The Children’s Room

Cape Cod Modern, by Peter McMahon & Christine Cipriani

Cape Cod Modern, by Peter McMahon & Christine Cipriani

Each age tries to form its own conception of the past. Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time. –Frederick Jackson Turner, “The significance of history”, 1893

Tiny Wellfleet has been a significant home for histories of all stripes. These include psychohistory (Robert Jay Lifton, Erik Erikson, etc.), history employed to support social justice and civil rights (Howard Zinn, William McFeely, etc.), histories of colonial settlements, pirates, and whaling, and accounts of the daily lives of artists, shellfishers, and innumerable interesting characters. Wellfleet historical writing has for a long time been a vital participant in the story of Wellfleet, not simply a spectator.

A recent example is the winner of the 2015 Historic New England Book Prize, co-authored by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani: Cape Cod Modern: Mid-century Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape.The book uses architectural and personal photos, and interviews with designers, their families, and their clients to document the experimental homes designed by a cosmopolitan group of designers who settled in Wellfleet and Truro in the mid-20th century. The book has stimulated renewed interest in Bauhaus, in the so-called modernist houses, and in the community around them.

Preparatory drawing for playroom mural in Kepes House, Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Julia Kepes

Preparatory drawing for playroom mural in Kepes House, Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Julia Kepes

A complementary project can now be seen with the summer opening of the Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum today. The Children’s Room, Art and Design of Wellfleet’s Mid-century Children’s Books is a collaboration of WHSM with the Cape Cod Modern House Trust and the Wellfleet Public Library. Here’s a description from the WHSM site:

During the 1930s Wellfleet’s population was just barely 800 people, and yet over 1,000 books have been published by, or about, the town’s mid-century denizens, around 200 being inventive books for children. Many of these books were designed and illustrated by some of the most acclaimed graphic artists of the era. This exhibit includes a selection of books, artifacts and original artwork.

Dwellers of the Tundra, by Aylette Jenness & Jonathan Jenness

Dwellers of the Tundra, by Aylette Jenness & Jonathan Jenness

Many of the artists and authors of the children’s books were connected with Bauhaus, and its emphasis on learning, science, experimentalism, and progressive politics. That can be seen in the wide variety of nature topics and in sympathetic depictions of diverse cultures.

As with Bauhaus, the exhibit invites participation. Visitors can observe blown-up versions of artwork from the children’s books, and peruse the books themselves. There are specially designed benches on which to sit or to spread out the objects. There are also crayons and paper to create your own artworks.

I like the fact that the museum is opening just after the summer solstice (a special one at that, coinciding with a strawberry moon). Bauhaus was very aware of new technologies, materials, and scientific discoveries. A love of nature and its meanings for humans was evident throughout its history. Wellfleetian Ati Gropius, who was the daughter of founder Walter, would gather people in late June and ask “What does the summer solstice mean to you?” Several of the Bauhaus-connected houses took advantage of solar or lunar movements in their design. So, it’s appropriate that this wonderful new exhibit welcome the summer season.

Fidelia, by Ruth Adams & Ati Forberg (Gropius)

Fidelia, by Ruth Adams & Ati Forberg (Gropius)

The new Children’s Room is filled with wonderful individual items. There are Caldecott award winners and artworks that are surprisingly fresh and striking a half century or more after they were created. But the exhibit as a whole brings the items together in a provocative way, adding new meaning to the specific items and to our understanding of that mid-century era.

As I think about how our history-making enriches life in Wellfleet, I’m reminded of William James’s comment about teaching:

You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures. –William James, “The social value of the college-bred,” 1907

 

Evaluating the trails

Evaluating the trails

Phoebe, Sam, Nia

Phoebe, Sam, Nia

We had a wonderful group of visitors from the Dorchester area over Memorial Day weekend: Priscilla (6), Nia (8), Phoebe (10), Sam (12), and Jane (73).

I knew that we were in for some special experiences when Phoebe ran in asking “Can we go to the Library?” That had been the highlight of a previous trip. Then Sam added, “Can we go to the beach, too?” The latter seemed like a reasonable request to add for a sunny holiday weekend.

At the Library

At the Library

We managed to visit bay, ocean, and pond beaches. And the Library, of course. But we also set out to evaluate some local trails. You can see the evaluation sheet below. I fear that some of the drawings don’t reproduce well. But we got some good feedback on trails.

Priscilla, discussing books with Anna

Priscilla, discussing books with Anna

On the Wellfleet Conservation Trust’s new Drummer Cove trail, Sam identified the #1 hit, fiddler crabs, especially one in particular, who is named Bob. He also called for more trail markers, which was understandable, as the trail was just cleared last week and hasn’t been marked yet.

Phoebe’s favorite thing “was the breeze and the shells on the way.”  Her refrain throughout was for more shells. She and the others identified oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, slipper shells, winkles and more. For improvement, she recommended less pollen, which seemed to color everything yellow and cause some sneezing.

Sharing books and a swing

Sharing books and a swing

We also walked across Uncle Tim’s Bridge, through Hamblen Park, down to the “yes” benches. Priscilla, who perhaps wishes she were older, claimed her age as 6000, but I think it’s closer to 6. Her favorite thing was “fiddler crabsssssssssss” (there were many). For what to improve, she said “??????nuthing?”

Nia’s favorite was the baby diamond-back terrapin, which the group wanted to keep, but we let go on his/her way. For improvement, she wanted “to write more in Steve [Durkee]’s notebooks by the ‘yes’ benches.”

We also saw an osprey at the pier, and somehow managed to locate ice cream.

Diamond back terrapin

Diamond back terrapin

Along Duck Creek

Along Duck Creek

Hamblen Park

Hamblen Park

Fiddler Bob

Fiddler Bob

Ant eating inchworm

Ant eating inchworm

With just a little help

With just a little help

Braving the surf

Braving the surf

Surfers at Newcomb's

Surfers at Newcomb’s

Mac's at the pier

Mac’s at the pier

Percy

Percy

Trail evaluation

Trail evaluation

Namskaket Creek

On the day after Christmas Stephen and I decided to venture out. Seeing no snow, we did the best we could by a short canoe trip on Namskaket Creek in Brewster.

To get to the creek, we made a short portage on the Cape Cod Rail Trail. Another option would have been to launch in the bay at Skaket or Crosby Lane beach.

The whole journey, including a PB&J lunch, took only four hours, with about half of that paddling. It was still a bit of an adventure, since it wasn’t easy to find our way through the salt marsh and occasionally we had to fight the wind. But the weather was perfect and the birds were joyous. The mix of forest, marsh, beach, briny water and ocean was unbeatable.

The Canoe of Theseus

Not long after I was born, the Chestnut Canoe Co. in Fredericton, New Brunswick built a 17′ 2″ Prospector model canoe. Chestnut was a leading builder of wood-and-canvas canoes, which unfortunately failed with the onslaught of inferior aluminum, fiberglass, and rubberized plastic imitations.

The Prospector design is awesome. With no keel, wide ribs, and high gunwales, it can tackle whitewater that flips kayaks and rafts. It can carry two large people and a summer’s worth of gear, or as many as four adults without swamping. It’s quiet, strong, beautiful, and easy to paddle. It can take a sail or motor. And it’s light enough to carry on a portage trail. No design is perfect, and no canoe can meet all needs, but this one comes very close.

I wrote earlier about the restoration of the particular Chestnut Prospector that owns me. Today, we took the aging Prospector out for a paddle. Looking at it, I can enjoy the new canvas with its new brick red paint and new decals. There are new brass fittings to replace those that had corroded over sixty plus years. There are two new ribs and a new portage yoke, many new screws, and new varnish.

Restoring or replacing?

It feels like a new canoe. However, the remaining parts though serviceable for now, show signs of age, and might need to be replaced in a future restoration. Is it simply a fixed up old canoe? Or, is it a new one? Could a time come when I’d no longer feel that it’s the same canoe that Chestnut built in 1954?

Being a bit older myself, I note that I carry replacement parts, and have lost some parts from the original. And while my entire set of body cells may not turnover every seven years, cells are dying and being replaced all the time. What does it mean for something to be “the same,” when that something is changing constantly?

When Theseus returned from his successful mission to slay the minotaur, the grateful Athenians pledged to honor Apollo by maintaining his ship in a seaworthy state forever. Any wood that wore out or rotted would be replaced. Over centuries, the original parts were replaced many times. Had they kept their promise? Plutarch writes:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

Is it the same ship? If not, when did it become something else? If it looks and functions more as it did in the beginning, is it more the original than if it’s not repaired? Centuries later, Thomas Hobbes introduced a further puzzle, wondering what would happen if the original planks could be located and used to build a ship. If one could assemble the old planks and other parts, would that be more the original? Which ship, if either, would be Ship of Theseus?

The shakedown cruise

We took the new/old canoe out today on Gull, Higgins, and Williams Ponds. I can tell that it creaks a bit and the wood is more brittle than it once was, but so am I.

Nevertheless, it tracked as well as it ever did and handled an occasionally stiff breeze very well. The September sky was beautiful, the trees are just beginning to turn, and the birds are busy all about.

I know that I change over the years, sometimes noticeably from day to day. Can I remain the same person? Can I become someone new?

The old Prospector is still the canoe I’ve known and loved for many years. In many ways it’s a new canoe, but it still serves as the magic vessel it’s always been.

Reverse silhouettes

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot — “Little Gidding”

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I knew the name, György Kepes, mostly because he’s one of those notable Wellfleetians, but I can’t say that I knew much about him until recently.

My exploration started with a “Picture of the Day” in New Scientist, showing one of his reverse silhouettes, and describing an exhibition of his works at Tate Liverpool. More images are shown in the slide show above, on the website of the new Kepes Institute, Museum, and Cultural Center in Eger Hungary, and at Hommage à György Kepes.

Cape Cod Modern,  Peter McMahon, Christine Cipriani

Cape Cod Modern, Peter McMahon, Christine Cipriani

I looked up Kepes in the wonderful new book by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani, Cape Cod modern: Midcentury architecture and community on the Outer Cape. There are interesting stories and photos there about the house that Marcel Breuer designed for the Kepes family on Long Pond, and about their interesting relationship with Wellfleet and Cambridge, Mass, including living in Wellfleet without a car. There is some about his wife, Juliet Kepes, who has had considerable accomplishments of her own, including winning the Caldecott Award for Five little monkeys. They had met in London when she was then 17-year-old Juliet Appleby.

I then started examining more of the Kepes art, writings, and history.

The Wellfleet library may be small, but it’s an excellent source for this kind of investigation. It has many books by György Kepes, including his Vision + value series. As I read through the contributors, I couldn’t believe what I saw.

Kepes (1906-2001) was a Hungarian-born painter, photographer, designer, filmmaker, educator, and art/design theorist. As a young artist, he was concerned about the relation between art and social justice, seeking to alleviate “the inhumane conditions of the Hungarian peasantry.” He followed László Moholy-Nagy to London, and later, to teach design at the New Bauhaus in Chicago and later founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT.

Five Little Monkeys, Juliet Kepes

Five Little Monkeys, Juliet Kepes

Kepes promoted an idealistic conception of visual communication as a universal language that could enhance communication and social relations:

Visual communication is universal and international; it knows no limits of tongue, vocabulary, or grammar, and it can be perceived by the illiterate as well as by the literate (Language of Vision, p. 13).

There are many reasons to question that bold statement, and Kepes must have done so as well. While at New Bauhaus he developed ideas about design theory, form in relation to function, and the “education of vision.” This implies that although visual communication may be universal it is not immediately apprehended. Kepes’s teaching and writing, including the anthologies he edited argue for it as something to be studied and learned. Kepes goes on to say: “Visual language must be adjusted, however, to meet its historical challenge.” This challenge is to reunite people and knowledge, to establish a more integrated being in a changing world.

What especially struck me about Kepes’s work was how much it tied together disparate threads in my own life. He saw fundamental connections between people in fields that are often considered to be far apart. In exploring his work I felt that I was getting know a new friend, but also, as Eliot suggests, getting to know myself better as well.

Kepes’s Bauhaus strand is strong in Wellfleet, including in the life and work of friends Ati Gropius and John Johansen, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Serge Chermayeff, Paul Weidlinger, and others. He worked with science educators, such as Gerard Holton and Philip Morrison. He was involved in the development of computer sciences, especially regarding data visualization, and worked with Norbert Wiener and Jerome Wiesner. He worked with psychologists, including Rudolf Arnheim and Erik Erikson, mathematicians–Stanislaw Ulam, biologists–C. H. Waddington, communications theorists–Marshall McLuhan, artists–Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko. And he is most strongly identified with designer/theorists such as Christopher Alexander, Buckminster Fuller, and Charles Eames. Thus, the worlds of art, science, education, technology, and social justice were in the same mix. This can be seen in his exhibition/book, The new landscape in art and science, in which artwork was interlaced with images from x-rays, stroboscopes, electron microscopes, sonar, radar, telescopes, and infrared sensors.

Some more examples are his reverse silhouettes. Using a technique that has become a children’s museum staple, Kepes made “photograms” by arranging objects directly on top of light-sensitive paper and illuminating them. I wish I could see the new display in Liverpool, but in lieu of that am enjoying the art and ideas in his many books. These ideas are still fresh and have inspired many others, including the whole field of computational aesthetics (see for example, Form + code)

References

  • Kepes, György (1995/1944). Language of vision. New York: Dover.
  • Kepes, György (1949). Graphic forms: The arts as related to the book. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Kepes, György (1956). The new landscape in art and science. Chicago: Paul Theobald.
  • Kepes, György (1965-66). Vision + value [series] (The education of vision; Structure in art and science; The nature and art of motion; Module, symmetry, proportion, rhythm; Sign, image, symbol; and The man-made object). New York: George Braziller.
  • Kepes, György (1966). The visual arts today. Wesleyan University Press.
  • Kepes, György (1972). Arts of environment. New York: George Braziller.
  • McMahon, Peter, & Cipriani, Christine (2104, Spring). Cape Cod modern: Midcentury architecture and community on the Outer Cape. New York: Metropolis.
  • Picture of the day (2015). Reverse silhouettes capture the beauty of nature. New Scientist.
  • Rawsthorn, Alice (2010). A master of image and information. The New York Times.
  • Reas, Casey; McWilliams,Chandler; LUST (2010). Form + code: In design, art, and architecture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press.

Light from the Castagna

Castagna

Castagna

Over a century ago, on February 17, 1914, the Italian bark Castagna was thrown on the backside of Cape Cod near the Marconi Lifesaving Station. See Italian bark Castagna comes a cropper on the Marconi Station beach and Shipwrecks on South Wellfleet’s Shore.

There’s a large photo of the Castagna in the Wellfleet Post Office and the general story is well known. But there’s a side to it that not many people know.

The Castagna was bound from Montevideo for Weymouth loaded with guano. It struck ground during a blinding snowstorm and northwest gale. Lifesaving crews shot three lines for breeches buoys across the Castagna’s deck, but the sailors were so cold that they were unable to handle the tackle. The skipper of the Castagna was washed overboard, four men froze to death in the rigging and one died in the lifeboat on the way to shore. The loss of life was the largest in a wreck on Cape Cod in 12 years.

The Life Line, Winslow Homer, 1884

The Life Line, Winslow Homer, 1884

My Great Uncle Jack Whorf, had just turned 13 years old. When he heard about the ship going aground, he and a friend decided that going to see the wreck would be more interesting than whatever was planned for school that day. When they arrived at the ocean, they saw the crews from the Nauset and Cahoon’s Hollow stations set up with their beach gear.

The crews had managed to rescue the ship’s cook with a breeches buoy. Presumably he had survived in part from being in the warm galley, rather than up in the rigging. He was set up in a chair on the beach. Jack and his friend were told to rub his arms to keep him alive.

The next day, Jack and his friend scavenged some teak from the wreck and made a desk lamp from the wood. A Wellfleet lampshade maker painted a Cape Cod map and a picture of the ship on the shade. He and Great Aunt Polly used that lamp in their den. For them it was a quite ordinary fixture; for me, it was a talisman to adventure and tragedy.

First encounters with snow

Preparing to face the snow

Preparing to face the snow

OK, I confess.

All those about me were complaining about the never-ending snow and what accompanied it: bitter winds coming off the ocean ice, people trapped in their homes, snowplows closing off newly shoveled driveways, while burying or knocking over mailboxes, falling on the ice, roofs collapsing, and such. Meanwhile, I prayed for it to continue. I wanted it to be here for my family from Austin who were to visit during spring break.

Front yard

Front yard

They had never seen snow before, at least not of this magnitude. But they prepared as well as they could.

We prepared for the visitors as well. I had stored some clean snow in the freezer for making snow ice cream, just in case the outside quality wasn’t up to standard. We had sleds, extra hats and mittens, and topped off the propane tank. We’d also made a list of indoor activities–the Brio train, the dollhouse, piano, rummy for indoors for inside the house; the visitor centers at the National Seashore’s Salt Pond site and at the Audubon sanctuary, to get out in case of freezing rain.

Out the garage window

Out the garage window

When they came, we took full advantage of the snow. we had snow ice cream in the classic vanilla as well as the maple syrup varieties. We made snow angels and devilish snow balls.

We made a snow dog (aka Ripley), when our planned snow man didn’t cooperate. We also got to see how much fun it is for a three-year-old boy to jump on top of a snow dog and scatter the snow in all directions. And how annoyed his six-year-old sister can be whenever he does something like that.

Frozen Ripley

Frozen Ripley

And we went sledding. There were awards for being the first to go beyond the end of the run into the sand road, for going furthest off the main track, for unintentionally going down backwards, for getting buried the deepest in a drift, and for screaming the loudest.

The visit was wonderful for me, although way too short.

Testing out the equipment

Testing out the equipment

Now that we’ve completed it, I’d like to amend my earlier call for lots of snow. It’s still beautiful to see, but it makes it hard to walk in the woods without snowshoes or skis. I’m starting to tire of putting out a special bin for mail with the mailbox packed in ice. I sympathize with the friend who’s decided to move after five weeks of being shut in. So, let’s have a few more days of sledding or skiing, then move on to another season.