October 25, 2005

Music is all in the family

Filed under: Art and About Family — admin @ 3:28 pm

I have always been fascinated by why I am the way I am. What components of my character are cultural or genetic? Why do I act the way I do, like the things I like, and pursue the fields I pursue?

My queries on this subject sometimes focus specifically on how my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. passed on DNA for certain talents, interests, skills and abilities.

Sometimes I focus on my American-ness. I have studied how Americans have gotten to be so American. What portion of our collective personality came over on the Mayflower? Or on a ship through Ellis Island? Or on a slave vessel?

On an individual level, for those of us who are not of Native American descent, can we still find in ourselves a little bit of our ancestral homeland, even multiple generations removed from that geography?

From there, my question gets even broader. If I assert that England is the cultural seed of America, then how did England get to be the way it is? What part of England was Anglo before the influence of the Saxons infiltrated enough to create a hyphenated Anglo-Saxon culture? What part did the Jutes, Franks and Frisians play? And don’t forget the Romans. And the part religion played through the development of Christianity. I can literally take my ponderings back to the beginning of time. (This was my focus as a history major in college, can you tell?)

Having children only bolstered my interest in these topics. As I watch how they develop, I smile when I notice the repeating themes from my side or their dad’s side of the family. Even so, I recently learned that my interest in the past caused me to overlook family history making in the present. The lesson came via my cousin, Kelly.
My cousins on the Engelbrecht side of the family are all quite a bit older than I am. When I was born, most of them were more than a decade ahead of me. My oldest cousin is only a few months younger than my mom. None of my cousins lived in California. I saw them fairly often, but I did not have a real relationship with any of them.

When I was a teen, Kelly moved to Menlo Park and as a local relative, he became a regular at family events and holidays. I am a quiet person and he is a quiet person. He would ask me questions and keep track of what I was up to. As a teen, I didn’t think to ask him anything about himself.

Just as I entered adulthood and was ready to have more of an adult relationship with Kelly, he moved to Vienna where he has been ever since. He’s very faithful about visiting me when he’s in town, but that isn’t very often.

On one such visit, I was delighted to learn that he had an interest in Engelbrecht family history and was actively documenting and archiving as much about the past as he could. That was a major thing to have in common, but it didn’t surprise me because we have several folks in the family with that same interest in questing for our forefathers and foremothers.

But this past Labor Day, he bowled me over when he handed me a CD he had made. It was just a hand-copied version of some songs he said he had recorded with a group of musicians. I inferred that he had written the songs. I asked for no more information and he didn’t give any. After he left, I listened to the title track, “Yesterday Forever,” and thought it was catchy.

I didn’t get back to listening to the entire CD until he sent me the final version in the mail, in a real jewel box with a real booklet with photos, lyrics and credits. I didn’t read any of that, though, before popping the CD in my car player on my way to my daughter’s soccer class. So I was completely caught off guard to hear my cousin’s lyrics sharing some incredibly personal facets of his life story. I felt like he was letting me read his journal and it was very emotional for me. Through his music I was experiencing living history.

After soccer class, I rushed home so I could read the CD booklet. I needed to know more. Who was singing? Who were the musicians? Did Kelly really write the songs? I was stunned to learn that he wrote the music, lyrics, sang and played acoustic guitar on the recording. I was overcome by incredible familial pride and also ashamed that I never knew this musical side of him. We have a lot of musicians in our family. I had never grouped Kelly with them. I realized I didn’t know as much as I thought about the people I come from.

I have opened my eyes to looking for answers in the present, as well as the past. Who knows what clues to my origin lie in others who are walking and breathing and singing in the here and now.

If you’re curious, you can listen to samples of “Yesterday Forever” at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/quininetribe.

March 31, 2005

What’s in a name?

Filed under: Art and About Family — admin @ 3:55 pm

The art each of us produces is supposed to be autobiographical, but I never thought it would happen to me. Although I live an artful life, much of what I make with my hands I classify more as pragmatic, utilitarian crafts. The greatest message I believe most of my artsy-craftsy projects project is that I am a pragmatic, utilitarian kind of gal. My latest project started out as another practical endeavor but secretly, I was revealing a truth about myself I never knew.

Our hall bathroom has a blank wall directly facing the door. There is a lot of cool family memorabilia in the bathroom, which is our play on the term “family bath,” but you have to walk into the room to see it. We needed something on that blank wall to lure people in, and capture the theme of the room to passersby.

Since it is a bathroom, we decided an attractive medicine cabinet would serve storage needs and be nice to look at. But the piece had to have some history about it. I was fortunate to find a $5 solid oak cabinet at the Oakland Museum’s White Elephant Sale. It needed some love, but it matched the other woodwork in the room perfectly. Now I needed to turn the practical into an art statement.

A wide, wooden frame surrounding both the mirrored door and the shelving portion of the cabinet were just asking to be carved. The place in my brain that sends up ideas while I take a shower exclaimed, “How about a quote about the importance of family.” Google helped me find the perfect quote by Gail Lumet Buckley: “Family faces are magic mirrors. Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present and future.” I decided to paint this prose on the mirror and carve all the surnames I could collect from both sides of the family that have contributed to my kids’ bloodline.

I started emailing my relatives and my husband’s relatives and the names started pouring in. The list grew, and I started to carve what I call The Parade of Maiden Names into the cabinet. My name, Engelbrecht, and my husband’s name, Smyth, are centered on the mirror doorframe and the generations of names follow up and down the cabinet.

This process made me examine my name. Although it is a difficult name for Americans to spell and pronounce, there was never really a time in my life that I intended to change it when I got married. My parents would joke that I used to say I hoped I married a man named “Smith” or “Jones,” but I didn’t really wish for that. Besides, I did end up marrying a man named “Smyth,” but no one can spell or pronounce his name either.

I grew up in a very traditional household. I do not consider myself a feminist. It just never made sense to me to change my name. I was born Christina Engelbrecht and that’s just who I am. My paternal relatives are a very proud and vocal people and I knew from day one what it meant to be an Engelbrecht woman. When I was in my early 20s, my maternal grandmother wrote a history of my mom’s family. It wasn’t until then that I realized, “Wow, these are pretty cool people and I barely know anything about them.”

While collecting names for the cabinet, I talked to several people on both sides of the family who regrettably had lost track of the family that belonged to their mother or grandmother. Some relatives couldn’t even remember their grandmothers’ maiden names. An extensive family tree on my husband’s side goes back to the 1600s with one surname, and most of the carriers of that name have their wife’s maiden name identified on the tree. But it took a lot more work for me to trace the tree that went with each of those maiden names, even though their ancestral contribution to the family is just as important as the men’s.

A light came on with the cabinet carving that I am not an Engelbrecht woman. I am a Ritter-Engelbrecht woman. Or more accurately, a Roebker-Maetting-Kuhlman-Wagener-Brunow-Bruening-Steege-Sept-Keller-Kudzinskly-Ritter-Engelbrecht woman, and I am not going to forget that.

March 14, 2005

Our family Dragon

Filed under: Art and About Family — admin @ 2:39 pm

If I had to rank the arts in the order in which they emotionally stimulate me, I would have to put painting near the bottom. It would be miles ahead of, say, rap music, but well below theater, music and movies. I am in awe of people who can speak through paint, but paintings themselves often don’t speak to me.

We have a lot of artwork hanging up in our house. Less than a half of one percent involves brushstrokes of any kind, and that is because my husband has some Asian brushwork in his office.

I brought no paintings into our marriage and my husband brought one. It is entitled “Khisanth’s Lair,” portraying a rather fierce looking dragon guarding his treasure while some armored gents invade his cave. It is a scene from a book my husband enjoyed, although now he can’t remember the title. He bought the painting while in college and paid a small fortune, in college-student terms. The Dragon, as we call it, hid in a box for several years awaiting a wall of honor in our first home.

I didn’t like The Dragon when I first saw it. Not only did I find the subject a bit frightening, but I am not ordinarily a fan of the fantasy genre and the painting underscored the nerdy side of my husband. But when we bought our first house, my husband announced his intention to hang the dragon. I had to acquiesce, although I requested it be hung in his office.

I couldn’t control how my husband felt about the painting, but I could control the environment in which it was hung. The walls of Khisanth’s cave are deep blue and artist Tom Denmark painted them as if candlelight is casting light and dark blue ellipses around the lair. I imitated those elliptical shade variances using a faux finish on the walls of the office so that it was as if the whole room was Khisanth’s lair. This made the setting acceptable to me, even if the painting wasn’t.

The Dragon hung to the side of the office computer, and as I used to wait for something to download, or for writer’s block to clear up, I would stare at it. I began to admire the painter’s technique, making the coins and gems of Khisanth’s treasure glisten in the light through manipulating color and shape on a flat canvas. At moments, I was convinced that if I could touch that treasure through the framed glass, the coins and gems would feel authentic. I still wasn’t a fan of the painting, but I appreciate the talent behind it.

When we moved to house number two, the family office was downstairs while the main living floor was upstairs. We decided to hang The Dragon over my desk in the living room. But we moved from that house in only 10 months, and The Dragon was packed away in its box.

Its intended destination in house number three was back in the office, but two years passed and something kept us from hanging it. It was always way down on the weekend to-do list.

Over the last several months, we have been converting a spare bedroom to a library. One wall is perfect for The Dragon so we took it out of hiding last month and hung it. We stepped back to admire it. My husband had a satisfied smile, my son squealed with delight, my daughter said “Whoa!” and I cried. It felt like a reunion with an old friend whom I hadn’t even realized I missed. Now our treasured Dragon is on the job guarding our treasured family books.

August 18, 2004

Mosaics, quilts and DNA

Filed under: Art and About Family — admin @ 3:43 pm

I’ve been wondering a lot lately whether artistic style is hereditary. We just bought a house and have a lot of redecorating and remodeling plans in the works to make the house “our own.” As a creative starting point, I decided to try to define what “our own” looks like.

I’ll preface this exercise by admitting that like many American couples, “our own” looks more like “my own” than “my husband’s own.”  Fortunately our tastes are tremendously similar, which makes decorating easy in our house. Hubby will definitely squawk when I make an aesthetic decision that he finds morally offensive, but otherwise we have excellent give and take in the idea-exchange department.
What I learned when I examined our style is that we live in a giant grid. Our design is very linear, with the dominant shapes being squares and rectangles. Our favorite pieces of furniture have straight lines and square shapes. Our art is hung in rectangular frames grouped in rectangular configurations. Our favorite rug has a square pattern on it. We use patchwork quilts and pillows as accent pieces. I adore a coffee table my husband made in junior high, which has an oak frame surrounding a tile chessboard design. We have a decorating theme with almost no variation.

Although I like the sense of order communicated to me through squares and straight lines, I have had to wonder if I am drawn to living life in a grid because of my forebears. My mother and grandmother quilt. My paternal grandfather was a mosaic artist. None of them has been confined to square designs, but there is a strong rectilinear component to their chosen artforms.

Although I don’t often express myself through visual art, when I do, my chosen artform is decoupage, which I consider a lazy-woman’s version of mosaic or quilting. Decoupage designs are unlimited in their freedom of movement, but mine are all comprised of squares and rectangles. This was not a conscious decision at the time of creation, but something I have noticed in retrospect. It’s a little spooky, actually. And genealogically fascinating.

With seven years of higher education to legitimate, I’ve contemplated whether mosaics, quilting and decoupage reflect something more about me than simply a preference for restrictive order. Does art imitate life?

I think I see my life as a mosaic or a patchwork quilt. Different memories, experiences, people and places each inhabit a square in my life story. Each is a self-contained unit, significant by itself. But when the lens pulls pack to see the entire picture, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I have another ongoing project that constantly provokes me to argue artistic nature versus creative nurture. I inherited innumerable boxes of would-be scrapbook material from my dad when he died. Everything was sorted and organized, but it never made it into a book, which is my current mission. The mounds of paper he kept go back to his earliest years, and every 100 pieces or so, my heart starts racing when I find a newspaper clipping of a theater review, or a photo from a magazine or artistic reflections he wrote to himself that match something I have in my very own scrapbook. Although there is no doubt that my love of theater and creative endeavor was nurtured in my childhood, to see evidence of my dad as a teenager responding to artistry the way I do takes my breath away. It may not be hard for someone like Natalie Cole to figure out where her love of music and performing came from. For me, artistic heredity is subtler, but has an equally strong influence on my life. There are a lot more people influencing “our own” than I originally thought.

March 27, 2004

My mother the alien

Filed under: Art and About Family — admin @ 2:43 pm

I’ve heard about it happening to other mothers, but I never thought it would happen to mine. Women who have raised their children, thrown off the shackles of PTA propriety and started getting tattoos and buying Harleys, or donning bikinis and sipping mai tais on foreign beaches. When the aliens abducted my mom, they left us with a woman who makes art purchases.

My mom never seemed to respond to visual art all that much. Ballet, classical music, colorful quilts and John Denver appealed to her aesthetic. The art on the walls of my childhood home can be easily grouped into four categories — family photos, mosaics made by my paternal grandfather, Asian artwork picked up by my dad during his military days stationed in the Orient, and an eclectic catch-all category of art given to us. My aunt and uncle were artsy types and my aunt even custom batiked some work for my parents. But we didn’t have much emotional attachment to any of the pieces. When I helped my mom pack up the house after 30 years, we gave away most of the artwork without qualm. None of us had any personal investment in any of it, with the exception of grandpa’s mosaics, and we even edited those pretty severely.

Then one day last year, Mom announced that she was purchasing a piece of art by Sausalito artist Jeff Leedy as a birthday gift for my step-dad, Gene. Gene is a wine lover, and apparently responded to a humorous piece entitled, “Now This Wine Has Legs,” spoofing the wine taster’s adage. Since Gene is the quintessential man who has everything, Mom decided this would be a perfect gift.

My mom had several conversations with the artist discussing the various media he worked in, and the variants on the piece mom was purchasing. They talked about his work and his career. Jeff was obviously excited that mom was excited about his work, and they arranged a time to pick up the art at his Sausalito gallery.

The date of the artistic rendezvous was a family event. We made a day of it, strolling Bayside, commenting on the sunlight shimmering off the water, eating a seafood lunch, and perusing Jeff’s gallery. At the end of the day, we took our new baby home, where mom wrapped it and presented it at the birthday dinner. It is now distinctively displayed in the family room next to the thematically appropriate bar, and I’ve watched as guests stroll by and respond to the humor. It is definitely a conversation piece.

The decision to purchase the art made me suspicious of other-worldly foul play, but that was not evidence enough to verify that my real mother must be on a starship speeding out of the galaxy. The confirmation came upon learning that Mr. Leedy’s art has a bit of a price tag attached to it. My old mom bought from the sale rack at T.J. Maxx. We all had to go down to the potato cellar on the days she learned that something for which she had paid full was recently marked down. The body walking around calling itself “Mom” is definitely an imposter.

Perhaps most astounding to me was a recent admission by my so-called mom that the artwork she and Gene are buying on their travels actually touches her life on a daily basis. They have it custom framed, hang it in prominent places and Mom says she relives the trips, smiles at the memories and gets an all-around warm fuzzy feeling. She says she responds to it much more than the photographs they take. Gene is accustomed to this connection with art, but I have never heard my mom talk this way. She has opened up the lines of communication with art, and it has enriched her life.

So you can clearly see, my mom has lost her mind. And I hope she never finds it.

February 17, 2004

The perfect baby gift

Filed under: Art and About Family — admin @ 3:35 pm

Our first nephew, Nathaniel Terrence, was born February 9 and my husband and I are ecstatic to become an aunt and an uncle. For years we have envied our siblings’ relationships with all their various nieces and nephews. It seemed like they were all having such a good time. We finally get to experience this special relationship from the inside.

At the baby shower for my sister-in-law, Heather, I got to see the quilted bedspread she made in honor of the baby. She called it “an attempt” at quilting, but it is much more than an attempt. It is a beautifully vivid patchwork piece in a pattern of geometrically-inspired tulips. The same tulips are stenciled as a border on the wall of the baby’s room.

I admired the quilt because I loved the use of color, I loved the pattern, and I loved the quilting. I’m the type of person who likes to finish a project in one weekend before I get bored with it, so the patience it takes to quilt a bedspread is something I am awed by.

My brother-in-law, Mike, also is artistically represented in the baby’s room through a wonderful bedside lamp in the shape of a pump. Pull the pump handle and the light goes on and off. Very cute. He made it in junior high, but when he found it in his parents’ garage, he realized it would be perfect for the baby. And it is.

I left my first viewing of the nursery feeling like all was right with the world. A new life is coming into the family, and his parents are welcoming him with a hand-crafted room. What a gift of artistic expression! It wasn’t until I was reflecting on the room a few days later that I was struck by the profound human compulsion to create art while we await a newly created life. Parents often decorate a baby’s room themselves with colors and patterns they would never dare try in the living room. Parents who have their reasons for not decorating the room themselves hire someone to bring a creative eye and hand to the baby’s room and let loose with a design that would never be allowed in the living room. Babies seem to unleash a creative freedom in us. It may be part of the “nesting instinct” expectant parents are supposed to exhibit. Wouldn’t it be interesting to prove that artistic expression is an integral facet of nesting?

When Heather made her quilt, she was doing something new mothers have been doing for eons and generations. Of course, there used to be a practical need to make a quilt to warm the baby. But now, we can buy a fleece blanket at Macy’s for an iota of the effort it takes to make that quilt. But Heather chose to make the quilt, distilling the purest expression of her love through art.

Fathers make pump-lamps, grandfathers make cribs, grandmothers craft Christmas stockings, great-grandmothers crochet blankets, uncles paint pottery, aunts create cross-stitch banners celebrating a child’s names and birthday, best friends knit baby bonnets. No doubt your child has something handmade by someone near and dear to the family that is unique. When I was born, my grandfather made two guardian angels for me through his mosaic art. He died five months later, but those angels have hung in my bedroom, wherever I have lived, for 32 years. Through them, I see my grandfather every day.

I know my kids were richly blessed at birth with handmade artistic gifts from those closest to them. They, with their new cousin Nathaniel, are surrounded by a pantheon of artistic guardian angels.