Ach Ja, Tannenbaum

Assembling an Evergleam aluminum
Christmas tree, Season's Gleamings, 2004
Last week Franziska Felber called from Hamburg as part of her research on artificial Christmas trees. With our book Season's Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree now out of print, we didn't expect much interest in our tree story this year so were surprised. Franziska, a 27-year old journalist apprentice from Berlin, talked with us at length about aluminum tree history in Manitowoc. She ended up focusing on the history for her SPIEGEL ONLINE article titled Holy Tinsel  published on Friday, December 17, 2010. It's written in German, which we could not read so my generous and kind cousin Phil Glander, a retired professor of German, provided a translation and we've posted it below.  Judith Moriarty also wrote a piece about her memories of aluminum and other Christmas trees for Milwaukee's THIRD COAST DIGEST titled Once upon a time: A Tale of Christmas Trees Past published on December 10, 2010. Prompted by this journalistic interest in the trees, we checked online to see if copies of Season's Gleamings were still available only to find the prices fluctuating wildly from $10 to $100 per copy (original cover price was $16.95) everywhere from Amazon to Ebay. We decided to offer up a few signed copies with an 8x10 glossy inkjet "portrait" print of a gold Evergleam tree through our Etsy Store. We finally mustered up the energy to set up a single aluminum tree in the entryway of our studio. We're grateful the trees haven't been forgotten and that fans continue to surface. Last year, the Wisconsin Historical Society set up a spectacular and didactic exhibition of the trees which seemed their penultimate finest hour! We await their induction into a design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art someday as their sleek geometry and "tree-in-a-box" concept are so stunning that we feel they truly deserve such a treatment.

P.S. 2012 Etsy design writer Jeni Sandberg revisited the trees for a new generation in her column published in December 2012 History Lesson: The Aluminum Christmas Tree.

P.P.S. 2013 The Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison set up an exhibition, 'Tis the Season, from November 26, 2013 to January 11, 2014 featuring the largest selection of Aluminum Special Aluminum trees ever. Articles touting the show have run in the LA Times Travel section by Mary Forgione,  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Meg Jones, The Cap Times by Lindsay Christians and more.
Self-portrait in Neo-Post-Now Gallery, Manitowoc, Wisconsin,
with aluminum forest installation, December 1996
Holy Tinsel
It was pink or gold and as tall as a man - but one thing it wasn't - real.  In the 60s millions of Americans in the US set up an aluminum tree at Christmas time in their living room.  The artificial tree became an emblem of the Space Age until a figure from the funny papers started its downfall.  

By Franziska Felber
English translation by Phil Glander

"Get the biggest aluminum Christmas tree you can find and paint it pink!" That's what Lucy, the little black- haired girl, told her comic strip friends, Charlie Brown and Linus, for the first time 45 years ago on American TV.  In the "Peanuts" Christmas movie, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Lucy, like many Americans, had fallen for a Christmas fad - an artificial metal Christmas tree.

But what does Charlie Brown do?  He ignores Lucy's orders and forgets about the shining pink. violet and red fake Christmas tree and gets the only real tree he can find instead:  a crooked little tree which loses its needles at the slightest movement. Charlie disappoints Lucy, but his decision has far reaching consequences for the aluminum tree.

The animated film "A Charlie Brown Christmas" put an end to the biggest Christmas phenomenon of the 60s and gave it the coup de grace at the same time.  At first the aluminum tree was so sought after in the USA that the Aluminum Specialty Company alone sold more than a million of the glittering trees with little metal curlicues.  The tree fitted perfectly into the "Space Age" when artificial materials were the last word and every day technology the spirit of the age.  But Charlie Brown's decision disrupted sales and people threw the colorful metal trees in the garbage.  Finally production ended completely.

Manitowoc, Capital of the Aluminum Fad

The story of the aluminum tree, this shining Christmas phenomenon, was not yet over.  The spurned fake trees celebrated a brilliant come back thirty years later.

Two photographers were the saviors of the tree.  Julie Lindemann and John Shimon both come from a small city, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, which was the capital of the aluminum tree craze in the 60s. The trees were manufactured there and adorned not only living rooms.  "In the space age there were these kitschy taverns with neon lights.  At Christmas they had these aluminum trees behind the bar.  I thought they were very
exotic.  It was like they were from another planet." says photographer Lindemann recalling her first encounter with the fake trees.

The special feature of the trees from the Aluminum Specialty Company in Manitowoc was that the roughly hundred branches of a tree six feet tall all were the same length.  They were stuck into various places on the trunk and formed the shape of a Christmas tree.  The aluminum trees were featured at a toy fair in New York in 1959.  In the 60s the model "Evergleam" became the bestseller of the company and sold like crazy in shining colors of silver, green gold and pink.  Until Charlie Brown came along.  In 1962 sales of the aluminum trees reached their peak, in 1967 they were scarcely in demand, and in 1969 they were removed from production.

Artificial Forest Causes a Sensation

When the Peanuts movie was shown on TV for the first time Julie Lindemann was only eight years old.  But today she still believes that the end of the aluminum trees came with Charlie Brown.  "The movie was shown every year and became a kind of fixture."  So people wanted a real Christmas tree to decorate their living rooms instead of a colorful tinsel tree.

Lindemann who had seen her first aluminum tree in a tavern returned to her home town as a grown woman. Aluminum trees had been stuck in the attic and the garage for nearly thirty years by then.  People watched Lindemann and her partner Shimon in disbelief when they decided in the 90s to collect the remaining trees and build a forest of them for the gallery they owned together.

The two photographers bought the trees for a dollar or so each, and nobody could believe that anyone at all was interested in the discarded kitschy giants.  "We had to hear all the time about why anyone wanted to have junk like that." Lindemann says.  In 1993 the collection had grown to about 40 trees, all of which Lindemann and Shimon decorated their gallery with.  A painful experience for Lindemann because it took days for her to set up the trees.  "In the end I was bleeding and crying.  The branches are very sharp and they cut my hands and arms.  But they were so beautiful that I forgot my pain when I was finished."

Christmas Among the Prototypes

The bigger their collection got, the more Lindemann became interested in the history of the trees.  But no matter whom she asked, nobody could remember Manitowoc's days as capital of kitsch.  Yet here the "Evergleam" was manufactured - the most popular aluminum tree in the US.  Finally chance came to Lindemann's rescue on a winter day in 1996.  Shortly before Christmas she was in the gallery.  Outside it was icy cold, inside the trees were lighted.  Some were revolving every minute and making a slight rustling sound.  The doorbell rang.  An elderly couple stood in the cold, asked to come in and walked through the shining forest.  The man looked around and said, "I designed these trees."

The man in the forest was Richard Thomsen, former chief engineer for the Aluminum Specialty Co., a large manufactured of aluminum cooking untensils.  An expert in mass production, in 1958 Thomsen was given the task of copying a hand made aluminum Christmas tree seen in Chicago and getting it ready for mass production - as quick as he could.  Thomsen did just that with the help of two colleagues.  Since then he had spent every Christmas under a silver colored prototype nearly nine feet tall.  When he met the two artists he was touched to see that his achievement had finally been acknowledged.

The local press soon became interested in the forest in Lindemann's gallery- and so were the residents of Manitowoc.  They were proud again of the rejected product of their city.  Many did the same thing Thomsen did, they came in the gallery and told of their past with "Aluminum Specialty." Some took out their "Evergleam" boxes out, set the glittering giants in living rooms and store windows and thus began the shining renaissance of the aluminum Christmas tree.  But after Lindemann and Shimon erected their winter forest five years in a row they'd had enough.  They exhibited their trees for the last time in 1998.

Trees on Ebay

Before they packed them away for the last time they took pictures of their favorite trees and made a picture book of them.  It appeared in 2004 under the title "Season's Gleamings."  Lindemann and Shimon gave some intereviews but they didn't count on what happened next.  The biggest American media came to Manitowoc to tell the story of the home of the aluminum trees.  They called Manitowoc "Tinsel Town."  "We didn't know how powerful Christmas was for the media," Lindemann says.

But they were happy about the attention the city received.  "In the US small towns have a bad image.  They look real small against the glamour of Hollywood and this whole marketed life style. But suddenly here was something people could be proud of."  Glamour was back in Manitowoc.  And trees which once could be bought at garage sales for a dollar now were going for a hundred times as much.  In 2005 an especially rare pink colored aluminum tree went for the record sum of 2600 Euros on the internet.

# # #

P.S. One of our favorite aluminum Christmas tree stories was by Rachel  Manek for Fox 11 TV in Green Bay from 2004. In the space of a day, the reporter and her crew of one interviewed key people throughout Manitowoc County to tell the tree story. The fantastical CBS Sunday Morning crew and Russ Mitchell had already visited Manitowoc by then and we've posted that piece below too. In addition, various bloggers white about Season's Gleamings time and again.


From the Library Mall to Etsy

Hand-coated cyanotype print available on Etsy
As part of an experiment for our Digital Processes course at Lawrence University, we set up an Etsy store to sell small items we make in our studio. We wanted to understand how it worked and wondered if our studio art students would find it useful. Kristin Boehm, a former student, has been selling her cool knitted technology cases for several years under the name Spinhandspundesigns and other friends had told us of their Etsy successes.  We put together DVDs of our rarely screened films, our out-of-print book Season's Gleamings and a series of cyanotype postcards of Lake Michigan and opened our store last week. We sold 26 individual items in the first few days and are getting to know our helpful postal staffers much better. The scale and intimacy of Etsy reminded us the early 1980s when we'd make cassettes of our band's music (packaged with miscellaneous objects we'd get cheap at thrift stores or the Kresege's in baggies) and zines with hand-silk screened covers to sell at record stores, shows and on the Library Mall in Madison as students at the UW. The immediacy and lack of censorship of the objects was a thrill and seems parallel in many ways to selling art on Etsy sans the pink hair and Aqua Net.


Changed Perspectives @ Kohler Arts Center

Changed Perspectives exhibition installation
@ JM Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI, December 2010
Surivor Janine Bergeron's digital photos with listening station
@ JM Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI, December 2010
Our collaborative project with the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in nearby Sheboygan, Wisconsin, resulted in an exhibition titled Changed Perspectives. It explores the world view of a dozen cancer survivors forever altered by their experience with the c-word. Yvonne Montoya, Amy Horst and the Kohler staff designed the installation to include shadow box assemblages of the snapshot size prints by the survivor/participants whose subject matter ranged from intensely colorful flowers and trees to ethereal lake, cloud and land-scapes as well as portraits of family and friends. The images had meaning to the individual who made the image way beyond what could be read using the standard art methods which are most often based on formal elements rather than narrative. Listening stations positioned throughout the gallery enable viewers to hear each survivor/participant reflect, in their own words, on their cancer experience and their photos. We made portraits of six of the participating survivors, which are also on display. The show was scheduled to open with a reception and program on December 12, 2010. The Sheboygan Press had even written a preview! Unfortunately, a record-breaking blizzard forced the Kohler Arts Center to close for the first time in five years! The event which was to include a program and refreshments and has been rescheduled for January 20, 2011, 6-8 pm. The show received a brief mention in the Chicago Tribunean extensive rumination by Domenica Schiro on examiner.com and a review in the Shepherd Express.

When we viewed the show after the blizzard cleared, one of the Kohler security guards recognized us and asked if we had had cancer. Her husband died of cancer 10 years ago and she still felt changed by the experience and found the exhibition bringing back memories and issues. Our experience with cancer was through our mothers. John's mother had been an American Cancer Society volunteer for decades delivering wigs and medical supplies to cancer patients throughout Manitowoc County. Julie's mother had cancer, but did not survive.

When the doctor enters the examining room and orders more tests, everything feels and looks different. Hearing the surgeon say "your mom has a very very bad cancer" that January day in 2007 instantly changed our daily routine. From that moment on, our days included accompanying mom to her appointments for radiation, Chemo, blood tests, CT scans, banana-flavored Barium shakes and the world of DPOA and DNR forms. The news of the cancer came as a shock--there had been little warning. When mom heard the diagnosis she whispered, "I don't have that." But she did and in less than a year's time she was gone.

The following summer, the Kohler invited us for a residency to collaborate on a digital photography project scheduled for the fall of 2010. It would be for cancer survivors in the community who had wanted more art in their lives as part of an ambitious program called Connecting Communities funded through the National Endowment for the Arts.  The Kohler has marvelous gallery spaces and an inspiring and always excellent artistic vision rare for a small Midwestern city. With the help of the Sheboygan County Cancer Care Fund and Tim Renzelman (a survivor himself) participants were gathered.

At our first meeting in late August 2010, we gave a slide talk in the Kohler's beautiful auditorium declaring "You are an artist!" and invited surivors to collaborate with us on a project "to make photos reflecting your view of life." The images would be exhibited at the Kohler along with our photographs in December. We showed participants examples of our portrait photographs as well as work by artist/cancer survivors Corinne Day, the fashion photographer who died just days later from her brain tumor and whose book Diary reflected her cancer experience though self-portraits in the hospital, Jo Spence whose breast cancer turned her from artist to heath-care activist and photo-therapist, and Ralph Eugene Meatyard whose cancer inspired his Family Album of LucyBelle Crater series of portraits of his friends wearing grotesque masks.

Survivorship: Through the Lens workshop 
in the JM Kohler Arts Center Breezeway, 10.30.2010

The Kohler's staff and volunteers worked further with participants to help them use their digital cameras and post images to flickr and the Surivorship: Through the Lens group that had been established. We studied the images as participants posted them then chose six people to photograph. We based our choices of location and content on the images we studied on flickr. The survivors had been scanned, probed, poked, tested and surgically altered during their cancer treatments and they stood bravely before our static and slow 8x10 view camera on its wooden tripod. We felt a sense of gravity as we worked with each person to capture them on film and produce as monumental size print (50x40") as we could given our resources.

Photographing Vicki in the park 9.25.2010

Vicki standing in yoga pose in environmental
park, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2010
9.25.2010 - Vicki took walks in the park regularly and had completed her Master's thesis on the breeding bird communities in the nearby floodplain. She posted haunting images of the park on flickr which she wrote eloquently about. Since her cancer diagnosis and treatment, she found even more comfort in the park. We talked about her practice of T'ai Chi and yoga, which she teaches to other cancer survivors. “If one can fix one's gaze on the light at the end of the tunnel, treatment can be endured.”

Photographing Tammy at
her mom's house 10.10.2010
Tammy (middle) with her sisters Kathy (L)
and Debbie (R) at their mother's condo
during a Sunday Packer game,
Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2010
10.10.2010 - Tammy and her two sisters gathered at their mom's new condo for the Sunday afternoon Packer game. Their father had passed away from cancer a few years ago  and knowing their grandmother had breast cancer, the sisters underwent genetic testing only to discover all three carried the BRCA2 gene. Four years ago Tammy's diagnosis was Stage II and was treated successfully. Then her younger sister was diagnosed with Stage 1 and her youngest sister was clear. "Cancer is a nasty thing" their mom told us. “You realize life is short—you appreciate the people around you,” Tammy added. Tammy posted whimsical almost humorous pictures of toads and garden ornaments on flickr and one portrait of her with her mom and sister taken when they gathered together to watch the Packer game at her mom's new condo. It struck us because it reflected the warmth and closeness the women shared increasingly since sharing their multiple cancer experiences.

Photographing Joanne 
in her backyard 10.10.2010
Joanne in her garden,
Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2010
10.10.2010 - Joanne collaborated with her husband to design and maintain their backyard garden, which felt like a sanctuary. She was so involved in her volunteer work that she paid little attention to her symptoms. When finally diagnosed with Stage III cancer 4-1/2 years ago, she underwent intensive chemo and survived it. She kept a journal written in elegant script and illustrated with color snapshots mapping her experiences including a head shaving party during chemo. “You’re thankful for what you’ve got. It can all be gone pretty quickly,” she said. For the Kohler project, she concentrated on photographing hands and feet and posted them on flickr. "I am also a 38 year Rheumatoid Arthritis survivor after being diagnosed at the age of 19," she wrote. "My deformed hands (and feet) are as much a part of me as is any other part of my body. People often comment to me how surprised they are at all I am able to accomplish with these twisted, gnarled hands."
Photographing Dave 
at Matthews Oncology, 10.14.2010
Dave in cancer clinic waiting room,
Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2010

10.14.2010 - Dave met us in the waiting room at the cancer clinic, which had been newly remodeled. He had spent a great deal of time sitting there before treatments 10 years ago. "I'm still here and some of them aren't," he said of the people he'd met. While waiting he said he'd close his eyes, tip back his head and think, "I'll go somewhere else." Getting cancer was a life-changing event but, "I can't say I really notice the sunsets more now. I noticed them before and I liked them. I didn't have to get cancer to notice them." We were struck by his "treatment buildings" images posted on flickr so decided to photograph him there.
Photographing Dr. Corrigan 
at the Prevea Clinic, Plymouth, WI, 10.22.2010
Dr. Corrigan in procedure room decorated
with his framed photograph, 
Plymouth, Wisconsin, 2010
10.22.2010 - Dr. Corrigan’s framed color photographs were displayed around the sleek new clinic housing his practice in Plymouth. He self-diagnosed his cancer in 2006 at age 42 then began photographing and writing poetry during his treatment and recovery. “Photography just kind of opened my eyes,” he wrote recently. Struck by the intensity of a medical professional knowing that something was wrong but having to endure the protocol of treatment having a deeper knowledge of the implications struck us. We decided to photograph him at the new clinic where both his profession and avocation could be visible. His images posted on flickr are lush and sometimes haunting studies of trees and some of them are framed and on display at the clinic. He photographed the the participants at one of our workshops and posted them too.
Photographing Lucy at home 11.5.2010
Lucy with her snapshots,
Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2010
11.5.2010 - Lucy’s brother called her Lulu. He died of cancer more than 50 years ago. She found his memory comforting when she was diagnosed with cancer herself two years ago. She recounted his "journey with cancer" while showing us her old snapshots, which she stored in neat envelops in a box covered in floral fabric. JMKAC staff and volunteers scanned and uploaded the snapshots to flickr.  “Looking back at these pictures brings tears, happy tears. In my mind, it was like my brother was here.” We made a video of Lucy telling his story which will be included in the exhibition.

P.S. While in Sheboygan after our meetings, workshops and photo sessions, we revisited our favorite eateries including Schultz's and Jume's (with their mid-century lunch counters) as well as checking out more contemporary dining spots such as Field to Fork and the Kohler's own cafe. We hadn't strolled the boardwalk in many years so checked it out on a Sunday afternoon and later found Toy's Grocery on the north side of town on the way back to Manitowoc and stocked up on olive oil, rice, soy sauce, sandalwood soap and Serbian jam!