Eleven letters written by my hometown friend Eric Canuteson inspired the collages pictured here. He wrote the first one in 1986, and the last one arrived in 2002 before e-mail took over as our means of correspondence.
Near the end of 2011, I was devastated to learn that Eric suffered an untimely death at age 43. I had trouble believing that the teenager I had passed notes to during Greek and Roman History could be gone. Eric’s friendship means a great deal to me, and this art project is a way to honor his memory. Combining actual text from his letters with the images, people, and places he described in them, this post celebrates Eric’s verve and dynamism while grieving his loss.
Preserving examples of Eric’s handwriting feels crucial. Messy, scratchy, sprawling – I love the way he always signed his name in really huge letters. He also was a great one for circling or putting boxes around important phrases and doodling in the margins. They are the letters of a busy, dedicated person who has taken the time to share his thoughts with a friend. I’ll always be grateful to Eric for that.
Before I started this project, I photocopied the letters because I couldn’t bear to tear up the originals. I also gathered up images that seemed relevant to the letters’ content and context.
The next collage, “Eric’s Excellent Intellectual Adventure,” takes its theme from the first letter Eric ever sent me. He had just started his freshman year at Colorado College and I was in my last year in high school. Postmarked September 24, 1986, it describes his classes, first term paper, and grades. He also asked me to pass on some messages to his former teachers, including a tongue-in-cheek summary of his political views.
I used the actual postmark from the envelope for this collage. The postmark and political references place our friendship in historical context, for Eric’s letters are both cherished personal souvenirs and valuable documents that give us a snapshot of an era. It seems an obvious point, but it still astonishes me that his first letter existed in a world before South African apartheid ended, before the Berlin Wall fell, before Clinton (sandwiched between the elder and junior George Bush), before 9/11, and before Obama.
I am a Liberal and always have been one.
Rehnquist Sucks (Rightquest)
Death to Fascism.
Daniel Monion is a joke. (Since the name was unfamiliar to me, it took me awhile to figure out that Eric was referring to Daniel Moynihan).
Support the ANC!
I hate Republican business majors.
There aren’t any here, thank God.
I really like how he put the title “Mr.” in quotation marks next to his name. At age 18, maybe he didn’t comfortably inhabit the title Mr. Eric Canuteson, so he left the “Mr.” outside the box he drew around his new contact details.
The same letter of September 24, 1986 testifies to Eric’s academic success in the first year of college. With his ambitious spirit and fierce intelligence, he laid a strong foundation to later complete his Ph.D.
I was impressed by Eric’s go-getter energy in all the years I knew him, but that’s not to say he couldn’t be laid back, too. I loved the part in the letter where he admits he put off writing his paper to watch an Eagles versus Bears football game.
I got a B+ on my very first college paper (I wrote it in a very short time because I was watching football.)
An arrow starting from the letter “a” in football points to the words “Eagles v. Bears” floating in the space above the first line of the letter.
The letter goes on to describe how he received an A on his final test.
I got the highest grade in the class — there were only two A’s. By the way, My class is SATIRE AND CARICATURE.
I’m taking Russian (7 hours of it, no less) in the 5th and 6th blocks. (Colorado College’s block program allows its students to focus intensely on one class at a time in a series of eight blocks a year).
The next letter arrived in April 1987 and introduced me to Eric’s love of Pink Floyd.
I listen to Pink Floyd all the time. I’m doing so right now. The album The Final Cut.
I always enjoyed it when Eric told me where he was or what he was listening to while he was writing his letters. It helped me feel connected to his reality even though he lived far away.
The song is awesome. “Not Now John.” The song is about making a movie.
“Who cares what it’s about as long as the kids (go).”
The opening line is “Fuck all that, we’ve got to get on with these.”
The subsequent paragraph of the April, 1987 letter turns its attention to another Pink Floyd album, the iconic Dark Side of the Moon. He describes the songs as “very political and philosophical.”
Dark Side of the Moon is a very good album. It’s about death and depression (the “dark side” of human nature.)
One of the songs has the classic line, “All that you touch and all that you see is all that your life will ever be.”
Pink Floyd tends to be very gloomy, but I like it.
A lot of people hear listen to The Grateful Dead. I’ve heard some Dead but I don’t like it too much. Looks like I’m not going to be a “Dead Head.”
By the way, Dark Side of the Moon ends with a faint voice in the background who states, “There is no dark side of the Moon really; as a matter of fact, it’s all dark.” Isn’t that awesome?
I’ve got to go. Love, Eric.
Eric’s next letter arrived a few months later. It’s shorter than most of the others because he was in the middle of his freshman finals. The shape of his letters hints at the hurry he was in, many of them blending together, such as the way the top of the “t” in Catherine stretches to touch the top of the “h.” The calligraphy of swiftness.
I don’t have much time to write because I really have to study for my Physics final. I haven’t done any homework for the class and I’m about 300 page(s) behind.
I feel bad about not writing you. I like you a lot and consider you a very good friend. I hope you realize that. I just noticed that every sentence in this letter begins with “I.” Oh, well.
Do you like The Who? I think they are awesome. The reason I’m writing is because I was listening to “Behind Blue Eyes.” Have you heard the song? It reminded (me) of the conversations we used to have about me . . . . “ No one knows what it’s like to be the Bad Man/to be the Sad Man/Behind Blue Eyes.”
Do you know where you are going to school for sure yet? Write back if you want — otherwise I’ll talk to you this summer. Love, Eric
After a letterless five months, I was delighted to receive an illustrated missive in November 1987. He wrote the first part of it while visiting the Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs.
Greetings. I am watching the sunset at this time.
I’m out at the Garden of the Gods which is a large group of rock formations.
It’s only 4 o’clock but the sun will set soon because there are mountains to the west. I wish you were here.
Two dark parallel lines frame a simple sketch of Eric’s view. A hill with three lines sprouting from it is Norad, and Pike’s Peak is labelled, too. I love how he included the precise height of Pike’s Peak: 14,110 feet. To the right, jagged rocks burst out of the informative illustration box with the caption “Rocks obstructing more mountains.”
Below the box is an apology that holds painful layers of meaning. A five-month gap between two letters in 1987 seems like a brief interlude compared to the stretch of time that continues to expand without mercy after Eric has passed far beyond the world of letters, apologies, and stamps. His silence stretches both backwards and forwards in time.
I’m sorry it has been so long since I have written to you.
If you are wondering why I am writing though, it isn’t to be polite or because I owe you a letter.
It’s because I suddenly got the urge to talk to you. Why this urge? Well, truthfully, you are the first girl I ever felt really close to and you are always a friend (in the sense of friend much different than a superficial “social friend.”)
The three-page letter continues with news of a break-up and a reflection about how the presence of Norad makes Colorado City “one of the targets for a first strike.” With a wavy line to show a time and location break, he promises to finish the letter back at college.
I had a really great Ethics course. I did a lot of thinking. My favorite quote is (in) the class was from Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietszche.
There is no devil and no hell.
Your soul will be dead even before your body.
Fear nothing further. (F. N.)
I think I’ll have this quote inscribed on my tombstone if I have one (which I doubt.) I bet the religious people in my family wouldn’t appreciate the grim humor.
Turning to a new missive dated March 8th, 1988, Eric opens the letter with a response to a debate we’d been having about Christianity.
Catherine, I think your analysis of the Christian as one who would deny hatred is more than unfair. The Christian knows hatred. In fact, the hatred of the Christian is a brutal form of masochism which denies and hates with more energy than you can imagine. It’s this denial of self which is more cruel than any form of hatred you are capable of.
This self-hatred is linked closely with the key to Christian Ethics — that thought can in itself be a form of sin. This is the root of Christian masochism.
This form of ethics replaces choice in action with guilt over having the thoughts which caused a choice. An ethical system in which thought can be wrong can only lead to unhealthy repression.
I’m taking a class in Biblical Ethics next year. I think the prof. is going to dislike my ideas but maybe not. My minor is “Theories of Ethics.”
Eric’s next paragraph turns to less abstract matters.
Tomorrow I leave for a trip to the Grand Canyon. It is going to be really fun, I think. I’ll be gone for about a week.
I’m going to be home in two week(s) for spring break (March 23-April 3, I think). I’d like to see you if possible. Love exists, Catherine. Don’t be depressed or alienated. I really care about you.
The third page of the letter contains a post-script dated March 18th.
Well, I was rushing to pack for my trip and didn’t mail your letter. It was a fun trip. The Grand (Canyon) is an amazing place . . . I had a lot of time to be by myself and think.
I checked and my spring break does begin March 23 so I’ll drive with some friends and get home late that night.
Give me a call.
The exact date of Eric’s sixth letter is uncertain, but my guess is late spring 1988. Accompanying the letter was an application form and a catalog with “a lot of propaganda” (Eric’s phrase) about Colorado College.
I was thinking of transferring from Westminster College after an unhappy freshman year there, and I appreciated the concern behind his question: “Do you have a Financial Aid Form filled out yet? You should do that fairly soon and have it (need analysis) sent to the schools you are applying to.”
After letting me know that Colorado College “is dropping one block out of the year in the so-called ‘Eight-block plan’ (and) CC also hasn’t divested (another point they don’t dwell on in the recruiting pamphlets),” Eric responds to a story I had told him in a recent letter. The story was about how I started an Amnesty International chapter at Westminster and my surprise when K., one of my fellow freshmen, approached me to say that she would love to join the group but she couldn’t risk it for fear that the CIA would open a file on her.
I also lamented to Eric that I felt left out of social life at my Greek-dominant college because I was not selected to join a sorority. His reply was comforting:
Personally, I think Kappa Kappa Gamma and other herd-like organizations are a greater threat to Democracy than Amnesty International, even if the CIA and K. don’t agree with me.
The next paragraph continues:
I just started reading a book — Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol. I think it’s going to be a really good book. I went shopping with a friend . . . who bought a book by Nabokov and a Cheap Trick tape at the Bookstore — quite a contrast.
Friday night, he and I filled out our Boto Bags* with drinks and got slightly drunk while walking around Colorado Springs. It’s really a shit-hole of a city but it was fun.
Did you pick up the book by Kafka yet? I hope you like it.
If you need to ask me something about your appl. that cant wait for a letter answer, give me a call. Otherwise, write
* Do you know what a Boto bag is? It looks like this.
A circular postmark dates the seventh letter as April 5th, 1989. Eric writes:
It is great to hear from you, as always. I’ve been thinking of you too recently and I almost started a letter. However, my physics lab class doesn’t allow for such frivolous behavior.
Yeah, my class really sucks this block, but to answer your questions — yes, I would say that I am happy in my “pleasant but not idyllic existence.” In fact, I’m somewhat sad that I only have another year here after which, I’ll have to enter the “real world” — no more free time and lots of neat people around like the 15 years of school I have had. Of course, if I go to grad school I’ll a have a few more years — sort of a temporary extension. But I know that the Grade School – Junior High – Senior High – College cycle has been completed and from here on, I will have to make a life for myself. Its a somewhat lonely and frightening thought.
I was very disturbed to hear that you are unhappy. You are one of the neatest people I have ever known.
I understand your feelings of alienation — everyone is basically alone and if you choose to explore this reality rather than drown it in social activity or religion, you will only increase the feeling of alienation. It’s worth it though.
Make friends when you can but never forget that you are alone. I care about you a lot but you are still alone. You may fall in love and forget for awhile, but I promise that sooner or later you’ll realize — you are still alone. So is everyone, whether they realize it or not.
Letter number eight was postmarked July 20, 1990 and arrived on University of California, San Diego letterhead:
How are you? You’ve got to write me and tell me what the hell’s going on in your life. As you no doubt concluded from the letterhead, I am working in San Diego this summer. I will be starting my Ph.D. program this fall.
I want to know (how) Europe was. How have you changed Catherine? Not just in Europe, but in the last few years when I’ve seen you less and less. What are your long term plans — graduate school, job, get married and pregnant (just kidding), or something more original like mercenary, jewel thief, sex therapist, talk show hostess.
Are you looking forward to your senior year? Are you dreading it? Write back,
As a graduate student in Scotland, receiving letters from home was cause for rejoicing. I still remember how happy I was to receive an aerogramme from Eric in January of 1992.
I sit a stone’s throw from the house where you lived in Liberty (“your house?”, “your parents’ house”?) — where better to start a letter to you? I came with my dad up to Jewell because I was bored . . . . . By the way, I’m sitting on the steps up to Jewell at the corner of Jewell and Franklin so I really am near The House. I’m sure you yourself sat here occasionally.
Well, I’ll have to continue this back — Wow, I see your mother [I feel weird] — home. Your mother got out of a white car and walked up to your house. Your mother is back getting something out of the white car. Well, I’ve got to leave. I’ll just take one last look at the house and get out of here. Your house isn’t like other houses.
Significant break in time, place, and mood
at parent’s house
What is going on in your psyche?? Would you like me to come visit you sometime? [Some friendships are firmly “rooted” in place and time and have no meaning outside of a given context. Is ours? I think not; what do you think? Anyway, I will probably come if you want me to.] What exactly are you studying? Do you have to eat a lot of haggis? Well, enough questions.
All I did this X-mas was sit around and read. Why did I just write that? It is not true. I did lots of things including: ski, go to a country bar in Denver, . . . . see several movies, try to call you. However, for the last 5 or 6 days I’ve mostly been sitting around reading. I’m reading Discipline and Punish (Foucault), a study of how the power to punish has evolved in the last several hundred years. Extremely good. I think my parents are wondering why the fuck I would choose to read such a book for no particular reason.
What else? I went out on a ship for the first time (only 3 days). I may be going out for 6 weeks this spring — I haven’t decided. It was weird being out on a ship even for a few days. I think I could deal with 6 weeks though. It would certainly give me time to reflect on confinement as a form of punishment and to read Moby Dick.
Notice that the density of
information has the text has increased down the page. However, I’m fighting a losing battle and must wrap up this letter. I could use the “additional message area” but I would prefer to wrap up the letter on this page and put an “additional message” in the additional message area. LOVE, ERIC
— Random Thoughts —
What’s going to happen to Salman Rushdie? . . . . . Do you like bolo ties? I have one now. I like it. How does the thought of a half-Catherine, half-other parasite growing inside of you, sucking your blood, and finally ripping you open on its way out strike you? You write the best letters of anyone I know so write back.
Eric’s tenth letter, the only one not written by hand, reached me in Glasgow in the summer of 1992.
Between Eric’s penultimate and final letter, an entire decade passed with a new millennium folded inside. Further correspondence by e-mail followed, but I missed his distinctive handwriting. To honor the last letter, I decide to embed a photocopy of the letter in layers of paper and then uncover parts of it in a décollage process.
My eyes teared up when random paper-tearing revealed the L-O-V of Eric’s letter.
Eric, I miss you and wish I could ask if you liked the memorial art. With all my heart, thank you for eleven beautiful letters and the loving friendship contained within them.