Archived Story

Art is the part of our history that tells us who we really are

Published 9:24am Sunday, January 19, 2014

Column: Art Is, by Bev Jackson Cotter

During World War II a group of military personnel called Monuments Men spent years in Europe trying to rescue the art and architecture that was being destroyed by bombing or stolen by invading armies. Whenever possible they would encourage the local people to help with their salvaging efforts, adults and children, too. When we think of those war years, it’s the battles and prison camps and dead and wounded that come to mind.

Bev Jackson Cotter
Bev Jackson Cotter

Yet, everyone knew that eventually the war would end and communities would spend years trying to return to their former lives even though they were changed forever.

Why did they worry about the art and architecture? Maybe it’s because that part of our culture tells us who we are. Whether we are living in a war-torn country or a town that needs parking lots rather than old buildings, our cultural history is in danger of being destroyed if people do not realize its importance. The buildings that were constructed with pride in our downtowns, the churches with their carved wood and stained glass windows, the art collections owned by people who prefer original art and those who love the more familiar mass produced pieces — all of these represent us as individuals, our communities, our values and our history.

In our own lives the art in our homes tells people who we are. Whether you prefer pictures of deer and pine trees, indefinable abstract art, carved roosters, or travel posters, each piece tells your visitors who you are.

The current Albert Lea Art Center All Member Art Show has a special display this year. It is featuring art by Agnes Boss, a local artist who has lived in Albert Lea for many years. I hope she doesn’t mind that I am going to tell you that in December she celebrated her 90th birthday. This lively and spirited lady has a variety of her art in the show, and it is wonderful. It isn’t often that the Art Center has the opportunity to recognize someone who has enjoyed painting, drawing, wood carving and doll making for most of their long lifetime.

When you walk into her home you immediately know that you are in the presence of an artist. Art is on the walls, the tables and in the curio cabinets. A look at her paintings is a walk down memory lane – Agnes as a baby, her husband, Bert, as a small boy, the original family farm home and a walk around Fountain Lake. Is art important to her and to our community culture? Yes, to her, and to everyone whose life she touches.

This is what the Monuments Men were all about — respecting and preserving memories and culture. They were a group made up of museum administrators and arts curators. In some cases they risked their lives too close to the battle grounds.

An excerpt from a recent Smithsonian Magazine article on the fighting in Italy states, “…While the opposing armies fought furiously along the Volturno River and later around the town of Cassino, the arts unit recovered and stored thousands of fragments of marble, wood and stucco decoration from dozens of shattered churches. These shards would become the building blocks in Italy’s postwar restoration of its art treasurers. Each morning, Deane Keller stuffed his pockets with candy and Red Cross-donated cookies to distribute to Neapolitan street urchins and cigarettes to entice Italian laborers to work.”

Further on in the article, the German Army’s retreat from Rome was described. “The German General Albert Kesselring had relinquished Rome without giving fight, sparing the city’s bridges and avoiding the street-by-street battle that would be the sad lot of Pisa one month later. The arts-unit men were embraced by the city’s intellectual and cultural elite. In Rome, they breathed an atmosphere of relief: once the constant preoccupation with food and fear of bombs, Fascist arrests and Nazi deportations ended, residents couldn’t wait to reopen their museums, theaters and concert halls.”

Is our cultural heritage important? Do I even need to ask that question?


Bev Jackson Cotter is a member of the Albert Lea Art Center where the All Member Show, celebrating the work of Agnes Boss, will be on display through Feb. 7.