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Laguna artist Elizabeth McGhee finds beauty in the past.

Laguna artist Elizabeth McGhee finds beauty in the past.

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”Hecate,” an oil-on-panel painting from 2014, is named for the Greek goddess of witchcraft and magic. McGhee likes to use personal acquaintances as her models.

Artist Elizabeth McGhee favors realism; her portraits and still lifes, while often fanciful, convey mood mainly through composition and detail. The white-haired woman in “Hecate,” a 2014 oil-on-panel work, regards the viewer with a hard, inscrutable look and is set against a backdrop of jagged shadow. An accompanying synopsis notes that the goddess was associated with “fire, light, the moon, magic, witchcraft, knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants, necromancy, and sorcery.”

McGhee, who lives in a studio in Laguna Beach, has exhibited for six straight years at the Festival of Arts. At least some of her inspiration comes from vintage photographs – the kind taken decades ago using Polaroids and Instamatics, which often depict a simpler, Norman Rockwellian America.

Her interest in such mementoes far exceeds its usefulness in art, however. McGhee’s intense fascination with the past is unusual for someone just 29. For more than half of her life, she has been scouring swap meets and antique shops in search of old pictures, letters, postcards and diaries. She buys them in bunches when she can, then devotes hundreds of hours to organizing them neatly in boxes, transcribing the faded handwritten correspondence into her computer, and searching the Internet for the families that once owned the stuff.

“It’s like being a detective, going online and finding genealogical records and tracking down descendants,” says McGhee, who does her sleuthing at night, in between painting and working part time at Laguna Art Supply. The task is challenging. Names change as women marry. Families move. Some troves are poorly labeled or not marked at all.

Still, McGhee has racked up successes. When she can connect a haul of pictures, for example, to people who should rightfully have them, she packs them and ships them at her own expense. Her goal is to be “a good quirk of fate,” as she puts it, for recipients who are inevitably surprised and grateful.

“I see these things as little orphans,” the loquacious, black-haired artist says of the paper treasures. “I’m trying to find their homes, where they will be taken care of.”

Richard Lidbom, who moved from San Diego to Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1969, and who is now retired at 71, was stunned to receive two shoeboxes of family photos, including snapshots of his late parents, in time for Christmas a few years ago.

“I was tickled pink,” Lidbom says. “There were pictures and postcards from both sides of my family going back to my parents’ childhood days – pictures from the 1920s and 1930s up to about 1958 or ’60.” The mementoes included a handwritten journal kept by Lidbom’s Aunt Gertrude in 1923 while attending what is now Bethel University near St. Paul, Minn. Contained in its pages were dried flowers, newspaper clippings and a report card showing straight A’s.      

The items apparently had been lost around the time that Lidbom’s mother, Sarah, died in the late 1980s. His father, Arnold, held a garage sale before moving east to join Lidbom in Winston-Salem. “I didn’t even know some of these things existed,” Lidbom says of the keepsakes McGhee eventually found. “I still don’t know how they got from my dad’s garage into the hands of Elizabeth. All I know is she would not take a penny for them, nor would she take anything for shipping. It’s very unusual in today’s society that somebody wouldn’t want to capitalize on things of this nature. This was very valuable to me.”

Though she barely ekes out a living in an expensive beach town, McGhee downplays her largesse, pointing out that she typically spends $30 or less for a cache of old letters and photos. “It’s not that much money, and I figure it’s like I went to the movies a couple of times. I get as much joy out of it, and it continues to give me joy.”

Part of the reward is purely intellectual. A self-described nerd who grew up reading escapist fantasy novels, McGhee sees the artifacts – especially old letters and diaries – as windows into history, though not the familiar, broad-stroke history taught in textbooks. She likes learning the nitty-gritty details of a real individual’s life – “the more specific the better,” she says. “That’s where I find the really weird, interesting, concrete information. This was another means of escape, to almost disappear into someone else’s life to feel what they felt. I take secret pleasure in knowing that no one else knows this but me. No one has read this or looked at this.”

Some of the writings contain a hint of romance and mystery.

“Dear bride so soon to be,
take this wedding wish from me.
May happiness, health, prosperity
be all that your sweet eyes shall see.”

So reads a card signed by Harry F. Keller of Bayside, N.Y., to a woman named Elizabeth, probably around 1930. The item is affixed inside a family album from that era; McGhee acquired it at a swap meet in San Diego. “With Newspapers.com, I can plug in ‘Miss Keller to be bride next month,’ and if I am lucky and they have it indexed, I could find the date and all the other information.”

Or not. Chances are good that McGhee might hit upon part of the story, but she may never ultimately discover what became of the other Elizabeth, whether her marriage was joyous, whether health and prosperity proved elusive, whether the couple broke up or lived long lives together. A lot of the material only tantalizes. “It’s like a work of fiction,” McGhee says. “You go, ‘What happened next? What happened next year?’ It’s almost like getting to the end of a book and not having the last chapter.”

McGhee once acquired a big family Bible, dating to the mid-1800s, that had been partially charred by fire; she returned it to startled members of the family in the Pacific Northwest. She still possesses a long, fold-out booklet of picture postcards from 1915 – when postage was a penny – showing San Diego’s newly opened Balboa Park. She also has the letters from Ben Field, a writer and communist who lived in a series of Los Angeles hotel rooms during the 1930s. Field, who mingled with musicians and poets, contributed a chapter to a 48-page book, released by International Publishers of New York in 1939, titled “Get Organized: Stories and Poems About Trade Union People.” McGhee has that, too, its pages now brown and fragile.

“She has more patience – I don’t know anybody who would sit down with a box of letters and transcribe them,” says McGhee’s father, Doug, who jokes that she’s obsessive-compulsive, but “in a good way.”

Doug McGhee, who was an accountant in the aerospace industry, was an avid photographer who combed flea markets for old cameras and pictures. Growing up in Chula Vista, Elizabeth first learned to count, she says, in a stroller zig-zagging through the numbered aisles of weekend swap meets.

Following her parents’ divorce, her mother, Barbara Landis, moved to Los Angeles, where McGhee attended University High School before studying art at Santa Monica College and then Laguna College of Art + Design. She graduated in 2009. Her mother, a history buff who teaches Latin at a private school in Calabasas, also shaped her appreciation of the past, McGhee says.

McGhee traces genealogies of her friends for fun. She reads esoteric accounts of life in the frontier West. Women on the plains, left home alone while their husbands herded cattle, appreciated having chickens just to hear a sound other than the wind, McGhee says. “They’d name the chickens and talk to the chickens, but then when a guest would come, one of these chickens, who were almost their pets, would be killed for dinner so the guest would be happy. You just think of the sacrifice. Little things like that make the history more real.”
A family named Mireau immigrated from Russia to York, Neb., after the Civil War. One of the women, Irma Mireau, grew up there in the early 1900s and joined a gospel group that sang on local radio. She eventually caused a stir in the devoutly religious family by marrying a sailor and moving to San Diego.

About 150 photos, mainly of Irma, taken well before World War II, ended up in a swap meet, and McGhee bought them. Her research on the Internet found that the singer’s distant cousin, Al Mireau, was up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. A man very interested in family history, he had been running a genealogy website for years. McGhee sent the photos his way.

“I was dumbstruck – just stunned out of my mind,” Mireau, now 76, remembers. He passed along the pictures to Irma’s daughter Mary Roemer and granddaughter Sarah Roemer, who live in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa. They had lost the cherished photos while out of work about 15 years ago, unable to pay rental on a storage unit, Roemer says. Things were so bad they lived for several months in a 1987 Ford Escort, parking at a boat marina during the day and in a church lot at night.

Sarah Roemer, who’s now 44 and back on her feet, working as an insurance agent, figured the pictures were gone forever. Getting them back was “absolutely amazing,” she says. “I saw them and just broke down. I still get choked up.”

If McGhee cannot find the rightful owners of yellowing pictures and letters, she tries to preserve them, although they already overflow her apartment and fill part of her childhood bedroom at her father’s house in Chula Vista. Some discoveries are simply too precious to part with – a case in point being the long correspondence between Richard Camier, a farmer in Alberta, Canada, and Flora Montgomery, who lived there briefly before moving away to San Francisco and later El Cajon.

They traded handwritten missives for years and years. McGhee has a batch from 1920 to 1925 and another from 1944 to 1949. The fond notes talk of horses and wildflowers and neighbors and crops and favorite books and the soaring rents in the Bay Area after construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. (“The place we rented for 10 dollars a month,” wrote Montgomery, who resided with her mother, “was sold and resold for speculation, and was to be remodeled for a rental of 37 dollars.”)

Finally, in July of 1947, Camier announced that, unless Montgomery married him and moved to his farm, he would return to his native Ireland. “So I will have to make my confession,” he wrote, “in telling you that I am now and always in love with you, which I suppose you always knew.” Apparently anticipating her answer, he added, “The smiles you once gave to me, I suppose I will never see them now, but many, many times there will be a darkening shadow on my brow.”

Montgomery did let him go, McGhee notes. “She said, ‘I’m really sorry, I don’t feel that way.’ ” A newspaper article in 1964 recorded her burial at Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego. Camier wrote poetry to her for a while, then his trail fades. “I have no idea whatever happened to him,” McGhee says, “but perhaps with some more research I may find out eventually.”


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