I AM LIDHOLMTHEVIOLINMAKER
Bristol Art Museum, Bristol, Rhode Island, 2014
Curated by Mary Dondero
While traveling in North Carolina in 2007, Lasse Antonsen found a book in a used book store signed “Lidholmtheviolinmaker 1918.” It was a book in Latin, comparing ancient Scandinavian languages, and published almost one hundred and fifty years before Lidholm acquired it.
Antonsen knew it had to be a violin maker of Swedish background or descent. His research established that the violinmaker’s full name was Erik Johan Lidholm, and that he had emigrated from Sweden in 1892, when he was twenty-one years old. Once settled in the United States, Lidholm apprenticed with a violinmaker in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and later established his own workshop in St. Louis, Missouri. He continued to build high quality violins under his own name until his death in 1942, at the age of seventy-one.
In this exhibition, Antonsen is presenting objects, and altered objects, that Lidholm might have collected, treasured, and put on display. Each object in the exhibition has a wall label providing insight into Lidholm’s thinking about music, nature, travel, art and literature. As many immigrants, Lidholm was torn between a deep appreciation of his new country, with its culture, landscape and people, and a nostalgic longing for his lost homeland. Equally powerful for Lidholm, was a nostalgic sense of what else he could have encountered had he traveled to other countries, what other centuries he wished to have lived in, and the strange, foreign lands he traveled through at night, in his dream
1774 book, signed by Lidholm in 1918
Lidholm was forty-six years old when he acquired a book on ancient Scandinavian languages. From early in life, Lidholm had a fascination with books, and not only with books in terms of the reading, the stories, the knowledge, they provided, but as objects.
Lidholm found the book in an antiquarian book store in Palm Springs in California, where he had traveled early in 1918 with his wife Alfa, in order to deliver a violin to a client.
Lidholm was fascinated with the desert landscape, the climate, the fresh springs, and how irrigation was an absolute necessity. The contrast of the parched ground and the lush watered gardens excited and troubled him.
One afternoon, while picking fresh lemons with his wife from a tree in their host’s garden, his wife discovered that the tree had a dark-brown dried lemon hanging on one of its inner branches, a lemon that had not been picked, nor had fallen off, but rather had dried in the hot climate. It turned out there were many more. It was a revelation to Lidholm. Out of sight was a large display of hidden fruit, a collection, the tree had kept for itself.
Lidholm’s wife brought a suitcase of lemons back on the train, and Lidholm brought a bag filled with dried lemons. Lidholm’s wife made a delicious marmalade they enjoyed with their Swedish pancakes on Sunday mornings. Lidholm put the dried lemons on display in his workshop, occasionally picking one up and marveling at how much it reminded him of the parchment and leather, or aged paper covers, of his favorite old books.
Lidholm had always felt that language and Nature operated in some kind of hidden relationship. Nature imperceptibly changed, and so did language. Both had to be kept alive and nourished and allowed to flourish according to their own inner possibilities.
Language depends on the human brain and vocal chord, and on its written manifestations. Lidholm saw that plants and trees were unique, yet similarly dependent on a larger consciousness or intent. They -- language and Nature -- were connected intentions, just like every individual human being.
For Lidholm, old books were reminders and connectors to the past and to the future. Nature was always cyclically present, and present within defined time structures with the larger manifestations intermingling both extremely short and extremely long time frames for a multitude of individual species.
Lidholm saw that human knowledge was embedded in language -- language that had subtly changed, language that perhaps had almost finished its life span – and that it needed to be brought into a present that wasn’t historical. He wasn’t sure how, he only knew that fragments were floating around, unused, unseen, spoken and written long ago, imbued with intent almost unattainable now.
Two carved wood figures of unknown origin
The lighter unvarnished figure Lidholm found in an antiques store in Minneapolis. It reminded him of Swedish folk carvings, but he was struck by what he felt was an Eastern European look. Carved out of a piece of lumber, the figure covers his left ear with his left hand. The right hand holds a hat.
A bearded male. A peasant. A beggar. A traveling artisan.
Lidholm took it home and placed it above the rear door to his workshop, nodding at it when he closed up shop in the evening.
Some years later, while in a bookstore in downtown St. Louis, Lidholm was suddenly confronted by a figure similar to the one he already had. He couldn’t believe that another version actually existed. The bookseller knew nothing about its origin, and said he had picked it up in an estate in Collinsville, close to Cahokia. Lidholm was able to acquire it.
Lidholm was excited to be able to compare the two figures. After studying them intensely, he placed them on the table next to his bed. Later he placed them next to each other on a wall in his workshop, diagonally across from his work bench.
The figures remained enigmatic, without an origin. They were clearly not carved by the same artist. At first Lidholm felt the darker, varnished figure, was done later than the lighter one, and that it was inferior in quality. But Lidholm was certain that there must have been an original figure that they both were based on, an original which likely had been copied again and again, probably sold to visitors in the remote mountain village in Central Europe he imagined was their place of origin. But that original figure would by now be lost in a chain of later figures carved repeatedly, as copies of copies. Or perhaps the figures were only carved occasionally, at special times of the year?
Somehow the figures were related to music, but Lidholm wasn’t sure how. Though when thinking of music, he liked that each figure was indeed like the performance of a piece of music. Each equally valid, each with its own small characteristics and idiosyncrasies. One a little more pleasant perhaps, but not necessarily more original -- if it was even possible to speak in such terms.
So what was the theme or subject matter of these figures, and why did it strike a chord? Lidholm liked that he didn’t know. He felt, that as human beings we have a certain presence, depending on age and on what we have pursued in life, a presence marked by the choices we have made and what we have encountered. We are placed within a certain framework of time and geography, culture and family. What was important was the degree to which we were aware that we have such a specific presence, and knew it was always a limited one, and that we could meet other individuals with a different kind of presence, and possibly be enriched by them.
Lidholm felt that some people, especially people with a close connection to the land, such as farmers, seemed to be connected to a different, more solid energy than his own. He remembered encounters as a child with farmers in Sweden, brooding characters of few words, and he had encountered similar individuals once he settled in America. He liked the unknown they represented, and wondered if the sounds of forest and hills, the rhythm of the wind and the seasons, the consciousness of animals, domesticated and wild, and the constant contact with the soil, had all contributed to the shaping of these individuals, physically as well as mentally.
He was also puzzled by their seeming naivety when they had dealings with the world outside their direct physical existence, a foreign world they at times seemed to escape to, or from, through excessive drinking.
A Passion for Discovering Truth
Tullii Ciceronis, “Officiis,” 1616, early 20th Century Wind-Up Bird
One of Lidholm’s treasured books, was a 1616 Latin version of Cicero’s “De Officiis.”
The book contained the kind of thinking that Lidholm early on had longed to partake in, and that he somehow knew had to exist somewhere, thinking that had to have been thought by somebody at some point.
Cicero had been a revelation for Lidholm once he arrived in America. In seeking balance between a life of action and a life of contemplation, Cicero stood out as the ultimate individual, a man active in politics while pursuing the depth and clarity of philosophical reflections.
Lidholm also appreciated that the book was written by an individual knowing his life was in danger and his time limited, a man who still wished to impart wisdom to his son. For many years, Lidholm felt Cicero became his spiritual father, guiding him in ways his real father had not been able to.
In the book, this especially stood out:
“Above all, the search after truth and its eager pursuit are peculiar to man. And so, when we have leisure from the demands of business cares, we are eager to see, to hear, to learn something new, and we esteem a desire to know the secrets or wonders of creation as indispensable to a happy life. Thus we come to understand that what is true, simple, and genuine appeals most strongly to a man's nature. To this passion for discovering truth there is added a hungering, as it were, for independence, so that a mind well-molded by Nature is unwilling to be subject to anybody save one who gives rules of conduct or is a teacher of truth or who, for the general good, rules according to justice and law. From this attitude come greatness of soul and a sense of superiority to worldly conditions.”
Cicero’s writing, which Lidholm had studied so intensely shortly after he arrived in America, and which he had fervently wanted to be able to read in both English and Latin, represented the trajectory of his early engagement with thinking and contemplation.
Although Lidholm moved on to many other thinkers and writers, he always felt a deep gratitude to Cicero. He marveled at the thinking of a man who had lived so long ago, and had nourished so many great individuals, century after century. Lidholm marveled that Cicero’s thinking could be alive today, shaping an individual toward what that individual only needs to be reminded of in order to proceed on a path of contemplated action.
The Latin version of the book, published in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, in 1616, was bound in parchment, a cover that after years and years of being held by human hands exuded the extraordinary presence of the human spirit and awareness.
Lidholm had found it on top of a rare book dealer’s locked cabinet in New York. Even though rather expensive, the dealer had given him a special price. The dealer had not yet had time to repair the book, and was apologetic that it wasn’t ready to be sold, but for Lidholm, the true message of this copy of the book was its age and the marks and traces left behind by its successive readers.
The antiquated copy of Cicero’s text added a new dimension to Lidholm’s appreciation of Cicero’s writing. It physically connected him to a long line of readers who as eagerly as he, had absorbed and contemplated what right action and right thinking could be. And Lidholm was especially fascinated that the binding had started to come apart, revealing hidden handwritten pages, as if literally pointing out that there is always a text behind a text.
Lidholm also appreciated that the title page had the representation of a female, her hair spread out as if she has wings, holding scales and a sword, an image he saw as the ultimate depiction of balanced thinking.
Doubting that Cicero would be read by future generations, Lidholm placed an old wind-up bird on top of the book. The wind-up bird no longer worked, it was the carrier of a missing song, a quelled voice inside a beautiful, worn presence.
The Natural and the Ethical Mind
17th and18th Century French Tapestry Fragments
While delivering a violin to a client in New York, Lidholm was invited to a workshop that restored old French tapestries. He was enthralled by the intricately woven scenes and large scale of the tapestries, their vibrant though sometimes faded colors, and the enchanting complex designs.
At a certain point he noticed a large pile of tapestry fragments. He was told that some tapestries unfortunately were beyond repair, and that the restorer not only did not have the heart to throw the individual sections away, but occasionally was able to extract yarn from the smaller fragments for his repairs.
In the warm June afternoon, sitting in front of an open window with a view of the Hudson River, Lidholm began to select a rather large group of small fragments, which the restorer agreed to let him purchase.
Back in St. Louis, Lidholm decided to display the individual fragments in the alcove of the third floor hallway in his house. The hallway was adjacent to his daughter’s and son’s rooms. That fall he began to collect dried flowers, plants, and seed pods, and hung them next to shapes in the tapestry fragment they somehow echoed or spoke to.
For most of the woven fragments it was almost impossible to decide what would have been their original position within the larger tapestry they had belonged to, although some sections were clearly from borders and had repeat patterns.
What fascinated Lidholm -- and what he had selected on purpose -- were plant and flower imagery. What furthermore fascinated him was the play between nature and artifice, between the artists’ study of plants and the artists’ desire to create decorative designs.
What fascinated Lidholm more than anything, however, was that the textile fragments were created before or around the time of the writing of the American Constitution. The leaves and flowers somehow appeared to hold a key to what was the mind -- the natural and ethical mind -- behind a document created to guarantee an individual’s universal and natural freedom. Symbolically, he saw the fragments as the fragments of thinking that had given rise to the creation of the vision of what was to be the greatest country on earth.
Looking at the fragments, Lidholm was reminded of the intricate beauty and poetic strength of words when spoken and written by inspired individuals. He loved that the fragments remained open for interpretation, indicating or pointing to, a much larger reality, a reality forever out of reach.
At this time, Lidholm had begun reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings, and especially “Reveries of a Solitary Walker,” a work written around the time of the writing of the Constitution. Lidholm admired Rousseau and saw him as a great, yet flawed, individual and wondered if any man of genius would ultimately pay a price for his uniqueness with public persecution and hatred. He also wondered what role a narcissistic obsessiveness played in greatness, and what the attendant delusions and paranoia meant.
For Lidholm, Rousseau spun intricate, and at times, crystal clear thought patterns from natural observations, always seeking universal laws behind or beyond appearances in the actions of Man and Nature.
What also fascinated Lidholm was that Rousseau had acquired the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus’ “Systema Naturae,” with its new classification system of plants. Rousseau described vividly in the “Reveries” his delight in a renewed study of flowers and plants, literally discovering a new dimension of Nature below his feet.
Two wood burls, metal stands
As a young boy Lidholm had a close friendship with a boy who lived next door, whose name was Sven. As youngsters they roamed the forest and parks together. Playfully goading each other on as they climbed tall trees and even at one point, climbed onto the lower roof section of the local medieval church in the middle of the night. Whenever they had pushed each other into these extreme situations, they would sit for hours in the twilight and talk, sharing dreams and fantasies, and engage in word play.
Lidholm was constantly searching for the most refined and challenging pieces of wood for his violins, and had a series of suppliers he would visit regularly. One morning, while visiting a lumberyard, he came across two beautiful burls. He was reminded of how he and Sven had enjoyed the large, massive trees in the church cemetery, having been fascinated by the burls that seemed to contain not only pent up energy, but somehow the world of mysterious presence related to the spirit of the dead. Lidholm bought the two burls and brought them to his workshop. A couple of years later he came across two tripods he immediately knew were meant as their support.
Lidholm had an almost religious reverence for wood. He was constantly amazed at the intelligence that resided inside any tree, and the miracle of flowers and leaves appearing in spring out of solid, naked branches. For Lidholm, a tree never dies, only changed its mode of presence from one realm to another.
When Lidholm selected and prepared wood for specific parts of a violin, he was equally amazed at how, the more he worked on a piece of wood, it would reveal itself to him, answering in ways that were related to how he was searching for reverberation and sound. He often felt that his hand had its own intelligence in this intimate revelation.
Once he had arranged the burls on the tripods, he felt he had somehow joined science with the intelligence of Nature, creating a situation that reminded him of the innocence of exploration in childhood, a time when everything was new, and where in your behavior you could still avoid the boundaries of the adult world.
In creating his violins, Lidholm always felt that the world that had opened up in his friendship with Sven, and during his own roaming and solitude, was the world of awareness that gave him access to the contemplation and playfulness of creating his musical instruments. The burls had become lunar landscapes, unexplored foreign lands.
An Unjust Life
Late 19th century doll, dried flower
At an estate sale in the northern part of St. Louis, Lidholm came across an angelic doll with closed eyes. He felt an impulse to pick it up. He then realized that he was flooded with an intense feeling of the remembrance of his mother.
The elderly couple holding the sale probably figured he was buying the doll for his daughter.
Bringing it home, his teenage daughter -- when she saw what he had bought and carefully placed on the mantle -- smiled and said, as she often did, “you are silly father.” His son, who always had a gentle protective attitude toward him, said nothing. After a few days Lidholm placed the doll on a shelf in the back of his workshop.
Lidholm’s wife often bought or found rare, beautiful flowers, sometimes of the kind that would remain equally beautiful once dried. Lidholm’s wife knew he treasured these dried flowers and kept them for him, and he would arrange them in vases in his workshop.
Late one evening, after he had struggled with a particularly difficult piece of veneer, he decided he was getting unnecessarily frustrated and had to stop. Suddenly, as he was getting ready to leave, he decided to pick up the doll from behind the shelf where he kept his varnishes.
Lidholm had left Sweden shortly after his mother died. They had been only the two of them, and he later realized that his longing for a new life in America, and his longing to become a master craftsman was, in ways he didn’t see then, a fleeing from a life that had become suffocating.
His mother loved him, but remained a mystery. She had had him when she was a teenager, a young woman, a child really. She was shy, and he realized early on, only happy when she was with her sisters on Sunday afternoons, when they would be laughing and drinking coffee. He always longed for his mother to touch him, but she never did.
Lidholm’s father had died when he was young, and his mother’s body, once she got ill, was somehow mysteriously eaten from within. Her stomach became bloated, she became pregnant with death. Her sisters tended to her, but when he was alone with her at night, she shared her fierce anger with him, her anger at a God she no longer believed in, a God that had created an unjust world, a world of suffering.
Anna, a seventeen year old girl who lived close by, had become his refuge during these difficult months. He would often spend evenings with her, most often after having had supper with his mother. But Lidholm was afraid Anna would become pregnant, and he was afraid that her easy feeling of how the two of them belonged together and somehow would build a life out of where they were, and who they were, terrified him.
Once he left for America, Anna did not cry. She saw him off, and said, “I know I’ll never see you again. Be well. Please do not write.”
Lidholm took one of the dried flowers and placed it above the doll’s head. After he had left for America he so often had longed to feel his mother’s presence, longed for her to guide him from some unseen realm, but she never did. He longed to speak to her, but realized there was nobody there to listen.
The somehow unknown, unfulfilled, presence of Anna, a young woman he never really got to know, faded and blended with his feelings for his mother. He realized that Anna had had the strength to not make him feel guilty for leaving her.
His mother had said goodbye to him in her own way, but there had been no well wishes for him, nothing to carry him forward. Placing the flower above the doll’s head, he felt he was creating an image of his mother’s unborn self, an image of a small innocent girl who never matured, whom life had struck down harshly, in a demeaning way.
Mirror, c. 1750, dragonfly exoskeletons
Visiting friends who had a boat house on a lake in Wisconsin, Lidholm collected empty exoskeletons, or exuviae, left behind after the molting by a species of the Aeshna dragonfly. The husband of the couple they were visiting was a poet and close friend, who had taken great delight in pointing out a wall with a large selection of empty exuviae to Lidholm.
Lidholm was fascinated to realize -- once he tried to collect the exuviae -- that the end points of the legs somehow had glued themselves onto the surface of the wall, thereby creating the necessary grip for the transformation that had taken place.
There was a special architecture to the story of the dragonfly transformation. The nymphs had crawled up from the water, crawled on the small boat dock, and then up the side of the boathouse facing the water, and there, with their heads pointing up, as if already reaching for the skies, they had released themselves, their transformed selves, through their nymph exoskeleton backside which had slit open. It was as if they had left a coffin behind, with a strange, pure white string reaching out from the inside of the slit, as some kind of discarded umbilical chord.
They had been released as flying insects, and taken up a new mode of existence, an existence necessitating a new mode of sensing. They had moved out of the realm of water into the realm of the air.
As a boy in Sweden, Lidholm spent many summer afternoons by lakes and small streams, watching the extraordinary flight of the dragonflies. He had marveled at their amazing ability to see and sense their environment, at how they could stand absolutely still in the air, and then with lightning swiftness position themselves somewhere else, hovering seemingly forever above the water’s surface.
He had realized that their eyes must see the world quite differently from the human eye, that they were somehow sensing apparatuses of an extraordinary order, and he would often sit still and focus all his attention on a dragonfly and slowly transform his attention, his whole mode of being, into pure awareness, making it possible for him to likewise hover above the surface of the water.
Once back in St. Louis, Lidholm pulled out a mirror he had set aside in his workshop, a beautiful Federal Period mirror, with a frame that for him represented everything pure and inspired about the Enlightenment. He had bought it a few years before, and the dealer had told him that he could easily repair the broken parts himself, and then replace the mirror, which had begun to deteriorate. But Lidholm loved what was happening to the mirror, its process of deterioration, transformation, and maturation, something he saw as paralleling the surfaces of leather book covers, natural processes reflecting time and history. Lidholm also felt that the ornate decorative frame was emblematic of the clarity of thought he felt the French Enlightenment represented to him, the world and imagination he saw as the spring that had nourished the vision of America.
Lidholm decided to glue the exuviae onto the surface of the mirror, combining their position on the boathouse wall with their later hovering over the surface of water. He then hung the mirror up in the corner of the library, above a cabinet, so that it would be protected and out of reach.
Sometimes, on sunny afternoons, when the light fell softly on the mirror, Lidholm would look up distractedly while reading, and then remember how he had been transported into meditative flights in his childhood. In his readings about Shinto and Japanese culture, Lidholm also felt a kinship with the ultimate mirror hidden inside the Shinto shrine, a mirror that was divine yet reflected the world.
He knew few people saw the world as he did. He had early on realized that existence necessitated transformation. He had realized that the human cycle of growth appeared to be in seven year cycles. Children would loose their baby teeth when they were seven years old. Around fourteen years of age they would be transformed from children’s bodies into bodies with a sexual presence, entering the early stages of adult life, and then they would finally mature into adult life, at twenty-one.
An important stage between twenty-one and twenty-eight, was the merger of one’s physical body and emotional life with another individual’s body and soul. On the physical level it meant parenting and a child, on a different, a spiritual level, it meant a metaphysical merger. If a person was undertaking a craft or a study, the year of mastery would be achieved likewise around twenty-eight years of age.
Now the further stages of seven year intervals became less obvious to Lidholm, but he felt much depended on whether an individual would seek out new sources of energy, and new modes of existence, mentally changing, as if from from water to air, which would mean constantly, or cyclically, transforming into new modes of thinking and being.
Music was Lidholm’s ultimate nourishment. Grieg’s first violin sonata, written when he had fallen in love and just married, was an all-time favorite that Lidhom never tired of playing. Many evenings, his wife would play the piano, and he would play the violin. These evenings, when the children were still young, stood out as true moments of happiness, something fleeting and rare.
The second and third violin sonatas had their own complexities, packed as they are with information, representing new and further stages of mental awareness and playfulness. In music, Lidholm saw everything that wasn’t to be expressed in words. In Grieg, it was the inner dialogues reflecting the interaction with oneself and others: flirtatiousness and silliness joining profundity and awe, amazement and clarity encountering decisiveness and swift action, contemplation and dreaminess nourished by longing and ambiguity.
19th century Samurai dress, metal/paper string
Late one evening, visiting his close friend the poet Isaac Vollenbaum in Wisconsin -- while seated by the lake, looking at the moon -- Vollenbaum mentioned to Lidholm that in Japan they would build houses that had a special balcony, situated so that you could sit and watch the moon at night. Especially important would be to situate the balcony, he said, so that the moon could also be seen reflected in water, just as they now saw it reflected in the lake.
For some reason the image of moon, reflection, architecture, and landscape, created a feeling of extraordinary longing in Lidholm, almost as if a physical suction had taken place in his chest. It happened that evening by the lake, and it happened again later one afternoon, as he sat at his work table. Lidholm realized that a new awareness had entered into him, or escaped out of him, either way, something upsetting, almost violent.
On his travels, Lidholm would always make sure he had time to visit stores selling Asian artifacts. On a mild early spring day in Boston, on one of those rare days when the tulip trees are in full bloom, Lidholm came across a worn ceremonial garment of a Samurai. It was crumbled up with a pile of other clothing. The dealer asked more for it that Lidholm though reasonable, but he had to have it.
Once back in St. Louis, Lidholm hung it in his closet. It remained there for quite a long time. Lidholm was keenly aware of it being there, feeling that it was somehow his worn clothing. Not really a costume he had worn, but rather something he had been shedding, but he didn’t know where or when.
Lidholm finally decided to display it on the second floor hallway where at certain times of the year the clear moonlight would bathe the wall opposite a large window in pale, sometimes eerie, blue light.
From his studies of Shinto, Lidholm knew that it was not a religion, but rather an awareness of the unseen forces residing in Nature, an awareness channeled through ritual. But he also felt that the Japanese knew the presence of ghosts more than anybody else. The ghosts inside us, the ghosts of the dead, the ghosts leading us into the future.
Perhaps the Japanese had realized that we always reside somewhere else at the same time as we are present in our ordinary state of awareness. Perhaps they knew that we are present as ghosts in the future and as ghosts in the past, and they had discovered how to make contact.
Lidholm added the white strings at one point, to indicate the breathing spiracles connecting the released dragon fly with its empty exoskeleton, referencing the kind of exoskeletons he had seen and collected at his poet friend’s lake in Wisconsin.
Trophy for America
Metal trophy, crazy quilt fragments
Lidholm treasured being an immigrant, but at the same time felt it was a state of mind that transcended any specific place, history, nationality and geography. He felt he had immigrated into the spiritual realm of the magnificent construct of the American Dream.
After he arrived, Lidholm intentionally searched out the dream as it was originally conceived from European roots, and then set free in America. He began to realize that the dream had to be dreamt again and again. In this he felt he paralleled -- living in America -- how the dream was repeatedly dreamt, generation after generation, by people in Italy, Ireland, Scandinavia, Germany, and many other countries all over the world, long after it became the physical manifestation of the United States of America.
Lidholm believed that this constantly and universally renewed dream, this in many ways free-floating dream -- combined with the stories that filtered back to Europe from people who had immigrated -- was the magnetic pull that nourished wave after wave of new emigrants.
What puzzled Lidholm, though, was how so many of the deeper national cultural traditions would disappear as soon as a group settled into their new American landscape, a landscape often chosen for its resemblance to the landscape that the immigrants had left behind. The new weather might resemble the weather of the homeland, but the cultural awareness, its ongoing memory, was often severed immediately, and perhaps inevitably.
Lidholm was therefore delighted to find that certain new traditions were established, sometimes as if out of nowhere, especially within music, which carries its own inner landscape, its own inner language. He found the same within certain craft traditions, traditions that also rely on specific, yet universal, approaches to materials, color and design.
Among these renewed, or new, traditions was the creation in the late 19th century of crazy quilts. Lidholm felt that this more or less instant tradition was truly American in conception. He knew that it in practical terms was based on the availability of sewing machines, but saw its genesis as symbolic of the shattering of the diversity of cultures which had arrived at different times in America, now all reassembled and celebrated.
Many kinds of fabric, really any kind of fabric, from silk to coarse linen, could find its place within the overall design, a design which lacked any pattern beyond inclusiveness, beyond repeated irregular, even incongruous, shapes. And the shapes were then often further integrated into the overall design by stitched and embroidered borders. These quilts were festive and celebratory, but without imagery.
During talks with an importer of Japanese objects and art, Lidholm was delighted to find out that the Japanese sensibility of cracked, glazed surfaces in pottery was believed to be a direct inspiration for crazy quilts. During the first US World’s Fair in Philadelphia, in 1876, the Japanese displays had attracted widespread attention, and had since manifested itself in unique ways, in art as well as literature.
Since crazy quilts are made out of so many different kinds of fabric, they deteriorate rather easily, and Lidholm found they were often discarded once torn. Out of a quilt his mother-in-law had decided to get rid of -- and he knew his wife had slept under as a child -- he cut out sections and glued them onto a decorative, trophy-shaped vase.
Lidholm often thought about how his mother had told him as a child that “we only have the entertainment or fun we create ourselves.” He was amused by the transformed trophy, which he felt was a direct homage to the American Dream.
Ruisdael’s Dead Tree
Engraving, wood frame, three wood tables, three branches
Lidholm was fascinated by objects that had age, that somehow were carriers of not only the time they were created, but of the history of the people and places where they had been. Lidholm was aware that it was a kind of nostalgia, but felt that he needed it, that it nurtured him in ways that were related to allegories, or the way Jesus had used parables.
Books held a special fascination, and through roaming in the world of old books, the world of prints also opened up. An early, significant, acquisition while he was an apprentice in Minneapolis, was a print of a painting by the Dutch artist Jacob Ruisdael.
Lidholm realized that in Ruisdael’s paintings, complex philosophical statements were presented that did not necessarily reveal themselves right away, if ever. Death and the unknowable was often presented through the central form of a dead and depleted tree, a tree broken by a severe storm, or possibly after being hit by lightning. Lidholm was puzzled that most people looking at Ruisdael’s work seemed to disregard, or look beyond, the central motif of the dead tree, somehow not seeing it.
Having framed the print, and after looking at it for years, Lidholm decided one day to collect sections of dead trees that in a smaller version had the same presence as the tree in Ruisdael’s work.
Lidholm had been able to acquire three small tables that he felt had a kind of formal presence related to Chinese or Japanese pedestals used for scholar stones, or especially esteemed pieces of ceramics. He immediately realized that he needed to present three wood sections, thereby paralleling Ruisdael and other Flemish 17th century painters’ depictions of three trees on a hilltop in the far distance, the gentle reminder of Golgotha, unseen by the weary travelers depicted in the foreground.
In the Ruisdael print, the dead tree acquires its presence in juxtaposition with the lush growth that surrounds it, the quiet water that flows below it, and the house that stand diagonally behind. By placing the trunks on tables, Lidholm felt he honored their broken lives, and gave them the attention they needed, rescued as they were in the face of a slow deterioration in the forest.
Within his reverence of trees and wood, Lidholm saw an unfolding of unexplored realms of thought and sound. The cosmos sounded notes, reverberations that echoed a presence the human ear or mind wasn’t always privy to.
And the dead trees were demonic, calling forth human fear. The variety of forms these trees somehow gesticulated, were uncomfortably close to the forms that would terrorize a young child lying in bed at night, unable to sleep, watching light or objects in the dark transformed into menacing presences that there was no means of combatting beyond remaining as still as possible, heart pounding, in order not to be discovered.
Old glass bottles, Japanese glass negatives
Lidholm had a fascination with old glass bottles that over the years had been etched on the inside by whatever once had been inside. It was hard to know what had caused the erosion, perhaps some salesman’s snake oil, but more likely some kind of acid-rich liquid.
Whichever way it had happened, Lidholm saw the bottles as if filled with dusk or moon light. Wherever he would come across these bottles, he would pick them up, and he especially appreciated if the cork was still in place, as if a special atmosphere or light had been captured inside.
A dealer in Asian antiques in Chicago had a large selection of 19th century photographic glass plate negatives from Japan. Whenever Lidholm visited, he would select a few and bring them home. A good friend who was an amateur photographer, told Lidholm he could make paper prints for him so that he could see what had been captured on the plates, but Lidholm wanted to avoid that, and instead carefully studied the negatives with a magnifying glass.
The reversal of light and dark was mesmerizing. It was as if the ghostly presence of the landscapes, buildings and people was somehow more real. They were messages from the past. These places, these people, were most likely gone by now. A young man in a doorway might now be an old man, a young girl seen writing, might now be a grandmother -- or perhaps she never married. And what had their thoughts been?
Lidholm had individual glass negatives lean against individual glass bottles, and placed them as pairs in the windows in his shop and at home. At certain times of the day, and at certain times of the year, when he would happen to look up, the light would make individual plates and their image come alive, as if projected from a strange, foreign land.
At those times, Lidholm would quietly move over and sit in front of the glass plate and let his mind wander into its space. Lidholm would feel transported into a faraway realm of awe and beauty. The sensation would be not unlike what he often experienced at night, just as he was falling asleep. It was the sensation of recognition, the sensation of, “I have been in this dream before.” It could even be a dream from long ago, a dream he dreamt as a teenager, a dream leading into places he had only traveled in at night.
He would become overwhelmed by excitement, almost ecstasy, but it was at the same time emotions mixed with sadness and a sense of loss.
Grains of Sand
Stones, wood table
While spending time on one of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin, Lidholm came across a newly built house that had walkways surfaced with small, partially crushed stones. He was immediately attracted by the beauty of the stones, and once he looked closer, realized that there was quite a variety, and that they could not just be stones from local sources.
Feeling rather awkward -- being on somebody else’s property -- Lidholm got down on his knees and began to select a small group from what he saw as a large museum collection of examples of geological specimens. Every stone was begging to be picked up, to be examined, to be appreciated.
Back in St. Louis, Lidholm arrange a selection of the stones on a small table. He was tempted to begin to analyze and research each stone, to find their origin, their history, and perhaps an explanation of the mystery of them all being present on the island. But he decided not to.
Looking at the stones, picking one up, and then another, always seemed to bring Lidholm into a state of gratitude, but he was also troubled. He felt as if he was infinitely small and roaming on a beach among large sand particles. He then saw the stones as loosing their individual presence, slowly turning to dust.
Lidholm had always wondered why sand collected itself at a beach. How and why had it been ground up, and why didn’t it dissipate. Even with the often ferocious pounding by the waves, it seemed to always remain in place.
Lidholm was fascinated by time, the role of time, the nature of time. Nature seemed to have a multitude of time-frames, running not only parallel to each other, but cyclically. Things would develop and change, but most often it appeared that it was all a question of a repeat. Individual souls, individual beings, individual presences, even if just the conscience and individuality of a bird, would be allowed to participate for a short time, being awake, having a predestined lifespan, and then would perish.
And a bird was truly a marvel of being, transcending matter and enter flight in ways we never would be able to as humans. Stones seemed to be alive too, sensing and remembering in their own way, with their presence as organized and layered as any human’s presence.
In his contemplations on the unfathomable timeframes of Nature, and on how Nature animated itself -- on how it gave its own matter eyes, memory, and a mind -- he sometimes thought about his friend, the poet Isaac Vollenbaum’s comment, that when Nature’s God feels the human experiment has failed, he will transform it into an ant colony, or some similar insect society. Humankind will then have been discarded, forever frozen in a hieratical structure, and doomed to eternal slavery.
Pine needles, glass jar
Lidholm often felt he would dissolve within the borders of ordinary reality, though it might be more correct to say that reality became so alive, so vivid, that he wasn’t sure which role, or which position, his sense of reality played in it.
As a child, one of his greatest pleasures was to venture into a section of a pine forest that you could enter after passing through a meadow. The pine forest itself was situated on a slight hill, surrounded by cultivated fields on two sides, an overgrown, shallow lake on the third, and the bowl-like meadow which was the entrance to this, in the summer, always cool and fragrant place.
The ground was covered with pine needles, and the space between the ground and the branches above Lidholm’s head was as if filled with the clarity of an invisible sound - sound yet to be expressed or performed. It was a space that gave immediate room for thoughts and awareness.
Lidholm would often feel that it was as if all the pine trees were communicating with each other. He didn’t know why or how, only that there was a sense of awareness and a sensing that wasn’t his, but one that he could enter and participate in.
The trees gave room for enchanting glimpses of the sky, but Lidholm felt most directly that all the roots were connected within the ground beneath -- every tree touching every other tree below his feet, under the pine blanket.
He would sit down, he would stretch out, and he would fall in and out of sleep.
Lidholm had been within a melancholy sadness since he was born. His mother would sometimes tease him when he for hours would be quietly looking out the window: “Are you listening to the world,” his mother would sometimes say, or, “are you daydreaming?” He wasn’t sure what she meant, since he had no explanation himself for the states of mind -- the traveling in moods and longings -- he so easily slipped into.
In the pine forest his daydreaming would be released and given light in ways he didn’t understand and hadn’t experienced before. Somehow, looking back, it was related to music, which he tended to see in colors, but subtle colors within a white light.
Most of all, time would stand still, and a range of ecstatic feeling would overwhelm him; make him feel that he left his body on the ground while he expanded into the perimeters of the pine forest, and even beyond.
When building his violins, Lidholm knew he drew on the different kinds of awareness he had acquired in his youth. He wasn’t sure how it worked. Somehow his hands, especially the palms of his hands, and the tip of his fingers, would be the connection to this awareness of a space waiting for sound, the manifestation of this expansive space filled with sensing.
The inside of the violin, its inner secret chamber, would be what called to be released and activated.
One of Lidholm’s treasured images was a framed photograph of Mount Fuji.
Lidholm was captivated by it, but also troubled. He would have loved to have had it be sharper and more detailed, but he knew that the diffused image added to its unearthly feel. He also wished that it had not been hand colored, but realized that it gave the photograph a painterly quality, and a more dream-like feel.
And for Lidholm, reality was always layered.
It was a strange paradox for him that we somehow cannot question our fundamental sense of reality. We might instinctively feel more or less engaged at a specific moment, but what we see and feel and are thinking, always has to be taken for granted.
Yet we have the possibility of engaging more directly in what is presented to us. That act, or rather those acts -- since there are always many possibilities at any moment -- will often open up for rather extraordinary glimpses of a fuller or richer reality, but for Lidholm, they would rarely challenge the illusion of a continuous reality. They were always layers of additional reality, found both inside and outside our senses and our mind.
When ordinary reality was suddenly, and unexpected, challenged it often gave Lidholm a sense of “I have been here before.” And it could happen when he experienced a place he knew for sure he had never been to before, and it would happen when he looked closely at this photograph from Japan.
Again a paradox. The most profound longing inside of him was for Japan, and at the same time he was aware he already knew what he longed for, and that the sensibility so prevailing in Japan somehow was his sensibility, as if he had been born with it inside him, yet out of reach.
At the time he acquired the Japanese photograph, he had also been reading “Colloquies With An Unseen Friend,” by Lady Walburga Ehrengarde Helena von Lohenthal Paget, which his friend, the poet Isac Vollenbaum had lent him.
There were so many things he loved about the book, not least that the author was a women, and that she had this amazing long string of names.
He also loved the set-up of the book, which purports to be based on messages from three different “actors” she was communing with -- a man and two women – “actors” who had “confided” these “parables of wisdom” to her.
Vollenbaum and Lidholm had quite a few discussions about the book, especially about its authenticity, but both felt that stories of cities buried under the Mongolian desert, and stories of lost civilizations such as Atlantis, were fundamental to our abilities to imagine. They agreed that we can laugh at them, but that it would be to our own detriment.