In Spring 14-15 (2005-2006), Jonathan Senchyne published “Revisiting E. E. Cummings’ Paintings at Brockport,” a preliminary report on the sad state of preservation of these Cummings paintings. And even though, as Milton Cohen noted, Brockport houses the “largest and most valuable single collection of Cummings’ paintings,” Senchyne found that the collection was stored in
a nondescript room in a cement block hallway that could easily be confused for a janitor’s closet from outside. Inside, the room is just large enough for a few tables, a vertical shelf full of oils and large paintings leaning on one another. The room is neither protected from harmful light, nor climate-controlled, a problem for preservationists.“Revisiting E. E. Cummings’ Paintings” 233
The collection includes some of Cummings’ most notable paintings, including Sky over Paris (c. 1933) and Flowers and Hat: Patchin Place (c. 1950), as well as the abstract paintings, Noise Number 1 (1919) and Sound Number 5 (1920). (Brockport offers two different titles for Sky over Paris and Sound Number 5. I follow the titles given in Cohen, PoetandPainter, pages 56 and 104-05.)
When Senchyne wrote this article in 2004 and 2005, the paintings and drawings were sadly neglected. However, even as I was preparing Spring 14-15 for print, I received an e-mail from Frank Short, Dean of the School of Arts & Performance at SUNY Brockport, that detailed his project to restore the collection of 72 paintings and drawings. As Short put it in his e-mail, “Essentially we are asking patrons to ‘adopt’ Cummings by financing the restoration of a piece of their choosing” (269). This e-mail is reproduced at the beginning of the News, Notes, & Correspondence section in Spring 14-15.
On October 12, 2007, two days before Cummings’ birthday, a reception was held at SUNY Brockport’s MetroCenter to launch the restoration project. In the Wall Street Journal, Judith Dobrzynski noted that “a few enterprising Brockporters are hoping that arts-lovers will beat a path to their door this month to help them restore the works of the painter E. E. Cummings, which are torn, dusty, stained and otherwise in pitiful condition” (D8). In his letter, Dean Short alerted potential donors to a now-defunct web site, “Restoring the Art Works of E. E. Cummings,” where potential patrons could view “images of the works, descriptions of necessary restorations, and estimated costs for the restoration of each piece” (269). And in March 2008, reporter Brenda Tremblay’s piece, “College Restores Artwork by Poet E. E. Cummings,” aired on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday.
Sometime between then and now, SUNY Brockport launched a page that that described and reproduced photos of all the artworks in the “Cummings Collection.” This blog post began when I was searching for a page that featured all of the Cummings Collection at Brockport and instead happened upon Meghan Finnerty’s article in Brockport Today, “E. E. Cummings Art Collection Restoration Completed.” Finnerty relates how in 1978, “James Sibley Watson, Jr., a Rochester native” and life-long friend of Cummings donated the collection in memory of his wife Hildegarde.
These days, Finnerty reports, the artworks are stored “in an unmarked room in the basement of Tower Fine Arts Center . . . in a temperature-controlled room designed to protect the work.” Of the quality of Cummings’ work, Brockport gallery director Tim Massey says “All along we’ve recognized these works as historical documents maybe more so than artistic artifacts. Cummings made the right career choice.” Cummings would beg to differ: as Milton Cohen notes, “he considered—and called—himself a ‘poet & painter’ from the outset of his career.” Cohen quotes Cummings’ catalogue statement from a 1954 exhibition: “For more than a half a hundred years, the oversigned’s twin obsessions have been painting and writing” (Cohen, PoetandPainter 14).
Cohen, Milton A. “E. E. Cummings’ Sleight-of-Hand: Perceptual Ambiguity in His Early Poetry, Painting, and Career.” University of Hartford Studies in Literature 15.1 (1983): 33-46.
—. PoetandPainter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings’s Early Work. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1987.
—. “E. E. Cummings: Modernist Painter and Poet.” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 4.2 (Spring 1990): 54-74.
—. “The Dial’s ‘White-Haired Boy’: E. E. Cummings as Dial Artist, Poet, and Essayist.” Spring 1 (1992): 8-27.
—. “Disparate Twins: Spontaneity in E. E. Cummings’ Poetry and Painting.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 4 (1995): 83-94.
Dobrzynski, Judith H. “Restoration Job: E. E. Cummings and His Works in Paint.” The Wall Street Journal Eastern Edition (11 Oct. 2007). D8. https://judithdobrzynski.com/2993/restoration-job-ee-cummings-and-his-works-in-paint
Finnerty, Meghan. “E. E. Cummings Art Collection Restoration Completed. The story of how the renowned poet’s artwork made its way to SUNY Brockport’s Liberal Arts Building.” Brockport Today (1 Nov. 2021). Web. https://today.brockport.edu/live/news/1716-ee-cummings-art-collection-restoration-completed
“Restoring the Hildegarde Lasell Watson Collection of Artworks by E.E. Cummings.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (2006): 269-270. [Features a 2007 letter from Frank Short, Dean of the School of Arts & Performance at SUNY Brockport, on beginning the restoration project.] https://www.jstor.org/stable/43915283
Senchyne, Jonathan William. “Revisiting E. E. Cummings’ Paintings at Brockport.” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 14-15 (2006): 233-246. Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/43915280
Tremblay, Brenda. “College Restores Artwork by Poet E. E. Cummings.” National Public Radio (2 March 2008). Web. https://www.npr.org/2008/03/02/76095288/college-restores-artwork-by-poet-e-e-cummings