Summer of 2006 we were living in Portland, Maine and I was fully immersed in a major work, “Anna Isaak: Subterranean Aspirations.”
The installation was to be a fictional historical narrative told by found and constructed objects revealed in a ‘discovered’ hidden room in the vacant basement of the old Calderwood Bakery building.
This work, shown at The Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in Portland, Maine, and The Coleman-Burke Gallery in Brunswick, Maine, respectively, purports to tell the story – through found and fabricated objects – of a young adult woman from the Midwest who moves from a Kansas farm to Maine in 1942 to seek an industrial wartime job, and finds work and identity as a welder on the Liberty Ships at the yards of South Portland.
After the war’s end, she stays in Maine and with her newfound skills and confidence she attempts to build a racing car in order to return to the Midwest as person of equality, and with a new identity as a dirt track racing car owner and driver. The installation proposes that post-war American cultural realities and notions of gender roles would not permit her to realize this dream. (*See below for an additional account of Anna’s life story)
The installation proposes that post-war American cultural realities and notions of gender roles would not permit her to realize this dream
The gross mechanical object that was to be the centerpiece of my work was a hand-built late 1940’s era dirt track racing car that I was attempting to build completely of found era-correct and viable components, as if in real time, historically – as Anna would have; my fictional protagonist/mechanic/dreamer.
The chassis parts were gathered together in relatively short order, vintage frame rails, suspension and motor were surprisingly easy to find by chatting up car collectors at the city’s wooded fringes.
But the bodywork – I had my sights set on something lovely, exotic and well, beautiful.
In the late 1940s, the first hot rodders, G.I.s recently returned from the war, were turning to surplus drop-fuel tanks from aircraft for ready-made streamlined body shells, but I knew the likelihood of those being found lying about was, none.
Until the morning while driving my wife to work that an octogenarian couple in a late model Silverado pickup pulled right in front of me on their way to the downtown scrap metal dealer, and perfectly in view in the their truck bed…an intact WWII aircraft drop fuel “belly” tank.
The couple was cleaning their property in Standish in preparation for their daughter’s wedding.
Five bucks, a handshake and belief in the god of creative efforts reinstated, boom, I have my bodywork.
You just can’t make this shit up.
Who Was Anna Isaak?
(A speculation based on research of personal artifacts)
Anna Isaak, 1915(?) – 2001, lived an extraordinary life in a remarkable century. Born in Southern Russia, and of German Mennonite heritage, under the cloud of Stalin’s “Terror” she immigrated to the United States in her early 20’s. As did many of her community, she moved to the American Midwest where she was welcomed by one of the settlements of the Russian-German Mennonites who had come to America as proven and capable industrious farmers at the invitation of the U.S. Government and the Santa Fe Railroad in 1870s.
In 1942 however, with the full entry of America into the Second World War, Anna broke with her heritage and tradition and moved to Portland, Maine, where she found both work and identity as a welder at the shipyard in South Portland, building Victory and Liberty ships for the New England Shipbuilding Corporation. After the war, perhaps empowered with her earnings and a radical (albeit temporary) sense of the possibility of gender equality and individual potential, she stayed in Portland. During the immediate post-war years, in a hidden basement shop at the Calderwood Commercial Bakery, Anna Isaak endeavored to build a dirt track racing car of the type she must have seen in the Midwest prior to the outbreak of the war.
It appears that after WWII Anna Isaak had attempted – and almost succeeded – in completing the entire car in this small basement workshop. Whether Anna or another person hid the vehicle, and why it was left uncompleted is unknown, but according to the artifacts found within the room it seems to have been closed up in the late 1940s or early 1950s, and remained undisturbed until MOAD’s discovery over five decades later.