“The poems surprised me.”

was I received an email last week from artist Robert Gould, who introduced himself and invited me out to see his current art exhibit, which he did in collaboration with poet Gerald Wagoner. Tis past Sunday I ventured out to the Gowanus, where I met Rob and Jerry. We had a great conversation. They sat down and answered some questions about their current installation.

The Strawfoot: Robert Gould, tell us about “On the Tides of Time.” What inspired the series?

Robert Gould: I am an artist who draws inspiration from historical events. Over the years I have created a body of work about the Battle of Brooklyn, and this year I was offered a month long residency at Gowanus Dredgers boathouse. The month of August was chosen because it marks the anniversary of the battle. As part of the residency I created an exhibit that includes my paintings and the poetry of my good friend Gerald Wagoner who shares my passion for history. His poems have a different approach to the passage of time and add his personal observations. He also came up with the title, “On the Tides of Time,” which he pulled from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

My painting series is a continuation of a piece I made a couple of years ago, “Maryland Willow of the Gowanus.” It includes the names of the Maryland soldiers written on willow leaves. I combined these leaves with a photograph I had taken of the Old Stone House using a primitive camera.

For this new series I expanded the theme by incorporating natural elements from the fields of battle. For example, the picture titled “Black Eyed Susan of the Gowanus” features actual river marsh grass with collaged paper black eyed Susan flowers (the Maryland state flower).

Who were the Maryland 400?

RG: The “Maryland 400” was a nickname the Maryland Militia earned during the Battle of Brooklyn. They were under the command of William Alexander also known as Lord Stirling, although his Scottish earldom was rejected by the House of Lords. They were one of General Washington’s most competent troops at the battle. They repeatedly counter-attacked and fought a delaying action to allow other militia troops to cross the difficult terrain of the Gowanus marsh lands thus saving a number of other units from capture and destruction.

The state of Maryland is meaningful to me because I was born there. I moved to NYC to attend college and have remained ever since. My family is originally from eastern Ohio. The first Robert Gould, in our family records, settled what was then the frontier of Ohio after his services in the War of 1812.

The Gowanus Dodgers Canoe Club Boathouse is an ideal venue for the exhibit. How does the site, being where it is, relate to the art works?

RG: I agree it’s an ideal venue for this exhibit! It is located on the exact spot of the Battle of Brooklyn. I have included a painting by Alonzo Chapple, a 19thCentury American painter. His image of the battle from Brouwer Mill pond was within a hundred yards of the boathouse site. The interior of the boathouse space is also ideal because it has long, high, unfinished walls. Because my work uses natural materials the scale of the materials dictates the finished size of the paintings. For example “Hessian Bayonets” incorporates steel bayonets that I fabricated along with rubbings of real tree bark. The resulting painting ended up being 8×15 feet. Thus the scale of the works needs a larger forum than most local gallery spaces.

Is place a recurring theme in your work?

RG: Yes, place is a recurring theme. I strive to find novel ways to describe “place”. The various materials that I use to create the paintings become the subject matter. It is this curated use of materials that reference the place of the battle. I keep coming back to this quote from Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain taken from his dedcation speech to the 20th Maine Monument at Gettysburg in 1888:

“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.

Explain broadly the piece in the series. What materials did you use? What inspired them?

RG: I’ll include what I’ve written about each painting:

“Maryland Willow of the Gowanus” (2016)

I was inspired to create this work from a photograph that I saw in a book about the Old Stone House, called The Stone House of Gowanus by Georgia Fraser (1909). The house was the center of the fighting during the Battle of Long Island in 1776. Near the end of her book there is a photograph of a lone willow tree in the vacant lot where the house once stood. (pp.129) The author claimed that it is the same willow that is depicted in old paintings of the house. I am not so sure of that, however, I became fascinated by the idea of an old Willow tree that links us back to the times of 1776.  So my creative idea was to inscribe the names of the Maryland soldiers onto willow leaves. The leaves are then arranged in long hanging branches that represent the different fighting units that the soldiers were with. For example all the soldiers from the Second Company are represented by leaves on one branch that hangs down in the image.

“Elements of Gun Powder 75%, 15%, 10%” (2019)

Rock Salt, Charcoal, Paper Mache, Sulfur, Acrylic Paint, Marsh Grass.

A graphic representation of the ratio of the three elements that compose gunpowder (known today as black powder). Various armies used slightly different ratios of these essential elements to create explosive powder. This is the ratio of the British army: 75 % saltpeter or potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal, 10% sulfur.

In the painting, the different elements are displayed as horizontal bands. The thickness of the bands represents the ratio of that element as present in the British formulation. This is overlaid on marsh grass that has been sourced in Brooklyn. Marsh grass was plentiful in the Gowanus area during the time of the Battle of Long Island.

Black-Eyed Susan of the Gowanus (2019)

Marsh Grass, Acrylic House Paint, Powdered Pigment, Natural Dyes, Rock Salt, Iron Powder, Paper College, mounted on Paper Shopping Bags.

This painting references the Maryland state flower, the black-eyed Susan, and uses marsh grass as a form of requiem. The Gowanus area was a barrier for the retreating American army. It was the sacrifice and repeated attacks of the Maryland troops that allowed other American soldiers to retreat to the safety of downtown Brooklyn. The development of the Gowanus area has been built over the unknown graves of the Maryland soldiers.

Hessian Bayonets (2019)

Welded Steel, Canvas, Oil Stick, Acrylic House Paint, Powder Pigment, Iron Powder, Paper collage, Paper Shopping Bags Mounted on wood frame.

This painting has evolved from local folklore. Hessian soldiers were German mercenary, “solders for hire”.  They were used by the British army to supplement their own troops. During the Battle of Long Island Hessian troops acted as a diversion to deceive the American army into thinking the main British attack was happening in what today is known as Prospect Park. Meanwhile the true British attack was able to cut off and isolate the American troops facing the Hessians. The Americans, upon realizing this, fled towards what today is downtown Brooklyn. The Hessian troops, perhaps because of language barriers, or perhaps because of British propaganda, did not take prisoners. Instead they used bayonets mounted at the end of their muskets to kill any surrendering American solider they came across.

The painting was created using rubbings of actual tree trunks from the “Battle Pass” area of Prospect Park. Oil stick was used to transfer the bark pattern from the trees to the canvas strips. These strips of canvas were mounted to the substrate of paper shopping bags and hand forged steel bayonets were impaled into the tree bark.

Gun Powder Sky (2019)

Acrylic House paint, Powder pigment, Iron Powder, Rock Salt, Marsh Grass, Charcoal, Sulfur on Paper Shopping Bag.

This work references the painting “Battle of Long Island”by Alonzo Chappel (1828-1887)That painting depicts the retreat of the “Maryland 400” across Brouwer’s Mill Pond which was located across the canal from this site.

The title alludes to the great blinding noxious clouds of white smoke that were created by the burning gunpowder. Battles of this time in history were often hard to directly observe because of the tremendous volumes of thick smoke that were generated. Consequently, because the battle was totally obscured, generals of the time had a difficult time controlling the movements of their troops.

The artist has layered the ingredients of gun powder and local marsh grass. White paint covers and obscures that under-structure. The paint is layered in such a way so as to let the chemical reaction of iron and salt stain and penetrate the white painted surface. Rust and decay are modern components that allude to both the past and present environment of the Gowanus canal.

You and Gerald have visited many historic sites over the years. Which ones have meant the most to you?

RG: I will let Gerald speak more about that.

Any ideas for future projects you can tell us about?

RG: Nothing concrete yet, but I can see us doing something on Governor’s Island next summer during one of their art fairs.

Gowanus Canal, August 2019

The Strawfoot: Gerald Wagoner, you have lived in Brooklyn thirty-five year now. What does the borough mean to you?

Gerald Wagoner: I moved to New York because this is where the art is, and the artists are. I ended up in Brooklyn and have never regretted it. A few years ago I decided to express my creative urges in poetic form, and now Brooklyn is a hive of poets, so it is exciting to be part of the conversation.

What was your life like before moving to Brooklyn? Where did you grow up and how did it make you who you are today?

GW: I grew up in Eastern Oregon and in northern Montana on sixty miles east of Glacier National Park. In my poems Montana weather and people are joyless adversaries of mine in a magnificently grand landscape

The West, I think, made my language spare. I was a creative writing major at  the University of MT when the poet Richard Hugo was teaching. He left a lifelong impression on me, as did Richard Stankiewicz when I earned my Sculpture MFA at SUNY Albany.

As I brought up with Robert, the two of you have visited many historic sites. Which would you say have meant the most to you?

GW: I think maybe it was tracing Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg over South Mountain to Falling Waters where the army crossed the Potomac because on that trip we learned things that were totally new and perspective altering.

Your poetry complements Robert’s art works in the exhibit. Tell us about your poems.

GW: The poems surprised me. Which is always a good thing. I had taken pages of notes about the canal, and learned some new things about the Battle of Brooklyn, but it is rare for me to sit down at the table and sketch out three related, but distinct poems like I did one morning. The Gowanus Canal is tidal, so it comes in and goes out, and up and down giving it metaphorical qualities of time and change. The title Tides of Time is from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

I’ve known this canal for twenty-five years and things are changing, and I am lamenting that change partially because I’m older and decaying too. The only other thing I would add regarding my poems is that I revise relentlessly, and I aim for a fluid musicality that is suitable to the poem.

Where and when can people see “On the Tides of Time?”

GW: “On the Tides of Time,” at 165 2nd street in Brooklyn, is on view Saturdays and Sundays in from 1:00-5:00 in August and there will be a poetry reading Wednesday August 14 from 7:00-9:00 pm featuring 12 poets and myself reading original theme related poems.

Sunday morning coffee

One of the most rewarding things about volunteering with the Park Service, in addition to collaborating alongside the amazing rangers who work there, is meeting the public. Everyone visits a site bringing their own expectations to what they hope to get out of it. For some that means using the bathroom and leaving without saying a word, which is fine. Others however visit on some sort of mission or purpose. We had a few of these yesterday at Federal Hall. Here are two:

Two fellows came in from rural Pennsylvania in mid-afternoon. I showed them around and then got into a longer conversation with one of them. He told me had never thought much about history until earlier this year, when his sister discovered a trove of letters written by an ancestor who had served in New Jersey regiment during the Civil War. One thing led to another and after some digging he discovered that his family roots date back in the New World to the 1640s. This knowledge in turn led him to studying not just the Civil War but the Early American period. Thus he and his friend were making the rounds of various historic sites. They were on their way to Fraunces Tavern after Federal Hall.

He told me his son lives in Brooklyn and therefore he comes to the city frequently. So I quickly jotted the names of further historic sites in various boroughs he might try to see when time permits. I will never know if he follows through. Hopefully he will.

1989 presidential inaugral ticket

Later a man came in with his son and we too got into a conversation. As it turned out for decades, going back to the 1980s, he was a White House correspondent for a major newspaper syndicate. We got to talking about the evolution of the newspaper industry, which in turn led to a discussion of covering various historical events. I mentioned George H.W. Bush having been at Federal Hall in April 1989 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Washington’s First Inaugural. The man mentioned that the event had been part of a larger project that took place over that year starting in January called “From George to George.” The retired journalist had an extraordinary amount of institutional memory.

Stories like the above are just two examples of the things one only gets from being at the place itself. People, at least some of them, come in reflective and eager to share what led them to come and experience the thing for themselves.

(image/picclick)

My summer Saturday mornings

Every Saturday morning since early June my routine is the same. During my commute I have to come to street level to change trains and when I do I stop quickly to get a few things at the green market. I say a few things because that is really all there is time for. Plus, because I’m on my way to work and then have the reverse commute later in the afternoon, I can’t be lugging too much stuff anyways. Some produce and a half gallon of cider is usually about it. Here are two pictures I took quickly this morning before hopping on the train.

The King Manor of Jamaica, Queens

King Manor, Jamaica Queens

I ventured to Queens today for a visit to the King Manor. It is part of my wider project to visit places affiliated in one manner or another with Federal Hall. The home belonged to Rufus King, one of the lesser known but well-deserving Founding Fathers. King was born in what is now Maine and fought in the Revolutionary War before serving in the Confederation Congress. He helped write the Constitution and then served in the First Congress, where he worked in the upper chamber alongside Philip Schuyler as a New York senator. His son John Alsop King took over the house after his father’s death in 1827. The name John A. King fang faintly familiar and when I got home I checked the draft of “Incorporating New York,” my manuscript about Civil War Era New York City, and realized he was a minor figure in my narrative; King the Younger was defeated by Edwin D. Morgan in the 1858 New York gubernatorial election. Until today though the name John A. King had just been a name in a history book. That’s why place is so important.

King Manor library

King Manor became a historic site in 1900, the house itself owned by the New York City Parks Department and managed by the King Manor Association. As best I can tell, this is still the arrangement 120 years on. A perusal of online newspapers shows the house was used rigorously for various things and by various organizations over the decades. This would make sense. Queens developed later than the other buroughs and there probably much less infrastructure where groups could have gathered. Jamaica was more Long Island than New York City. The Daughters of the American Revolution, for one, created a Rufus King Chapter in 1918 during the Great War that met at the spacious house. The D.A.R. met there for decades. Like much of New York King Manor struggled in the harsh years before gentrification. In 1973 some punk teenagers started a fire on the porch that almost burned down the then-almost 250-year-old house. Thankfully the custodian kept it in check before the firemen arrived and put it out.

The tour was led by an extraordinary young person who incredibly is still in high school. There is no way I could have pulled off something like that when I was that age. I asked the person when they began at the house and the answer was July, just last month. I had to ask again because I thought I’d heard wrong. The is something about watching Interpretation done well. And when it’s done by a person so young and just starting out, it is that much more incredible.

 

Marguerite Alice LeHand, 1896-1944

I hope everyone’s summer is going well. I know I have gotten away from the blog a bit but I have been doing some summer things. I have also been trying to finish a book chapter about Eleanor Roosevelt. It is almost done and I’ll turn it in to the editor sometime later in the week. It proved a little difficult to manage because when I stated at Federal Hall n early June I pivoted heavily to the Early American Period. I have no regrets and have learned a great deal. It has given me a more holistic understanding of American History, especially as I try to make sense of our own historical moment. Still, it has been a bit difficult moving from one era back to the other.

Missy LeHand holds up a dime given in the fight to find a cure for infantile paralysis, January 28, 1938

I did want to make certain to pause and remember one of the most important figures of the Roosevelt Era: Marguerite Alice “Missy” LeHand, who died on this day seventy-five years ago in 1944. Ms. LeHand was born in Potsdam, New York and grew up in the working-class Boston suburb of Somerville. She entered the Roosevelts’ world in her mid-20s around the time Franklin ran unsuccessfully for the Vice Presidency in 1920. Marguerite stayed on and proved invaluable after Franklin contracted polio in August 1921; while Roosevelt was seeking in vain for a cure that would never come, Ms. LeHand worked on his behalf. She was part of the inner circle, hanging out on the houseboat in Florida and settling in to her own room at Warm Springs. Ms. LeHand was a charter member of Roosevelt’s Cuff Links Gang, the small circle of early advisors during that Vice Presidential run to whom he each gave a set of gold cufflinks with his initials engraved on one and the recipient’s engraved on the other. Technically she was his secretary but she was so much more than that; when Roosevelt assumed the presidency she was for all intents and purposes the White House chief-of-staff. Had she been a man more people would have appreciated the role she played in his administration.Throughout the long administration others came and went; Marguerite LeHand stayed.

She suffered a debilitatingly stroke in 1941 just as the United States was on the verge of entering the war. FDR had little time to attend to Ms. LeHand as much as he would have liked, but he and Eleanor did make sure her needs were taken care of. She convalesced n the White House but after starting a fire with a cigarette and burning herself significantly she was sent back to Massachusetts. Eleanor Roosevelt, Felix Frankfurter, James A. Farley, and Joe Kennedy were just a few who attended her funeral.

(photograph by Harris & Ewing via Library of Congress)

New York’s Grand Procession, July 1788

New York City’s Federal Procession in support of New York State ratification of the Constitution, 23 July 1788.

In the manuscript of Incorporating New York, the book I have been writing about Civil War Era New York, I mention the July 26, 1788 New York State ratification of the U.S. Consecution. Isaac Roosevelt joined other Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and others in voting for the Constitution’s passage. Until this past Friday when at the New-York Historical Society, I had not heard of the Grand Procession that took place in New York City on July 23, 1788 in support of the Constitution. New York’s was not the first such procession; other locales had held them previously, some of them large, such as Philadelphia’s on July 4. New York had intended to hold its procession weeks earlier but the thing kept getting pushed back. By the time the procession rolled along on July 23 ten states had ratified the Constitution, one more than need to make it legally binding. Still, there was the significant issue of whether or not New York would join the republic.

The image we see here is from a mid-nineteenth century history book and is not entirely accurate, though they did pull a frigate called the Hamilton through the streets during the procession. We see it here passing through Bowling Green. On the left one can see the fence that is still there. On the left is Fort George, which was torn down in 1790. Cass Gilbert’s 1907 Hamilton Custom House, now home to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, is there today. What I do not understand is the caption where it mentions the president and legislators watching from atop the fort. The First Congress would not sit, and Washington would not be sworn in as president, until April 1789. Perhaps these are the re-enactors of their time? Or maybe a projection to show what could be if New York ratifies? I do not know.

New York ratification of the Constitution was no sure thing. That is why things were dragging out for several weeks at the meeting in Poughkeepsie. This is an extraordinary moment in both New York and American history

(engraving/History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, Volume II via NYPL)

Saturday morning coffee

Revolutionary Summer runs through September 15 at the New-York Historical Society.

I hope everyone’s July has been going well. I’m having my morning coffee before heading off to Federal Hall in a bit. I think it’s going to be a busy one today with folks coming in to escape the heat. A friend is coming in for me to show him around, after which he and I are going to get a quick bite to eat before I go back. It will be a fun day.

A friend and I intended to visit a historic home in the Bronx yesterday but decided to pass for now with the heat wave now on. Instead we visited the New-York Historical Society to take in among other things the Revolutionary Summer exhibit. I took some pictures over the course of the day that hopefully will turn into social media posts for Federal Hall over the next week or so. We did not get to see the facsimile George Washington headquarters tent because they were not doing that this past Friday. It was just as well because that is an outdoor activity and with the temperature such as it is staying indoors was better and safer. I saw the original at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia last year and you could have heard a pin drop when the curtain went up. The N-YHS never fails to please and we spent many hours taking in the permanent displays, the LIFE exhibit, the show about the history of the Hudson Valley, and other things. It’s strange to have reached a point in my life where things that took place when I was a kid are regarded as “history.” Such it was with the Hudson Valley exhibit. I remember the initiatives in the the 1970s and 80s that led to the clean-up. It is so good that New Yorkers from Staten Island north up the river have been discovering their shore line again.

Enjoy your weekend and be careful in this heat.

District of Columbia Stadium, July 1962

JFK and Stan Musial meet before the start of the All-Star Game at District of Columbia Stadium, July 10, 1962.

I’m still reading the coverage about the late Jim Bouton. He led an extraordinary life. Though there was one game played yesterday, Major League Baseball fully starts its second half today with a complete schedule.

When we went to the Braves-Nationals game a few weeks back we took in some of the photographs and memorabilia on display showcasing the long history of baseball in the nation’s capital. It goes back well over a century. I don’t recall the above image being there but I stumbled across it yesterday and found it intriguing. It is John F. Kennedy and Stan Musial at the 1962 All-Star Game in the then sparkling new District of Columbia Stadium, renamed RFK Stadium after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy six years later.

From 1959-62 Major League Baseball played two All-Star Games each season. The proceeds went to the players’ pension fund. This was the first one, played on July 10, 1962. Musial had campaigned for Kennedy in the 1960 election, unlike the Red Sox’s Ted Williams, who was a Nixon man. LBJ is there in the right hand corner. From 1964-67, after the Kennedy assassination, Musial was chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. I remember the Council vividly, and earning a patch in elementary school for doing five chin ups or what have you.

Kennedy was to throw out the first pitch. The AT BAT 24 on the scoreboard was the Pirates’s Dick Groat. Musial was forty-one years old when this photograph was taken and playing in his twenty-second All-Star Game. He came in as a pinch hitter in the sixth inning and broke a scoreless tie to give the National League a lead it would not relinquish. The Senior Circuit won the game 3-1.

Enjoy the second half.

(image/JFK Presidential Library and Museum)

 

Jim Bouton, 1939-2019

Jim Bouton as a Yankee in 1963

I have been texting a few people over the past hour about the death of Jim Bouton. I had read several years ago that he was suffering from a degenerative brain disease but his death, as death always does, came as a shock. His Ball Four was so much more than a “sports book” or tell-all, but really one of the great memoirs of its time. Published in 1970, Ball Four was part of the zeitgeist of the moment. As I told a friend earlier, I always loved the way Bouton stood tall against the likes of Mickey Mantle and Bowie Kuhn. At the end of the day there was nothing the Baseball Establishment could say or do. They knew it was true. And the truth has a value all its own.

I could go on talking about Bouton but instead will give him the last word. As the pitcher said in Ball Four’s closing line:

“You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

(image/Baseball Digest, August 1963)

James Monroe’s Ash Lawn – Highland

Scholars at James Monroe’s Ash Lawn – Highland are incorporating the stories of the local African-American community into the history of the historic site. Many local residents descend from the original enslaved community at the Monroe estate.

One of the most fortunate things about volunteering at Federal Hall National Memorial this summer has been its broadening of my interests. The experience has less taken me in a different direction than expanded my awareness of American and even international history. This is especially true of the Revolutionary and Early American periods. I have a larger, more holistic approach to my scholarship than I did at the start of the summer, and really dating back to the beginning of the calendar year when we became members of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Among other things I have been following the social media pages and online resources of various people and institutions with which I was unfamiliar just two months ago. One of them linked the other day to this extraordinary New York Times piece about James Monroe and the enslaved persons who lived and worked on his Virginia estate.

The parlor of Casa Bianca near Monticello, Florida. Some enslaved persons from Ash Lawn – Highland lived and worked here.

In a living example of Faulkner’s notion about the past being neither over nor past, it has developed that upwards of one hundred African Americans still live within a short distance of Ash Lawn – Highland, the 3,500 acre property Monroe purchased in 1793 while a U.S. senator from Virginia. Highland is adjacent to Jefferson’s Monticello. By all accounts as known today, Monroe did not father children in the manner Jefferson did with Sally Hemings; the Monroe connections to this local community relate to the conditions of servitude. Scholars have been piecing the history together over the past several years and adding this new knowledge to the interpretive experience at Ash Lawn – Highland, which is today owned by James Monroe’s alma mater William & Mary. The story extends further than Virginia however; to pay off debts Monroe sold some of his enslaved persons to an estate near Monticello, Florida in Jefferson County called Casa Bianca. Some of them, or more likely their descendants, showed up on census records and voter rolls after the Civil War. Read the whole thing.

(top image, RebelAt via Wikimedia Commons; bottom, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)