I have always joked that I was born a few decades too late—specifically, I would prefer to be young and hoppin’ in either the 1920s or the 1950s. The music, fashion, and overall culture of the 20s, though, have always tugged at my heart, threatening to pull me into daydreams where I walk through the vivid and lively streets of Buffalo, sporting a bob and humming a catchy Duke Ellington tune. At my senior prom, when a teacher told me that my 1920s-themed garb reminded her of Zelda Fitzgerald, author F. Scott’s wife, I nearly melted straight down to the floor.
An artist myself, I’m also particularly mesmerized by art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Also a Buffalo native, the love I have for my city only intensifies when I learn of its powerfully radiant past. Basically, my keywords are “early 1900s,” “art,” and “Buffalo,” so imagine my excitement when learning that I would be interning at the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s Archives for part of the summer, mainly working on a project encompassing all three. In the words of the Roaring Twenties, it was going to be the bee’s knees!
This project revolved entirely around a man named Alexander Oscar Levy. Originally I was told a little bit about him: an art deco artist popular in the early 1900s, Levy lived and worked in Buffalo for a number of years. My task was to do research work on Levy, his art, and Buffalo during the time that he lived there, all in preparation for a book and exhibition. I couldn’t even begin to express the intensity of my excitement, nor could I understand the luck I had in being assigned to a project so tailored to my interests.
My first few days at the Archives consisted mostly of transcribing scans of the original journals of our beloved Charles E. Burchfield, an ongoing project that many interns have the opportunity to work on. If I were to fully explain the delight that overcame me while working on these transcriptions, another blog post would be in order. Let’s just say that I now consider Charlie a friend of mine, someone who shared my own passion for Mother Nature, road trips, prose, and art… And who just happened to be a particularly famous watercolorist. No big deal. None at all.
June 9th will forever be known to me as “Alexander Levy Day,” as it’s the day that I began working on his project. I knew that I’d be doing research on him, but what I never imagined was that I’d be working from scans of his personal scrapbook. Alex (as I now fondly call him) apparently had a soft spot for collecting newspaper clippings—cut out and pasted into now yellowed and sometimes stained sheets, everything I have learned about Alex has come from pages of the past. One of the earliest clippings being from 1902 and one of the latest from 1938, articles from newspapers such as the Buffalo Courier-Express and the New York Times (as well as French and German publications, which called for some translating and resulted in my wish to be more proficient in foreign languages) graced my eager eyes. These clippings were incredibly varied and included tons of information concerning daily life at the time of print, detailing everything from “rum running” (which turns out to be the bootlegging of alcohol during the prohibition) to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a “machine [that] performs mathematical miracles.”
But of course, the main connections of these clippings had to do with Alex and included interviews, exhibition ads and reviews, and photographs of his work. Piecing together tidbits from these articles, I painted myself a portrait of Alex. Born in either 1880 or 1881 in Bonn, Germany (amazingly, next door to the house in which Beethoven first came into the world), Alex’s family moved to the United States a couple of years later. Also a violinist, Alex turned down a scholarship to study music in order to pursue art professionally, later studying art in Ohio, New York, and Connecticut. He lived in the Big Apple and then relocated to Buffalo for a position as art director at the Matthews-Northrup Company, later working for the Larkin Company and then the Addison Vars Advertising Agency. Alex was heavily involved with the community and reviving the world of Buffalo artists. He spent much time as president of the Buffalo Society of Artists, an organization known for its exhibitions, events, and fostering of community among Buffalo artists and their supporters.
Alex seems to have always been painting or sketching. His painted portrait work is described as “animated and decorative,” “…essentials… [being put] down with a brusque confidence that causes the subject to live and to be clothed in those characteristics that [Alex believed] to be dominant…” His painted landscapes are often described as having a “fantastical” quality, literal aesthetics being bent a bit for the sake of what the art was to portray. According to Alex, “Beauty is found in the simplest things, if you will just discover it. And an artist does not paint exactly what he sees. His is the power to create, purely and wholeheartedly. It is very easy to copy. The true artist conveys his painting, the emotions of the thing he is painting aroused in him—the thrill that is felt. And that is the mission every artist has to carry out.”
As mentioned previously, I’m an artist myself, and the aforementioned quote struck a sweet chord with me which billowed into, as silly as it may sound, a song. I agree wholeheartedly with Alex’s words and have always attempted to achieve them in my own work (my success rate is standing undisclosed, sorry folks). When seeing Alex’s own pieces, I can practically feel his own emotions, realize his own thrill, and take part in his own mission that is expressed there in dabs of paint and strokes of ink.
But it’s not just within his art that I can see and hear Alex—it’s within his scrapbook, within the clippings that he felt it important to keep. It’s within these things that I can see and hear Charlie, too. I believe that everything we leave behind is a shadow of our beings, a whisper of who we are. Whether that be a newspaper clipping, a journal, or merely an impression we left on a fellow human being, it is an important piece of ourselves. And I guess that’s what interning in the Archives is all about—to me, anyway. It’s about connecting with the shadows and whispers of people, about learning of their misfortunes and achievements, families and lives. And it’s there, somewhere between the pale pages and the painted pictures, that we can learn a little bit about ourselves, too.
Amanda Tobin grew up in Buffalo, New York. She will be a sophomore at Amherst College in the fall of 2014, majoring in Architectural Studies. Her internship at the Burchfield Penney Art Center Archives focused on researching Western New York artist Alexander Levy, in addition to creating an archival finding aid for the Charles Rand Penney Collection.