Letters from the Front

Collection at the WWI Museum in KC

Collection at the WWI Museum in KC

Museums don’t always thrill me, with their guards and heavy silence and collections of objects trapped lifeless behind glass.  But I was pleasantly moved and surprised by a visit to Kansas City’s World War I Museum during a recent trip to my hometown.

Housed in the Liberty Memorial, this is the only museum in the U.S. dedicated solely to World War I.  Featuring exhibits and interactive displays that engage all senses, the facility appeals to history buffs and those who aren’t so enamored with conflicts and hard-to-remember timelines (like myself).  I always enjoyed living history, oral history and first-hand accounts that told individual stories.  Primary resources like diaries and letters speak to me and I like candid photos, music and letters that describe the laughter, love and pain absent from textbooks.

A collection of envelopes that had encased letters from a father on the front to his son in San Antonio caught my attention.  Skillfully drawn and addressed to Private Walter L. Myers, these miniature works range from comical to patriotic and capture remarkable everyday experiences, from one soldier to another.  The sketches carry a message through time and space, so that a century later we understand at first glance.  Connection in the face of conflict.  Textbooks document the dates and timelines, victories and losses, nationalities, maps, destruction and casualties.  But a comical sketch sent from “somewhere in France” or a photo of the artist drawing in a distant combat zone soars above boundaries like the hot air balloons depicted by Myers, an artillery scout.  It doesn’t matter if the soldier is French, American, German or Russian – he’s a man and a father, far away from home.

After touring the museum, I visited the post office and bought 2 books of “vintage seed package” stamps.  I haven’t written to my daughters in awhile – maybe I’ll get out the colored pencils today and get drawing.

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Word Sketches

One day I just started writing.  A magazine editor had casually said he found it hard to keep his short pieces down to 400 words, and that made me think.  400 words seemed so few, but it’s enough to say something clearly and cleanly.  So I wrote short pieces with exactly 400 words.

I had always been intimidated by writing, and afraid.  I attached too much importance to it and recalled the Freshman English professor who scrawled “BORING!” across a writing assignment in angry red letters.  They were probably actually tired, bored red letters, but they imprinted on my brain and glowed for another 24 years.

Instead of setting out to write something important, I decided to write like I sketch.  I remember art teachers instructing us to free up our hands, keep moving, catch the essence and general form.  “All right – 2 minutes!  Don’t be too precious!”  So I studied my subject, and the charcoal stick in my hand quickly recorded the shapes, the angles, the curves, light and shadows.  After a while I disappeared, and so did the distance from the subject.  As my hand moved, I felt the weight of the breast, the cold porcelain of the pitcher, the juice of the orange and smooth bumpiness of the peel.  I wanted that feeling when I wrote.

Quick sketches with watercolor, crayon and colored pencil

I have my own method.  First I type a word or two in bold letters, centered on the page.  My subject or still life.  That provides the structure and focus.  Then I just type.  Don’t get too precious.  No heavy editing – just a little erasing here, blend a little, correct the line slightly.  I just keep moving and record what I see and hear when I think “bread” or “bird” or “shell”.  Pretty soon I’m not thinking too much at all.  I just think of each piece as a little sketch, capturing a thought or a moment or a feeling.

When I drew, I had a hard time knowing when to stop and when to say something was good enough.  Sometimes those first bold lines were the truest, capturing the first impression with freshness and clarity.  It helped to have a limit and know that it was play, not a Rembrandt masterpiece.

Now when I write, I don’t worry where it will end up.  Each piece I write is like a message tied to a balloon and released into the air.