Blog posts by Marla
Posted September 16, 2013
When I was a kid, there was a huge piano in our house. I took lessons for many years, liked to practice, and have 3 songs in my repertoire. My childhood piano currently resides in my home (which incidentally was the residence of a piano teacher in the 1930s), but it remains mostly dormant. It is a lovely receptacle for photographs, vases, report cards, and other miscellaneous remnants of our lives.
A few years ago I received a phone call from a man in San Jose. He owned a painting of a Santa Cruz piano teacher and wanted to donate it to the MAH. I wondered if it was the same piano teacher that had once lived in my home, the one I secretly hoped would haunt my house in the middle of the night. I’ve been waiting to wake up to the melodies of a lone pianist. But that hasn’t happened, and the painting isn’t of my phantom musician.
Generations of Santa Cruzans may remember taking piano lessons from Vera McKenna Clayton. Born in Oakland in 1871, Vera moved to Santa Cruz in the early 1920s with her husband, Donald. Their Broadway St. home must have been a music lover’s dream with a parlor equipped with two grand pianos and an organ in the living room.
An accomplished musician and composer, Vera is credited to writing “Floating Down the San Lorenzo River,” published by the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce for the 1928 Santa Cruz Water Pageant. She also penned the 160th birthday song for the City of Santa Cruz in 1929. Vera died in 1978.
In the painting, Vera at the Piano (by artist Sybil Hunington) we encounter a woman in a classic three quarter portrait. It’s a very French inspired, Rococo-esque composition of light and lyrical pastel hues. Vera is sweetly smiling, turning a page of music at the moment we stumble upon her practicing in the parlor. She’s looking at us perhaps about to say: “Oh this old thing? Did you like it? I just composed it this morning.”
I met William J. Adams, Jr. in 2004 when he came to the MAH to donate the painting. Mr. Adams is a graduate of Chaminade High School (Class of 1933). He married his childhood sweetheart, Maryjane, at Holy Cross Church in 1939. Maryjane’s piano teacher, Vera McKenna Clayton, played the organ at the ceremony. Mr. Adams gave me some biographical information about his wife and himself, and I thanked him for the painting.
I followed up with a formal letter of gratitude (standard practice), and so began my correspondence with Mr. Adams. Through the years, I have received updated information for the donor files. I look forward to these letters and enjoy writing back (never email), thanking him for the additional info, notifying him when the painting was on display, and sending my condolences when Maryjane passed away.
Upon receiving a letter this past summer, I wrote to thank him as usual. Instead of a reply from Mr. Adams, his daughter-in-law called to tell me that 96 year old Bill can’t drive to Santa Cruz anymore. He no longer writes much, yet Mr. Adams wanted to make sure my files were updated. It was important to him—and to me. As I write this, I have learned that Bill passed away last week. The file is complete.
I love that the story of an artifact doesn’t have to end with one account, but it can continue, overlap with another, and along the way connect others to it. And so I add my story to Vera at the Piano. I didn’t take lessons from her and she didn’t live in my house, but I wouldn’t mind hearing Vera play my piano, preferably in the middle of the night.
Posted August 13, 2013
My parents never sent me to summer camp when I was a kid, and I don’t send my kids. It never seemed interesting or fun to me. Maybe I was afraid of not being liked, of being unpopular.
Last month the MAH hosted “You Can’t Do That in Museums,” where museum professionals, artists, and designers had 2.5 days to make exhibits out of artifacts from the MAH’s permanent collection.
This camp was an experimental approach to developing labels, interactive elements, and interpretative experiences to enhance engagement with museum collections. The experience was crazy, creative, and exhilarating. I was in charge of selecting the artifacts that would be “hacked.”
I picked some old favorites and some I thought would be interesting to interpret. I regard many of the artifacts in the MAH collection as my “children” (gosh, don’t all collections management people do?).
I took the selection process personally. Would the campers like my choices? Would they find merit in the least favorite, forgotten ones?
One group worked with Peter Zecher’s Untitled: Totem, created in 1977. Some campers joked it looked like a magazine rack. I felt like the sculpture was being bullied at summer camp.
The art historian in me thought this was blasphemous talk, but I secretly agreed with them. In the collection room stored safely in a corner, Untitled: Totem had being ignored for years.
Untitled: Totem is a free standing construction of knotty pine and enamel. California artist Peter Zecher (1945-1996) was known for his geometric inspired work.
This undulating sculpture echoes the architectural lines of a high rise hotel in a cityscape. You could even make the argument that its kinetic design is reminiscent of (stay with me) Bernini’s baroque masterpiece, David, right before the young man flings a rock at Goliath. Or maybe it looks like a wine rack (ouch).
The museum campers researched the artist and looked at the MAH’s archival information about the sculpture. They found the correspondence between the artist and Museum staff. Zecher explained the process in which he worked, how he came about donating the sculpture, and his delight in doing so.
The display of Untitled: Totem is intriguing, brilliant, and a little startling. The campers were inspired by the “lost” status of the sculpture, and placed it in front of an open crate, half swathed in bubble wrap (like a partially clothed Roman statue? Okay, I’ll stop.).
The exhibition brings up questions about artifacts and their signifance. When and how does art fall out of favor? Much like historical objects, often its significance is attached to its back story and in its role as documentation of a movement, of a moment in time.
After the exhibition ends, when all the other artifacts return to the collection room, I would like to keep Peter Zecher’s Untitled: Totem on display longer. I think it deserves that.
Summer camp isn’t so bad. Even the unpopular kid/sculpture can make new friends.
Posted August 6, 2013
The Dolkas Award was established in honor of James Dolkas, the founder and original president of the History Forum. Members of the History Forum and the Sesnon Foundation set up the James Dolkas Memorial Fund through the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County and offer the grant annually to a worthy project that will advance community awareness about regional history.
Each proposal should meet and address one or more of the following criteria:
- What is the direct and enduring benefit to the Santa Cruz /Monterey Bay community?
- How is the proposal a local community partnership of people and resources?
- Does this project have any new audiences or participants, technologies, or ideas?
To apply, please complete the 2013 Grant Application. Applicants may attach additional pages as needed; the narrative should not exceed five hundred words. Applications are due by October 1, 2013. The application includes grant guidelines for preparing application budget, narrative, and outcome descriptions.
Posted June 18, 2013
I’m not a big fan of spring cleaning, but we tackled a huge one at the MAH this month. We went through our basement to prioritize and organize all the stuff we’ve accumulated over the years.
We even rearranged our office and I gave my desk the biggest purging and cleaning it’s ever had. It’s amazing how much one can save over the course of months and years, yet how easy it can be to finally let go. But that’s a different story.
While in the MAH basement, my colleagues came across a stone slab. It resembled the shape of Nevada. When it was flipped over, they realized it was a gravestone. The name of the deceased had been broken off, but the date and location of the person’s birth were still intact (not Nevada).
Upon turning it over, the engraved letters from the marker left a discernible print on the dusty basement floor. It must have been in the basement for years.
We told Evergreen Cemetery researcher Sangye HokuLoa Hawke-McRee about our basement find, and she sprang into action. It took Sangye one look through our Evergreen Cemetery archive files to find that the gravestone belong to Sophia Hall White.
Born on July 4, 1836 in Honolulu, Hawaii, Sophia’s parents Edwin and Sara were originally from New England. They may have been missionaries that relocated to the islands.
In 1860, Sophia married William White, the postmaster of Hawaii. Their daughter Lucy was born a year later. The White family then moved to California, settling in Santa Cruz where William became the city’s postmaster. A son named Edwin was born here in 1863. Sophia died shortly after.
Sangye dug deeper in the Evergreen file on Sophia Hall White and came up with an interesting story. Baby Edwin didn’t stay in Santa Cruz after his mom’s death.
Instead, he “was sent to Hawaii to be raised by his uncle, and that a goat was sent along on the ship to be milked each day for the baby.” When Edwin became an adult, he sent flowers from Hawaii to Santa Cruz every year to be placed on his mother’s grave. This lasted for decades.
We think former Evergreen volunteer Renie Leaman compiled the research about Sophia, and stashed the broken gravestone in the basement for safe-keeping. Maybe spring cleaning has its perks. Besides organizing and getting rid of things you don’t want, you discover saved objects and forgotten stories you didn’t even know you wanted to keep.