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Our Rich History: Gathering Places of Greater Cincinnati — new book is a magical masterpiece

By Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD
Special to NKyTribune

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Thomas Merton, from No Man Is an Island.

“Gathering places” abound in every culture. They are, as author and historian Sue Ann Painter states in her new book, Gathering Places of Greater Cincinnati, “special places in our built environment,” marked by “people coming together happily to engage in civic, religious, and social activities” (p. xi). They include “public squares, markets, schools, churches, courts, theaters, and pubs” (p. x), literally running the gamut between “sacred and secular spaces” (p. xi), and everything in between. They can resound with boisterous laughter, reverberate with gravitas and authority, or echo with the loneliness of solitary footsteps and whispered prayers.

Cincinnati Union Terminal by Beverly Erschell

The year 2020 was both an iconic and an ironic watershed in history. Like many tipping points, much of the year was truly contradictory—concrete yet ethereal. Sue Ann Painter, as a resident of downtown Cincinnati during the COVID-19 pandemic, experienced this “dystopian character” of the urban landscape — “the profound abnormality of city streets cleared of vehicles, deserted sidewalks, and public spaces with few pedestrians” (p. x).

On the one hand, the COVID-19 quarantine forced us to live and talk face-to-face with our families and housemates. On the other hand, it made us realize how much we missed human contact outside our homes. We increasingly “plugged into” computers and mobile phones, conducted Zoom meetings, and discovered how to work, worship and play electronically. Alternatively, we found ourselves bored, isolated, and desiring “real” — not virtual—social interaction. We desperately wanted to experience family Thanksgivings and Christmases together again, nostalgically willing to embrace even the familial quarrels and personality conflicts that they inevitably entailed. And in a world that seems to offer more crowds, more traffic congestion, and more polarization than we might feel comfortable with, we longed to experience “going out” again. As Timothy Jachna so eloquently expresses in his foreword to Gathering Spaces of Greater Cincinnati, 2020 was a “year without public space.” It was “poignantly fitting that this book is seeing its publication as we emerge from this year without gathering,” Jachna added (p. vi).

Historian and publisher Sue Ann Painter joined with artist Beverly Erschell to create the magical masterpiece of Gathering Places of Cincinnati. It is a tribute to the places in our metropolitan area where history intersects with people, where people make friends, and where friends share their visions.

Main Strasse, Covington, by Beverly Erschell

Erschell explains that process well in her own preface: “My drawings are not realistic representations; photographs can do that. Instead, I try to convey the atmosphere of the scene and the spirit of the people and animals that move about the space. The artwork is often based upon my recall of places that I have enjoyed over the years” (p. viii).

Gathering Places of Greater Cincinnati is refreshingly different from other books. While it is an excellent overview of the history of the Cincinnati metropolitan area, featuring the eloquent prose of Sue Ann Painter, it is also an artistic expression. The illustrations, by Beverly Erschell, offer remarkable opportunities to segue from Painter’s text into your own personal space of reminiscences.

There’s no right or wrong way to do this. My advice to the reader is to do what afficionados of art museums do — simply live in the moment and allow your eyes and brain to lead you on your own personal journey.

Carnegie Arts Center, Covington, by Beverly Erschell

The famous Trappist monk, theologian, and author, Thomas Merton (1915—1968), perhaps expressed it best. Although a contemplative monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, south of Louisville, Kentucky, Merton was quite well-traveled. In fact, he epitomized the human need to seek internal peace while still engaging in matters of concern to all of us. In his noted book, No Man Is an Island, Merton wrote that “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

This Christmas, feel free to find and lose yourself in Sue Ann Painter and Beverly Erschell, Gathering Places of Greater Cincinnati (Cincinnati Book Publishing, 2021).

Available in paperbound or casebound editions at: Cincinnati Art Galleries; Joseph Beth Booksellers; and cincybooks.com.

Hardbound ISBN 978-1-7378038-0-5. Retail price: $38.00.
Softbound ISBN 978-1-7365991-7-4. Retail price: $29.00

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

Music Hall, Cincinnati, by Beverly Erschell

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