Lincoln’s birthday card makes the rounds

Friday, March 6, 2009

Hallmark doesn’t sell birthday cards for 200-year-olds, so one intrepid artist had to come up with her own medium to wish Abraham Lincoln a happy bicentennial.

A “birthday card” for Lincoln making its way on a nationwide tour is at the Warwick Mall – one of nine stops before it reaches its tenth and final destination at the rededication ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial on May 30.

The card will remain in Warwick until March 7.

Created by artist Wendy Allen, the birthday card is composed of four six-by-four-feet fabric panels for people to sign, wishing Lincoln a happy 200th. A banner running across the top of the panels says, “Happy Birthday, President Lincoln” and is signed, “from the People,” followed by the year.

Portraits Allen painted of the president rest on easels next to the panels. Though there are only four on display at the mall, Allen has painted over 250 Lincoln portraits in the last 28 years.

She paints almost nothing else. She has tried a few landscapes, animals and family portraits but doesn’t seem to enjoy them as much.

“They are horrible,” she said. “It’s just not nearly as fun. It seems like work. When I paint Lincoln, it’s not work.”

Allen’s eyes light up and she gesticulates excitedly when she talks about Lincoln. “It’s not really any part of him or his face” that make her want to paint the former president over and over. It’s “what he’s come to represent.”

“For me, he’s the first modern president,” Allen said. “He’s the soul of America. He made true the Declaration of Independence,” she added, in reference to Lincoln’s part in helping to end slavery.

She has painted Lincoln with acrylics and oils, with brushes and fingers. Some of her paintings are grey, while others have bright orange backgrounds and red tints in Lincoln’s face, like the one she is working on at the mall.

As people stop by and sign the card, Allen dips her fingers into acrylic paint and gently moves them across a 48-by-54-inch canvas. The portrait is painted from the right side of Lincoln, slightly more straight-on than the iconic profile on the penny.

Some of her paintings look like Monets and others like van Goghs, Elaine Henderson, co-producer of the birthday project, said of Allen’s work. “But they’re all unmistakably hers.”

Last year, Allen decided to combine her art with the birthday card tribute to Lincoln for his bicentennial birthday.

Allen wrote a proposal to the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, and the organization endorsed her idea. But all of the funding – for travelling, hotels and supplies – came from her own pocket.

“Money’s tight,” Allen said. “But we still wanted to go ahead with it.”

When she first came up with the idea, Allen thought she would display the birthday card in New York City only. The closest she will get to New York City is Rochester, N.Y., one of the 10 stops in a tour that has grown immensely since it was first conceptualized.

Warwick got on the small list of cities that spans from Portland, Ore. to Tallahassee, Fla. after Allen contacted Sue Stenthouse, Rhode Island director of community relations.

Stenthouse contacted Warwick Mall Manager Linda Campbell, who encouraged Allen to display the birthday card at the mall.

In the middle of the mall walkway, in between Old Navy and Kay Jewelers, Allen and Henderson sit with the birthday card panels and the paintings, listening to the soft sounds of the mall’s fountains and the light music playing all day.

Some of the shoppers don’t even glance at the display and others look as they walk by.

But some stop. They read the sign which says that the panels are a birthday card and that they will be in Washington at the end of May.

A girl wearing a pink sweatshirt who barely comes up to her dad’s waist pauses as she walks by the panels. After asking if the girl wants to sign Lincoln’s birthday card, Henderson lets her pick out her favorite color – orange.

“Put your hand there and I’ll trace it,” the father tells his daughter. “See this,” he says pointing at another traced hand on the panel. “Put your hand like that.”

When he finished tracing his daughter’s hand, the father wrote, “Jada, 2” below the palm.

“I’m trying to bind the ages,” Allen said. “It’s not that long ago” that Lincoln was alive. She said it’s important to keep in mind that Lincoln’s and others’ sacrifices are why Americans have the freedoms they have today.

“We had a man from Georgia sign it,” Allen said. “He thanked President Lincoln for being lenient to the Confederacy and he drew a little Confederate flag. It was like he was really talking to Lincoln.”

Allen said almost all the signatures seem to display a personal connection between the signer and Lincoln.

Some of the messages on the panels are serious and thoughtful.

“Dear Mr. Lincoln,” one person signed. “Your virtues will be revered as long as there is an America.”

Other messages are more playful.

“For the greatest president on his 200th Remembrance Day,” one reads. “Still looking good after all these years!”

When the card reaches Washington, D.C., it will be signed for the last time. During the rededication of the Lincoln Memorial, the panels will be displayed on the John F. Kennedy hockey fields, next to the reflecting pool in front of the Memorial.

The panels will then be archived either at the National Archives in D.C. or at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Illinois. According to Allen, the panels will be brought back out in 2109 for the Lincoln’s 300th birthday and another rededication of his memorial.

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