Curating 'The Big Work': A Wallace-Berger Family Art Collection

by Matt Berger

There is one thing in common among many of history’s most prolific painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, and creators. They all have relatives and extended family members who end up decades later with attics and boxes full of their legacy of work. 

In 2017, my three siblings and I found ourselves in just this position as the co-owners of a cache of family art work, historical artifacts, and cultural memorabilia that spanned the past 125 years of California and American history.

My ancestors, the Wallace family of Carmel, participated in and documented many of the 20th century’s most defining periods at home and abroad: the Russo-Japanese war of 1896, William Randolph Hearst and his “Yellow Press,”The Roaring 20s, The Great Depression, the federally funded Works Progress Administration art movement, World War II, San Francisco in the 1960s, and those are just a few of the highlights. 

A Scattered Collection

This collection came to us via my mom as a scattered mess of boxes of paintings, piles of drawings, reams of sketches, drawers of artifacts, binders of newspaper clippings, and albums of photos. Some of it had been stored for decades, untouched by time and the elements. Others were in not so good shape. A few pieces were destroyed.  

There had been some modest attempts through the decades to take stock of it all, mostly by my late grandmother. But no one ever had all the elements required to pull it off: desire, motivation, time, and a means to make it happen. My grandmother wrapped and boxed her collection neatly, preserving it as best as any DIY collector could. 

My late mother, Deirdre Wallace, carried her stash around her entire adult life from garage to attic to storage container circulating it through the walls of our family home for appreciation, or — as young adults — letting us pick one to hang in our college dorm room or studio apartment. My uncle Brian, the last of the Wallaces, still has his take tucked away in temperature controlled storage facilities, and various sheds and vans up and down the Monterey coast. 

The Next Generation

And then came death, and inheritance, placing a large cache of it under the stewardship of the newest adult generation of the family, the Berger kids.

It’s a strange and privileged position to be in, I’ll admit. And it’s a difficult thing to consider until you are faced with the question: What would you do with 125 years of original family artwork, significant cultural objects, and family heirlooms? 

Do you hang it on your wall and display it all on your furniture tabletops? Do you sell it? Can you sell it? Do you donate it to museums and archives? Will anyone want it? Will everyone want it? Will no one want it? Do you put it out in the world? Or do you hide it away, locked up in isolation and obscurity for the next generation to deal with? These are the questions that our family has wrestled with for more than a century of accumulation.

I’ve been formulating my answer to this question for more than 30 years, ever since I first discovered my family story in an unpublished memoir by my grandfather Kevin. I came across his typewritten manuscript as a teenager among the aforementioned boxes in the garage of my childhood home, and devoured the pages of our family story with wonder and amazement. The title page proclaimed The Big Work and reading it set off a life-long journey and pursuit for my own Big Work. Sadly, it took the death of my mom to give me the courage to bring this story to light. 

A Gifted Family

My great grandfather Grant Wallace often gets the credit for kicking off our family tree of genius and madness, and I’ll let you make your own judgment based on the evidence presented here. He always claimed that his Big Work would “unlock the secret structure of reality’s nine dimensions and in general set mankind straight through rational scientific method.” It’s no wonder he got most of the attention. 

It may actually have been Grant’s daughter Moira Wallace, my great-aunt, whose impact and artistic visions will be felt far longer than the occult philosophies and writings of her father. Moira’s portraits, murals, block prints, and sketches reveal more about the history of America and the West and the struggle of Womankind than any modern art history book observes. Ironically, it was likely her gender that prevented Moira’s legacy from being preserved in the best private galleries, museum collections, and public institutions. The 20th-century was the era of Man, and it left little room for those prodigal women who toiled in the shadows.

Class of 1952 - Nieman Foundation Fellows

Another chunk of credit goes to Kevin (seated far left in the image above with his 1952 Nieman Fellows), Moira’s brother eight years younger. He was the only one in the family to suck it up and continue the struggle with two kids of his own — and by proxy my mom who made four more. That’s what it took to get us to modern day when a great-grandson with professional publishing skills can captivate the attention of the world with his ancestor’s 100-year-old original artwork. 

There are other people to thank for this, most notably the husbands and wives of the creators in our family who have worked tirelessly to keep the family nurtured and clothed, but mostly went unrecognized because they didn’t leave behind their own legacy of published work.

Finally, I challenge you to consider a more mystical and elaborate contributor to it all, referred to in this book as “The Pleiades.” I’m an atheist and son of a scientist father, so I’ve had my doubts. But after compiling this anthology I can’t help but think the whole story is fueled by a bit of divine intervention, as if it was written already. 

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'Over the Psychic Radio' 

An Introduction

 

Earth is the Greatest Haunted House. Hourly you walk among crowds of semi-conscious gaseous “ghosts.” To them you are the gaseous folk, while they are the visible and substantial realities. Men’s ignorance of this fact does not change the fact.
—WITH OUR THANKS TO YOU, WHO ARE OUR GHOST WRITER.
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This message is written in thick black pencil on a scrap of paper that I keep in a handmade wooden box near my bedside, along with various keepsakes and good luck charms. It was written by my great-grandfather Grant Wallace (1868–1954), who in every sense of the word was one of history’s most famous ghostwriters.

Growing up in my conventional family household in the 1980s, my siblings and I lived in blissful innocence when it came to the otherworldly accomplishments of our mom’s dad’s dad. We did not know much about him being a spiritualist philosopher and medium to past lives, alien life forms, and spirit worlds. We mostly knew of him by my mom’s description—a famous newspaper man who collected a famous circle of friends.

Grant died in his Berkeley home when his grandchildren were young. My mom, Deirdre Wallace, was just seven years old. Her younger brother, Brian, was five. Two decades would pass before I was born, the fourth of the great-grandkids, with the surname Berger.

What I knew about Grant was mostly lore, told to me by our mom in her giddy nonchalance. In ninth grade, when I checked out Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat from the school library, she explained that the author wrote the novella while flopped out on Grant and Margaret’s living room couch for weeks in their tiny Carmel bungalow . . . she thought. “Or was it The Red Pony?” she wondered.

When we’d hike the local trails in the nearby Berkeley hills, my mom would remind us that Grant and his writer friend Jack London once invested in a eucalyptus tree importing company, until the hardwood scheme went bust and dried up our family savings account.

As an aspiring journalist, I pored over old San Francisco morning and evening edition paper newsclips by Grant that were around the house, assigned to Grant by his editors and publishers, including Fremont Older and William Randolph Hearst.

But my mom didn’t tell us much about Grant’s other journalistic endeavor—his lifelong pursuit to document “the secret structure of reality’s nine dimensions and in general set mankind straight through rational scientific method.” This I would learn from my grandfather Kevin Wallace, who detailed our family story in an unpublished memoir I found in a box in our garage when I was a teenager.

Kevin recounted Grant’s journey from his childhood home in Missouri—where Grant first reported an ability to communicate with the spirit world, once even ridding his mother of demonic possession by a monk from the time of the Spanish Inquisition—to the epicenter of late nineteenth-century modernism: New York City:

Grant zoomed off to see Tom Edison’s bright new lights on the cobblestones of New York. He tested Greenwich Village’s lively Ouija boards, hypnotic telekinesis, telepathy, clairvoyance, theosophy, karma and hypnotic soirées, seances, reincarnation sessions, and pieced them into Darwinism.
Where evolutionary theory let individuals die off, depriving them of substantial progress, Grant’s revised theory gave some point to everybody’s otherwise inane classroom work, courtship, housekeeping, bread-winning, and dying off.
Incarnations were semesters and astral intervals holidays when ghosts with nothing better to do could communicate telepathically with those on earth and if the latter weren’t careful, hypnotize them.

Many years after his first trip to New York and living an exceptional life—settling in Carmel, California, at the suggestion of his group of friends, including Sinclair Lewis and Mary Austin; marrying a second time and starting his second family (mine)—Grant went back to Manhattan to present his most important body of work, produced under the influence of automatic writing.

But the Great Depression loomed, and Grant’s collection of bookplates and astral portraits delivered to him through “mental radio” by Pleiadian Light Bringers with names like Zu-la-zu-le, was not what his New York editors were ready to bank on.

Still, Grant continued to devote much of his life to documenting and promoting their voices. His openness as a medium, his dedication to truth, his editorial wits, and his devout family support system enabled Grant to immerse himself in his pursuit of this higher truth.

Perhaps that’s where I get it. I’ve been consumed by the resurrection of my family story for more than thirty years now, sometimes at the expense of my domestic responsibilities.

At times I wonder if it was the groundwork that Grant laid with his spirit friends that has delivered his Big Work back to New York City for this posthumous exhibition 100 years after he first presented it here. After all, it traveled a perilous journey for over a century, across country and back again, through death and inheritance, bad weather and ex-husbands, in many attics and basements. It was nearly lost entirely to a California wildfire that tore through the Sierra Nevada Mountain town where it had been stored for decades but was saved after the fire miraculously changed course.

Other times, I remember he was also among the greatest of ideas men, visionaries, and marketers of his time. Maybe this was his plot all along.

Matt Berger is a writer and producer Santa Cruz, California and the youngest of four great grandkids of Grant Wallace.