The World through Ursula Sternberg’s Eyes

ursula coverOne of my favorite parts of my job as an archivist is to be able to step into the shoes of someone long gone and see the world through their eyes.  This probably stems from my girlhood (and if I am honest, adulthood) crush on Atticus Finch, who told Scout, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  Throughout my career, I have considered these opportunities an absolute gift and I like to think they have made me a more empathetic and thoughtful person in my own world. The worlds that I have walked around in are amazing, but generally speaking, they consist of black and white photos, diaries and letters written in black ink on creamy paper, and ledgers with rows of numbers on a yellowing page.  Scrapbooks consisting of brittle brown paper, the preservation bane of all archivists, are barely held together with dried out yellowy glue and occasionally dirty brown string.  These worlds are brown and black and white.  Mind you, I am not complaining–I quite love the brown and black and white!

landscape_13But when I opened the first volume of visual diaries belonging to the Ursula Sternberg papers, my eyes were overwhelmed with color … vivid reds, greens, blues, purples, silver, and gold.  I sat a moment, agog, and realized that with this collection, I was going to truly see Ursula’s world, the way she saw it.  Because Ursula drew everything she saw!  Honestly, I am not actually certain she ever slept, because I don’t know how she would have had time! She has left thousands and thousands … and thousands of drawings.

liberationUrsula Sternberg (1925-2000) was born in Germany to a Jewish family, and as such, her early life was filled with fear and worry–I suspect that much of her life at the time was, indeed, black and brown and white.  She and her family fled Germany and moved first to Holland, and then moved to Belgium–and Ursula was separated from her family as they all hid from the Nazis.  Ursula described the liberation of Europe as “overflowing with jubilating people, embracing the Liberators, opening long-hidden bottles of Champagne.  It was crazy–mad, wonderful” (Monique Seyler, Between Two Worlds: The Life and Art of Ursula Sternberg, page 59).  Perhaps this return to joy influenced the way that Ursula saw the world.

boothThis is not to say that Ursula’s life was always bright and cheery–there was plenty of darkness remaining; as reflected by the writings (and sometimes even the drawings) within her absolutely amazing “visual diaries.” More than 100 of these volumes describe her life in Elkins Park and Chestnut Hill and her travels through the world with her husband, musician Jonathan Sternberg, and on her own. Alongside her descriptions are drawings–from rough sketches to museum-worthy paintings. Biographer Monique Seyler suggests that Ursula did not truly feel at home anywhere–and there is frequently a sense of longing and restlessness in the diaries.  However, one gets the sense that when she was creating art, she did have a home.

coffeeandsugarThis collection is jam-packed with treasures. Her sketchbooks (nearly 200) and her visual diaries seem to have been playgrounds for her where she experimented with coffee washes, sparkly new markers, and stamps.  There are also thousands and thousands of loose drawings of people, musicians, landscapes, friends, and her husband and children. There are images of readers in the park, people enjoying each other’s company in cafes, and birds on posts. And then there are fanciful drawings of colorful little horses frolicking in fields that certainly never existed in nature in the colors Ursula painted them.  How did Ursula see the world?  One needs only to open a few folders in this collections to see her world!

beachQuite frequently, Ursula’s portraits are not completely flattering (nor were her textual descriptions) and she was brutally critical of Americans and, sometimes, of the people she loved best. But these honest descriptions are exactly what makes this collection so valuable and so completely compelling. I can imagine this collection appealing to multiple research interests. Not only was she a survivor of World War II, she was an immigrant, a woman artist who exhibited across the world, and a designer of fashion, textiles, and advertisements.  She was also a human being, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, and a friend to many, with complex personal and professional relationships that spanned continents, a successful woman who survived a traumatic childhood.  Ursula, in all her forms, is here for researchers to discover.  

Come see the world through the eyes of Ursula … Here are just a few of my favorite images–but I cannot do this collection justice with the few images presented:

4 responses to “The World through Ursula Sternberg’s Eyes”

  1. How and where again can I read or see Ursula’s diaries, etc. Thanks Madeleine Mc Hugh person or else online

  2. Ursula was my friend and she gave me a painting. In 1992 when I was leaving New York, the moving company lost my things including that painting. I don’t know how to find it.

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