Entering a Cartoon Universe

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Erastus Salisbury Field

Let’s hear it for the Comparative Breakfast Club! The whole point is you don’t have to have any special news, you just say what you had for breakfast. I got the idea from a play John Alsop and I staged at Groton School called The Feast.

I have a video conference on Tuesdays with my friend Vince in California, which I really enjoy and I had my regular Wednesday morning chat with my brother Shady – a bagel guy – and he said, “Happy Birthday” and I said, “Oh yeah!” Turns out it’s my 60th birthday. I thought of sitting with my father when my mother went off to a nursing home specializing in dementia. It was time. He looked at me and said, “It’s our 60th wedding anniversary.” These big days creep up on you.

Anyway, I had big plans for today. After my oatmeal with ground flax seed, cinnamon and sliced banana, I was off (in my 1997 Honda named Claire) to the Springield Museums to see the paintings by Erastus Salisbury Field. He’s one of the subjects of a series of biographical profiles I’ve been working on for far too long. Like the rest of my subjects, he is nothing if not fascinating. But don’t take my word for it, google his name for images and you’ll see what I mean.

At first you’ll notice he’s the kind of guy who can’t really draw hands. And like many itinerant artists trying to make a living in those days, he used prepared backgrounds and inserted the faces, giving his subjects a cartoony look. But then you enter his cartoon universe, and you’re entranced. It’s an entree into the mind of a true visionary. And he lived right up the street from me! His pictures are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, so apparently he was doing something right.

Erastus Salisbury Field, Historical Monument of the American Republic

His Historical Monument of the American Republic, an enormous canvas, is the centerpiece of their collection, and it is prominently displayed beside his other great works including Grant Visits India and The First Plague of Egypt and Ulysses Sets Sail. This man’s mind contained the world. And he had two versions of the Garden of Eden, one with a naked figure of Eve and one without. That’s practical.

A member of the museum staff told me she saw something new in the Historical Monument every day. It’s a work that’s meant to commemorate the achievements of the young republic in gaining indepence and eradicating the great evil of slavery – Erastus was a fervent abolitionist – but its very design includes skyscrapers and elevated trains — a remarkable vision of the future in 1876.

Erastus Salisbury Field, known to the local children as Uncle Ratty, had an 80-foot canvas on rollers that he would set up in the Hubbard’s barn and take them on a trip around the world back in 1880. Moving pictures, what a crazy idea!

The Garden of Eden

Erastus Field might have been lost to the ages were it not for the efforts of his great-niece and a museum curator named Mary Black. They gathered his works from attics and barns and put on an exhibition at the Springfield Museums. Mary Black also worked for Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and made two videos about Field.

But when I went to the Sunderland Library, they didnt’ have a single book about Erastus Field, just the two Mary Black videos. Well today that was remedied. I bought two copies of Mary Black’s book on the Field Exhibition and presented one to the Sunderland Library.

Then I took a 12-mile bike ride on my bike Bullwinkle. Then I realized it was my 60th birthday (again) and I hopped on my scooter named Camilla, not named after Prince Charles’ Camilla, but after my grandfather’s friend Camilla, of Froggy and Camilla, and went and got some Stolichnaya vodka to mix with this raspberry lemonade that my housemate found a case of. And, all in all, it has been a delightful evening.

I am getting old, but at the same time I’m joining an exclusive club known as the sexegenarians, otherwise known as “those whom the gods do not love.”