Like many family histories, Amanda Gormley’s has a lot of holes, or “caverns” as she calls them. Having inherited a collection of original art signed simply “Shermund,” Gormley, who knew she had an aunt who was a New York artist, decided to delve deeper into her family’s history to learn more. For most people, this task would be daunting, but as a long-time professional investigator, Gormley had the skills and the wherewithal to uncover her aunt’s lost history. She began by collecting Barbara Shermund’s work.
“She was born in 1899. That was about all I knew,” says Gormley. “My grandfather, who was her father, died when I was one-year old.” Without living family members to share information, Gormley scoured auction houses to track down and purchase Shermund’s work. She probed sellers for information about how they obtained the work with the ultimate goal of finding out where Shermund was buried.
“If I could figure out where she was buried, I could work out the background,” the investigator says. “My goal in finding her was that I felt that I was violating her privacy. I didn’t know her and I am poking around in her private life. I thought I should apologize—at least put flowers on her grave.”
Gormley had a general idea where Shermund had died and began calling around to area funeral homes to try to obtain information about her burial. Finally she landed on John Pfleger Funeral Home in Middletown, New Jersey. “He said, ‘You are looking for your aunt? She’s still here,” says Gormley. Nobody had claimed her ashes for 35 years.
Gormley let her husband know that they would be having a family member stay with them for a while and the funeral home shipped her the ashes. “She was in a temporary receptacle, what looked like a paint can,” says Gormley. “I was feeling very shell-shocked, partially elated, then very, very said. I felt it was kind of reckoning; that I had her permission and that I was doing the right thing. But it was like carrying two dozen eggs in your shirt. I didn’t want to break it. I didn’t know what to do with her. So I put her in my china cabinet.”
She says sometimes she would talk to her ashes, trying to piece together the history aloud. “Her mom died in 1918, and my mom didn’t know much about her. When my mother was born, Barbara was 35 years old. My grandfather was around 60 when she was born.” That large age gap would prove difficult for Gormley’s grandfather, who would later request money from Shermund, as he was close to 70 years old and not working anymore, but had a child (Gormley’s mother) and family to support.
The next step in Gormley’s search was to find Shermund’s mother. She used her professional investigative resources and found the death notice in the San Francisco paper. Shermund’s mother had died in 1918 during influenza pandemic when the artist was only a teen. “In funeral homes, they have these huge ledgers and they were able to pull that out and tell us where Barbara’s mother was buried in an unmarked grave near San Francisco.”
Now, Gormley had a tough choice. “I didn’t feel like I knew her enough to decide, do I bury her next to her mother? Do I spread her ashes on the Jersey Shore, where she lived?” she asks. So she continued her investigation and let the story unfold on its own.
Gormley learned of an antique dealer on the Jersey Shore who had artwork and personal letters from Shermund, so she traveled from her home in San Francisco to New Jersey to see it for herself. “I was very upset, elated, hurt. This woman had all these letters. It was like walking into a store and seeing your life history on a shelf.”
As she read through the letters from her grandfather to Shermund, Gormley learned that the artist was secretly married to Ludwig Sander, an accomplished American painter. “I was able to find an interview with him, and he talked about her, but he didn’t say her name. His second wife destroyed everything, but there was a single picture of Barbara Shermund and on the back it said ‘Ludwig’s first wife, Barbara.’” The letters were an incredible find, steeped in history. Sander wrote home to Shermund from the frontlines of WWII—sometimes on U.S. Navy envelopes or U.S. Army or Gestapo letterhead. “The juxtaposition of him being in Germany and then the content of his adoration for her is amazing. He wrote about how they were going to go on leave and would bring some watercolors and charcoals. He was still doing his art in the middle of WWII,” Gormley says.
All this time, Gormley continued collecting Shermund’s artwork. “Every piece of art represents a different part of her life,” she says. “I started reading about who she worked with and what her life was like. Then I turned to the plates my father gave to me.”
Those plates turned out to be etchings created by the artist herself. “I found someone who was cleaning the etchings, and she said you have to take a look at this one plate. It’s never been inked. It was very small, almost completely corroded.” When it was cleaned up, it was sent back to Gormley, and she took it as an omen. “It says ‘Greetings from Barbara Shermund.’ It was another sign to me that I was on the right track, that she wanted me to do this.”
After taking a break in 2015 from her research and collecting for about a year, Gormley got back at it. She continued her research at the New York Public Library and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at the Ohio State University and continued to connect the dots of Shermund’s story and her own personal history, finding many books that Shermund had illustrated.
In 2017, Gormley reached out to Caitlin McGurk at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, who was working on putting together an exhibition of Shermund’s work. “When I came out, I brought some etchings, sketch books and all of the materials I had uncovered over 7 years. Caitlin had enough artwork, but didn’t know the story,” Gormley says. “Caitlin curated this fabulous exhibit and did a successful fundraiser so we could bury Shermund. It was amazing. I am very proud and I just feel great that it came out the way it did.”
The Decorative Arts Center of Ohio is pleased to exhibit “Tell Me a Story Where the Bad Girl Wins: The Life & Art of Barbara Shermund. You can see the Virtual Exhibition here!