Decades ago, I attended a lecture at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. The public-relations department at Ketchum had brought in novelist Mary McCarthy ("The Group"), and her topic was "Living with Beautiful Things."
She was bombastic, to say the least. It was quite an evening.
I have my own take on Living with Beautiful Things. There are six pieces in my family art collection. They are about love, tribe, addiction, tribal addiction, parenting, more love and more tribe.
I feel that beautiful things with a backstory become your best friends over time. Spending hours near these works every day evokes memories, new feelings, loyalties and differing associations. You take out and you put in.
Here are the six works, the stories behind them and a few words from the artists:
1 "East Liberty Woolworth's" by Robert Qualters. Mixed media, 36 inches by 32 inches
In 1938, my parents, Elizabeth and Daniel, had their photo taken in a 25-cent booth on a staircase landing at the store. She was crazy for him, and I am the eldest of seven. This Qualters is the first picture I collected and a favorite. Mr. Qualters does comedy in fine art, writing jokes around the edges of his paintings. So there's lot of whimsy and affection.
My father's cousins once stood in front of this painting. The wife said, "It's the East Liberty Woolworth's." The husband said, "I know what it is. I don't know why anybody would want it."
From Mr. Qualters: "I lived in East Liberty in the early '60s and used to go to this Woolworth's. I really liked the assortment of stuff in the basement store -- hardware, fish (and turtles), pictures of Jesus, artificial flowers ... that great take-your-own-picture-box thing. There is one of those at the Warhol museum. I often wonder if it's that very same one. I did this painting on paper; there is a large oil painting of the same subject."
2"David McFadden" by Kelly Blevins. Oil on canvas, 36 inches by 48 inches
This was painted from a photo probably taken in Philadelphia when Grandfather was 26 or so. People had to hold very still to have a photo taken then, so he's a bit formal and tense. The handlebar moustache is reddish and eyes light blue. Whatever looks the rest of us got, you're lookin' at 'em. I figure the painting will remind the family always that we came here on a boat for opportunity.
Got the frame at Michael's at the Waterfront. Half off, plus some extra. Somehow 67 percent off -- I have no math. I like the frame. It's not too much.
I tend to revere Grandfather McFadden because my other grandfather was ... Ah tah ta ta taaaah, speaking ill of the dead. Uhmm, what better time?
From Ms. Blevins: "The Grandfather McFadden painting was enthralling to work on because it was a connection to an Irish past both meaningful and sentimental to David. There was a look on the face that promised strength, integrity and stability for the future of the McFadden family."
3 "Long Day's Journey Into Night" by Kelly Blevins. Charcoal on paper, 34 inches by 26 inches
I tend to like big pictures -- sofa-size as they say at Levin. And I wanted something from American theater. No to "Streetcar," no to "Salesman." Oh, wait, what about O'Neill and "Long Day's Journey"?
So I got the movie from Netflix and watched it several times. Settled on scene where the younger son tells Mary Tyrone he has consumption. The actors were wandering all over the set, but Ms. Blevins organized them into this composition, with the curtained window providing context about time period and socioeconomic status.
Mary has an addiction, and I'm just now writing three one-act plays about this topic. They take place in a viewing parlor at Frank E. Campbell, The Funeral Chapel, at 81st and Madison in Manhattan. I'd like to see them performed on the same night in a kind of "Plaza Suite" collectively called "Live at Frank E's." A comedy first and last with a tragedy in the middle. The first play -- "Frankie Merlo at Campbell's" -- is now a storyboard on YouTube.
A signed print of this drawing of Katharine Hepburn, Dean Stockwell, Ralph Richardson and Jason Robards Jr. was given to the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre.
From Ms. Blevins: "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is an inventive piece created by the collaboration of David's vision and my visual representation of the film. It was a stark, emotional moment between mother and son that I felt important to capture for David. Family values in an Irish family are deep and loving, as seen in the drawing."
4 "The Eternal Tap" by Glenn Greene. Stained glass, 38 inches by 34 inches
We had a problem window in the dining room. Previous owners had a break-in through it. So they sealed the window and added opaque glass. Looked like a factory in Akron. Not that we're talking about a great view here with the garage wall only 8 feet away.
Anyhow, I went online and found the perfect solution. The frosted pieces in the middle represent the pubs of Ireland and the colored blocks the countryside. There's a beer pull in the center. Much of the glass is reused, some of it a century old. I was a goner when I saw it.
From Mr. Greene: " 'The Eternal Tap' is a stained glass window ... inspired by Irish culture and geography. The border features orange, green and white mottled opalescent glass, which serves as a window frame for the center of various clear textures. The very center features a re-purposed piece of old beveled glass that is reminiscent of a beer-tap shape. A little square of deep green "drips" out of the tap. ... Irish culture on tap. ..."
5"Ann, Dave and Dad" by Ron Mahoney. Pencil, crayon on paper, 33 inches by 24 inches
In 1976, Gary Bahl took our photo on the lawn of the Edgewood municipal building. My son, Dave, was wearing a sweater from Al Weintraub, the art director. Ann, my wife, is in a sweater knit by her sister from wool grown in Queensland, Australia, and spun and dyed at home. I'm in a team jacket. Ron Mahoney, iconic Pittsburgh illustrator, did a drawing based on the photo.
From Mr. Mahoney: "When David and Ann were working at Ketchum, MacLeod & Grove 'several' years ago, I did a portrait of David, Ann and their son, who is now in his late 30s. They've had it hanging in their dining room all these years. It made me happy to hear that their son told them the one thing he would like from the house is the portrait I did of him and his parents so long ago. I thought it was a real honor."
6 "The Stone Foreman and The Dining Room Girl: Portrait of a Marriage." Framed newspaper page, 19 inches by 28 inches
I wrote the March 17 Next Page about my Grandparents McFadden coming here from Ireland. David was the stone foreman on construction of St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland, and Mary was the dining-room girl at Sunnyledge in Shadyside.
When I saw the finished piece in the paper, I realized that Grandma dominated the visuals. So we created a 2-inch border with photos of the cathedral interior, mostly the stained-glass windows. This heirloom is across the dining room from "The Eternal Tap."
David McFadden is a humorist and retired psychotherapist (firstname.lastname@example.org).