied under some of the most famous painters of the modern era. What did he and his students think of modern art's relationship to what came before? How much verbal exchange did he have with students during his classes? The outlines and notes are all about the various formal qualities of various times, locations, and works. Did he attempt to discuss why art means something to us, or was this implied? Did he love to teach, or was it just to pay his bills? I may never know, but I like to think his classes were a worthwhile time expenditure during the finite life of whoever's notes I hold in my hand.

Further digging online has revealed no other mentions of James Eakle, no images of paintings. So far at least, despite a promising start, I've turned up almost nothing.

I return my attention to the date of this artifact. If the notes are to trusted, abstract expressionist artist Georges Rouault had not yet passed away, which was 1958. It merely shows the typical parenthetical born date followed by the usual grim reminder, a blank space. This would seem to imply a time frame for the syllabus of 1953 to 1958, but this conclusion isn't reliable. Interestingly enough, Eakle's notes do not cite the date of Raoul Dufy's passing, which was 1953. Perhaps it wasn't convenient to re-do these pages and Eakle waited until the next semester break to update it.

Max Beckmann-- always a favorite of mine since seeing his amazing, lively paintings during our many family visits to the M.H. De Young Museum-- is noted as having passed in 1952. (Someone over in Wickipedia-land cites it as 1950, a discrepancy that reminds me that it's an online encyclopedia, not the Brittanica).

If these various dates were more consistent our detective work could be more solid. Although Paul Klee passed away in 1940, that date hadn't yet been entered into Eakle's notes. That everything wasn't entirely current might only mean he prepared the text at the start of his teaching career. But maybe it's not that it's so vital to know the precise year as much as it is to come to terms with not knowing.

It gives me various odd feelings to read this document. For one thing, from years of exposure to the world of art, a world I consider both wonderful and absurd, I've come to think of these artists as mythological figures rather than people. And yet I'm reminded that many of them lived and passed away during my own lifetime: Yet to leave the world were Oskar Kokoschka, Andre Derain, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Man Ray. Now they are all of a category, so many famous names, so many figures from art history.

As always, this kind of journey is a wandering one.

The class notes themselves are mysterious in their lack of ancillary comments. Nowhere, for instance, does the student's attention wander into a series of bored and mindless squiggles. No notations about another class, no personal memorandum like "don't forget-- buy tuna". It would seem that at least during those lectures, all those painstakingly detailed talks of line and color and dynamic symmetry and chiaroscuro and who influenced whom, they were focused and attentive.

There are various seemingly unrelated pieces of paper that have been inserted into this folder many years later that argue for it being my grandma's property: dated 1986, a brief dream account accompanied by a sketch, the whole thing transcribed on die cut heavy stock that looks like the insert to a packet of women's hosiery; on a series of unlined sheet the lyrics to "Blue Hawaii" and several other songs. Some notes appear to be related to the class, but were written with a looser (although not entirely dissimilar) hand. I hold unwavering to my notion the student was female.

No name anywhere, no Iris Fylstra, no Jane Doe Student.

One immediate and vivid image in my mind's eye, whenever I handle an artifact from another time, is that of lines being drawn through the space-time continuum for each of its various elements. A folder, some paper, someone at his typewriter preparing the syllabus; meanwhile somewhere else, someone is born, moves forward through time and space in a specific path, and decides to take an art class. At some point the papers were inserted into the folder, the tines of the brads bent into position where they have, quite possibly, remained in uninterrupted service holding those pieces of paper from that point forward. The folder was carried to and from class, day after day, opened and closed countless times, tucked into a valise or satchel, taken out at a desk for an evening's study prior to an exam. What desk, what street, and for how many hours?

And forward through time and space it goes, from one home to a box to another home to another box, handled by a series of people for various reasons, packed and unpacked and read, or not read.

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