Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists

DonnaSeamanbyDavidSiegfried (1)Call it the case of the disappearing sculpture for that’s what started Donna Seaman on her quest to chronicle the lives and works of the seven female artists featured in her just released book, Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists (Bloomsbury 2017; $30.

“I remember going to the Chicago Art Institute and seeing this large sculpture they had at the end of the corridor,” says Seaman who grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York but not lives in Chicago. “But then she disappeared.”

The sculpture was by Louise Nevelson, who at one time had quite a following in the U.S., but like the six other 20th century females artists featured in Seaman’s book are almost forgotten despite their talent.

Intriguingly, though I had heard of Nevelson, I didn’t recognize any of the other names when I first started reading Seaman’s fascinating book. But reading about Gertrude Abercrombie and seeing her strikingly haunted paintings, I realized my mother had one in her study. But though I loved that painting, I only remembered the male artists whose works hung in our home such as Chagall’s “The Rabbi of Vitebsk” and Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Steam” (all prints I assure you) and not this one? Was it a male thing?

Could be says Seaman, one of Chicago’s best known book critics and editor of adult books at Booklist, a book-review (and now online) magazine that’s been published by the American Library Association for more than 100 years.

“It’s about who’s writing history,” she says. “Women weren’t written about in a critically relevant way. Newspapers were interested but not the critics. And so these women disappeared.”

While doing her extensive research (Seaman acknowledges her obsessiveness) she asked museum curators to bring out the works of Lois Mailou Jones that had been tucked away in storage for who knows how long.

“They hadn’t seen them before,” she recalls. “And they kept saying these are wonderful.”

Though Seaman chose most of the artists she highlighted—Joan Brown, Leonore Tawney and Ree Morton–because she liked their work, her essay on Christina Ramberg was much more personal.

“I knew Christina,” Seaman says. “She died very young. The moment she became ill, we knew she wasn’t going to be around very long and I knew someday I would write about her.”

With a Master’s degree in English from DePaul University, one might expect Seaman to be more focused on lost women writers, but her mother was a visual artist (in fact Seaman is traveling to Vassar College last this spring where her mother has a showing of her work) and at one time, she considered becoming an artist as well.

Earning her BSA at Kansas City Art Institute where she was a sculptor major, Seaman says she was only one in her class who loved her liberal arts classes.

“I loved libraries and I have a passion for reading,” she says. “Despite getting into shows and selling my works, I realized that my stronger skills were in editing and writing.”

This skill subset—art and writing—is perfect for giving these artists their identities back.

CAPSIZED! The Forgotten Story of the SS Eastland Disaster

The SS Eastland was still tied to the pier about to take 2500 passengers and 70 crew members on an excursion across the southern edge of Lake Michigan to Michigan City and the dancing in the ballroom had already begun. It was all part of the fun on that July 24, 1915 when the ship started swaying side to side and dancers slid back and forth along the floor.  But the last pitch didn’t stop at 35 degrees as it had earlier and instead, continued on past 40, then 45.  The Eastland’s captain shouted for the gangways to be reconnected but it was too late, the boat capsized in the Chicago River, trapping many of its passengers below the deck. Though 15 feet from shore and in 20 feet of water, by the end of the rescue mission 844 bodies were recovered and 70% of those who perished were under 25.

“More people died on the Eastland than did on the Titantic,” says Patricia Sutton, author of CAPSIZED! The Forgotten Story of the SS Eastland Disaster (Chicago Review Press 2018; $17.99). “90% of those who died were women and children while on the Titanic, only 10% of the dead were women and children.”

Sutton, a former Chicago public school teacher, vaguely knew about the sinking of the Eastland but mentioned the disaster to her mentor at a writer’s workshop in Pennsylvania when they were talking about possible topics for a book.

“She said you need to write that and if you don’t, I will,” recalls Sutton, who interviewed relatives of those who were aboard and read news accounts from the time to take readers into the lives of those who survived and those who didn’t. The passengers, mostly first- and second-generation Polish and Czech immigrants were the employees of Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works and the excursion was supposed to be a wonderful outing for them. Instead, says Sutton, almost every block in the Hawthorn area lost at least one person; in one block, it was every house.

Written for children ages 10-14, it’s a compelling book for even adults. Because she’s a teacher, Sutton wants Capsized not only to be an educational lesson about the times (women wore long dresses, corsets and laced up boots which made escaping from the water so much more difficult and most people didn’t swim back then) but also to stir critical thinking and questioning.

“Children ask why do we remember the Titanic and not the Eastland,” she says. “So we discuss what the reasons could be—there were famous and wealthy people onboard the Titanic while those on the Eastland were poor working class mothers and children. Also, the Eastland happened when World War I was going on and though we hadn’t entered it yet, everyone’s attention was focused on that. I also tell them that it’s important know about the Eastland and those who were on the ship.”

 

The story behind ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’

LINCOLN IN THE BARDOSeveral decades ago, George Saunders and his wife were visiting Washington D.C. when their cousin mentioned that anecdotal evidence indicated President Abraham Lincoln had surreptitiously visited the tomb of his 11-year-old son, Willie.

For years, the story of Lincoln, so overcome by grief, that he stole into the monument where his son was interred, nagged at the edges of Saunders’s mind. But Saunders, who teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University, had never written a novel and besides his writing was mostly satirical in nature.

“But this material has been calling me all these years,” says Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House 2017; $28). “It’s like their story was a stalker, it kept showing up at my window and it needed to get out.”

Justifying his foray into a new literary form by telling himself he’d had a nice run regarding his career—Saunders is an acclaimed short story writer who is included in Time’s list of the 100 most influential people the world, he decided why not try “this Lincoln thing.”

Saunders still had doubts about his ability to tell the story in the way the way it needed to be told. But having grown up in Chicago as part of a devout Catholic family and now having adapted some of the tenets of Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition, he has written a book that though just recently released is already garnering great reviews.

Bardo is a Tibetan concept–a kind of transitional zone says Saunders.

“We’re all in the bardo right now that goes from birth to death,” he says, noting that Buddhists would call these transition stages reincarnation and noting that the book takes place just after that, in the bardo that goes from death to whatever comes next. “Now is the time to live–knowing that death is coming—if we can accept ourselves as a mess.”

With all his research, Saunders has come to see how Lincoln persevered despite the immense weight of the Civil War, the deaths of so many Americans and that of his son as well.

“We had a president back then who bent,” he says, “when others would have broken.”

How the French Saved America

Give credit to France for the forming of our nation because without their help we might still be, as stereotypes go, eating crumpets, drinking tea and speaking with British accents.

That’s the focus of a new book by noted author Tom Shachtman in his latest book How the French Saved America: Soldiers, Sailors, Diplomats, Louis Xvi, and The Success of a Revolution (St. Martin’s Press 2017; $27.99).

While many of us know about the Marquis de Lafayette whose help during the Revolutionary War was so vital that we’ve named cities after him–Lafayette, Indiana and Louisiana come quickly to mind. But the Marquis wasn’t the only Frenchman who risked his life to help America achieve its independence. Indeed, according to Shachtman in his extensively researched and wonderfully written book, almost ten percent of those who perished fighting for our cause were from France.

Those surviving include not only Lafayette but also Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse, commander of the French fleet during the Battle of the Chesapeake.  He and his men created a naval blockade of Yorktown thus allowing General George Washington and yet another Frenchman, Comte de Rochambeau, to defeat British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis in what was a decisive battle. Another, Louis Duportail founded the Army Corps of Engineers.

Even Shachtman, who has written or co-authored more than thirty books as well as documentaries for ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and BBC, taught at New York University and lectured at Harvard, Stanford and the Library of Congress, at first didn’t realize how much the French impacted America’s victory. He first became aware of France’s significance when writing another book Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment and decided to pursue the subject. The assistance the French provided included, among a long list, money to pay our troops, weapons, safe harbor for privateers, troops, battlefield leadership and engineering expertise.

So why is France’s contribution not better known?

“We are too invested in our own myths to acknowledge how much we owe our freedom to France,” says Shachtman, noting our belief in our rugged individualism and self-sufficiency could also play a big part. “The war might not have been won at all, or not been won by 1783 if not for the French.”

Ifyougo:

What: Tom Shachtman has three talks and book signings in the Chicago area.

When: Tuesday, October 17, 2017 6 pm

Where: The Newberry, 60 W. Walton St., Chicago, IL

FYI: 312-255-3610; publicprograms@newberry.org

What: Learn & Lunch with Tom Shachtman

When: Wednesday, October 18 at noon

Where: University Club of Chicago, 76 E. Monroe St., Chicago, IL

FYI: 847-446-8880 to make a reservation

What: Tom Shachtman Reading & Signing

When: Thu. October 19 at 7pm

Where: The Book Cellar, 4736-38 N Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL

FYI: (773) 293-2665