Feature: Examing the Congdon art collection

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Chester and Clara Congdon were the kind of people who pressed flowers between the pages of books and displayed shells they had gathered from beaches. They were also the kind of people who studied art museum catalogues, making notations and possibly purchasing items of interest.

For the past three years, art historian Jennifer Webb, an assistant art professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, has been studying the art collecting habits of the millionaire family who built Glensheen in the early 1900s as a retirement home. Webb combed their paintings, vases and shells. She went through their journals and books; she looked at the texture of draperies and considered the architecture of their home.

Her findings: “All the objects fashion the Congdons into disciplined, cultured and well-traveled individuals who were purveyors of good taste,” Webb wrote in the article “Golden Age collecting in America’s Middle West: Chester and Clara Congdon’s Glensheen Historical Manor and Raymond Wyer’s ‘An Art Museum,’ ” published in May 2010 in the “Journal of the History of Collections.”

Webb will present a gallery talk about researching the famous family’s aesthetic at 2 p.m. Saturday at Tweed Museum of Art on the UMD campus.

At the Tweed

A copy of Wyer’s “An Art Museum,” published in 1916 and found in the Congdon archives, was a key that helped Webb define the couple’s approach to their collection.

The book — the Congdon’s copy is signed by the author — makes a case for small museums with a narrow focus on a particular period or art movement rather than scooping up pieces by the masters. It is a theory the Congdons seemed to subscribe to as they sought out high-quality landscapes in the style of French impressionists, as well as items that incorporated their interest in world travel. They were conservative collectors who probably never paid much more than $800 for a piece, and they weren’t buying art as an investment.

From interviews with family members, Webb confirmed that it was Clara, with her background in the arts, who was the primary collector in the family.

“They really felt she was the one collecting them, even though she was using Chester’s checkbook,” Webb said.

Annie Dugan, curator at the Duluth Art Institute, said the art at Glensheen is unique in the way the art is equal to the house where it hangs.

“A lot of times you walk through mansions or historic homes and the work, while it may be period, it’s not necessarily high-quality period art,” she said.

Webb selected two of her favorite pieces for an alcove at the Tweed Museum. “The Wharves of Quebec,” a pastel by the little-known but respected artist Birge Harrison, is a landscape that dabbles in abstract. “Passage de L’ouet” by Paul E. J. Chabas, is set in Algeria and pairs with the family’s Parisian vases and Egyptian lamps, Webb said in her article.

Knowing the Congdons

Webb’s research on the Congdons includes biographical information: neither came from money, they met at college in Syracuse and had a long-term, long-distance relationship while they both advanced in their careers — Chester in law, Clara teaching art.

Webb said she likes the moments in her research where the Congdons were made human: flowers pressed in the pages of a catalogue and the shells that were collected as memorial keepsakes, with labels to show where they came from.

“In all of my research, I feel like I know these people,” she said. “It’s the moment you hold things in your hand and you’re right there with them.”

Dugan called the collection at Glensheen amazing and said Webb’s research is a wonderful, long-lasting legacy.

“It’s exciting that there is someone of Jennifer’s level in the community doing work on that,” Dugan said.

Webb pointed out a wall of paintings by French impressionists at the Tweed as examples of the sort of work that would have attracted the Congdons’ attention. She can discern their taste from a lineup.

This story ran in the February 10, 2011 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune

Review: ‘High Voltage Tattoo’ by Kat Von D

I’m going through a huge Kat Von D phase, not unlike my vegetarian cooking phase, addiction memoir phase, running phase, Swedish pop duos phase, learning to play guitar phase, Belinda Carlisle phase — well, the last one is more of a lifestyle.

She’s the Kat Von D’jour.

The punk rock tattoo artist who busted out of the super-vanilla “Miami Ink” for her own show — “LA Ink” based in Hollywood (next door to Edible Bouquets, ohfer cute) — is this fascinating gravitational pull. She looks like a Barbie doll that was attacked by an angsty “Rocky Horror Picture Show” art weirdo teen armed with Sharpies. And based only on the edited version of her life that appears on TLC, I’d say it isn’t hyperbole that she has “DILLIGAF” (does it look like I give a fuck) tattooed on her hand. She dated Nikki Sixx. She lives in something that looks like a mini Castle Grayskull. Her tattoo lair within the High Voltage tattoo shop is a dripped candle wax gothic cave, think “I Dream of Jeannie” meets Elvira meets Buffy’s exboyfriend Spike.

High Voltage Tattoo — her first book — is part celebrity memoir for the Tiger Beat-style fan, filled with photos and deets like Kat’s favorite songs and a few growing up photos. It is part How-To-Tattoo (don’t show up drunk!), part portfolio. It’s billed as a coffee table book, and shelved in the pop culture section of the bookstore. It’s got a padded cover, and worn-journal style pages — some that feature hand-written musings, sprawling script Kat. There is a foreward from Nikki Sixx, whom she dated for two years, which is the best written part of the book: “She’s definitely a top-fuel funny car, a superhero cartoon character with a tattoo machine firmly in hand 24 hours a day,” he writes.

Kat Von D didn’t reveal much more about herself beyond the bare bones biographical information that you could find on Wikipedia. Anyone looking for juicy juice would be better served by watching E! (She started tattooing at 14, dropped out of high school, ran away, ran back, married a Texan who has accumulated a body suit, loves her family).

There is also a multi-page full body spread, a tat-tour if you will, of the stories behind some of the countless markings inked into Kat’s legs, face, hands, neck …

People who watch “LA Ink” will recognize one of the final sections of the book as similar to the format of the show, where a customer walks in, explains that they want a portrait of their cat, then tell a real sob-story about how Fluffy was hit by a car. Although, in book format, the narrative takes a back seat to the art and so there isn’t a ton of emotion to it. These are just quick hitters about dead grandparents and drunken rock tours around Finland.

This isn’t a book to sit down and read, per se. But it is definitely worth taking a ton of time to flip through. The art, the actual reason for the season, is amazing (not just Kat’s tats, but also the photography by Lionel Duley), ranging from a watercolor Kat Von D painted when she was seven years old to the angel that took four sittings to perfect on Nikki Sixx’s ribs. Kat Von D is known for her black and gray portrait work, and has mastered shading and white contrasts to make realistic likenesses, twinkles in eyes and gaps in teeth. She’s also heavy into big bold heavy lettering like you’d find on the cover of an 80s hairband album, tinged with the sort of gothic aesthetic. Carnival colored Catholic art, featuring the Virgin Mary. Details and small touches, like a Prince Charming making the metal sign, or a pirate ship motif with a subtle treasure map as the back drop. And there is humor: Skateboarder slash professional prankster Bam Margera commissioned one of a bear making furious love to a kitty, with a message for a friend: “Fuck Jeff.”

On “LA Ink,” Kat Von D is more of an all-consuming personality that her staff revolves around, and the art is just another facet in each drama-encased episode. In her book, you get the chance to see the work she does close up. And it is amazing. She is basically this person who broke every single rule on “how to be a success” and has come out on the other side as this incredible artist.

Originally published October 2, 2010, on Minnesota Reads.