Irza apparently possessed prodigious talent even as a young boy.
According to Hawley, "At a very early age, he began to draw. His oldest surviving drawing dates from 1902. A songbook from Warners High School contains his earliest doodles and drawings, at a time when he was entirely untrained." Hawley showed me his grandfather's songbook. The doodles reveal raw talent, but a sense of storytelling, too. Next to titles like "Twilight Falls," "The Whippoorwill Song" and "Row Brothers, Row," are sketches of a setting sun, a singing bird and a boat full of oarsmen, respectively. Each is small, but remarkable in both its accuracy and detail.
I asked Hawley how Irza came to embrace engraving. "He started with pen and ink in college. Then, he designed reproductions of old English and Colonial wrought-iron and fireplace furnishings for an architect in New York City, where he became very skilled at depicting detailed plans by hand. Pen-and-ink drawings are one-of-a-kind creations, but etchings can be reproduced. He finished a few experimental etchings in the 1920s. My guess is that he started doing the etchings so that his work could be mass-produced. He began doing the etchings in earnest around 1930, because he had more time on his hands during the Depression."
Hawley continued. "Irza completed about 25 total etchings between two series. One was focused on buildings in New York City and the other was the Vanishing America series. He did the former series for its commercial viability. But, he did the latter because that's just what he liked to do. He was inspired by real locations for the Vanishing America series. One is a depiction of the barns at the La Du farm where he grew up. Another is inspired by the Jacks Reef Bridge. For another, he used the old bridge over the Erie Canal in Memphis. He may have used photographs for some of the more detailed objects, but he drew mostly from memory."