Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Archiving Their Art

Lately I have been--with the assistance of Valery and Madelaine--engaged in the task of cataloging and archiving Lynda's artwork and Bill's photographs. What I have discovered as part of this process is that Lynda was far more prolific and significantly more interesting than I had realized, whereas Bill's work was far narrower in both it's volume and scope than I had expected.

Lynda's work was all around me for many years and still is, so it should come as no surprise that she was remarkably prolific. As I undertake the task of archiving her paintings, however, it becomes obvious in a very physical sort of way.

After the fire that essentially destroyed her studio in 2005, we faced the arduous job of sorting through all of her now blackened materials and supplies, stacks of drawings and the dozens of soot-covered canvases that had lined the walls of her one-room studio and the halls outside. They were stacked against the walls and filled one third of the studio. Those that were not too badly damaged we removed the paintings, drawings and boxes of supplies to a storage unit. That was a job for Stephen and me, as Lynda was clearly not up to the task, physically or emotionally.

The supplies were not simply not salvageable. It was heartbreaking to throw away all the paint, brushes and pencils that she'd collected for years. We filled sack after sack with the soot-covered remains of a lifetime of craft. I saw pencils that I recognized from days when her 'studio' was nothing more than part of the kitchen after supper, simply thrown away with a dozen others. It's just stuff after all, but it was impossible to escape the sense of loss.

Though there was very little serious damage to the paintings, that damn soot was, to say the least, insidious. It was--still is--everywhere. It had settled onto the top edge of every painting; those stacked in the back merely had soot there, while those on the wall were subject to the forces of gravity and thus came out covered in a fine black film that still obscures them. it is enough to notice but not enough to justify destroying them.

Destruction is, I guess, a relative term. Certainly Lynda--natural pessimist that she was--held out no hope for salvaging the body of her work, but I was convinced otherwise, and still am.

Many of her drawings--especially the ones actually sitting out on the table or in a bin by the wall--were beyond hope and thus were lost to the trash bags. Other drawings--the majority, thankfully--that were piled up in books and journals were untouched.

Most of the paintings offered some hope of recovery. We gave it our best effort, in any case. Over the next six to eight months or so, Lynda and I spent several hours on Sundays cleaning each and every painting with baby wipes and paper towels. Some didn't make it. Most did, however just to remain in storage from that point on.

They are still in storage, but as I said, we are now engaged in the process of archiving her work. This means one last pass through the stacks of canvasses. Our goal is to move the entire batch into a smaller--thus more affordable in the long run--and climate-controlled storage unit.

Before that can happen however, we have to photograph and measure each work, wrap it first in plastic and then in paper to protect it from the elements and insects. Each painting takes about fifteen minutes to half an hour to process. Even though we've already done twenty-eight of them, we still have more than seventy five canvasses to go.

Bill's photographs, on the other hand, pose less of a problem when it comes to the issue of archiving. For one thing, although there are far more photographs of Bill's than Lynda's paintings, the photographs are not nearly as compelling as objects worth the effort of saving and thus may be sooner lost to history.

Why? In the box of his photos that was handed down to me after his death in 1981, although there were literally dozens of series of photographs that he took over the years, most of the fading Kodachrome images have simply lost their reason for being. Without him here to explain to us where and why he took these photos, the images are vapid, cluttered and ultimately, meaningless. Honestly, unless someone appears in the image that I can recognize there is no reason I can think of to save these fading pieces of paper.

The negatives are another matter. These are being carefully sorted, numbered and saved. For now that's all I have the time or inclination to do. Eventually they should be digitized, cataloged and properly archived, but that is a task I am not sure I am up for. At that point I'd be faced with similar questions about what to keep and what to throw away.

Even though digitizing Bill's negatives minimizes, literally, the need for culling the work, surely not all of them deserve saving. Is it really possible to imagine a situation in which all of his work might be considered a valuable archive? Does his body of work really constitute sufficient value for the future in the way that Lynda's art might?

This is not to say that Bill was not a good photographer or that Lynda was a great painter. This is an observation about my encounter with my parents' art as extensions of their personalities, even and especially now, after death.

I am surprised to find how little of Bill's vision was captured on film and how much of Lynda's still emerges from soot-shrouded paint.

1 comment:

d2 said...

Um, I'll take those photos if you don't want them. I can pay you for the shipment...