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GLORIA WHELAN THE FIRST CITY Even if you live in a city, you are not necessarily there. The city would gather you in, but you hold back, hold out. During the Depression I lived together with my parents and aunts and uncles, too much the only child in everyone's life, in a Detroit apartment building. The building was owned by my grandfather Liebig, who had come to this country at the turn of the century from Berlin, where he had been trained as a painter and decorator. In many of Detroit's older churches and homes you can still see his workgilded and stippled walls, ceilings with intricate plaster cornices and cartouches, dining rooms with a frieze of rococo fruits twined with ivy, winged cherubs modestly garlanded in ribbons. I live, these days, in a house that is all glass and white walls, hard surfaces and sharp edges, yet even now when I come upon one of my grandfather's ornate rooms, years of aesthetic discipline fall away and all my fastidious taste is drowned in a sea of gold leaf and overblown roses. Painting was not just my grandfather's profession but his hobby as well. A humble man, his work was not original but copied from nineteenth century German academic painting-frenzied horses being led from a burning barn or sly, jolly monks having a nip from a wine cask. He would lay a sheet of tracing paper over the picture he meant to copy and when the tracing was completed, the lines were punctured with thousands of pinholes. I was allowed to help with this. The tracing was then laid over a fresh white canvas and the copy created by rubbing charcoal over the pinholes. Other than cigar smoke and his signature, my grandfather added nothing to these pictures but his pleasure in them. He bestowed upon all of his children more of these paintings than they could find wall space to hang. After his death, what he had depended upon for his immortality disappeared, as one by one and with much guilt, the paintings came down from the walls until all that remained were a few watercolors from his own drawings of 182
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