Art has a clear assignment in our homes. It brightens rooms, tightens or expands spaces and ties everything together.
But it also has an assignment in our lives: It tells a story. Or, to be more precise, stories — about both the people who created it and those who have come into possession of it. A fine painting or photo can be an anchor for a memory, a time, a place. It’s not some mass-produced item we scooped up at a big-box store because the color matches the throw pillows on our sofa, just to hang on the wall and forget. It’s a living thing that ties us to the people who created it and their lives.
These are stories about artworks that have been handed down. They serve as deep repositories for storytelling over generations, even as they provide beauty and decoration. Some of these objects tell important stories about American history, with connections to the Great Depression, the incarceration of Japanese Americans and the struggle for civil rights. Others are markers in art history. And some tell the story of the people who came to own them. All of them point to individual passions that connect family members over time.
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Melvin Holmes’s art collection began with a single feline figurine: “The Cat,” a small 1945 piece by Sargent Johnson, a sculptor based in San Francisco whose work was rooted in the Harlem Renaissance. The small terra-cotta creature looks like a modernist take on an African ornament. The way that Holmes’s daughter tells it, that first purchase, in 1985, hooked Holmes on art for life.
“It was like an addiction,” says Saranah Walden, who lives in Burlington, N.C.
Her father worked as a city administrator in San Francisco, Walden says, and just finding a piece for sale was a challenge. One art dealer he asked told him that Johnson’s works were rarer than Picasso’s. When he finally found “The Cat,” it was out of his price range, but a gallery let him make payments on it.
Holmes realized there was an entire world of African American art that he wanted to focus on. He particularly sought to acquire work by Johnson, and he was clever about it. He befriended a couple who owned Johnson’s works, for example, and offered to buy what they were willing to part with. Eventually Holmes came to own more than 30 Johnson pieces. For other artists — Aaron Douglas, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Henry Ossawa Tanner, for example — he placed ads in newspapers in cities where they had lived, making his interest known.
He didn’t come from money, and collecting was expensive. But he was willing to put in the work. Research became part of his hobby. At one of the countless estate sales he attended, he spied a piece by the 19th-century landscape painter Grafton Tyler Brown. To acquire the painting, he agreed to buy the entire lot, a box of mixed belongings priced at $200. Brown’s painting alone was worth tens of thousands.
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Holmes amassed more than 360 pieces of 19th- and 20th-century works by African American masters. “My dad always had a very museum-looking home,” Walden says. She and her sister grew up sleeping in antique canopy beds; they dreamed of cheap bunks from Kmart. When the sisters moved out of the house, he turned their rooms into salons. He had a zeal for curating his art but, aside from occasional tours associated with San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, few people ever saw his collection.
When he died of a blood clot in 2013, his daughters had no idea what to do with it all. Walden was living in a two-bedroom rowhouse in D.C. at the time; her sister lived in Hawaii. Neither had the capacity to store his dream.
Leaving no instructions turned out to be “the best thing he could have ever done,” Walden says. She and her sister fretted about managing loans and registrations, but in the end, they made an archive, photographed the works and published a catalogue, something Holmes had always wanted to do. Then they sold most of the art.
But Walden couldn’t let go of “The Cat,” the totem that had unlocked so much passion in her father. She keeps that and about 15 other pieces from his collection in her dining room.
“If other people could own these pieces and get joy from them like he did,” she says, “then we would be honoring the whole meaning behind collecting.”
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Susan Rosenbaum’s grandfather owned a factory in New York during the Great Depression. Her father, Benjamin Abramowitz, worked at the factory for a time, she says, but it was his life’s ambition to make art.
Since Abramowitz’s death in 2011, Rosenbaum has acted as a steward of his vast enterprise. She has registered and archived many thousands of his drawings, paintings and sculptures. Her Rockville, Md., home could double as a museum honoring her father, who made his home in the Washington area and earned a reputation as a prominent painter.
Like many artists during the Depression, Abramowitz, who was born in 1917, got his first break with the Works Progress Administration. The Federal Art Project, a program under the New Deal that ran from 1935 to 1943, gave jobs to thousands of artists, writers, musicians and performers. As many as 10,000 artists earned commissions from the agency, designing posters and illustrations — even abstract stuff — in a style that came to characterize an entire generation.
Abramowitz hooked up with the WPA when he was 19, sparing him from factory life. Often, he made prints and drawings that were too dark or moody for his federal minders, says Rosenbaum. But he was nevertheless prolific as a federal contractor. Many of these works were signed with a pen name: Ben Hoffman.
“He was very much an admirer of Hans Hofmann,” the German-born American abstract painter, says Rosenbaum. “So he took that name.”
“Rooftops” is a WPA print that hangs in the guest bathroom in Rosenbaum’s home. The lithograph shows the scattered chimneys and rooftops of Brooklyn as seen from a passing train. In its overlapping shapes and shades, it’s almost possible to trace the influence of Hans Hofmann, whose paintings melded geometric forms.
This print, along with other pieces made by Abramowitz in this era, showcases the blocky, virtually cubist style that gave WPA artworks such a distinctive look. While he wanted no part of factory work for himself, Abramowitz often made drawings and prints of workers at docks and rail yards. Many of his early landscapes were urban, industrial scenes, including working waterfronts and wharves. The city was never far from his images, even in his later abstract works.
“Rooftops” has a counterpart in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a similar lithograph with a slightly different title: “On the Way to Coney Island” (1935-43). It comes with a signature: “Ben Hoffman.”
Of the pseudonym, Rosenbaum says, “The minute he left the WPA, he dropped it.”
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In 1977, toward the end of the Somoza regime and the start of the Nicaraguan Revolution, the artist Julio Sequeira left his home in Nicaragua. He arrived in El Salvador just as it was entering its own brutal civil war, which would occupy the country for the next 12 years.
But for the artist, it was an auspicious time. That same year, a French-born Holocaust survivor named Janine Janowski opened an art space in San Salvador, Galería El Laberinto. Despite the political calamity, Janowski started programming conceptual pieces and performances — vivencias — that were at times audacious experiments in contemporary art. For the first of these happenings, in 1982, Sequeira turned the gallery’s entrance into a tunnel, an installation he called “El paso por el Mar Rojo” (“Parting of the Red Sea”).
“He was a painter, he was a poet, he was a performer, he could dance and sing all of the songs from Latin America, from different countries of Latin America,” says Muriel Hasbun, who is Janowski’s daughter, referring to Sequeira. “He was kind of this walking encyclopedia of all of these different genres of music.”
Hasbun has made it her mission to promote the legacy of El Laberinto and her mother’s work in Central America. Throughout the civil war, the gallery served as a platform for Salvadoran modernists such as Carlos Cañas and Rosa Mena Valenzuela. “It was a really generative space, during a time that was just so difficult,” Hasbun says.
“La fiesta de Boaco,” a painting that Sequeira made about three years after linking up with the gallery, is a love letter by a homesick artist. It depicts a feast scene that appears to be taking place at sunrise and sunset simultaneously: an all-day affair. Everyone’s out in the plaza for this one. The title of the painting refers to Sequeira’s small mountain hometown in Nicaragua, but Hasbun says that the painting carries meaning for many Central Americans.
“It’s this incredible celebration with all of these people in the foreground, and then the amazing landscape of Central America, really,” she says. “This construction of the landscape of volcanic mountains and beautiful rivers — definitely Nicaragua, definitely El Salvador.”
The painting hangs in Hasbun’s studio at her home in Washington D.C., along with another Sequeira work, “Volcán de San Salvador” (1982). Both works refer to the costumbrismo tradition, a style that emphasizes local or regional scenes and customs. At the same time, “La fiesta de Boaco” depicts an almost cosmic transformation of the landscape.
Janowski promoted her artists tirelessly. She organized a retrospective of Sequeira’s work for the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1990 that traveled to four other cities in Louisiana. (Sequeira died that year.) Through talks, exhibitions, residencies and exchanges, Hasbun is working to do the same: forging bonds among artists and illuminating the experiences of people across the diaspora.
“I always knew that this collection was really important, in terms of what it says about who we are as Salvadorans and Central Americans,” Hasbun says.
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Rae Alexander-Minter, grandniece of the great 19th-century realist painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, remembers an exchange with Hillary Clinton at the White House in 1996 when she was first lady. Alexander-Minter was in the Green Room to see one of her granduncle’s pieces unveiled as the first painting by an African American artist to enter the White House collection. Alexander-Minter says that Clinton grabbed her around her waist and whispered, “I’m as giddy as a schoolgirl.”
That painting, “Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City” (circa 1885), was bequeathed to Alexander-Minter by her mother, who she says was Tanner’s favorite niece. Her mother safeguarded the paintings in the Philadelphia home where she was raised. “Growing up, she used to make sure the housekeeper always closed the blinds and pulled the curtains, to shield the painting from the sunlight,” she says.
Alexander-Minter has sold or donated many of the paintings passed down to her, by Tanner as well as by other artists who ran in his circle in Paris, where he lived and worked.
But at her home in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx in New York, Alexander-Minter still has several pieces by Tanner, important works of art history and family lore. These include four etchings of biblical scenes that came to her from Tanner’s grandson, whose father she met in France while she was retracing the artist’s footsteps. In her study hangs a detail for a more extensive work, titled “Spinning by Firelight — The Boyhood of George Washington Gray” (1894). The image is typical of Tanner’s sensitive domestic scenes, often depicting the daily lives of Black people. An original oil painting, “Seascape — Jetty” (circa 1876-79), hangs in Alexander-Minter’s living room, an example of Tanner’s idyllic landscapes.
While Tanner’s art graces important museum collections today — “Spinning by Firelight” is on view at the Yale University Art Gallery, while another work, “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother,” can be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art — Alexander-Minter says that they remind her of growing up in Philadelphia, as the child of civil rights lawyers, not far from where Tanner lived as a teenager.
Tanner’s career started in Philadelphia. He was the only Black student when he enrolled in 1879 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied under Thomas Eakins, at the time the city’s most famous artist. Although Tanner moved to France in 1891 and lived there until the end of his life, he didn’t consider himself an expatriate. Alexander-Minter says that she learned from his letters that he was frustrated by the way that Americans narrowly categorized him as an African American artist. Tanner’s childhood home in North Philadelphia is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; historian Carter G. Woodson once called the house on Diamond Street the “center of the Black intellectual community in Philadelphia.”
But today, that house is abandoned and imperiled: It no longer belongs to Alexander-Minter’s family, and it’s unclear who holds its title. Local preservationists are working to save it from the wrecking ball. “It’s tragic what’s happening, and trying to rescue our history, the material history of our family, is getting more difficult,” Alexander-Minter says.
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In 1942, not long after President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Japanese Americans to be relocated to internment camps, Robert Ritsuro Hosokawa and Yoshi Yoshizawa were married. The newlyweds were sent to the Puyallup Assembly Center, known also as Camp Harmony, at the Washington state fairgrounds south of Seattle. They were later moved to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho, where some 13,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II.
Hosokawa was a journalist who later became a newspaper editor and a journalism professor at the University of Missouri. He produced a newsletter while he was detained: the Camp Harmony Hooey, a broadsheet that detailed comings and goings, scoops and gossip, and other bits of useful information for camp readers. (The Hooey’s tagline: “All the Bull Not Fit To Print.”)
The paper mock-ups from the newsletter and other artifacts that survive from the couple’s time in the camps are among the prized possessions of their daughter, Mary Sue Hosokawa Brown, who keeps some of them at her Eugene, Ore., home. The art came out of a hard place.
“In his journal he mentions that the first death in the camp was when a man went out looking for wood to use for whatever purpose and died of the cold and the elements,” Brown says.
In a July 8, 1942, journal entry, Hosokawa wrote about a camp-wide art show, dwelling on watercolors by Keith Oka and ink drawings by Eddie Sato, fellow prisoners; he also praised some comic caricatures involving the camp’s latrines. “I hope these pieces will be preserved to tell a story to future generations about the creativity expressed even behind barbed wire,” Hosokawa wrote.
Brown has two cherished objects from this time. One particularly well-crafted piece has become the subject of a family mystery.
Brown’s mother was given wooden pins by two fellow prisoners at Minidoka. Woodworking was a popular hobby for craftsmen in the camps, who gathered scrap lumber and found metal bits for carving. One of the pendants is shaped like a heart, across which the name “Yoshi” appears, carved in cursive. Brown’s father treasured this token; she plans to hand it down to her daughter, Rachael, who named her own daughter Yoshi.
A second miniature is even simpler: shaped like a leaf, perhaps a maple or sycamore, carved out of wood, varnished, elegant, with a safety pin still attached. The piece is no more than 11/2 inches on a side. Brown suspects that this one was the work of George Nakashima — a designer and woodworker who later produced furniture lines for Knoll — who was imprisoned at the same time.
“I remember my dad telling me that it was given to my mom, at Minidoka, by a man who was a woodworker, and who went on to become a fairly well-known woodworker,” Brown says.
Tracing the origins of these artifacts is difficult. David B. Long of the Nakashima Foundation for Peace says that there is no way to verify whether the pin was made by Nakashima. David Lane, a member of the Minnesota Woodworkers Guild and former librarian based in Minneapolis, thought the leaf pin could possibly be the work of Gentaro Kenneth Hikogawa, a master woodworker at Minidoka who was an influence on Nakashima during their time at the camp. But Lane says that Hikogawa lived a modest life and died fairly young.
Her father didn’t speak much about his time in the camps until he was older, something that Brown says is typical. Late in his life, as he suffered from dementia, these artifacts brought him comfort and served as prompts for stories.
“I feel really fortunate that I even have these two things,” Brown says.