Monday, October 22, 2012

Art history

Katie Hartauer, community relations director at La Salle-Peru Township High School, looks through a portion of the school’s art collection. Following a recent remodeling project at the school, an aesthetics committee was created to catalogue the collection that has long gone undocumented.

The Middle Ages antiphonary, an illuminated manuscript, and a 15th century oil painting, both displayed in McCormack Memorial Library, are some of the best known pieces of L-P’s art collection. Both were donations from some of the school’s early benefactors, the Matthiessen and Blow families.

The recent discovery that the 1929 pipe organ at La Salle-Peru Township High School is a national musical treasure has garnered considerable attention, but it’s far from the only treasure on the L-P campus.

In the wake of a recent remodeling of the school’s administrative hallway, during which pieces of art that have been hanging on the school’s walls for decades were taken down, superintendent Steve Wrobleski has formed an aesthetics committee to catalogue the school’s complete art collection and consider which items should be displayed in the future.

About a dozen L-P staffers along with Kelly Klobucher, executive director of the Hegeler Carus Mansion, make up the aesthetics committee.

“I think we’re all historical enthusiasts,” said Emily Carney, a guidance counselor at the school.

The committee has developed several small projects, including creating a catalogue of the school’s art collection, photographing the collection, creating student galleries and potentially developing an art book and virtual tour for the school’s website.

“All in celebration of our history,” said Katie Hartauer, L-P’s community relations director.

Wrobleski said it’s important to gain a solid understanding of what the school owns so the collection can be better maintained in the future.

Additionally, as an L-P alumnus, Wrobleski said he realizes how easy it is for these beautiful pieces of culture to become background objects in the lives of the students who inhabit the building each year.

“We want to make sure our kids have an appreciation of what we have here and particularly how we obtained them,” he said.

Carney said new staff members spend a small portion of their orientation process wandering through the school in search of some of the school’s historical and artistic oddities and landmarks, such as the three-legged horse in the Canterbury Tales mural along the wall outside the library.

“I became more appreciative, actually, when I became a faculty member,” said Carney, who graduated from L-P not so long ago.

Much of the collection, particularly the “wow stuff,” was donated during the 1920s by the Matthiessen and Blow families, Hartauer said.

For example, the school’s Aeolian organ was donated by the Matthiessen family in 1929 for a cost of $50,000. Today, that would be on par with a $660,000 donation, Wrobleski said. Similarly, the $600,000 cost of building the auditorium, which was gifted by the Matthiessen and Blow families, would equal a $7.9 million donation today, he said.

“It really is remarkable when you look at the local industrialists who really were philanthropists,” Wrobleski said.

Earlier this semester the aesthetics committee explored the school, from the basement tunnels to the top of the clock tower, searching for any artworks that were stored away in odd spots in the past, such as a large painting of an ancient solider found stored face to a wall in downstairs copy room.

“I’ve been here 18 years. I never even knew that was down there,” Hartauer said.

Similarly, the large tapestries of Deer Park and Starved Rock that hang encased in plastic in the old cafeteria were found decades ago rolled up in one of the school’s crannies with no sign of their origins.

“Through the years it was mostly the custodians who would find stuff. Find stuff, store stuff,” she said.

While some of those works have been identified over the years, there are a considerable number of paintings, print reproductions, student creations and other pieces that have piled up without any note of where they came from or who created them.

“It’s hard because it’s so many years ago. Obviously none of us were here or knew of it,” Hartauer said.

Visitors to L-P’s McCormack Memorial Library or the library’s page on the school website can find brief descriptions of some of the school’s collection in the “Catalog of Art Treasures,” a small pamphlet that librarian Dave Kelty believes probably was created decades ago.

The library has long been home to some of the school’s most obvious treasures. Along with various small sculptures and busts, the library contains numerous pieces of art brought to the Illinois Valley from Europe by the Matthiessens and Blows, including original oil on canvas paintings by Baroque artist Francesco Solimena and 19th century French painter Emile Renouf – both less famous than some of their artistic contemporaries but still respected.

“I think Dr. (Craig) Carter once said it was deemed ‘priceless,’” Kelty said of the library collection and referring to the school’s former superintendent.

One of Kelty’s favorite items to discuss with students is the antiphonary, an illuminated manuscript from the Middle Ages.

“Just look how far we’ve come,” he said. “I’ve actually seen this sitting here — before they invented the printing press, you know, and everything had to be hand written — and then you see a kid sitting over here with a Kindle.”

Hartauer said the committee also is hoping to connect with talented people who may be able to assist in preserving or restoring some of the collection.

“It’s not a committee that’s going to be done anytime soon, but I think there are a lot of near things we can do,” Hartauer said.

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