Monday, October 20, 2008

Unexpected Art

My college was located in a little town in South Carolina, untouched by the twentieth century. Aside from the students, there were about 60 aging residents, courtly remnants of the antebellum South. It was a drowsy, gossipy, languid sort of place. Since I was a Yankee, which was truly like being from someplace like Tibet, I was treated with polite but persistent suspicion.

One day close to Christmas break, I noticed that an empty storefront along the town’s tidy Main Street had been spruced up and sported a “Christmas Exhibition” sign. With the arrogance that only 18-year-olds (who fancy themselves terribly cosmopolitan) possess, I posed a slightly sardonic question to my friends—-What could pass for art in such an unlikely setting? We crowded through the door and stumbled into a magical world.

Strung on invisible lines at varying heights—-from almost ceiling height to inches above the floor—-were hundreds of fabric-covered, decorated spheres. Large or small, they were each as unique as a snowflake, some lavish and regal, others simple and adorned with only calico ribbons. Some were trimmed in pearl designs with satiny ribbon shimmer. A few were as big as basketballs, others were intricate, small wonders the size of Faberge eggs.

Speechless, we began moving along a marked path through the globes. Some invisible moving lighting made it seem as though we were observing an underwater, otherworldly place—-a solar system unlike anything imagined. There was so much to look at that my brain resented my eyes as they moved to each new creation.

I went back every day until it was time to fly out for the holidays. But all through the break, I thought about those beautiful ornaments. When I returned to school, I dialled, with some trepidation, the phone number of the exhibit’s sponsor. I asked if I could meet with her to see her studio and observe how she made the wonderful works.

“Well, shuah, dahlin’,” she responded. “You just come ovah any time. I’d be delighted to show you my studio.” She chuckled and gave me directions.

I was startled to be greeted by a sixtyish, bosomy matron with a freshly lavender-rinsed hairdo. She was wearing a well-worn housedress and an apron. She looked like an illustration out of one of my childhood Dick and Jane books. With a sly glance, she said to come along for a tour of her “studio,” then threw open the door of what was obviously her bedroom. From behind the door, she pulled out a brown shopping bag, overflowing with colorful fabrics and ribbons. Further down, I glimpsed styrofoam balls of varying sizes, and other paraphernalia.

Mrs. Brennan and I became great friends, and, in time, she generously forgave me for being a northerner and shared many of her secrets with me. I learned so many lessons from her, not least of which was the lesson that artists’ spirits do not depend on trappings, or on youth. I miss her. And while I have often wished I could share just one more Christmas with her, her lessons did take root. My lovely friend, wherever you and your shopping bag are now, God bless.

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