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Art and Memory


In our two-story condo, the first floor encompasses three adjoining open spaces. I'd come downstairs for a break from accomplishing nothing on my laptop, crossed the kitchen and entered the living-dining area, when I noticed the painting perched on our small upright piano. The table where I scribble this in one corner of the condo's back wall provides a straight-ahead view of piano, living room furniture, seldom-used gas fireplace, coat closet, and front wall with two tall windows and matching entranceway. To the right is our kitchen counter-breakfast area, kitchen cabinets, refrigerator, and hallway leading to the garage and the stairway to our second floor. It's pretty compact but not a particularly crowded space.


Almost every wall displays images in various sizes and varying media, some random purchases, some gifts, all having hung in those spaces for years. Only the small landscape painting propped on the piano keyboard is a new acquisition—it will likely adorn a different space elsewhere in the condo before long. Even as I crossed over to study it more closely again, memories began opening up about the scene in the painting and also about the painter, and then memories started spreading around the room.


The painting is a watercolor that depicts a cluster of buildings and boats along a riverbank below a distant church spire and empty pale blue sky. It's a scene set in St. Joseph, Michigan, where the artist, my mother-in-law, lived most of her life and where my wife and her siblings grew up. We have other paintings by her, one hanging behind our dining table. That one, one of her most accomplished paintings, larger and more colorful, portrays sand dunes, beach, cloud-filled sky, lake shoreline, dark clumps of beach grass and weathered trees. We'd passed the setting often when we visited St. Joe and strolled along the Lake Michigan shore. It has a prominent spot in our home.


Kitty-corner from that picture is another personally connected one, a large bright painting by our friend Carole Steinberg Berk of a cluster of buildings on a Greek island where she and her husband Mike once vacationed—other images by her hang upstairs in our bedroom. The island image is a vivid balance of white buildings and blue sea and sky. When you enter our front door, you immediately have the clearest view of those shoreline paintings, suggesting that we are fond of landscapes and also fond of those artists. That they simultaneously commemorate losses in family and friendship will not be obvious.


Other artworks upon our walls have personal links for us: our daughter's close-up photograph of a leaf; a former student's photograph from above the Mackinac Bridge; a picture of three white horses sharing a quilt and bed pillows for the essayist Kathleen Stocking's book The Long Arc of the Universe; landscape photos from Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail and Door Peninsula. For the most part, every time I pause again to study one of these pictures, I open a door to memories of the artist and/or the donor and/or the locale.


Unlike the sand dune shoreline painting, which we received after my mother-in-law's death several decades ago, we only recently acquired the picture of the riverbank, though we'd seen it long before. For all those years, my brother-in-law—my wife's twin—possessed it. She received it a few months ago, after her brother's unexpected death. Looking at that painting, I can't help shifting my gaze to those by my mother-in-law and my friend's widow. A wave of melancholy arises from them all.


Eventually, inevitably, all these paintings and other artwork will be passed on—hopefully not soon—most likely to our heirs, who will decide whether to keep them or donate them elsewhere. As we look at them and recognize their sources, abundant images arise—of conversations, games, rooms and residences, holiday gatherings, emotions deep in memory. Our children will have some similar recollections of their grandparents and their uncle and places they once visited—the family home in St. Joe, recent summer gatherings on the Leelanau Peninsula—but it's unlikely that the artifacts I survey here will trigger the same specific thoughts.


And then the images will stand on their own. For other, unrelated casual viewers they may provoke responses to composition quality, memories of other images, or ideas about how to render such a scene, but those viewers will likely have little sense of who the artist was or what compelled the creation of the scene. Whatever the art inspires in them will not be what surfaces in those of us who stand before it now, making connections only the artist's family can make. We consider our losses a lot these days. It's good to be reminded, while we can be, of what we deeply valued—and value still.


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