Written by Rachel Kirkpatrick
Sunday, 11 October 2009
Self-described “Twainiacs,” portrait artist Susan Durkee, Mark Twain Library Director Heather Morgan and Redding historian Brent Colley, look over limited edition prints of works Ms. Durkee created to help raise funds for the library and to promote a project connecting Twain history to towns across the state.—Rachel Kirkpatrick photo
Redding historian Brent Colley loves to imagine the town’s landscape after Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, built his Stormfield estate atop the hillside off Diamond Hill Road.
“I can see myself just sitting there and mulling in awe at seeing this glowing thing,” he said, looking up through the trees where residents may have gazed upon the mansion.
With the help of fellow “Twainiacs,” portrait artist Susan Durkee and Markv Twain Library Director Heather Morgan, Mr. Colley has been conducting Twain Tours, offering historians and enthusiasts insight into the last two years of Twain’s life, which were spent in Redding. These are years that are still shrouded in mystery for those on the outside, he said.
The year 2008 marked the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain’s arrival to Redding, and the founding of the Mark Twain Library, but 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of his death. It’s an opportunity, Mr. Colley said, to continue to recognize his life and promote Redding’s treasured Twain history.
The three Twainiacs are teaming up to place free exhibits next year in every public library or public place in the state that has Twain significance in an effort they call the Mark Twain Centennial Project. The project is being undertaken in partnership with the Mark Twain Library.
Twain called a number of places home over the course of his lifetime, Mr. Colley said in a news release. However, his years in Connecticut came during very significant periods in his life. These exhibits will include artwork, photos and informational brochures about Twain’s life, work and friends in Connecticut.
“We’re trying to build a foundation and connect more towns to his life,” Mr. Colley said. “This whole effort can just grow and grow and grow, and the possibilities are endless.”
To help fund this project, Ms. Durkee is selling limited edition prints, including portraits of Twain, a centennial calendar and illustrated pictorial reference guide. Twenty percent of the proceeds, which are tax deductible, will go toward the project.
The Twain Tours always end at a very special place — Ms. Durkee’s own home and studio, The Lobster Pot, part of the former Stormfield estate, and where Isabel Lyon, Twain’s social secretary, household manager and social companion lived. Ms. Lyon “played a critical role during his last years,” Ms. Durkee said.
“He was such a complicated man, with so many dimensions,” Ms. Durkee said. “Being a portrait artist, I felt strongly that people should be proud in Redding of the library, and I had this idea to create these centennial prints.”
“Part of this is to recognize what an important person he was for American history and culture,” she said. “He affected so many people and so many people devote their lives to him. He’s undefined, he just keeps going and going.”
Mr. Colley, creator of the Web site historyofredding.com, has been promoting the effort through a blog (twainproject.blogspot.com) he created to collect and share information about Twain and about the project.
The next step, he said, is to digitize the items in the Twain archive room at the library, so that people all over the world may access the library’s records.
“The more I learned about Mark Twain, the more I realized there is really not a consensus of what happened here, so I feel like this would be an opportunity to add to the history, and give people the capability to learn more about the last two years through the collections the library has in its archives,” Mr. Colley said.
“It’s really what sparked my interest in Twain,” he added. “The more you learn, the more you want to know.”
Twain’s connection here, Ms. Morgan said, “has always been Redding’s best kept secret — but I don’t think that’s right.”
“This has become a busy library,” Ms. Morgan said. “First and foremost I am library director, but when you’ve got such a treasure trove under your care, you spend a lot more time than you realize. It’s so remarkable, and enjoyable, looking after it.”
She gets a lot more requests by e-mail from researchers who want to know something about Twain’s life in Redding, which has always remained a mystery to some.
“We get a lot of visitors, people who live in Redding are now bringing their friends and relatives to visit,” she said.
Next month, the library is celebrating the anniversary of Clara’s wedding. Clara was Twain’s middle daughter. In 2010, the library will honor Twain because it is the year he died. The library, she said, is working with Hartford Public Library and the Mark Twain house on programs for that.
“I’ve been delighted I’ve made so many friends in the Twain world and they’re all helping me discover things and discover more things,” she said.
Fewer than 300 of the 3,000 original collection of books are now left since the library was founded. Over the years, many of the books were circulated, and in the 1950s, the library sold a great number of the books to raise funds. Ms. Morgan is still actively trying to find them.
Ms. Morgan said she always liked his books, but the connection to Twain grew stronger when she began working part time at the library.
“I loved working there and then I realized I had a whole lot of Mark Twain stuff to deal with,” she said. “You learn by being surrounded with his works and things that belonged to him. You find you become inquisitive and follow through on things. I learned more about the man and got totally hooked, and meeting all these Twainiacs helped, too.”
Mr. Colley said the goal is to feature these free exhibits in at least 200 locations across the state. There are already so many Twain connections in Connecticut, including Ridgefield’s Cass Gilbert, who owned the historic Keeler Tavern and who often visited Twain at Stormfield. Another connection is through Easton, because Helen Keller often visited Twain at Stormfield. Another is Hartford where the Mark Twain House Museum is.
The key now is to fund-raise and secure sponsors for the effort, Mr. Colley said. He is now working to establish the anniversary of Twain’s death, April 21, 2010, as an official Mark Twain Day in Connecticut.
“We want people to know about Twain’s time in Redding, because it is so huge,” Ms. Durkee said.
Last May, Ms. Durkee held a special centennial “sendoff” celebration at her home on Mark Twain Lane. When she moved into the home she began researching its history and learned more about Isabel Lyon and her somewhat controversial relationship with Twain, the subject of which is featured in a documentary prepared by History Film Inc. and produced by Richard Altomonte.
Called “Dangerous Intimacy,” the documentary is based on the book, Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain’s Final Years, by Karen Lystra, a professor of American studies at California State University at Fullerton.
When Twain’s daughter Clara died, Isabel’s diary was opened to the public and a lot of writings and information about her time at Stormfield began to come out.
“Isabel kept a meticulous diary of everything she did at Stormfield,” Ms. Durkee said. “The diary brought to light a lot of information people didn’t know about.”
“So many people want to share in this information and participate,” she said. “No one wants to keep any of it exclusively.”
Tax-deductible donations may be made toward this effort.
Checks may be sent to:
The Mark Twain Library, Mark Twain Centennial Project
P.O. Box 1009, Redding CT 06875.
Mr. Colley may be reached at email@example.com To view the collection of prints for sale, visit thelobsterpotstudio.com/the-mark-twain-gallery.htm.
Twain Connections project seeks residents with a link to popular author Mark Twain
By Melissa Bruen
Updated: 10/29/2009 05:44:45 PM EDT
A desire to learn more about Samuel L. Clemens (more popularly known by his pen name, Mark Twain) has propelled a local historian to create a statewide project that celebrates this popular author.
Twainiacs -- fans of Mark Twain -- couldn't be happier.
The project, called Twain Connections, is just that. It involves finding connections Twain made here during his remarkable life as a writer, humorist and philosopher. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of his passing, and since Twain once lived in Connecticut -- in Hartford and Redding -- there are many connections to be made.
"I had a late start realizing the history of Redding, so I'm trying to promote it and get the kids more excited about it," said historian Brent Colley, whose family came to Redding five generations ago.
Two years ago, in search of images to compile in a calendar, Colley found himself elbows deep in information about Twain at Redding's public library.
"I thought, 'Wow, we need to go a lot further with this,' " Colley said.
When he began his research, he made instant friends in Redding.
"We call ourselves the Twainiacs -- Twain plus maniac," Colley said of Heather Morgan, the director of the library, and Susan Durkee, an artist who lives on the Redding property once owned by Twain, which he named the Lobster Pot.
Twain died April 21, 1910, at Stormfield, his home in Redding.
Between Morgan, Durkee and Colley's mutual love and respect for Twain, and the encouragement Colley received through the Mark Twain Forum at www.twainweb.net, Colley was off and running.
Since then, he's been researching Twain's connections across the state in an attempt to create a yearlong centennial celebration. In the course of his research, he's met many interesting people with important stories to tell.
"I spoke to a woman up in Windsor, who is 84," Colley said. "Her great-great-grandfather is one of the main reasons Twain came to Connecticut; he was a publisher."
Colley's hope is that each town will display a Twain Connections exhibit and brochure map of all the places connected to his time in Connecticut. Each exhibit would include a limited edition print of Twain by Durkee, information about Twain, plus details about that town's local resident who had a connection with Twain.
In addition to the exhibits, Colley pushed for and got a statewide Mark Twain Day proclamation for April 21, 2010.
It's a large undertaking, but Colley said it's worth it.
"We (the Twainiacs) have a great time with it because doing something you love you never feel like you are really working," he said.
Already Colley has communicated with Twain fans across the country, many of whom have expressed an interest in visiting the area -- another reason he believes the project can successfully stimulate interest in Redding.
"We could drive tourism to Connecticut if we connect him to enough towns," Colley said, adding funding is needed to make copies of materials so the towns can have displays.
"I'm hoping that in each town businesses will come forward to sponsor (the exhibits), allowing them to be free to the public," he said, adding that if people sponsor this their name will be all over Connecticut on the actual anniversary as well.
"In the future," he said, "we hope to digitize the Mark Twain archive that is in the Redding library, which is extensive, and then share it all online."
Contact Melissa Bruen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-731-3350.
Tuesday, October 13
Written by Rachel Kirkpatrick
Posted by Brent M. Colley at 7:13 AM