the widow and the paintings

The Widow and the paintings

This is a story of the way a Widow redefined Dumpster Archeology, by moving on.

When she covered her face with her long thin fingers and cried, I had a moment of shock. I had asked a simple question, supposing she must have known the old man I was looking for. After all …a famous artist living on her street must have had friends. We stood together in an alleyway behind the DeMun apartments in St Louis where I just asked.

“Do you know Edward Menges?”

The name had been deciphered from the painting I had found, and I traced the trail of his life. I found myself a month later at the same spot where I found the paintings by the dumpster. Her response was so fast, as if she had been on the edge for so long, waiting for someone to acknowledge his life.

“I am the Widow Menges” she said between her fingers as her shoulders shifted up and down by the sudden release of emotional sorrow. Her husband’s name uttered aloud was a return to the reality that haunted her living.

After she recovered and finished throwing her recycling into the dumpster I had been standing in, we walked over towards her apartment. I knew a lot about her husband, as I had been researching his life on the Internet for a couple weeks and this was happenstance, honestly I wasn’t even sure he was dead, until the widow burst into tears. Jane was happy to share the stories and dramas of Ed Menges.

I ended up down the wormhole of historical weirdness as I learned about the life and times of Edward Menges, not only from the trash, but his direct family. Hauntingly beautiful paintings were created by him that are both sublime and unique. Even if my trash paintings were his experiments, they still had the Master’s touch.

Their apartment was tiny, and his art supplies were still laying on a shelf. 97 years old and most his worldly possessions revolved around making art. Edward Menges had once been a very famous local artist. One of the top three landscape painters in Missouri. The 1950s through the 1960s were his peak artists years, he was still making waves throughout the 1970s, but he had transitioned to education to pay the bills. His journey is long but when he found Jane, they became inseparable. Edward retired from the school system, moved into her apartment and was still painting his masterpieces.

During the tour she showed me the one tiny bedroom filled with books, it had always been just her room, her sanctuary. Painting on the porch, as she planted flowers and tended the garden, Edward toiled the hours away painting every large square of wood he could find. The DeMun neighborhood was perfect for retirement as it afforded them a short walk to the Zoo, the Loop and Forest Park. Then Edward started to die slowly, for years on that futon in the living room, the one that never returned to couch status.

Jane is a lovely intelligent woman and avid reader, and she tells me funny stories, laughs about Ed’s womanizing, knowing in the end, she won. Yes, she had been a student of his, like his ex-wife, but that was well before Jane got married, raised a daughter and had her own separate life. They became lovers in their twilight years, a beautiful couple in a tightknit neighborhood. Ed had been voted the “Most Handsome” Professor enough times to be considered legendary.

Professor Edward Menges

Edward grew up on the streets of University City, as his father was a famous musician and band leader. He spent his childhood around artists, colleges, and music halls. After the War, he went to school on the G.I. bill to become an artist and his drive was astounding. By the early 1950s he was published in Chicago Art Magazines and making a living.

He kept making art, travelling to Europe to paint where the Masters painted, moving towards higher education and participating in group shows. There is an interesting sideline interest in religious art that he taught in his later years as a Professor. He was a teacher on multiple levels, at high school, Sears “art education” programs, Community College and Washington University. Mr Menges was also the favorite teacher for many local artists, as he had the skills to reflect a true artist’s perspective.

After the tour Jane took me to the storage room and offered me a giant painting, it was beautiful, and sadly on bicycle, I couldn’t take it. What she said next blew my mind.

“You can take it and put that stuff over it, gesso or whatever and reuse the canvas.”

I was shocked, but I slowly came to understand what was occurring. Jane was purging him from her life and moving on, piece by piece. I came to learn that no one had come looking for Edward’s art in over 3 decades. His widow threw out his art because they were unwanted. She did keep his big master pieces in the living room, one in particular that she had him paint for her, and knew just when to make him stop. Jane says her husband over painted his work, and she preferred simplicity.

Her favorite painting of his

Edward’s wife loved him with all her heart, but she didn’t see a Master painter, Jane saw a husband. It seemed as if everyone stopped caring about Edward and his art a long time ago ….in her opinion. My collection of dumpster art work, was not meant to be appreciated, it was just his trash in her mind.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that it is true. I believe his retirement funds didn’t last the extent of his lifespan. He was 97 after all. Edward didn’t have the money to buy canvas, and as his mind slipped into dementia, he painted his last paintings on whatever he could find. Plastic signs, wood planks, the barbecue, the park bench, the porch itself and the lone pieces of canvas he could find.

When you stare at the paintings, and I often do, as they hang in my living room, you see the tiny details and precision, knowing full well that it took a very long time to make each piece. These paintings are not bad art, they are wonderful, and when you stand back a decent distance back and relax your eyes, you are transported to a forest at dusk, a morning sunrise through trees, and stark winter scenes of what I believe is Forest Park.

Edward was painting his world.

Every day in good weather, the couple walked to the zoo at the heart of Forest Park. They were well known at the cafe, the shows and the park benches. Their daily appearance walking around or sitting quietly watching the crowds was a beacon of light for the staff at the zoo. I know, because many employees from the zoo wrote in the online obituary.

As they walked home, that short scenic walk through the Kennedy forest, he stared up at the trees and felt the need to paint them. The inspiration was true, and as a classically trained painter who operated the St Louis landscape for over 60 years, it truly was a Master Piece.

When I speak of the Widow Menges, I love to talk about her quick wit and mental ability as she always impressed me. We went to a meditation one chilly fall night and she didn’t like it. Her mind recoiled at the new age terminology and “light” thinking. There is a rational scientific side to Jane. While she is a smart woman, she is also losing her mind to advanced age, and the same affliction that took her husband away.

Jane loves those self-healing books written by Doctors. I was given a book on self hypnosis for the healing process. Jane pops her multivitamins, blends a smoothie with an assortment of powders and we speak about consciousness from the same table she spent decades sharing with Ed. She sat with him as he died on the couch and while the pain is sometimes more than she can handle, Jane is still alive and planning her spring time garden.

Edward Menges might someday get his next 15 minutes, and the Widow is content to move on, having shared a space and half a lifetime with this one man. There is a real lesson somewhere in the depths of this case that is almost upon us.

The piece I wrote for All the Art Magazine was for her. When it was published I rushed over to show the Widow. She opened the door and took the magazine in her hand thanking me after calling me the “trash man”, never using my name. Jane promised to read it later. The next time I saw her, she couldn’t remember who I was but then she smiles remembering and I help her with the water hose, so she could spray her precious flowers. The article was more for Edward’s Legacy, to stir the collective memory of his lifetime of Artistic efforts.

We toil our lives away, planting flowers, painting paintings and writing articles about people who plant flowers and are painting paintings. The legacy of those fascinating Artists are the fodder of the historian, telling the human story. Edward was a big part of the St Louis Art world and that stands on it’s own merit. Widows are now free to find their own healing words.

  • editor note: The owners of the apartment building moved Edward’s handcrafted bench to the back of the garden and put a new one in it’s place. Yet if you look back under the trees in the back of the garden, you can still see it, aging slowly as the rain warps the wood. Yet the paint specks, gothic design and unique textures still scream Edward Menges from behind the scenes, in these forgotten spaces of history.