Suspended in a vitrine in Staten Island’s Faber Park is a Mongol 482 No. 2, one of the most recognizable pencils ever designed with its black and yellow color scheme. Manufactured by Johann Eberhard Faber’s company (and supposedly named for his favorite soup, purée Mongole), it wasn’t the first yellow pencil, but its popularity helped secure the flaxen image that comes to mind when we think “pencil.” You can still spot ten-foot-tall yellow pencils on the façade of the former Eberhard Faber factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Yet it was here on the north shore of Staten Island that the Faber family made their home.
It’s that local history that artist Jackie Mock wanted to celebrate in The Pencil Museum, a new installation in Faber Park, once the site of the Faber Mansion. “It’s amazing that [Eberhard Faber] was one of the first big factories in New York, and a lot of people who use the park every day have no idea what the Faber name is or how it ties into the history of the city,” Mock told Hyperallergic.
Born into a German family of pencil makers, Faber immigrated to the United States in 1848. He soon recognized that American red cedar was especially suited to making lead pencils. His first factory opened in 1861 in Manhattan on the East River (about where the United Nations is today). After a fire destroyed that building, the Greenpoint factory was established in 1872.
The Pencil Museum is one of 10 yearlong projects debuting this summer in New York City parks. Supported by the Art in the Parks: UNIQLO Park Expressions Grant, they’re intended for parks that lack major cultural programming. There’s also Karla and James Murray’s “Mom-and-Pops of the L.E.S.,” featuring life-size images of defunct local businesses, in the Lower East Side’s Seward Park; Rose DeSiano’s “Absent Monuments,” in which mirrored obelisks are adorned with Dutch Delft photographic tiles interpreting indigenous history, in Queens’s Rufus King Park; Tanda Francis’s “Adorn Me,” a colossal head inspired by African sculpture and Victorian craft, in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park; and Dionisio Cortes Ortega’s “Sitting Together,” with interactive sculptures based on the arrangement of the Bronx Supreme Courthouse, in the Bronx’s Joyce Kilmer Park.
In Faber Park, a series of handmade vitrines each hold an antique pencil or associated implement (including a familiar Pink Pearl eraser), arranged as as a sort of walking tour through Eberhard Faber history. “Some of the pencils are pretty difficult to find, and none of them are being manufactured anymore,” Mock said. She connected with collectors and pencil aficionados to acquire specimens such as the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602, its smooth writing beloved by John Steinbeck, Duke Ellington, and Leonard Bernstein. A pair of World War II-era pencils — the Columbia 465 and Marigold 240 — show how rationing impacted the pencil industry, with cardboard and plastic incorporated into their construction. Many Eberhard Faber pencils were designed for specific uses, like wide Elementary 6370 for young students just learning to write, while the pairing of an Eberhard Faber cap and ring pencil with a brooch pin was a valued utility for early 20th-century women working in retail.
Mock often elevates seemingly mundane objects through sculptural assemblages, whether paint samples from every subway station in Manhattan, or a portrait of Abraham Lincoln made with a vintage puzzle, its missing pieces recreated with bark from a tree outside his Kentucky childhood home. “I like to present objects and make something ordinary into something more monumental,” she said.
The Eberhard Faber company was later merged into Faber-Castell USA, then it became part of Paper Mate. With the postwar rise of the ballpoint pen, and then digital communication, the pencil became less and less central to everyday life. Mock hopes that visitors to The Pencil Museum will gain a greater appreciation for the evolution of writing implements, and a deeper connection with the park, which, aside from its name, has no monument or existing museum to recall this history.
“I met a lot of kids who were like, ‘pencils? we use those in school, why are these interesting?,’ and I got to take them around and they were like, ‘this is much cooler than what we have now!’,” Mock said. “I really loved thinking a little bit outside the typical gallery situation. It was this opportunity to bring this to a different audience, and putting it in their park was really important to me. I think it’s accessible, and there’s something that everyone can get out of it.”
Jackie Mock: The Pencil Museum continues through June 30, 2019 in Faber Park (Richmond Terrace, Staten Island).