Dad's postcards tokids inspire art and storytelling By Monica Ginsburg
Photo by Josh Hawkins
Hugh Musick, self-described teller of tall tales, and his kids, Eleanor, 6, and Morley, 8, and his wife, Judine O'Shea.
Hugh Musick, Chicago product designer and self-described teller of tall tales, has sent his children more than 400 handcrafted postcards over the last five years from a colorful cast of characters including kings, queens, bullies and beauties. The catch? Until recently, his kids, Morley, 8, and Eleanor, 6, never knew they really were from him. It began on a business trip in 1997 with a postcard story to Morley involving three pirates and a treasuremap. Then employed as the director of product management for housewares manufacturer Amco, Musick frequently traveled for two or three weeks at a time throughout Europe and the Far East. "When I was in my hotel room at night or in a restaurant, I’d be thinking about my family, and I started making postcards for them. Then I’d write these little stories. Sometimes I’d put parts of our life into it. Sometimes there’d be a little moralizing, or I’d call out things about the kids that they should be proud of. But nothing’s ever planned," he says. "When I run out of space, the story’s over." Concerned that the cards, individual collages of postage stamps, maps, photographs and other materials found during his travels, wouldn’t hold up in the mail, Musick would sneak them into the family mailbox upon returning home. Along the way, "Sarabel" has reported on the latest fashion trend from Paris (happy fish); "Gruffy" relayed the fate of shadow boxer Donovan Doolin (knocked out by his own shadow in under a minute); and "Herma Sue" wrote twice about the theft of Queen Sally’s legendary bottle cap necklace after a visit to the annual Labor Day Doughnut Toss. (King Gary threatened to avenge the theft but forgot his map and was too proud to ask for directions.) "Travel was the catalyst that got me started, but once I started doing it, I couldn’t stop," Musick says. Stories go public Hey you kid! Wanna fight? I’m Tommy Donnigan, the toughest kid on Doozies Dude Ranch. I’ll fight anyone who thinks they’re tougher than me. So what if none of the other kids want to play with me or be my friend? I say I’ll punch them all. Just because my feelings get hurt doesn’t mean I won’t knock you down too. Who cares that I sometimes cry at night because I miss my mom and dad. That doesn’t mean I’m not tough. I am. But I need a friend, too. Will you be my friend? — "Tommy" writing to Macho Morleyman Musick, August 1999 As Morley got older, he suspected there was more to the story than what he read on the 7½ x 12½ cards. When Morley pressed him for details, Musick said that as he traveled around the world and told people about his terrific kids, those people would be inspired to write them a note. Satisfied with the explanation, the kids continued to eagerly check the mail, hoping to find clever greetings from their international friends. "In a way, it’s a grand deception I’ve played on my kids, but it’s also a testament to a child’s willingness to believe," says Musick. "It’s sort of like the Tooth Fairy. Eleanor lost a tooth and absolutely believed in the Tooth Fairy. That desire to believe still goes on." Several months ago, without telling his children, Musick read his stories on the radio and live at two Chicago venues as part of WBEZ’s Writer’s Block Party. A producer at the radio station heard about the cards and Musick thought it would be a good opportunity to see what adults thought of his work. But it was an October exhibit of Chicago-area contemporary artists at the Judy A Saslow Gallery in Chicago, featuring seven of Musick’s postcard collages and stories, that forced him finally to come clean. "I didn’t want to tell the kids because I didn’t know how they’d react. And they were really, really angry. I’d say this has lost some of its magic, but they’ve both said they’d like me to continue writing them stories," Musick says. "I was upset to find out that all the time Dad was the one sending the postcards," says Eleanor. "I didn’t feel too good about it at first. Now I told him it’s OK. They’re still fun to get and the stories are still good. Me and Morley are kind of famous because Dad sent the postcards to us." Adds Morley: "It’s pretty cool to have a Dad that’s a good artist." Surreal and goofy "Yeow! It’s booster shot time. My brothers Stanley, Edmund and I hate getting shots. You can pretty much guarantee that once the needles come out, the three of us will be running for our lives. This year it’s Sweet Pea fever we’re being inoculated for. Who’s even heard of it! To tell the truth, our mother is sort of a germ nut. She hears about some new disease monkeys in Burundi have contracted and the next thing you know, we’re all at Dr. Newall’s being checked out for Monkey Nut Fever. And here’s the thing: Not one of us has been sick a day in our lives. Oh, well. — "Richard" writing to Eleanor, June 2001 Musick’s postcards have been described as both surreal and goofy. And that’s fine with him. "The images are definitely open to interpretation. I’ll look at the postcards with my kids and ask them to tell me a story about the pictures on the front. Or, I’ll say, ‘Here’s a story, let me read it to you. Now let’s draw a picture or cut something out from a magazine to illustrate it.’ In some cases it’s the story that’s appealing, in some cases it’s the visuals. There’s two ways of being creative." Musick’s wife, Judine O’Shea, shares a lifelong interest in art. She has taken classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and now works as a graphic designer for Loyola Press in Chicago. "Art is important to us," says Musick. "We’ve tried to teach our kids that art matters and should be taken seriously. So much in our culture is based on money, but in history, what’s going to stand: the richest man or something of cultural significance? "We’ve always taken the kids to art fairs and art museums and it’s interesting to watch the way they approach art," he continues. "Sometimes they’re very insightful and sometimes they put something down on paper and it’s done. I took Morley to a recording studio when he was younger because I wanted to show him that art is a process, with trial and error and experimentation. You record different sounds and see how they fit together and balance each other out." A sad fact of life is that not everyone can do whatever they want, "Eammon" wrote in a postcard to Morley in May. Eammon was referring to Clark 1136B, a robot that led the life of an ordinary boy, except, of course, when it came to water sports. Sometimes, though, like Musick, you get to do just what you want. Last year, he formed Springboard Product Development and now designs household products and accessories for Crate & Barrel, CB2, The Land of Nod and others. While his business travel has decreased, his postcard production has increased. With postcards overflowing from cigar boxes and lined up along the family’s wall-to-wall bookshelves, Musick expects the tall tales to continue. "It’s clear to me that I’m never going to stop doing this," he says. "If I never have another gallery show, that’s fine. I started this as something enchanting for my kids. It’s kind of a legacy they can always have." The windy season is upon us at last. Each afternoon after my nap, I put on my brown robe and walk out into the garden to watch the Cloud Hangers at work. From sun up ‘til dusk they work up on their scaffolds putting big puffy clouds in the sky. The work is dangerous so it requires years of training. The Cloud Hangers always wave a hello to me and I tie cookies to balloons, which float up to them. We’re all friends. — "Natalie" writing to Miss Eleanor Little Cloud, January 1999Monica Ginsburg is a freelance writer based in Chicago.