Of Fathers, Mothers, and Sons…

ImageFor the past several months I have been reading about Ohio’s classical son, Kenyon Cox. The name was familiar to me, but only vaguely, until I became interested in classical drawing and painting. My interests in these pursuits necessitated an exploration into the aesthetics associated with this craft. This took very little arm-twisting as one cannot study art without knowing her sister, Philosophy. This led me to the writings of Kenyon Cox. An Ohio artist, originally from Warren but closely associated with Oberlin due to his family relations, Cox is best known now as an art critic of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I won’t belabor a biographical summary about him here but there are a few books that could be of interest to you should you be so inclined to learn more about our native son of art criticism. The first is “Keeper’s of Culture” by H. Wayne Morgan. This book gives a nice general overview of the criticism of Kenyon Cox as well as chapters on Royal Cortissoz and Frank Jewett Mather, Jr. The second book, also by H. Wayne Morgan, is “Kenyon Cox, 1856-1919, A Life in American Art”. This is the book that sent me on two afternoons of adventure in Oberlin. The third is a collection of lectures given by Cox at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1911 entitled “The Classic Point of View”. As of this post I have not yet settled in to read this book (truth be told I am saving it for my summer adventure as I return to study at the Academy of Classical Design. I thought it fitting.). This book was a little trickier to track down but thanks to the Harvard bookstore and their Espresso Book Machine I can hold it in my hands rather than read it on my computer. You can find it online through Google Books but I much prefer to read an actual book. If you are not familiar with the Espresso Book Machine I’d recommend googling it. It’s pretty cool. I just wish there was one closer to me. But I digress…..

Thanks to Mr. Morgan’s books I became aware of Cox’s connection to Oberlin College. His father, a Union general during the Civil War and 28th Governor of Ohio as well as a lawyer and abolitionist among many other things, was a graduate of Oberlin College and a trustee there from 1876 to 1900. After his father passed away his son, Kenyon, was asked to create a commemorative window for the Christ Episcopal Church in Oberlin. The window shows an armoured knight similar to Donatello’s St. George. When I read about this window I thought “How could I have missed this?” I had lived in Wellington for several years, just a few miles south. As an aside The “Spirit of ’76” was painted by Archibald MacNeal Willard while living in Wellington. He is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery.

I had to see this window. I am a regular visitor to the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin and the church is just down the street. I must have driven by thousands of times. Through my reading I also learned of two lunettes painted by Cox to commemorate his parents. They are located in the Cox administration building. I decided that the next time I was in Oberlin I would see these pieces.

I was in Oberlin on a rainy Saturday. It was overcast and grey. The rain was light and Imageintermittent. We had several days of regular rain prior;  the occasional light sprinkle was easy to ignore. Besides, I had more important things to worry about: stained glass windows and lunette murals. I couldn’t recollect which church had the stained glass window so I chose one at random (Oberlin has several). The door was unlocked and I went in. Unfortunately I chose the wrong one. A nice church, but not the one with the window. Making my way around the back of the church (to be sure I looked at all the windows to be certain I hadn’t missed the one I was after) I came upon a little enclosed area next to the church with a little pond. A robin was using it as a birdbath but I wasn’t quick enough on the draw with my phone to snap a picture. As I approached the pond I caught a flash of orange through the green and brown plants on the surface of the water. Upon closer inspection I discovered that it was a goldfish or carp of some kind. I can’t be certain. I don’t know anything about fish except what I learned from Shark Week on the Discovery Channel as a kid. After much trying I was able to get a picture of the fish. The orangey-red-vermillion color stood out against the cool greens of the plants and the deep shadows they created. If you have a moment the next time you are in Oberlin spend some time by the pool. You might see the vermillion fish and perhaps his little brown sidekick. (If you closely at the image of the pond you can see that he made it into the shot through luck.)Image

I made my way to the Cox administrative building nearby. Since it was Saturday it was closed so the lunettes would have to wait for another day. I spent some time admiring the decorative work around the doorway of the building as well as the capitals Capitals and Detailsof the church I had just left. I googled the window to find the church and then made my way south to the Christ Episcopal Church. The front door of the church was locked so I went to the building behind it. It was locked as well. Apparently, the only day the church was not accessible was Saturday. Curses. Foiled.

Driving home from Mansfield the following Monday I decided to make the detour to try to see the window and murals again. This time I began with the church. I parked in the back and went to the community center that was locked a few days before. As I neared the steps a woman approached me and I enquired about the window. She was very kind and helpful and said I was more than welcome to go in to see the window. The church is much the same as it was when it was built in 1859. The simple architecture belies the beauty inside. All of the windows, save the one by Cox, were made by Margaret Kennedy in the 1950’s. A parishioner of the church, she was studying for a Master of Arts degree at the college.

Courage Window for BlogWhen I saw the Cox Memorial window a wide grin made its way across my face. It glowed.  Even on a grey afternoon the window seemed to be lit brightly from behind. I asked to take some pictures and was permitted to do so and spend as much time there as I liked. What struck me was the vibrancy of the colors and, in particular, how purple the overall effect was. The composition was simple, crisp, and clean. Everything I would expect from the imagination of Kenyon Cox. Some time later a parishioner came in. She had known Margaret Kennedy and told me about how she had worked in a little studio in the basement of the church to complete her series of windows. The rector arrived shortly thereafter to help supervise the installation of a new bell. Everyone was very accommodating and kind to a stranger who came in off the street to look at a window. I was informed that some time ago the museum was very interested in procuring the window for its collection but the church decided, rightly so, to keep the window in its original location. Harvard has the drawing for the window. I found this interesting because it was from its bookstore that I procured Cox’s collection of lectures.

With a light spring in my step I made my way back to the administrative building. Across the central park area I made my way west through the arch that commemorates those affiliated with the college that were killed in the Boxer Rebellion. Across the street and to the right I was back at the Cox administrative building. It was Monday so at the building they were down to business and so was I. The seemingly heavy door swung open easily and slammed shut just as easily behind be with a resounding noise.

Father Mural Blog Image

I was startled by the immediacy of the mural on the left with the two figures. I imagined them larger, and to be frank, in a location more conductive to viewing. The foyer was small, a tiny antechamber that led to the offices beyond. I was immediately struck at how dark the area was. A small window above the door let in a meager amount of light. An interior light hung low from the ceiling. So low in fact that it was below the height of the lunettes. The images were enveloped in shadow, broken only faintly by the feeble light making its way through the window. I was disappointed. I wanted to see them more clearly. I inspected both carefully. The colors seemed rich even in this poor light. Each object had an autonomous color but was made of a range of values and tones of that color. In this it reminded me of a Renaissance sensibility about color that I remember vaguely from my college days.

I spent some time focused on the fabric remembering a lecture on the subject from the Academy. I moved back and forth between the two images straining to make out the details; trying not to miss anything. I stood back and admired one and then the other. The wings of the figure in lunette dedicated to his mother were a rich, vibrant blue.

Mother Mural Blog Image

I was half tempted to stand on one of the chairs in the foyer but thought that might get me thrown out. I tried to take pictures as best I could. Most were unsuccessful due to the light and the angle. When you stood back far enough in the little room to get the entire lunette in the shot the hanging light was in the way. I made due as best I could. I was about to leave when someone came through the door. The day had cleared up outside and the room was filled with a flash of bright sunlight. The murals exploded in color. They glowed almost like the window at the church. The small dark room and the poor lighting were probably a blessing in disguise. Protected from the sunlight they retained their original brilliance. Stretching and straining I propped the door open with my foot and leaned to get the best shots I could. Through these works, the lunettes and the window, and from what I read about Kenyon and his parents, I got the impression that he was a son that respected his parents both as the caregivers they were to him and his siblings but also respected and admired them for humanism, their efforts to be good and just and to instill those values in their son. I hope I don’t misunderstand what I’ve read and seen and if I have I’ll chose to believe I was right anyway. I like his art, and the man, more if I do.

This little adventure and my recent trip home to visit my folks put me in mind to think about my own relationship with my parents. To say they are my biggest fans is a gross understatement. As I grow older I have come to realize how fortunate I am to have grown up with the two parents I have. They have been ever supportive in my adventures to become an artist. They may not have fully understood why I made the objects I did or why they are so important to me but in this the quality of their parenting reveals itself. They know that art is important to me and want only for my success. At shows or when they see my work I can feel their boundless parental pride. I make drawings and little puppets but to my parents these things are like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or The Last Supper. Their pride is a catalyst for my thankfulness for having the opportunity have the two best parents one could hope for. If I ever accomplish anything good in this world it is because I had parents that helped me accomplish it. I’m grateful…

One last story before I become too maudlin in my storytelling. Some time ago I put on a little puppet show (there are some images somewhere on this site if you’d like to search around a bit). The show was a series of vignettes including such popular characters as Mr. Punch and Pinocchio. After the show, which had a rather emotional end for me at least, my father approached me and said that he saw more humanity in my puppets than he sees in most people. Kind words from a father to his son. My mother, true to form and unabashedly honest, was teary in a way that proud mothers are. Saint Mom: the patron saint of fortunate sons. Last year, just before leaving for my studies at the Academy, my father presented me with a gift. I have a keen interest in fountain pens. I was presented with a black bag with “Mont Blanc” on the side. I was shocked at this gift; an extravagance. Hesitantly I removed the box and was left speechless, quite literally, at what it contained. The company produces high-end fountain pens and part of the product line is a series of pens that commemorate significant literary figures. In the box was a pen to commemorate the work of Carlo Collodi, the author of “The Adventures of Pinocchio”. The cap has a gold filigree cut out of the characters from his story. I was taken aback by this generosity. This is an outward symbol of the support my parents have always shown to me. It is an object that is a reminder to me of their generosity in all forms. I wish more kids could have folks like mine.

Mont Blanc Carlo Callodi


~ by Kelson Barber on June 20, 2013.

One Response to “Of Fathers, Mothers, and Sons…”

  1. I enjoy you sharing your journey. You educate me in things I never dreamed off.

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