On Saturday, 10/22, my husband and I went to Allentown, PA, to take a look at an exhibit at the Baum School of Art. The show featured the work of Franz Jozef Ponstingl, an Allentown native. His work is surrealist and abstract, beautiful and thought-provoking. We took our time and found a lot to enjoy and to talk about.
Beyond the visual, I was really struck by Ponstingl’s life story, which was detailed in the exhibit catalog. Born in 1927, he was self-taught and devoted himself to his art, turning out many paintings. He was also a veteran of WWII and the Korean War, held quite a few jobs and moved around. Through it all he painted, but his work found no acceptance. At one point in his life, faced with uncertainty about his future, he donated all his paintings on hand, a substantial number, to the Salvation Army. An art dealer acquired them, sold some, kept some. Ponstingl, meanwhile, painted more. Where these went I don’t know and I don’t know if anyone knows, exactly. Eventually, discouraged by his lack of success, he moved to California and lived the rest of his life there, dying in 2004. It did not sound as if in later life he continued to paint.
This exhibit came about when a collector (unnamed in my information source) acquired the remainder of the portfolio held by the art dealer and set about raising Ponstingl’s profile, seeking out other works. This exhibit at the Baum School came about as a result of these efforts.
This story made a strong impression on me. I feel I have been and continue to be compelled to make art by some inner force. I felt a kinship with Ponstingl in that regard. Doing art is essential to my mental and spiritual health and I am under no illusions about its value to me. Priceless.
I felt it that Ponstingl went through his life not able to convince others of the value of his work, to the point of giving it to a charity shop. I have had more success with selling then he did, I think due to the subsequent growth of street and park art fairs. I haven’t been “discovered” and am unlikely to be. Unlike Ponstingl, I have been fortunate in feeling the appreciation of viewers. I have also been able to pay for my art supplies and to add a bit to my family’s income through my artwork. But –
I thought about how many artworks I have sold in the past twenty years as a street fair artist – hundreds, if not more. I have very few of my own works on hand. I have no idea where they are, in the majority of cases. The tangible evidence of my thoughts, the artwork, sold, but leaving behind them always been a feeling of incompleteness, of uncertainty.
I told my husband what I was thinking. I said Ponstingl’s story really illuminated something I’d begun to think about, now that I have so many years of artwork to look back on, the actual pieces disappeared into the world, gone from me. Do people still have them hanging? Do they still enjoy them? Do they continue to find meaning in my work? Does anyone remember me? Did anything I did make any difference? I don’t have the art in front of me to remind me, to reassure me.
I have no way of knowing, I said, and the idea makes me sad.
Well, we looked a bit more at the exhibit, and then we went to the desk to buy the exhibit catalog. We chatted with the lady checking us out.
Then, looking at me more closely, she said:
You look familiar. Do I know you? Are you an artist?
– Yes, I am. My name is Claudia McGill.
– (her face lighting up) Yes, I know you. Didn’t you do collage, some years back?
– Yes, I did, though I paint now.
– Well, I bought a collage from you, some years ago, for my daughter, a city scene, because she was living in New York.
And she went on to describe the meeting, the pleasure they still take in the picture. As she talked, I remembered the encounter myself – the mother wanting to buy a gift for the daughter, an artwork she still values.
I can’t tell you how I felt after this conversation. I felt almost dazed by it. It seemed as if the universe heard me and took quick and direct action to let me know that my artwork, no matter where it is and even if I don’t know it, has a life of its own. It does matter.
I felt immensely reassured when we left the building. I know I will be thinking about this day for some time.