Meet the Johnsons of Jamestown, New York. In addition to my grandmother Ruth on Peter John's lap, see Ambert, Stanley, and Rudolph (Grandma's twin brother) on my great-grandmother Sanna Matilda's lap. Standing in back are Florence and Elmer. Both my great-grandparents had been to the United States and worked before they eventually left Smaland and immigrated with Elmer, Florence, and Ambert. Stanley and the twins were born in Jamestown, where they made a new life with other Swedes.
When Stanley was elderly, he gave me his mother's papers. He and his late wife had never had children and he knew I was interested in history, so he offered them to me. Almost everything was in Swedish, but I had taken one year of Swedish in college and wanted to give it a try. Several letters begin, "Min kara liten Tilda" (My dear little Tilda).
Recently I looked at all of her papers and marveled at how beautiful they seemed. Most of the papers were letters she received, but some of the items were things often described as "ephemera." She had two small engraved invitations to weddings in San Francisco. The couples were Swedish; Matilda had worked as a maid in SF before she immigrated. She also saved several small cards bearing congratulations-for what, I don't know. I wanted to use these in artwork, but I wasn't sure how.
I decided to copy these on my home printer and work with the copies to preserve the integrity of the originals. I strongly encourage this, as you don't want to damage the original items (especially family pieces). Then I used Mod Podge to fasten them onto papier mache boxes. After letting them dry thoroughly overnight, I covered each box inside and out with a clear acrylic sealer. The process worked pretty well. What do you think?
The box on the left is covered entirely with paper; the text was among Matilda's things. The pink scrolled paper is by Anna Griffin. I left the box on the right partially uncovered. I chose not to paint it before applying the copies, but that is an option.
Matilda was a very nice woman, who spoke perfect English (read, no accent) according to Grandma, while her father never really spoke English. By the things she kept, we may infer that she treasured her friends and her memories. I never had any indication that my grandmother was similarly inclined. She had some real tragedies in her life, including the deaths of her father and twin brother in the same week in 1937 and the death of her mother, Matilda, six months later. After Grandma died in 1992, we found a few things that we hadn't expected her to keep--she was sentimental in her own way, after all.
It's kind of funny to think about these decorated boxes as commemorative family mementos because they're functional. You can use these on a desk, dresser, or anywhere. They hold up pretty well with use. At the same time, the boxes are conversation pieces and add a pretty touch during your day.
Do you have family papers that you have used in art? If not, think about giving it a try. It's time-consuming, but fun and well worth the effort. Lycka till!