TERRE HAUTE —
Sometimes, imagination must fill in the blanks of life.
Answers aren’t always available.
An Illinois high school history teacher used his own imagination — and forgotten, century-old photographs of a Marshall woman — to artistically answer a musical mystery.
This fall, the Grammy Award-winning folk duo The Civil Wars endorsed a contest that asked videographers to create a video for the band’s song “20 Years.” Impressed by The Civil Wars’ acclaimed 2011 “Barton Hallow” album, Bruce David Janu “liked” the band on Facebook, allowing him to receive news about the twosome. Their “20 Years” video contest instantly reminded him of an old photo album he’d bought at an antiques shop in the mid-1990s.
“That’s when the two things clicked,” Janu said last week by telephone from his home in Arlington Heights, Ill., where he, his wife and their two sons live.
“I wanted to construct a visual homage to Jayne Bartlett Kerr,” he said.
The project allowed Janu to blend two of his lifelong interests — history and filmmaking. He teaches world and junior-level history at Hersey High School, near Chicago. He’s also produced documentaries, including “Facing Sudan” (screened on the film festival circuit) and “Crayons and Paper” (broadcast on the Documentary Channel). After crafting his first music video last summer, he decided to take on The Civil Wars’ challenge.
The photo album contains pictures of Kerr, her husband, their infant son, and Kerr’s friend. She compiled the album in the years 1900, 1901 and 1902, posing at sites around Marshall, Ill., where she lived in a residence on Plum Street, as well as locations in nearby Terre Haute. Unlike many photo albums, Kerr identified the people in the pictures, writing names and places in the margins.
Kerr’s inscriptions gave Janu just enough information to spark his curiosity to research her life, and connect it to the song.
The Civil Wars consist of singer-guitarist John Paul White and vocalist Joy Williams. Asked to explain the story behind the song “20 Years” in an interview with American Songwriter magazine, Williams said only, “It’s a secret of my family.” Her lyrics describe a note — written 20 years earlier — left under a front door, containing “yellow paper and a faded picture and a secret in an envelope,” with “no reason, no excuses” and “no secondhand alibis, just some black ink on some blue lines and a shadow you won’t recognize.”
Then there’s a promise to wait another 20 years, and prayers for redemption and a return note.
Listeners must explain the rest.
Janu saw a parallel between “20 Years” and the photo album of Jayne Bartlett Kerr that he found in an Illinois antiques shop.
“There’s some mystery to her life that fits the song,” Janu said. “I thought the song speaks about our past, what we’ve left behind, and what other people find.”
Kerr’s photo album resembles a 21st-century Facebook page, Janu said. A regular antiques hunter, Janu doesn’t recall which shop or town where he bought the album, but he has spent time in central Illinois. Now 44, he graduated from Eastern Illinois University in 1991, and visited the Marshall area a few times. “I just loved the feel of those small towns,” Janu said.
Janu does recall being drawn to the photographs, and the fact that Kerr carefully identified them. Such “found photographs” — unwanted photos sold or given to antiques dealers — often contain little or no information. “This album is somewhat unique, because I know who possessed it,” Janu said.
To prepare the video, Janu used the details Kerr left more than 110 years ago to dig deeper. He turned to the genealogy website
ancestry.com to discover that she was born in Marshall on Jan. 8, 1879, and married Louis Bartlett Kerr on May 12, 1898. She gave birth to their only child, Louis Bartlett Kerr, on July 5, 1899, Janu said.
The photos offer glimpses of her life. “They’re beautiful,” Janu said. Several pictures show young Jayne and her best friend, Clara Schwanecke, socializing and kidding around — pretending to be lost in a tunnel at a Marshall park; sitting at a table, striking a refined pose while holding drinking glasses and playing cards; sitting on the floor, with their heads poking through newspapers, and posing with a large group identified only as the W.I.A.U. of Marshall in 1902. Kerr’s son and mother (“Mother Bartlett”) also appear in a few of the pictures.
Kerr’s husband is only seen in two photos, both without her. Through Janu’s research, he found Kerr listed as “divorced” in the 1910 U.S. Census. “That was somewhat unusual for the times,” Janu said, “and she became the head of the household.” By the 1920 Census, she was listed as “divorced and widowed,” and briefly stayed at the Hotel LaSalle in Chicago, likely because of her duties as an officer in the State Tuberculosis Association, Janu learned through a book on famous Illinois women and from newspaper archives.
That job with the Tuberculosis Association kept Kerr busy, touring the Midwest to raise funds. She also stayed active in the Illinois State Historical Society and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Kerr was so well regarded that an artist sculpted a small figurine of her for a 1929 exhibit on important women in the state.
Kerr fell ill in the late 1920s, was hospitalized in Springfield, and then underwent an operation in Chicago, but that procedure only worsened her ailment, Janu reported. On July 16, 1929, Kerr died in a Chicago hospital. Just 49 years old, she was buried in Marshall Cemetery. Her friend, Clara, outlived Jayne by nearly 30 years, dying in 1957 at the age of 76, Janu said.
Even with research and the pictures, some gaps in Kerr’s life story remain.
“The album leaves a lot of questions unanswered,” Janu said.
Several items, for example, were inserted in that album, when Janu found it at the antiques store, including a postcard from France, forwarded to Jayne while she lived in Chicago. It was written to Kerr by a soldier during World War I. “There’s a hint that these two people knew each other,” Janu said.
Through digitization and computer technology, Janu cleaned and restored many of the album’s playful photos. In 1900, snapping and processing photography was not as inexpensive and instantaneous as in 2012. “The fact that she went through that time [necessary] speaks volumes about how she wanted to be remembered and what she wanted to remember later in life,” Janu said.
More than a century later, those photographs wound up for sale.
“I find it sad that somebody’s life — a memento of what they lived — would end up in an antiques store,” Janu said.
Yet, not unusual. Found photographs are popular with antiques shoppers, primarily out of historical and curiosity interests, rather than intrinsic value.
“The terrific thing about found photographs is they’re little mysteries that you can unlock and find clues to,” Ben Marks, senior editor at Collectors Weekly, a California-based publication, said Monday.
“It becomes this kind of wonderful puzzle to solve,” Marks added. The Collectors Weekly website, like similar sites, allows visitors to post found photographs and share speculation on their locations, activities and background.
The Civil Wars’ video competition — sponsored by the Genero.tv website — closed its entries on Nov. 15, and the final judging has not yet been announced. Ironically, the duo announced earlier this month they were suspending their concert tour because of “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition” but hoped to record new music by 2013. On Tuesday, Genero.tv co-founder Mick Entwisle told the Tribune-Star that The Civil Wars’ management assured his company the contest would go on as planned, and that band members Williams and White would soon begin judging the 128 submitted videos.
In the meantime, Janu has started a “Finding Jayne” blog (findingjayne.blogspot.com) and plans to publish the entire album, and restore most of its pictures. Regardless of the video contest’s outcome, Janu is happy that he gave a second life to the album Jayne Bartlett Kerr created in Marshall all those years ago.
“It’s an opportunity for filmmakers — amateurs, professionals and semi-professionals across the world — to interpret a song, a piece of familiar music,” Janu said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.