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.