No one would mistake one of my letters as a work of art. Consider the missive I began this morning to my friend Mary.
We stopped caring a long time ago what our letters to each other looked like. If neat handwriting, composition, and proper grammar had been a big concern of ours, we likely would have written much fewer than the thousands of letters that passed between us in the last 30 years.
Neither one of us remembers exactly how or when we decided not to keep each other’s letters, but the sheer volume of them had a lot to do with it. Where would one store such treasures that numbered in the thousands?
I do have a stash of letters I have saved; letters from my mother, siblings, a few from my grandmother, and many from my own children. Would my brother Bill be surprised to discover that I kept the letters he wrote to me when I was 16?
I thought then, and still do today, that my brother’s handwriting reflected an artsy soul. A 2009 letter from my nephew Garrett seemed a precursor to the talent he has since developed as an artist. I discovered a similarly decorated envelope among my mother’s things after her death. She, too, saved his letter.
All together, my saved letters number fewer than what Mary and I might have written in our first ten years of letter-writing, but they still take up a good space in the trunk where I store them. Handwritten letters are indeed a treasure trove, as attested by the stash I’ve kept in a trunk and in books like this one.
Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, edited by Mary Savig, is truly a work of art in its own right.
A collection of letters by artists from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, the book reveals how letter writing can be an artistic act, just as an artist puts pen to paper to craft a line in a drawing. Brief essays explore what can be learned from the handwriting of celebrated artists such as Mary Cassatt and Maxfield Parrish. Each letter is accompanied by an archival image of the artist or a related artwork, with a full transcription at the back. (I needed those transcriptions as the penmanship was difficult to decipher at times.)
I was surprised to see a Dubuque, Iowa art professor listed in the book. Sister Mary Paulita (Helen) Kerrigan, was a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She devoted her professional life to painting and teaching, serving for 48 years as an art professor and artist-in-residence at Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa. In 1962, she left Iowa to spend the summer studying at the Art Students League of New York, sketching in the streets of Manhattan and painting in a studio. This letter was her thank-you letter to noted painter and sculptor Charles Alston.
Her handwriting demonstrates the Palmer Method of penmanship, popular especially in Catholic schools in the United States throughout the 20th century. Many of us remember the repetitive drills that brought us our own fluency in similar cursive handwriting. My mother took some art classes at Clarke College before marrying my father. I wonder now if one of her instructors was Sister Mary Paulita.
You can see the same style of handwriting in my mother’s letters that I have saved.
More than thirty years later, my mother’s written words can bring tears to my eyes. This letter, written in December 1985, was penned during a difficult period for my parents. My mother wasn’t sure she would make it to my mid-December college graduation. She didn’t explain until later why she and my father did not attend. But despite the difficulties they were facing, my mother attempted to look at the brighter side of things, to “be surprised how God works and feel very blessed.”
It is the words “I love you and am so proud of you always” that brings tears. I admit, at the time this letter was written, all I’d seen when I read it was “I might not be there.” The “It’s a hard life isn’t it!” speaks volumes to me today, the hint that there was so much more to her absence than she could share in a letter.
This treasured letter makes me smile, too. “My heart is full of poetry, like Angie says.” The sister my mother mentions now writes poetry. “And maybe just how you feel, too, Mary?” Yes, oh yes. What a letter written more than 30 years ago can do for me today is make me feel as though my heart, too, is “full of poetry.”
What letter we might write today will be pulled out of a trunk 30 years from now to bring both tears and joy to the recipient?
This lovely book is just the beginning in a series of letter-writing and friendship related books we plan on reviewing in this blog during September. Many of the books reviewed this month and in the past will be included in a prize package drawing on September 18, which is National Women’s Friendship Day. Stay tuned for your chance to win this book and many others. –Mary Potter Kenyon