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CARPE LIBRUM: Rebecca and Joel Finsel finish long-awaited project, ‘Franz Kline in Coal Country’

Mother’s Day is approaching, and “Franz Kline in Coal Country” is a great gift for an art lover. It’s also a good gift to celebrate the bond between mother and son.

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and maybe an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Franz Kline in Coal CountryFranz Kline in Coal Country
Rebecca and Joel Finsel
Arcadia Publishing, 2019, 224 pages
Where two writers are gathered together, inherently, the question turns to, “What are you working on?”

For almost a decade, when I have run into Joel Finsel and engaged in that age-old conversation, he would gush about the thing that had ignited his imagination most recently. Then he added, “I’m still working on that book with my mom.” Periodically it would progress (“We found a publisher!”) Last month it hit a new milestone: Joel Finsel has a new book out.

“Franz Kline in Coal Country” is an exploration of the life of the abstract-expressionist painter. It is a project Rebecca Finsel, Joel’s mother and collaborator, began over three decades ago. “Labor of love” does not begin to express the depth of what has gone into the book. But it was worth waiting for.

Franz Kline (1910-1962) was an American painter, part of the “New York School,”  and colleague of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. He began life in a small town in Pennsylvania—Lehighton, PA, to be exact, a place he described as a “little Dutch settlement, wrapped up in a cloud of coal dirt.” It not only shaped his world but also happens to contain the family homestead of Rebecca and Joel.

From the book’s beginning, it blends reproductions of Kline’s work (especially early pieces), the narrative of his life, discussion of the research process of the book and the world of Lehighton. I honestly don’t know which is more gripping: Kline’s crazy life, or the process of trying to unravel it and make sense from it. He is born to wealth and privilege, his father commits suicide and his mother sends him to an all-boys orphanage/school that she almost immediately starts battling to get him released from. Then she makes a marriage of convenience to a man she barely knows, and he comes home to live with them as the “Big Man on Campus”: star athlete, cool kid and maybe even having an affair with his theatre teacher. That’s just up to age 19.

From the beginning of the book, Rebecca addresses an issue that plagues all biographers: What is the true story of a human life? Part of what she faced researching the book was a struggle to separate fact from romance. How did memories cloud or change over the years? What agenda did each interview subject have and why? Among the many offerings in the pages of the book are reproductions of early cartoons Kline drew for his friends’ autograph books in school. (It feels like the hunt for Minnie Evans’ early work: Who would still have pictures in their attic or in a drawer?) Years and years of asking and following leads and interviewing led to the public finally seeing Kline’s very early work. He has such a witty sense of humor and already an ability to convey movement.

I admit, much that I enjoy visual art and have spent a lot of my adult life in museums, I have to take on the abstract-expressionists on a case-by-case basis. Some I really resonate with, others’ work eludes me completely. Somehow I missed Kline altogether. But the Finsels’ book makes his work approachable, and creates a beautiful context for the parallels with his orthodox work from his early training in drafting and illustrating. It creates a context for his work with experiences and influences that flow together, almost like cells of an animation film with Finsels’ narration as the script.

I seriously could not put the book down from the onset.We have such a stuffy and rigid idea of the mores and behaviors of bygone eras. In this family, at least one teenage pregnancy was absorbed into family life (Janny—several of Franz’s sketches of her are included in the book), and Franz himself seems to have been quite the ladies’ man. In so many ways, it is a portrait of a family coping with what was put before them, and that possibly is the best metaphor for Kline’s work.

The Finsels make Kline’s life accessible without making him a hero. They seem to revel in his humanness, his essential ability to captivate those around him and his inability to manage his own life—and how all those pieces distilled down to a vast, varied and breathtaking body of work. It is as much a portrait of one painter finding himself as it is a community coming to terms with their famous and difficult native son.

Mother’s Day is approaching, and this is a great gift for an art lover. It’s also a good gift to celebrate the bond between mother and son.

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