This artifact is an inheritance from my father’s sister, but really a memento of an unknown kinswoman and a link to a place I have never been.
I found this drawing among my Aunt Erna’s papers after she died in 1976. It appears at some time to have been in a frame, but no longer was when I found it. The picture is on paper, about 7X10 inches, mounted on A4 card stock and bears, in red ink, the artist’s name, Helfer Emilia (family name first, following Hungarian custom), with the date 1913. On the reverse side of the backing card I found faint, nearly illegible pencil marks that appear to say “Fach 2 No 519”.
The artist was probably a daughter of my grandfather’s brother Stefan (or István). Stefan was a shoemaker in Temesvár (now Timișoara), but I know very little more about him, or his immediate family, or any other kin in Timișoara. My grandfather probably received the picture as a gift either from Stefan or from Emilia, and Erna would have inherited it among other papers and pictures when her father died in 1957. I do not remember ever seeing it before finding it among Erna’s papers.
I am posting this picture not because of the family connection, but because I find the artist’s technique fascinating. The image was produced not by drawing lines but by softly rubbing a pencil against the paper, allowing the paper itself to shave tiny amounts of graphite, which then fell into the paper’s texture, filling the tiny depressions in the paper much the same way snow fills depressions in the lawn. The darker areas of the picture were created not by pressing the pencil more firmly against the paper, but by many repetitions of the same soft stroking, allowing the density of graphite to build until the paper was thoroughly filled. This soft stroking was repeated, and repeated, until the level of graphite on the paper built up to reveal the image through a rich, slightly oily black. One can see in the photograph to the left how the denser graphite accumulations reflect the light, making the image nearly disappear, and distort the paper itself.
I am very aware of how hard this technique is, how much patience and discipline it requires. In the spring and part of the summer, Lisa and I took a class in botanical drawing at West Virginia University’s College of Creative Arts. Our instructor, Ann Payne, uses a drawing technique very much like that used by Emilia. I keep looking at this young woman, reading her book, and wonder at this accomplishment.