Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Floridian Flooded with Iowa Irony

We have more than merely a passing interest in the great Iowa floods. Among other things, we have an emotional investment in a painting that was hanging, at least until this week, in the foyer of Clapp Recital Hall on the campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

The subject comes up because a Pensacola Beach friend writes to ask, 'Is any place safe?' This is our answer.

Quite a few years ago, we commissioned as a memorial a large acrylic painting depicting three of our family members. Our dad, our mom, and our brother. Each had died too young, each of different ailments. All three had been professional musicians for much of their adult lives and very well known locally in their day.

The artist we chose was Byron Burford. He had personally known each of our relatives very well and for a very long time.

Byron is highly regarded in Midwest and more academically oriented New York art circles. He studied under or alongside such notables as Grant Wood, Marvin Cone, Thomas Hart Benton, and others of the regionalist school. Indeed, until his retirement nearly two decades ago, he was a professor of painting in the same department that Grant Wood chaired for many years at the University of Iowa.

As the artist in charge, what Byron Burford conceived was a large painting depicting each of our loved ones at various ages -- just as he had known them himself over several decades. But he depicted them as if they were different people of different ages, all gathered together in a single nightclub jazz band.

We loved that painting. It hung in a prominent place in our home for many years before we relocated to Florida.

Eight months after moving to Pensacola Beach, Hurricane Opal (1995) struck. Our beach home weathered that storm relatively well. Better than most of our neighbors, in fact. But for the first time it dawned on us life-long 'Yankees' that hurricanes always would pose a potential threat to our lives and property as long as we lived in Florida. So, we took stock of what we couldn't bear to lose and made suitable arrangements.

One of those arrangements was to remove the canvas from its frame, carefully roll the painting, and store it away in what we judged to be the safest place in the house. Grabbing that rolled canvas when the time came for hurricane evacuation was always near the very top of our list -- right after saving the spouse and the dogs.

When Hurricane Ivan hit Pensacola Beach in 2004, we were shocked at how close we could have come to seeing the painting totally destroyed, anyway. Like most islanders, in the dismal aftermath of the storm we grew depressed and worried, wondering what to do with all the stuff we had managed to save, where to live next, what if anything to take with us if we decided to move, or whether to chuck all the books and the art and the nick-nicks and change our life style entirely.

Eventually, we decided to donate the painting to the University of Iowa in Iowa City. That's where our family members had been so well known, even locally famous, for their musical work and other prominent positions they held in the university community. We also figured that Iowa is just about as far away from hurricane country as one can get.

So, two years ago we had professional slides taken of the painting for our own use, in case we ever want to make a very large poster print. Then we paid for reframing it in a fancy "security" frame and sent the painting off to Iowa City after completing the usual charitable paperwork.

The university decided to hang it in the foyer of the new Clapp Music Hall which was being dedicated that Fall as the latest in a large complex of new music and art buildings on the banks of the west side of the Iowa River. Although we haven't been there yet to see it, we were told it was very prominently placed in the new entry hall and everyone was thrilled.

It was a huge relief to transfer the painting into safe hands. It lifted our spirits tremendously. Not only were we able to bask in the glow of certitude that the painting we loved so much was now safe, but we were surprised to discover that in giving it away our own load suddenly seemed so greatly lightened.

Today, we read that several of the music and art buildings on the University of Iowa campus, including Clapp Recital Hall, are threatened with severe and destructive flooding. A press report has it that at least one very rare, autographed concert piano already has been declared a total loss. Engineers there are worried that two or even three bridges may collapse, causing damage beyond comprehension.

We do not know what has happened to the painting. Almost all contact with university personnel and old friends there has been cut off either because they're out sandbagging day and night or because the raging river has overwhelmed local communications.

Moreover, the worst is yet to come. According to early Sunday news reports, water levels now inundating Iowa City aren't likely to crest until next Tuesday.

The irony is plain: we gave away a much beloved painting to save it from Gulf Coast hurricanes, only to watch helplessly as flooding Midwest rivers threaten to destroy it. If there is any obvious lesson in this, it is that nowhere is truly safe from the vagaries of nature or, for that matter, life itself. That might be the best answer we can give our beach friend.

But there is a subtler lesson, too. Quite likely, Thoreau had it right two centuries ago: one should own no more than the minimum necessities of life.
Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.
Maybe the 'consumer culture' America has created is beginning to consume us. As we learned after Ivan, and Iowans will learn after the floods, even one's most precious sentimental belongings matter not at all, really, compared with the lives of friends and loved ones and the memories we have of those we have loved. Things possessed matter not at all, in the end.

We know this intellectually, of course. And we treasure our memories. Yet, for some reason, we still can't help wondering what has happened to that painting.

5 comments:

panicbean said...

Such a beautiful and comtemplative post on this day, when so many of us relive our past, and the fears of that past, while reliving it all once again through the eyes of our fellow Americans, who call themselves Iowans.

Thank you.

BeachLover said...

If the best thing Beach Blogger's Pensacola Beach friend did all year was to (however unknowingly) prompt the writing of this lovely, introspective piece - simply by asking a very simple question - seems to me that would be enough.

As for me, I'm going to stay tuned here to find out what happened to this treasured painting, and hope BB will eventually be able to post a happy ending to the tale. Yes, the painting's only a "thing", after all, but my, what a thing!

Bryan said...

I read a report last night that said that the university anticipated not being able to hold back the water and moved most of its collections to safer locations.

I'm assuming that the piano was probably in the storage area below the stage, a feature of most performance halls these days.

Seadog said...

we can only hope that the painting is safe !!

johnson said...

These paintings are really fantastic. Now a days very less people making interest on painting to do paint like those.Today, we read that several of the music and art buildings on the University of Iowa campus, including Clapp Recital Hall, are threatened with severe and destructive flooding. A press report has it that at least one very rare, autographed concert piano already has been declared a total loss. Engineers there are worried that two or even three bridges may collapse, causing damage beyond comprehension.

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