I was born and spent my early childhood in Omaha, Nebraska, where our family lived and my parents worked as set designers (at the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre and Firehouse Dinner Theatre, among others), built stunning furniture, and created and printed intricate engravings and etchings, doing more art fairs in one year than any two human beings should even attempt. It was an art-filled house, to say the least.
One of the sweetest parts of the life my parents have led so far, and definitely the part that has had the most influence on me, has always been the people we’ve met along the way. The thing is, art is essentially contagious and magnetic; the more time you spend with someone who is creating something brilliant, the more time you want to spend with them, and the more inspired you become by their inner energy and drive to create.
One of the stand-outs (among many I hope to share with you) is Harry Duncan, because of the particular influence I know his work has had on my own taste and direction, particularly in these recent months when I have been working so hard to build a working life around books, printing and design.
It’s possibly odd that Harry Duncan is the one I’m writing about here, since it was his wife, Nancy Duncan, an incredible storyteller and performer, who our family really knew better, and longer. However, it’s Harry’s physical work that has been around my parents’ house for as long as I can remember.
Like me, Harry attended Grinnell College, and then he went on to become a master printer in Massachusetts, Iowa, and later Nebraska, primarily printing limited fine poetry editions under his Cummington Press and Abattoir Editions imprints.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, after our family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, my mom went back to Omaha a few times to work with Harry. She created frontispieces for several of his books, including Louise Bogan’s A Final Antidote, Ralph Bobb’s A Voyage to Cythera, and Jane Greer’s Bathsheba on the Third Day. Copies of these beautifully printed and simply, elegantly bound books have been on my parents’ shelves for years now, and I have looked through them more times than I can count, and thought of them more often in the last few months than ever.
Besides publishing the work of renowned authors, including William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Tennessee Williams, Harry’s books were (and are) nothing short of elegant. There is a simplicity and sensitivity in his books, with regard to typographical choices, placement and presentation that creates a beautiful physical structure and design that effectively houses and reinforces the content within.
There is some great information about Harry Duncan and his work available on the University of Nebraska website, both about Harry himself, and about much of the work he published, as well as his obituary that ran in the New York Times on April 23, 1997.
I’m not there yet – by any stretch of the imagination – but it’s because of people who come before us, who work through the days doing what they love, that we’re all able to find the focus and the light we need and move forward with purpose. Another week is ahead of us, with unknown challenges and joys, so a beautiful poem by another Iowan, to get us on our way:
Poem to Be Read at 3 a.m.
by Donald Justice
Excepting the diner
On the outskirts
The town of Ladora
At 3 a.m.
Was dark but
For my headlights
And up in
One second-story room
A single light
Was sick or
As I drove past
Is for whoever
Had the light on