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20 Tillich Visits Houston

Jane Blaffer Owen Indiana University Press ePub

But history . . . is not a series of accidents; it has a special structure in each of its periods, and it has predominant trends and natural tendencies against which individual acts are of no avail. On this character of history all historical understanding and all adequate and meaningful historical action is based. Without such a structural necessity, history could not be interpreted at all, and no prophetic message would ever have been possible.

—Paul Tillich, “Storms of Our Times,” in The Protestant Era

 

With the dedication of the Roofless Church behind me and the dedication of Lipchitz’s golden gate a year ahead of me, I could resume my efforts to engage Paul Tillich in the fortunes of New Harmony. Tillich, now at Harvard, had been unable to accept my invitation to preside at the dedication of the church because of his trip to Japan.1

I owe the launching of Paul Tillich’s journey to New Harmony to my late father’s close ties with Rice University. As a trustee of Rice Institute, which became Houston’s first university, my father had befriended its president. Our family home on Sunset Boulevard was directly across from Rice. As a young child, I regarded the long, oak-shaded entrance avenue to the campus as a pathway for my doll carriage. As I grew older and bolder, it became a bridge to the biology building, for outside were chicken-wire cages filled to their ceilings with frogs destined for vivisection. None exist for public view on the campus today.

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4 Harmonist House

Jane Blaffer Owen Indiana University Press ePub

We are creatures identified by what we do with our hands.

—Frank R. Wilson, The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture

 

A Standard Oil of Indiana filling station stood across Church Street from the Lab and the Rapp-Maclure-Owen House, darkly foreshadowing the challenges of the journey on which I was embarking to reinvigorate New Harmony (11 on town map). Trucks roared noisily along Church Street, Highway 66, on their way to or from Illinois (see area map). This shining white station with its red, blue, and white torch, an ersatz imitation of the torch that ancient Greek athletes carried before their Olympic Games, bluntly proclaimed: “I am the only real thing in this town; I give gas and cold drinks to truckers all day and night, and they adore my Muzak.” There was no possibility of a full night’s sleep in the Lab.

Fantasy kept pace with my indignation: “Even with your imitation torch, you’re not the truth and reality of New Harmony but rather a servant that pretends to be more important than the geologists who once lived across the street. Were it not for their intellect and devotion to geology, you might not even be on this corner.” My anger was not directed at the attendants. The filling station itself represented, for me, Prospero’s servant Caliban, of Shakespeare’s Tempest, who stoked the fire and brought the water. All went well on the island until Prospero imprisoned Ariel (a spirit of imagination and of art), an act that elevated Caliban’s ambitions. Matters could not be righted until Caliban resumed his rightful place and Ariel could be set free and given liberty to create. I never doubted that the filling station would someday, somehow, disappear or that the aspirations of earlier generations would find contemporary expression.

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9 Enter Paul Tillich

Jane Blaffer Owen Indiana University Press ePub

I must confess that I have not learned from any theological book as much as I learned from these pictures of the great modern artists who broke through into the realm out of which symbols are born. And you cannot understand theology without understanding symbols.

—Paul Tillich, “Existentialist Aspects of Modern Art”

 

Meanwhile, work on the sculptural front progressed: Lipchitz began the enlargement of the small plaster model.1 He permitted me to watch his progress, and I loved observing the sculptor cut away at malleable clay with sure, unhesitating strokes of his scalpel. I also relished the intervals of rest, when he would speak of the artists whom he had known when he lived as a young man in the Montparnasse section of Paris.

Lipchitz brought to life for me the period of artistic creativity between the two world wars. He might just have had an absinthe with Picasso or recently have received visits from Soutine and Modigliani, two of his closest friends, both less worldly than the more successful Spaniard. Lipchitz rarely laughed, but he chuckled when he remembered Soutine’s behavior after making his first sale to the eccentric but highly perceptive art collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes of Philadelphia.

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10 Polio Epidemic

Jane Blaffer Owen Indiana University Press ePub

The greatest miracle of Lourdes is the look of resignation
on the faces of those who are not healed.

—Fulton Oursler, The Happy Grotto

 

A severe polio epidemic tore into Houston early summer of 1952, and, like a merciless hurricane, it crippled and killed.1 Each of our daughters succumbed, but our eldest daughter Janie, aged nine, was most seriously affected.2 Customarily, once school was out, we left for “up there,” as Janie and Carol, their forefingers pointing north, called New Harmony. This was the year, however, of their first private swimming pool and of relocating from our home on Shadow Lawn Street to a house that Kenneth had purchased in a then-wilderness area of Houston along Buffalo Bayou.3 Our daughters were loath to leave this unexplored wonderland and its nearness to adored cousins Joe and Lee Hudson, whose parents’ house was not far from the oyster-shell road that connected our Pinewold Lane with South Post Oak Lane.

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23 The Undying Dead

Jane Blaffer Owen Indiana University Press ePub

Where are the souls that quickened us
and brought us here—pilgrims
seeking more than an arrangement of bones?
Yet the air
does sing with their signature
Sometimes everywhere.

—Murray Bodo, OFM, “Holy Relics,” in Wounded Angels

 

Paul Tillich would not be the first intellectual of great stature to be laid to rest in New Harmony.

Thomas Say’s tomb stands under a grove of dogwood trees behind the Rapp-Maclure-Owen House (40 on town map). He was not only this country’s first published entomologist and conchologist but also an intrepid explorer and surveyor, having helped define our northwest boundary with Canada. Recent proof of his immortality was demonstrated in the March 2006 issue of Smithsonian magazine. The writer’s essay on coyotes gives credit to Say for conferring the Latin name Canis latrans (barking dog), upon that otherwise colorless animal.

Thomas Say’s pink conch shell—still in the Laboratory when the artist-architect Frederick Kiesler discovered it during his New Harmony visit in October 1962—was an impetus for the original design of the unrealized Cave of the New Being for Tillich Park, which Kiesler preferred to call the Grotto for Meditation. Philip Johnson had declared it “unbuildable” in the mid-1960s as architecture, even as he acknowledged the talent of the visionary Kiesler. Time and technology, however, would make the impossible possible through the efforts of students and faculty associated with the Grotto Project—Ben Nicholson, Joe Meppelink, and Andrew Vrana—at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, University of Houston. On January 26, 2010, a digitally fabricated interpretation, New Harmony Grotto, was unveiled. I was both astounded and thrilled, my spine tingling, as I walked through what had once been considered only fantasy. It took nearly fifty years before we caught up with Kiesler’s genius. I am pleased that the peace of New Harmony will extend into Houston, offering weary students on campus a place of spiritual renewal not far from the Blaffer Gallery, which honors my mother.

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