Matt Collins lives in Hastings on Hudson, NY, with his wife, Michelle, and two daughters, Jacqueline and Michaela. A graduate of Amherst College and the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, Matt currently is Director of App and Partner Marketing at Nokia.
Dear Jacqueline and Michaela,
Someday, you may find yourselves balancing precariously on attic beams, looking through tattered cardboard boxes for family relics. Among those artifacts, you are likely to find posters and pamphlets emblazoned with the green lettering of the University of Oregon. They represent a vestige of a two-year investigation into a family mystery. Its resolution offers some hints at talents and abilities possibly hiding within you.
You may recall a dreary fall weekend in 2010, when we made our final trip to Cutchogue, NY, to say farewell to the old family summer home. Though parting with the house was painful, we salvaged many photographs, books, and artwork, mostly of purely sentimental value. That included a painting of what was at the time unknown provenance. It is called Deeploma O’Litho, and it once hung in your great-great grandmother’s bedroom. Her name was Persis Weaver Robertson, though the family called her “Grammy.”
Perhaps to soothe the broken heart I felt about the house, I poured myself into learning who painted Deeploma and why Grammy kept it in her room. I learned that in 1932 and 1933, she left her two daughters and husband in Des Moines to study lithography at Grant Wood’s art colony in Stone City, IA. (You may recognize Wood as the master who painted the classic, American Gothic.) Her instructor was a young artist named David McCosh.
It’s unclear what transpired between the two, but Grammy impressed McCosh enough that he created an original, one-of-a-kind painting for her to acknowledge her “graduation” from his lithography class — hence, the name Deeploma O’Litho. Even though no one in the family can remember Grammy talking about it, she clearly cherished the gift, which is why she kept it in her bedroom all those years.
It turns out that McCosh went onto become a renowned regional painter of the American northwest, as well as a professor at the University of Oregon. Unsurprisingly, Deeploma, when appraised, was more valuable than we had imagined that sad weekend. Even so, when I learned all of this, I decided to donate the painting to the University. It belongs in a place where McCosh is still studied and admired.
Jacqueline, you may recall our trip together to Eugene, OR, in 2011 to see the painting in its new home. What you may not recall was the unsolicited feedback we received from the university staff and at the art gallery we visited. Grammy, they told us, must have had great talent in order for McCosh to have created such a gift for her. In fact, Grammy was very good. She exhibited her lithographs at many of the finest art museums in the United States and won several juried awards. Her lithograph Front Door is in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I had the privilege of taking several of her pieces to the 40th annual Grant Wood Art Festival this year in Anamosa, IA. Scholars there told me that her lithographs were on a par with those Wood himself made.
Here is where the lesson for you both comes in. Grammy clearly was really good, good enough for a famous artist to make her something so special as a sign of his respect and admiration, that it now hangs in an art museum. If you choose to pursue a career in the arts, I hope you will find strength and optimism in this knowledge about your ancestor. On the family tree, your branches are near hers. You, too, might have what it takes to excel.
I look forward to our finding out together.