Thursday, August 30, 2007

Famous Anonymous Art

A guy who buys from me occasionally once described my generic--many of them unsigned--vintage landscapes and still lifes as “Harold’s famous anonymous art.” “Sunday painters” is the name given all those talented folks whose art has adorned the walls of America for many generations. The fancy term for a self-taught person is “autodidact”. Call it what you will, I just call it a gift.

Like many collectors of Texana, I carry my Powers reference on early Texas art (John and Deborah Powers, Texas Painters, Sculptors and Graphic Artists. Austin: Woodmont Books, 2000). Of course, I am perpetually hopeful that I am going to stumble on to something as I “check my traps” periodically. Even though I have had a decent share of finding work by people listed in the Powers book, rarely do I come across something that would be welcomed in the big Texas art auction held in Dallas each fall. When I do find one of these gems, I usually hang it on the wall of the barn I call home.

My knack seems to lead me to the work of “Sunday painters” that, while sometimes signed, remain just another nice Texas landscape, or still life, or perhaps something a little quirky. My loves are many, bluebonnets and other notable Texas wildflowers, old houses and barns, cowboys-cattle-horses, the coast, and things New Mexican. That gorgeous New Mexico light—some say it reaches its apex in Taos—beckons me. And if you’ve spent quality time in the high desert, you understand about the air and the sound. This past summer I roamed north central New Mexico for three weeks, spending part of my time on the mesa at Carson, about 15 miles as the crow flies from Taos. On that mesa, populated mostly by sage, chamisa, and a sprinkling of dwellings, light and sound prevail, indeed arrest the senses. The view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains has been captured by many, I’m sure, but for me any photograph I’ve taken just doesn’t convey the humbling majesty of the setting.

New Mexico abounds with old-fashioned Hollyhocks and Lilacs. I’m a decent gardener who works primarily with plant materials native or naturalized to Texas. Living on the cusp of central and East Texas, I’m able to enjoy plants that prosper in both regions, including a variety of perennials, a few annuals, old garden roses, and some desert scape. Hollyhocks and Lilacs have not thrived in my garden, probably because of the extreme heat and humidity of our summers. I’ve read that most Lilacs require a pronounced winter chilling period, not common in my part of Texas. But oh, New Mexico, land of giant Hollylocks and the Lilac shrub.

I didn’t have to travel to New Mexico, however, to find a couple of my favorite paintings, one a bunch of Hollyhocks and the other, quoting the inscription on the back of the painting, “lilacs in Maria’s bowl” signed with the painters initials “lem”. We have no idea how many miles our various treasures travel. Wherever we live, if we make buying forays to other parts of this great country, we can assume that at least some of what we buy is indigenous to the areas we visit. How does a bluebonnet landscape end up at a New York City flea market? I don’t know, but I found one there, and it has hung in my mother’s home for many years. My painting of Hollyhocks showed up in an antiques mall in East Texas, but I suspect it somehow got there from “back east”, not New Mexico. The Lilacs, adorning “Maria’s bowl”…I have to suppose that Maria to be Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo renown. The bowl looks like her work anyway. So whoever you are, and from where you hail, “lem”, thank you for your almost anonymous art, and thank you for taking time on Sunday to share your gift.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Letting Go

Traveling to New Mexico in a Chevy sedan, three adults, two teenagers, and two children, in the middle of summer, no air conditioning, must have been quite a trip. Daddy had to drive all the way. The year was 1952. I recall the purpose of the trip, the only significant road trip and therefore only official vacation our family ever took, was to deliver Mamaw Hollis to Uncle Pat and Aunt Martha’s in Santa Fe for one of Mamaw’s regular summer visits. My sister Sue, who would have been 10 in the summer of 1952, says that we also delivered our cousin Jimmy, Uncle Pat’s middle son, who had been visiting in Texas. Sue remembers that Jimmy loved being in Texas, especially getting to be around the cattle that our Grandma Fuchs and her son Frank, always Uncle Bubba to us, raised on 80 acres near our home northwest of Houston. Cows were ordinary for us and had always been a part of life for our mother, Tena Elizabeth Fuchs Hollis. At the time of this summer trip, Jimmy, whose looks replicated our daddy’s as a young man, must have been about 16, on the brink of manhood in those days. Our oldest sister Joan would have been approaching 14, and I, just shy of my ninth birthday.

I vaguely recall only two stops along the way, one in Sweetwater, where we ate bread from the wrapper, but so fresh that it was still warm, and the other to take pictures with the mule statue in Muleshoe. Our journey had begun at two in the morning, an attempt to escape some of the Texas heat.

My memory of that trip out here long ago is sketchy. Our cousin Byron, Uncle Pat’s youngest son, was away at summer camp, somewhere up in the Pecos Wilderness near Holy Ghost Canyon. The oldest brother, Donald, was already in college at the University of New Mexico.

We spent the night in the canyon, I guess in our cars. The water in the nearby stream was clear and cold, and we wore our denim jackets. Sue had gotten her ears pierced by Aunt Martha’s friend Tony in the back of Uncle Pat’s drugstore. They were sore, and rubbing them with icy water from the stream was soothing. Somewhere there are photographs of our families at this pristine place, a less complicated time perhaps. Maybe I’ll try to find them when I’m back in Texas for a short time this fall. Church was a part of Byron’s camp experience, so we went to Mass. Innocent East Texas Baptists, with little church experience, we were mystified by the liturgy. Uncle Pat and Aunt Martha had joined the Catholic Church in New Mexico. It was sort of what you did back then, I guess. After church there was a picnic, and the priest was “tooted”. At least, that’s what my aunt and uncle observed to Mother and Daddy.

Back in Aunt Martha’s Santa Fe kitchen, we were introduced to blue corn masa, but I remember only our disbelief that she would serve us mildewed tortillas. As an adult, I have made a point to indulge frequently in cheese enchiladas with green chilies on blue corn tortillas on my visits to northern New Mexico. From the counter of that same kitchen the Pat Hollis family’s standard poodle, Sissy, stole a roast that our uncle had cooked on the outdoor grill. This could have never happened in our Texas home where dogs indoors, well, that just didn’t happen.

After we had been in Santa Fe only a day or so, Sue recalls our mother calling her own mother in Texas to let her know that we would be heading back home in the next couple of days. When Grandma Fuchs died 30 years later, the unfailing commitment of daughter to mother was still firmly in place.

Fifty-five years have passed since our family visited here. After many vacation experiences in northern New Mexico as an adult, I’ve rented a small apartment in Santa Fe, telling anyone who asks that I’m giving this place a test drive for the next year.

So many changes since 1952. My sisters and I grew up and got old. At the time of our New Mexico vacation, our daddy, Russell Hollis, would have been 41 and Mother 35. The youngest child in our family, I am older than either of my grandmothers was in 1952. Jimmy, who shouldn’t have died so young, lost a long battle with cancer when he was only 55. So many changes. Between March 21, 1981, when Daddy died on the first day of spring, and September 1983, when we buried our grandmothers one week apart, both of Daddy’s brothers, Pat and Ray, died as well. Uncle Bubba died in 1989, Aunt Martha in 2005. And the event of all events, Mother died on February 1st of this year.

Joan, who was close to Jimmy growing up, has asked several times since I’ve been in Santa Fe, “Have you gotten in touch with Amelia (Jimmy’s widow) yet?” As the saying goes, I wouldn’t know Amelia if she walked in the door. There is no connection. Now remarried, Amelia still owns the home she and Jimmy built, only a few blocks from my apartment. The listing in the phone book remains James and Amelia Hollis. Their children, both pushing 50 now, were never part of our Texas family experience. Fifteen years ago, shortly before Jimmy died, I was in Santa Fe over Thanksgiving with friends. It had been at least 25 years since I had seen Jimmy, and now he lay too weak for me to visit him. When I called to say hello, his daughter answered the phone. “Is this Karen,” I asked. “Yes.” “Karen this is Harold Hollis, your dad’s cousin from Texas. Do you remember me?” “No.” Amelia takes the phone and tells me that Jimmy is having a bad day. I remember Jimmy in the prime of young manhood, and because he looked so much like Daddy, I would like to see some pictures of him.

We’re Texans for many generations. Mother’s German family arrived at Galveston in 1866 and settled northwest of Houston. Daddy’s family migrated from Alabama to East Texas in the late 19th century, but they were forced to seek better opportunities in Houston during the depression. After living many years in Santa Fe, Uncle Pat and Aunt Martha, along with their youngest son Byron, settled in Arizona. I heard that the winters here were too hard on Aunt Martha’s lungs. She, like the three Hollis brothers, smoked for many years. Mesa, Arizona is many miles away from the Gulf Coast of Texas that our families have called home since shortly after the Civil War. Aunt Martha, born and raised in Galveston, met Uncle Pat while he was apprenticing in Galveston to become a pharmacist. It was his budding career that led him to relocate his family to New Mexico in the late 1940s.

Our family, especially Mother and Daddy, are never far from my mind. Strangely, there’s some kind of connection here, even though I haven’t figured it out yet. As a recent college graduate, in 1967 I visited Santa Fe for the first time since 1952. Uncle Pat and Aunt Martha had moved up in the world. They had built a home with an unobstructed view of the mountains. He was a successful pharmacist with his own store for many years and serving his second term as mayor of Santa Fe. So taken by the experience, I interviewed for a teaching position with the assistant principal of the high school. Uncle Pat was impressed by the maturity I exhibited as I considered the possibility of moving here. As it turns out, I didn’t have the courage to break the tie with my mother, the same one that led her to call Grandma Fuchs in 1952 to let her know that we would be coming home in next couple of days.

Two summers ago, as I was preparing to make my first trip to New Mexico in six years, and my first road trip out here since 1952, Mother worried about my safety. There was no logical reason for her to be concerned. She was a worrier, constantly borrowing trouble from tomorrow. She taught me well. At that point Mother had already been on hospice care for three years, although she continued to thrive somewhat, in spite of a very compromising heart condition. As we set in the den of her home on the same 200 acres where I have made a home out of the two-story barn, I pleaded, “Mother, just be happy for me. I’ve worked my butt off getting ready to go on this trip. Besides, if I had taken that teaching job in 1967, I might be living in New Mexico now.” “That’s right, Joan contributed, “I remember. Daddy was all for it and Mother clipped your wings.”

Without a plan, really, while visiting New Mexico earlier this summer, I casually checked the papers for an apartment. Money is always a factor, but I had a notion of how I could swing it. When this casita turned up, I immediately started crabbing backward. I just couldn’t do it. At first I didn’t want to return the voice mail to Anna, who owns the place. I knew that I had been selected from seven applicants. Although a friend encouraged me, I ended up driving 250 miles before stopping at an Office Depot in Clovis to receive the lease agreement by fax and return it. Then I drove 450 miles, within 30 minutes of my home in Texas, before I stopped to mail the deposit on this place. Finally, I called Anna to say “the check is in the mail….no, really.” Anna’s reply, “Welcome home.”

It’s August, and I’ve been here three weeks. I have a library card and a senior citizen card. I know more than one way to get to my apartment. Walking to the Plaza is becoming ordinary. I’ve found an Episcopal Church, several Laundromats, feel like a regular at Trader Joe’s grocery, and Eric, the owner of Santa Fe Baking Company, greets me by name. After I had been here a few days, he finally asked one morning, “what’s your name?!” “What’s your name?!” I challenged with a smile. “Eric…Harold…” hand shake. I’ve had my first prescriptions filled at Walgreen’s, visited the farmer’s market twice weekly, opened a checking account, and cut the crap out of my finger while slicing an onion.

I’m told that the weather has been unseasonably warm, highs in the upper 80s and lows at night in the 50s. It sure beats the hell out of our Texas dog days of summer. Air conditioning is uncommon in New Mexico homes. Our Texas bodies are spoiled. The attic fans of the 50s that we all knew don’t serve us so well anymore.

This past Sunday I called Sue as I headed out after church, in search of Holy Ghost Canyon. As I exited I-25 onto Highway 50 for Pecos, the temperature on the truck read 80 degrees. By the time I made the 10-mile drive to Pecos, the temp had dropped to 69. I headed up Highway 63 North in the rain and watched the temp drop, finally to 51 when I had reached Holy Ghost Campground. Two hours later, when I reached I-25, the temp was at 53. Back in Santa Fe the afternoon remained blissfully cool.

These mornings I delight in looking at the thermometer on my truck when I head to Santa Fe Baking Company around 6:30, holding my mouth just right, and smiling triumphantly when the reading shows 58 degrees. Within the adobe walls of my casita, a 10-minute walk from the Plaza, the window and door are open, the ceiling fans are whirring, and outside the sparrows are arguing with the wind chimes. Welcome home, indeed.

Letting Go
R. Harold Hollis, August 27, 2007 (Santa Fe, New Mexico)

Monday, August 20, 2007

This is Where I Hang My Hat These Days

I sent an email and batch of digital images to some friends a few days ago. As I typed the message I thought of the actions that characterize living someplace, and I wrote, “odd, isn't it, when looking through pics you say, ‘I knew I'd wonder why I took that one.’ Here you go, though, a few shots from the first week of my Santa Fe adventure. I'm settling in. I guess trips to the laundromat, grocery store, pharmacy, ACE, Lowe's, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, garden nursery, finding a church, opening a checking account, securing a library card and senior citizen card, and putting out the trash for the first time constitute making an effort to live somewhere.” Let me add to that list the first time you injure yourself.

I’m a southerner, and in the south we eat okra. I was a little surprised when I found okra…only one vendor on two different days…at the Santa Fe farmer’s market, $3 for a small plastic basket with no more than 20 pods of okra. Today I made my second batch of okra gumbo since claiming my apartment on Galisteo Street. As I was slicing a red onion with one of my new knives, I got too close to my left thumb. “Oh, shit!”, and I realized immediately that I had brought no first aid supplies with me, only a few band-aids and generic camphor oil.

The sight of blood, especially my own, nauseates me. It makes me weak. Sometimes I have to lie down when I have blood drawn, mostly when the phlebotomist needs more than one vial. Nothing else to do, though, but to head to the bathroom, hold the wounded thumb under running cool water, dry it, and then try to secure two band-aids tightly enough to stop the flow of blood. I panicked a little bit, especially when I realized that I had no one around to help me. “What if it needs stitches,” raced through my mind. “I can’t go to the emergency room.” I was reminded of the sorry state of my private insurance …catastrophic, major medical…that still costs me almost $500 a month.

The wound is secured, the onions, garlic and fresh tomatoes sautéed, the okra sliced, all bubbling together, seasoned with ground sea salt and pepper, and a large touch of dried red chile from nearby Espanola. I shared my recipe the other day at the farmer’s market with the grower from nearby Velarde from whom I bought tomatoes. As I named the ingredients, a woman listened intently, and then identified herself as being from Austin, Texas. They eat okra gumbo there too.

So here I am, 700 miles from home, living my bliss, sort of, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a 40-year-old dream come true. Sure, I’ve made a few friends here, including my next door neighbors, who of course are at work. I know that any of the people who have extended warm handshakes to me would be happy to render aid. I need to take care of this on my own, though. I also need to get some bigger band-aids.

This is Where I Hang My Hat These Days
R. Harold Hollis, August 20, 2007 (Santa Fe, New Mexico)

Saturday, August 4, 2007

In Memory of Russell Hollis and Tena E. Fuchs Hollis

Our Daddy and Mother, Russell Hollis and Tena E. Fuchs Hollis, are laid to rest in Hopewell Cemetery near Normangee Texas. Daddy died on the first day of Spring, March 21, 1981 (69 years, 7 months). He was buried just north of Tomball Texas. Shortly before her death at 89 years, 4 months, on February 1, 2007, Mother decided that she wanted to be buried here in Leon County, in the country that Daddy loved so much, a place they both agreed was as close to Heaven as you can get here on earth. She also made it clear that Daddy’s earthly remains be re-interred here in Leon County. All this is accomplished. We have just made the six-month anniversary of Mother’s death, and we are just short of what would have been Daddy’s 96th birthday (August 14, 1911) and Mother’s 90th birthday (September 9, 1917).


Dear friends:

Our mother’s long earthly journey ended at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 1. In her last days she was surrounded by family and friends who bountifully shared their love and affection. My sisters Joan and Sue and I were blessed to be here with her in her country home at the end. She had lived here full time since 2002. During the day of February 1, and on the days preceding her death, many relatives and friends kept vigil with us. She was a truly strong woman, tough Texas German, though her body was so frail these last few years. With my oldest sister Joan as her companion, she continued to make trips between her home in Waller and the place here in the country. Until her last 10 days, we continued to share meals at the breakfast room table and in front of the TV in the evening. She loved home made potato soup, chili, enchiladas and fried cat fish. Although her hearing was greatly impaired, she still enjoyed “Law and Order”, “NCIS”, and most recently “Cowboy U”. Only in the last week would Mother agree to have a hospital bed. She died at peace, comforted by her Lutheran faith, which she had known all her life. She was old-fashioned in some ways, especially her love of family. She always had good advice, which she offered with reserve. Until she became too tired to do anything but sleep, she never lost her edge. Mother will be buried here from the Methodist Church, with the liturgy led by a Lutheran minister, the Methodist minister and Baptist hospice chaplain sharing in this celebration of her life. She is at rest now in the loving arms of our Lord and Savior. Thanks be to God. February 2, 2007

The following was written on February 21, 2005

The other day, my 87 ½ year-old mother commented smiling that her grandmother always told her she was the favorite of the grandchildren because Mother was the only one who had black hair. What people remember about their early life as they get older is the subject of study, I know. In Mother’s case, it pleases me to hear her talk about fond childhood memories because her own life has been a physical struggle for almost three years. Maybe she has set a Texas record for length of time on Hospice care. In July 2002, her cardiologist gave her six months because of the severity of her heart condition. Doctors can’t predict what faith can do, and besides, God has his own plans.

Our conversation that morning had begun at the breakfast table where she, my oldest sister, and I were having Cream of Wheat, even though Mother said she wasn’t hungry. She was having a tough morning, still on the mend from the nasty stomach virus that had been making the rounds. To get Mother onto a subject other than how bad she felt, I asked her to confirm that her grandmother had died on the first day of January, 1939. For some reason, that prompted Mother to remember how her grandmother had taught her to lay out fabric and pattern on the floor, and to sew.

Tena Elizabeth Fuchs Hollis is the product of German stock—on her mother’s side the Benfer family that landed at Galveston in 1866. My great-grandmother, Louisa Benfer, learned to walk during the crossing. The Benfer name is a familiar one in northwest Harris County. They are one of seven families listed on the historical marker for the Klein community, and one of the elementary schools in the district is named for my great-great grandparents. Mother is the truest product of Texas German stock—always a hard worker, strong family values and ties (sometimes to a fault), and proud. Her life for the last three years has made her dependent on her children. Maybe she’s a minor medical miracle in that her doctors told her in July of 2002 that she would live about six months with her heart condition. So they put her under the care of Hospice.

Mother’s great-grandson, the oldest of the great-grandchildren, got married this last weekend. Having spent too much time thinking about the advice that my oldest sister and I have given her about getting into the church—that she needed to allow herself to ride in the wheelchair that she never uses—she announced a couple of days before the wedding that she didn’t want to use the wheelchair. “Call it pride if you want to, but I don’t want to go to the wedding in a wheelchair.” She used a walker.

Mother has always loved talking about family. She has strong memories of her grandmother, Louisa Benfer Fuchs, who apparently spoke mostly German sprinkled with broken English. Mother recalls a time when her own mother had damaged Mother’s doll buggy in a moment of anger. Great-grandmother Louisa instructed Grandma to take the buggy down on Washington Avenue to be repaired by the blacksmith. We have a picture dated 1924 of mother sitting in a cart harnessed to a goat in front of the house on Sandman in Houston’s West End, where Mother’s family had relocated in the early part of the 20th century, and where the family was living at the time of the broken doll buggy incident.

Among the few historic family pictures we have are one of my great grandmother, my own grandmother, and some of her siblings as children—the brothers on horseback—in front of the house where my mother was also born—long before 1917, the year of Mother’s birth. Louisa and her husband Henry August Fuchs had built the home on Grant Road in the last decade of the 19th century. We even have a wonderful photograph of Louisa Benfer Fuchs laid out in her casket, interestingly, the first time she had been in a reclining position in many years because she had suffered for some time from rheumatoid arthritis. The setting is the living room of the Houston West End home of Mother’s Uncle Henry Fuchs. Louisa is buried in the historic Perry Cemetery, just down the way from the Grant Road home where much of the family’s early history was played out. Perry is also the final resting place of two of Louisa’s children, Lela Fuchs Goodwin and Willie Fuchs.

Recently, while I was exhibiting at an antiques market in Fayetteville, Providence caused me to cross paths with a Fuchs cousin I had never met. His father, who is 82, and my mother are first cousins, but oddly had not been around one another that either recalled. As a result of this meeting at Fayetteville, we got Mother and John Fuchs together, along with the children of each, for a short but wonderful family gathering one Sunday afternoon in late October. That afternoon ended with hugs all around and John commenting that Mother reminded him of his own sweet wife, who had died several years ago.

Mother’s family roots in Harris County range from Klein to Cypress to the Houston West End and back to what is now called 1960, where my sisters and I grew up on Old West Montgomery Road (Tomball Road, 149, now 249), a mile or so north of Jack Rabbit Road, just south of Cypress Creek. My sisters and I have a load of our own memories, including visits to Uncle Henry and Aunt Stella after they had moved to the country, and visits to our own grandmother, Lizzie Fuchs, after she returned to her roots on Grant Road in the early 1940s. There, she along with her son and daughter-in-law, ran a dairy on land inherited from great-grandmother Louisa. The far eastern edge of that land is now called Cypress Creek High School. Driving along Grant Road, it is impossible to tell where Grandma had built their ranch style frame home that shared a Norman Rockwell setting with a big red barn, cattle pens, a dairy barn and a pond.

Aside from Mother, her cousins from the Henry and Estella Fuchs family and cousins from the union of Theodore Fuchs and Rosa Mueschke are the oldest living Fuchs descendants who have a connection with their grandmother, Louisa Benfer Fuchs. In some ways it seems amazing that we still have with us family with a first-hand connection to the young girl who learned to walk while crossing the ocean from Westfalen to Galveston in 1866.