I have written several times about different elements to this story, my father’s passing and my piece of sculpture, “Family Portrait:1963, but I’ve always left out this little nugget. I think enough time has passed that I can now tell this story.
In August, 1997, my father passed away and he was cremated. My mother and I brought dad home in a proverbial brown cardboard box. No need for the fancy stone urn that they wanted to sell my mother because she had other plans.
My mother asked me if I would take the cardboard box out to my father’s studio and separate out some of his ashes into another container. Looking around the studio it was obvious that my father had a “Cafe Vienna” International Coffee habit. On the studio shelves were row after row of Cafe Vienna tins that he had filled with screws, bolts, and nails. I emptied one of them out and replaced it with about half of my father’s ashes and glued on the lid.
My father spent 33 years working at the Dallas Museum of Art; my mother had hopes that someday we could bury his ashes under a tree on the museum grounds.
My brother, sister and I would sometimes joke that maybe we would just carry dad’s ashes in our pockets and unceremoniously deposit him around the building and grounds of the museum.
During my father’s memorial service, half of his ashes were buried under a Desert Willow in the wild-scape of St. John’s Episcopal School. The Cafe Vienna tin containing the remainder of my father’s ashes were put away by my mother for safekeeping.
4 years later sometimes fact is stranger than fiction
In 2001 my piece “Family Portrait: 1963” went into the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art right out of my studio. The piece depicts the Delabano family in my father’s studio. My father is at his easel, painting a portrait my mother in a chair, my brother, me, and the family dog, Cracker, is playing around my father’s taboret where he would mix his paints and store his turpentine.
It was very sweet that this depiction of my father’s private life secured a spot in the DMA’s collection. It seemed fitting for his long and distinguished career at the museum.
When my piece was first exhibited, it was shown beside my father’s “Portrait of Papa” which is also in the DMA’s collection…..one of my proudest moments.
After I had delivered “Family Portrait: 1963” to the DMA, that evening my wife and I went out looking at Christmas lights with some friends. At 9:30 as we were driving around Grand Prairie an idea hit me like a bolt of lightning. It was so vivid that I looked down at my watch to note the time.
The idea that hit me like a bolt of lightning was that I should have put my father’s ashes into the piece at the DMA. The next morning I excitedly called my mother and said, “Mom can you put your hands on…………….” and before I could complete my sentence my mother said, “Dad’s ashes because you want to put them into the piece”.
Dumbfounded, I asked my mother when did it occur to her that I might want to do that. She said, “Last night at 9:30.”
I typically don’t put much credence in such things but this happened just as I have written it and I swear, I think my father was speaking to me from beyond.
Oh yeah, it no longer belongs to me
All of this was problematic since the piece was now in the collection of the DMA. Eleanor Harvey, the wonderful Curator of American Art at the museum at the time, had ushered my piece into the collection, so I telephoned her.
“Eleanor, I’m sorry but I have one more thing to add to “Family Portrait: 1963. Can I please come down and add it?”
My heart sunk when she said, “Martin, the piece no longer belongs to you and every artist always wants one more chance to do something once it goes into a collection.”
“But Eleanor, I promise, I really need to add this one element. It won’t even be noticeable, ” I said.
“Then why add it,” was her response.
“You just gotta trust me,” I pleaded.
She must have been intrigued because she told me to bring what ever it was and come on down to the museum. Eleanor took me down to the basement and into the vault where it was being stored until being exhibited.
She watched me glue the Cafe Vienna tin into the easel shelf back behind the image of my father and then looked at me perplexed and said, “A Cafe Vienna tin?……ooooook.”
“Has my father’s ashes in it” I told her.
We both cried and gave each other a hug. She responded by saying, “Perfect.”
In a recent email exchange talking about this story, Eleanor said that she recalled me asking how she was going to describe the medium for the database with the addition of the ashes, and she answered, “mixed media”.
Still makes me smile.
My mother and I will never forget the kindness Eleanor showed my father toward the end of his life. I thank her for taking the leap of faith when she allowed me to do this without knowing my plan.
So every once in a while the Dallas Museum of Art brings the piece back out of the vault for display and I go and visit with my Dad.
Thanks Dad for reaching out and planting that idea. One of the many great ideas you had.
Earlier Blog posts mentioned in first paragraph
Eleanor Harvey. She served as curator of American art at the Dallas Museum of Art from 1992-2002. In January 2003, she became the curator for the Luce Foundation Center for American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and served as the museum’s Chief Curator from 2003 until 2012. She is currently Senior Curator. Her research interests include 19th-and 20th-century American art, landscape painting, southwestern abstraction, and Texas art.
Her most recent exhibitions at the Smithsonian American Art Museum are The Civil War and American Art in 2012-13, Variations on America: Masterworks from the American Art Forum Collections in 2007 and An Impressionist Sensibility: The Halff Collection in 2006.
Taboret. A table or cart that an artist uses to store and organize art supplies and to mix paint.