In the spring of 1959, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, writer, philosopher and theologian, visited the Lexington home of Victor Hammer, the painter, printer, sculptor and architect, and his wife, Carolyn, the curator of rare books and founder of the King Library Press at the University of Kentucky.
Merton stopped in front of an unfinished triptych by Hammer, a painting in the jeweled tones of tempera on gold leaf of a woman and her baby.
Hammer explained that he had started a Madonna and Child, but did not know who she was. Merton then stated, "I know who she is; I have always known her. She is Hagia Sophia."
That exchange, according to The Letters of Thomas Merton and Victor and Carolyn Hammer: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (University Press of Kentucky; 333 pages, $40.) prompted Merton to write his famous prose poem about holy wisdom, Hagia Sophia, which the Hammers set into a book. That meeting further cemented the close personal and epistolary bond between three enormously accomplished people who happened to live in Kentucky.
The newly-published book of letters that documents the relationship was a labor of love, edited by UK public health professor and physician F. Douglas Scutchfield, a Merton devotee, and Paul Holbrook, a printmaker and current director of the King Library Press and bibliographer of the Hammer Estate.
Scutchfield came across the letters at UK, and was inspired by the correspondence, which described a time in Lexington when many of Kentucky's artists, writers and thinkers gathered at the Hammers' Gratz Park house.
"At one time, Kentucky was the Athens of the West, and it was a bit like that in the 1950s and 1960s, there was an artistic clique that existed here," Scutchfield said.
In that vein, the book has inspired more synchronicity: the UK Art Museum put up a show from its own voluminous collection of Hammer's paintings, sketches and bookmaking to coincide with the book's release. Stuart Horodner, the museum's director for only the past six months, said he hopes this concurrence inspires more cooperation between the museum, the university and the community.
"My question is, what's going on now?" Horodner said. "What do we learn from this about artists and intellectuals that are doing interesting things right now? They (Merton and the Hammers) exemplify exactly what we're trying to do — be part of an expanded circle."
'Two pots of gold'
The Hagia Sophia discussion in 1959 kicked off a lengthy exchange between Victor Hammer and Merton, who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani outside of Bardstown. Like many of their letters starting in 1955, this exchange skipped from artistic technique to religion, history, philosophy and one persistent disagreement between the two men, the worthiness of abstract art, some of which Merton admired and Hammer called "pure perversion."
The three would meet at occasional picnics at Gethsemani, and when Merton came to Lexington, but filled the spaces with frequent correspondence.
Hammer fled his native Austria in 1939 because he was afraid his work would be co-opted by the Nazis. He went to Wells College in New York, where he founded a press and invented five typefaces, the most famous of which is American Uncial. In 1948, he came to Lexington at the urging of Transylvania University trustee Joseph Graves Sr., himself a printmaker and founder of Gravesend Press, to become an artist in residence.
Merton had spent much of his youth and young adulthood in Europe, and he had come to Kentucky in 1941 to pursue his religious avocation. He wrote more than 70 books, including his 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which first transfixed Scutchfield.
The physician then moved on to Merton's numerous journals, and noticed that by 1955, the names Carolyn and Victor Hammer started to pop up. Scutchfield looked through the Hammer papers in UK special collections, finding numerous letters from Merton. Then he went to the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville and found the letters from the Hammers.
"It was like finding these two pots of gold," Scutchfield said. "I suddenly had the back and forth correspondence between these incredible polymaths. I thought, some day I'm going to pull all this together."
That day came about four years ago when Scutchfield was on sabbatical. He spent many hours in the reading room of the King Library, taking piles of letters and spreading them out on the tables, beginning to pull together a chronological sequence.
Paul Holbrook, a printmaker who studied with the Hammers, joined the project as the resident expert on the couple.
"It's quite a corpus of letters," Scutchfield said. "The two men were absolute geniuses, and had interests spread from art to spirituality, there was nothing they could not discuss intelligently."
The only Kentuckian in the group, Paris native Carolyn Hammer, wrote numerous letters of her own. Avidly interested in printmaking, art and books, she became Merton's private librarian, filling his diverse requests for books that he could not find in his isolation at the Abbey.
Holbrook said the Hammers operated as a creative team.
"Carolyn was so inquisitive and had such a wide variety of interests that I think she blossomed because of Victor and Victor was able to become a part of this local community because of her and thought he did his best work here," Holbrook said. "They encouraged each other's talents and creativity."
Scutchfield believes that Merton scholars will be able to learn more from these detailed and diverse reading lists sent to Carolyn Hammer and Merton's many comments about them documented in the letters. In a Jan. 10, 1959 letter, for example, Merton requested a book on Soviet espionage; a copy of Khrushchev and Stalin's Ghost by B.D. Wolfe; A Mirror for Narcissus, a memoir by journalist Negley Farson; and Red, Black, Blond and Olive by critic Edmund Wilson.
"If you track back to his journals, there are interesting cross references to how his mind was trending," Scutchfield said.
He said the letters also celebrate a rich intellectual time in Lexington, where the Hammers gathered people, such as composer John Jacob Niles, architectural historian Clay Lancaster, and artist George Headley, whose jewelry became the centerpiece of the Headley Whitney Museum.
"There was a time when people had these back and forth conversations, verbally and in writing," Scutchfield said, describing it as a gathering of Renaissance men and women in the bluegrass.
Those are the kinds of gatherings that interest Horodner.
He only moved to the bluegrass last summer as director of the UK Art Museum, and soon began looking through the museum's collection to see what it held. One of the first artists to get his attention was photographer Doris Ulmann, a photographer who spent time in Appalachia documenting its people and places in the 1920s and '30s. When Horodner asked for more information on her, he was given a biography published by none other than the University Press of Kentucky in 2001.
"We had hundreds of these works, but we didn't use that time to do a big Ulmann show," Horodner said. "It seemed like a missed opportunity."
So he introduced himself to press director Steve Wrinn, and asked about possible future collaborations. The Merton letters were about to be published, so museum curator Janie Welker put together the small show of Victor Hammer's sketches, paintings, mezzotints and printmaking. The show will be up through the spring.
"In the history of art, there are always those wonderful artists, who are lesser known but incite passion in the people around them," Welker said.
Horodner said the show will be a blueprint for more collaborations with faculty and community members doing interesting work.
"The museum has to be a hub for this kind of activity," Horodner said.
Victor Hammer died in 1967, but Merton and Carolyn Hammer continued their correspondence until Dec. 10, 1968, when Merton flew to a religious conference in Bangkok, Thailand.
The last letter in the book is a telegram to Carolyn Hammer: WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU OF THE DEATH OF FATHER THOMAS MERTON IN BANGKOK.
Scutchfield said he hopes people come away from his book with a renewed appreciation for the worlds created by Merton and Hammers.
"These people created, out of their ideas, conversations and mutual respect and affection, some things of absolute beauty," he said. "Whether written or painted or printed, these were the products of Renaissance minds that were for the greater glory of God."