If you missed Bob Van Breda’s Pencil Me In his show lives on in these words by Richard Lang and the photographs of Bob’s collections. Over the years, with the keen eyes of the avid connoisseur, Van Breda established several easy-to-identify categories of pencil-related material: from chalk to erasers, sharpeners and the thousands of iterations of advertising pencils. He began his collection in 1981 with Bakelite sharpeners and so began a fervor for all things pencil related.
Some collections have intrinsic market value—silver coins from Imperial Rome, hand-tinted illustrated books from the 19th Century. Some collections have great value for the very continuation of biodiversity—n seed-banks containing the “germ plasm” of life. In Prehistory, collecting a bit of native gold or a stone of azure lapis found in a stream elevated status, propelling one’s genes with advantageous mating.
All collections gain value by telling a story. Whether it is the data collection in a birder’s “life list” packed with the experience of “been there, seen that”—or a fossil collection telling tales from the Earth’s book of life—the deeper the story the greater the value.
A branch of semiotics traces the steps of an object as it moves from being just one more “something” into something useful then into something of great value. How does a chipped chunk of pebble picked out of the welter of stones in East Africa, identified as “the earliest tool known” end up as priceless evidence in a glass case in the museum of human development? How do the skeins of cheap auto body paint dribbled onto a 4 x 8 foot piece of fiberboard by Jackson Pollock sell for $140 million dollars?
Van Breda’s pencil collection tells the story of human imagination, invention shaped around pure utility. This exhibit is the quintessence of being human, the human at the most basic, the will to communicate.
Each of these boxes held a gross of chalk sticks—crayons as they were called in their heyday. Who can’t conjure endless pages of memory playing out on a chalkboard? Swinging cursive practiced over and over while a restless classroom of kids fidgeted.
Chalkboards, until just recently, were the classroom punishment stations. Filling the boards with repeated, “I will never . . . I will always . . . .” The nose-size circle drawn just out of reach, so you had to stand tiptoe, hands behind the back until shaking and quivering until you had achieved absolution from classroom crime. Sunnier days have prevailed, but the writing on the classroom board functions as a kind of mind screen where ideas play out.
The blackboard evolved from real slate, to painted metal, to the “green boards” of the 70’s and most recently “white boards” where markers have replaced chalk. In fact, the stuff to write on blackboards was seldom chalk rock but compressed gypsum. Who can’t remember sentences diagrammed, foreign language verbs conjugated, chemical red-ox formulae, the line of English Kings . . . .These bits of knowledge hidden in their chalk boxes until played out on the theatre of the chalk board.
Bakelite was the first widely used thermoplastic becoming common in the 1920’s. Its resistance to heat and electricity brought Bakelite forward in appliances such as radios and the ubiquitous black telephone in use for 100 years. Bakelite’s surface polish and ability to receive pigment made it the ideal material for jewelry. Here in Van Breda’s collection of Bakelite sharpeners we see plastic as it was first used before the material became a pejorative signifying cheap.
The weather is changing, days just beginning to shorten, the long summer closing. School is just around the corner. Whether it’s a hopeful moment or the dread of heightened captivity, the new kit of school supplies always gave rise to vivid feelings. The pencil box decorated with pop characters, filled with colors and tools and maybe that souvenir from a holiday trip to the Wisconsin Dells or MT Rushmore. What envy could be sparked by a deerskin quiver full of pencils flecked with new pink and blue erasers! Protractors, compass, rulers and the ever-present bottle of “LePage’s Mucilage” glue with its pink spreader top, all tucked into a box ready for school.
Each of these little gems comes from a time when everyday objects were considered precious, unlike in today’s disposable world. Look closely, and you see the blades on these metal works of art are removable for sharpening. Imagine: a non-disposable item! Carefully crafted leather cases with tiny embossed fasteners would be toted in a vest pocket or a purse.
These cultural mementos were in wide use before the advent of the plastic ballpoint pen. Portable fountain pens were for the wealthy—the common tool for communicating was the pencil. A sharp pencil was the sign of a sharp mind. Cultural and racial stereotyping was common in the age of these objects, evident across all aspects of daily life. Many of these sharpeners represent the globe. With the advent of flight and swift cross-ocean travel the rise in global consciousness saw the desire for mementos of far-away places.
In 1794 the oldest mechanical pencil was found aboard the wreck of HMS Pandora, which had crashed onto the Great Barrier Reef. The Pandora had been sent to search for the famous mutineers of HMS Bounty. These pencils of consistent diameter were found to be most useful in technical applications such as charting on maps. Recently Electric Works completed a project with Robyn O’Neil exclusively using mechanical pencils to achieve the work. She had specified .05 and .03 mm leads.
Several methods are used to get the “lead” extended, including ratchets, screws and gravity. Of course, like in wooden pencils, the “lead” is a molded graphite compound mixed with various amounts of clay to produce different levels of hardness. Mechanical pencils are advantageous as one pencil housing suffices for various hardnesses and colors.
Mechanical pencils are most popular in Japan where precision is a part of the cultural milieu. Sleek, modern design flourishes and luxury pencils are the top-level signifier of status.
It wasn’t that the color didn’t match
‘cause it wasn’t called skin.
It was called flesh though it seemed flesh
didn’t have much to do
with the color of skin.
Flesh was the stuff under the skin,
and anyway people weren’t white.
People weren’t black or red or yellow.
The skin of people was brown or coffee
or pale amber or tanned pink.
And old Binney & Smith in 1903
when the first crayon hit the scene
the box only HAD eight colors,
the usual ones, but the post-war big-box
had Flesh in it with the other 47.
Flesh was changed to Peach in 1962
and no Negro color replaced it
or yellow-man color
which reminds me of sitting
in a Pittsburgh hot dog joint.
At the next table an African-American boy
saying “Brown” and pointing to his sister,
his mamma says, “No, baby, she yellow.”
opening my eyes to the austere hierarchy
invisible to most of us with pale skin.
And Crayola dropped the Indian Red name
as a political correction in 1958
even though it was named
for a kind of iron oxide found in India.
And stuck in my brain is a swirling rainbow
of color like oil on water catching the light.
Skin of the “colored man”
my mama said was coming by
to do the lawn.
Disappointed that it was the open-hearted Major,
though I was always glad to see him,
an African-American man who
was kind to kids,
and had really been a Major in the war,
these days, mowing lawns.
He was no colored man though I kept looking
and maybe my mama was right,
if he would catch the light just so. . .
To this day my mind holds a picture
tight to itself of the real rainbow-colored man.
Finally, it was that eight year old
holding a hard tube of crayon in 1956
and saying over and over flesh, flesh.
Flesh was meat and I half expected it
to have the flow of warm blood pulsing.
And even now when I hear the word flesh,
I think of that peachy cylinder.
As in, the way of all flesh,
or sins of the flesh,
or in the flesh,
or flesh and blood,
and flesh eating bacteria,
or pressing the flesh,
and flesh and bones,
and, “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt . . .”
and that pound of flesh Shylock
hoped would be the heart of Antonio,
And, come to think of it, just
how does the dark substance of my flesh
become these colorful thoughts,
the flesh of this poem.
Richard Lang. 2011.