Nonfiction: Helena Writes #61--On multiple paths to our common humanity

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 61st post, Helena makes connections between her work as a teaching artist and the work of world-building, and rebuilding.


The Flatbed Truck

I stand next to the old, twisted holly bush, grown wild, no one paid to care for it now. Sometimes I clip a few branches to use as part of a still life set up for my students. I am in front of the Art Education building, part of The Nassau County Museum of Art. I have taught here for 16 years. In the ’80s, the Frick Estate, sold the land—140 acres, four or five outbuildings, and three mansions—to the County of Nassau, on Long Island's Gold Coast. By the time the younger generation of Fricks inherited it, the world had so changed it would have been impossible to keep up. The place had lain fallow.

The enclosed world of Henry Frick’s estate, its mirror pool, horse barns, farm fields, and carriage paths, had come unsealed with the stock market crash of 1929. Time, the Depression that followed, the war, the coming and going of the service classes, were carrying in the winds of a new expansion of consciousness, the stirring of another era of evolution. Franklin Roosevelt's work to haul the country out of the Depression lifted up laborers, artists, writers, dancers, and photographers, paying them a salary through the WPA, the Works Progress Administration, to document and monumentalize their American culture.

FDR hired mural painters—Diego Rivera, the Mexican artist came to New York at the bidding of Nelson Rockefeller to paint a mural depicting the great country his family had emigrated to from Germany in the mid-1700s. Rockefeller, too, was caught up in the tides of change.

But with the Depression, the enclaves of wealthy estates, built into the lush and fecund sweep of the country, declined. The means to maintain them had disappeared overnight.

And there I stood, in front of the stucco Art Ed building that had once been a kind of science lab belonging to Mr. Frick—whose family had also emigrated from Germany—to house his collection of camel bones, brought back to Long Island himself, from Africa. I can’t contemplate how he obtained them.

None of those bones, thankfully, remained by the time I got to the museum in the ’80s to teach drawing and painting. The space had been cleared out. It was a dusty rambling place, sectioned into a public bathroom and six rooms used for classes and storage—old furniture and the leavings of uses and people I never knew about. There were walls of shelves that now belonged to no one, grimy with years of dust and accumulated detritus. I can barely distinguish what’s in my memory's eye now—florists’ vases, ragged sheets, old sculptures. I do remember two old and beautiful lace tablecloths and a ’40s crockery bowl with a small imperfection. I eventually rescued it and now use for scrambling eggs. Articles of clothing, jackets, sweatshirts, a child's yellow rubber raincoat, forgotten and left. An umbrella, a bouquet of yellow plastic tulips my son once painted, a masterpiece I could not have managed from plastic flowers. He later sold it. A plaster cast of a hand, a foot, a head. All these objects we teachers pressed into service for still life setups. No one, apparently, cleaned the bathroom but me, so that we could comfortably use it. To say the place was neglected would not describe it. The phrase, “The Museum’s Stepchild” came to my ears from a colleague who had recommended me for the job.

It must have been during a spring or summer when I stepped outside, maybe for a breath of air between classes, when a flatbed truck passed slowly on the road I drove every day I taught. The road led first to the parking lot we used and continued on past the summer house, a small mansion, now overgrown with ivy, fallen into disrepair, but not so far gone to yet be beautiful with its roof slates, old bricks, verdigris turquoised-copper rain gutters and door hinges and flat-stoned, poured concrete, curve-railed patio, where William Cullen Bryant wrote his poetry, and where I sometimes took my students to paint. From there, the road wound past the old children’s playhouse, a brick and slate miniature of the mansion buildings, before reaching the grand brick mansion where the Fricks had lived when they visited Long Island and Lloyd Harbor, where their friends, the Livingstones, the Vanderbilts, the Marshall Fields also had their estates. The Fricks had become The Nassau County Museum of art, a museum that housed Picassos, Vuilliards, the French Impressionists, the work of Andy Warhol, and then, at the time of that idle moment at the door where the unattended holly bush grew, I discovered, a show of the work of the great Alexander Calder, sculptor of metal mobiles and stabiles.

On that flatbed truck sat a metal stabile, red, yellow, and blue cut-out and riveted steel shapes. Surely the thing was 15 or 20 feet long, rolling slowly—a truck bearing a Calder would not speed—past me, the only witness to that moment. There was no one to turn to, to say, Do you see what I see? 

It was dreamlike. It was a Fellini film.

It lives inside me, no one but myself to corroborate what I saw.

Until now, when at last I have committed that moment to the page.



About the ivy: I took home a few clippings from that small summer mansion where William Cullen Bryant spent summers writing his poems and editing for the Saturday Evening Post. I planted them on the shady side of my woods house, where they have spread and flourished. I call that rock-lined garden my Garden of Frick Ivy. My Rhymes-With-Chicken Ivy, and take satisfaction that it is transplanted from one writer’s garden to another’s.

The Bryants emigrated from Breton-Ireland. The Fields from England, the Carnegies, Scotland. The Vanderbuilts were Dutch; so were the Roosevelts. The Coes: Scotland; J.P. Morgans, Wales; J.Goulds, Scotland; Guggenheims, Switzerland; Astors, Germany; Pratts, France; Bendels, Austria-Prussia; Dodge, Norway; DuPont, Franc; Steve Jobs, Syria; Iacocca, Italy. Long Island, like all of the U. S. was inhabited by Indigenous, tribal peoples, for 30 or 40 thousand years. Immigrants fleeing religious oppression, famine, persecution, and poverty built and build this country, as did the people brought here in bondage. Oppressed peoples have come to this place we have come to know as these United States at every stage of its development. I like to remember, a consolation in the face of current events, that most were penniless and persecuted as The Other when they arrived—our inclination to separate from others, is merely human. Yet, we aspire: E Pluribus Unum.

So what does or can connect us? Art? Storytelling? The written and shared memory of the day I witnessed a Calder stabile transported past the Frick estate where I taught art? Ivy, propagated from the site where important early American poetry originated, flourishing in my garden? The recognition of who came before, and how similar the means of oppression then and now are, in hopes of transforming our worst human inclinations into something better?

I'd say all of this connects us. We have only to stop and consider our common humanity, and remember it. That remembering belongs to the ongoing work of building democracy, a work that is so important, so organic, only we can do it. Here is our destiny, our evolution, our human birthright.


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Related reading: Helena Writes

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