Saturday, December 12, 2009

Remembering Avery

By mid-December the ginkgos lining south Allen Avenue toward the Huntington Library are dropping their leaves, so many yellow potato chips settling beneath each tree. Comes the showy end of another cycle of a landscaping staple in our neighborhoods: the ginkgo, whose nascent green ushers spring, whose fan-shaped leaves quietly deepen over summer, whose gold steals in during October and November. (We'll forgive the trees' smelly autumn phase.) By Thanksgiving, I always wonder, "When will the ginkgo leaves drop this year?" It's the cold that helps them shed: they were just there, and now, dramatically, they fall away from us. I love the ginkgos. When their time is nigh, we stop momentarily to heed their arresting beauty.

You may sense where this story is leading. It's a quiet story of two friends who met and collaborated for a season. Do you know Sue Hodson, the curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library? Sue is a learned, ebullient jill-of-all-trades at the library. I benefited from her American literature expertise when she guided me during last year's BIG READ collaboration with our school. Sue's most recent project is "Central Avenue and Beyond: The Harlem Renaissance in Los Angeles." This study is part of the "Dreams Fulfilled" series, which for the last two years has examined cultural contributions of African-Americans. Close to Halloween, I visited Sue. (Sue and her staff are kind enough to collect pencils and pens for my students.) She gave me an insider's tour of the current exhibit. In her lively discourse, she connected the many letters, photos, movie posters, and other significant artifacts from the 1920s to 1950s, the period of our own western Harlem Renaissance. I couldn't imagine where this trove came from.

Sue explained that she had worked for the past year with Mr. Avery Clayton, inheritor of more than 600 boxes of cultural mementos and landmark documents. Avery's mother, Mayme Clayton, had been a college librarian for forty years, always with a collector's eye for Black history. Mrs. Clayton haunted garage sales, acquiring books, periodicals, correspondence, and art from numerous sources, sensing that she was constructing an important collection. Upon Mrs. Clayton's death, Avery decided to keep that collection intact and seek a means of cataloging and utilizing the items for public appreciation. Avery had been an art teacher and artist. He was able to secure an old courthouse in Culver City that will become museum to the Clayton collection. Sue marveled at Avery's resourcefulness and his ability to draw a dedicated cadre of volunteers. She intimated that accruing the works was his mother's mission, but that bringing the collection to the public eye was Avery's. The exhibit at the Huntington was easily nine months in the making. Sue works fastidiously. She is a generous collaborator and she loves to learn from every new partnership. She thought the world of Avery. The Clayton exhibition opened on October 24 in the West Hall of the Huntington Library.

Avery Clayton died suddenly while hosting Thanksgiving at his home in Culver City. He was 62 years old. There is a wonderful photo by Don Milici of Sue and Avery studying documents attached to the article, "A Burgeoning New Library Puts the Fine Art of Collaboration into Practice," by Traude Gomez-Rhine. It is a stunning loss to have Avery leave us just as we were getting to know his work. Drive past the ginkgos on south Allen Avenue and take yourself to "Central Avenue." You will see the dream of Avery Clayton fulfilled.

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