Sunday, November 08, 2009
Sunday Morning with Carl Augustus Heliodor Hammarstrom: An Artist Awaiting Recognition? ...
Across the street to Playland-at-the-Beach we went on foggy nights, my sister Kathy and I holding his big warm hands. He would buy us salt water taffy or popcorn, or a hard crunchy chocolate covered “It’s It” ice cream bar. Neons flickered through surging ocean roars, through the shouts of soldiers and their girlfriends riding the Big Dipper roller coaster.
Across the street from the Big Dipper is where we lived, in a two story brick house in Golden Gate Park, set poetically in the shadows of the North Windmill. My grandfather and then my father following him were park gardeners. With their city jobs came the house. My Uncle Smitty managed the Big Dipper directly across the street. My dad installed electrical shock effects in the Laugh-in-the-Dark and the Dark Mystery rides, and he worked on the Dipper, too, night after night through the war years, manning the grips.
Out back of our house stood an old shed, filled with must and paint and canvas. And old clocks and easels. Filled with a special atmosphere. That’s where my grandfather had labored over his passion in days gone by. Now, he lived in a small tent a few hundred feet in front of our house, where on pleasant Sunday afternoons, the locals would picnic on a spread of grass. Each morning I would take Grandpa a cup of Oval-teen. Under his bed once, I discovered the bike that Santa had planned to give my brother Dick on a Christmas day. The same magical December morning, I received my most prized gift ever -- a Lionel train set.
I’m not sure what dampened Grandpa's spark for painting. I never saw him create a single canvas. By the time I came along, he was spending most of his time sitting in a chair in an engine shed that drew water from the ground. The power for that task had been supplied by the windmill until it was stripped of its muscle and steel for wartime use.
What a family: A painter. A father (seen, right, in the photo) and uncles who worked on a roller coaster. A great uncle (Eugene B. Lewis) who enjoyed a screen writing career in the silent days down in Hollywood. And my mother, who had wanted to be a singer and got only as far as one timid audition, and never went back. She settled into the safe inviolate role of full-time recreational dreamer.
My kindly, quiet grandfather, the son of a sea captain, had come to San Francisco from Gotland, Sweden in 1885. He worked as a street car conductor (during spare moments, sketching out the faces of his customers); by another account, he worked on the cable cars. Following the earthquake of 1906, which demolished his studio, he lived in a tent next to the Cliff House. Whether his wife, one Anna Pelch from Bohemia, shared the tent with him I do not know. She died at a very young age. Sometime later Grandpa got the park job. With it came the windmill which he operated and maintained, and the brick house in which he alone — with the help of a murky succession of “house keepers” -- raised six or seven children.
Artist Carl Augustus, who studied at the Mark Hopkins Institute and privately with Gottardo Piazzoni, made a local name for himself. From two news stories I have, evidently he was called simply "Hammarstrom" by local critics, whose discriminating respect he enjoyed. Some of his work won display space at the San Francisco Art Association, the Del Monte Gallery in Monterey, the Alaska Yukon Exposition in Seattle in 1909, and, finally, at the glorious Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939. I am so happy to know he got this far, for from the movies I have seen of the event, what an enchanted setting it was. Close to his 90th birthday, he passed away in 1954.
Hard for me to judge his work; he is my father's father. That having been said, some of it I find perfectly fine. Especially am I engaged by its serene moodiness, a mark of the period. After all these years, there is some interest out there in cyberspace for the work of Carl Augustus Heliodor Hammarstrom. Here are a few of the images I came across on the internet. My brother Dick discovered that one of them sold at an on-line auction this summer for $600.00. Yes, not much, and I hope it wasn’t to a member of our family. I do know that a few years ago a Los Angeles gallery owner e-mailed me, expressing interest in acquiring what I might be willing to sell. We talked by phone. She judged him "a fine landscape painter," but said she would need a large body of his work for a viable try at building up a demand. I only have a precious few of his paintings, one being the last displayed here (misleadingly lit when I snapped it), my favorite. Not for anything would I ever give it up. That lonely enchanted place is exactly where I came from.
Thank you, Grandpa, for reminding me.