SELTI Entry: A Question of Art

Back in late October, a member of my writing group brought an unusual writing contest to our attention. Travel Lit – small pieces designed to draw readers to a particular area or attraction for the tourism industry. The November, 2018, contest sponsored by the SouthEastern Literary Tourism Initiative (SELTI) centered on Montgomery, the capital of Alabama and only a 15 minute drive from my house. Limits were 2000 words, had to center on a tourist attraction or the city in general, and had to draw the reader to the location. I like to stretch my comfort zones, so I decided to give it a shot.

One of my favorite places in the city is the museum. I like museums in general, but for its size, Montgomery has a lovely museum. It also had just added a sculpture garden with a variety of unique sculptures from local artists. It was those sculptures, one seen in the image below, and my own love of upcycling which spurred this story. I came in second, which I’m incredibly proud of. Not too shabby on a first attempt at a writing style, if I do say so myself. If you want to check out the winning entry, Tunnel Vision, and you should, click on the title.

A Question of Art

“Tish? Tisha!” Her mama’s voice rang through the house, strong but tired. So tired. Her mama had been tired for most of Tisha’s life. Working three jobs just to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads took its toll on a woman, even a woman as strong and vibrant as Addie. “Where are you, girl?”

Tish swept her treasures into the old shoebox and shoved them under her bed. Her mama tried to understand, she really did, but she didn’t feel the itch in her fingers to make something or the warm glow that settled in her stomach like the best chicken and dumplings when she got it exactly right. So, Tish worked in secret, so mama wouldn’t fuss.

“I’m here, mama!”

She gave the box one last nudge with her toe, and then ran to the kitchen. Today was the first Tuesday of the month and that meant groceries. Mama brought in the boxes and bags—some from the dollar store, some from the food bank—and Tish put them in the cabinets or the refrigerator. She bounced a little on her toes waiting for her Mama to close the front door and bring in the last bag.

“How was school?”

“We’re going on a field trip!” Tish grabbed a can of peas and twirled to the cabinet.

Her mama froze, one hand clutching a can of creamed corn until the bones of her knuckles stood out against the ebony of her skin. “A field trip?”

“To the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art.” She spoke quickly, knowing her mama was adding the extra expense to her budget and coming up with worry and disappointment. “They just opened this outdoor garden with sculptures and stuff, and Mr. Lowery says our whole grade can go. We’re gonna walk through the main building and see all the pictures first, then have lunch, and then go through the outside part until it’s time to get back on the bus. It won’t cost nothing ’cuz it’s all free. We’re s’posed to take a sack lunch and eat outside, and they have water fountains so I won’t even have to bring something to drink just an empty bottle, and—”

“All right, all right.” Mama laughed, holding up both her hands. “You win! You can go to the museum. You got a form for me to sign?” Tish nodded. “Then let’s put these groceries away and you can tell me about it while we fix supper.”

Supper was spaghetti. The canned sauce and pasta came from one of the boxes, the herbs from a small garden Tish tended before and after school. There were two fat tomatoes hanging on one of her plants. Her mouth watered at the thought of fresh tomato sandwiches. If she could keep the crows off them. After they put away the leftovers and cleaned the kitchen, she showed her mama the colorful booklet Mr. Lowery gave to every child. It still listed the outdoor garden as “Coming Soon!,” but the rest of the art sang to her soul.

That night after her mama left for her cleaning job, Tish pulled the shoebox from under her bed. The baseball coach let her have an old ball they were going to throw away. It was scuffed and dirty and one of the threads had broken, giving the ball the illusion of an open-mouthed smile. She scrubbed it clean and picked through her meagre supplies with care. A couple of rusty washers, some shiny paper from an old magazine, two small pebbles, and a bent-up pipe cleaner. Yes, that should do it. With a bottle of glue and her mind’s eye full of her future museum exhibit, Tish went to work on her masterpiece.

Sitting on the bus two weeks later, Tish smoothed the skirt on her Sunday dress. She’d argued with her mama about wearing it. It was a museum, she’d said, an important place. She was s’posed to look her best at important places, right? Mama wasn’t convinced. The class was to explore an outdoor sculpture garden and eat outside. Jeans and sturdy sneakers seemed more appropriate, easier to clean, and cheaper to replace than her best dress. Tish promised and promised and begged and pleaded until mama gave in. She could wear her dress, but she had to be extra, extra careful with it. She’d nodded so hard her neck had hurt, but her smile? Her smile was bigger than her newest Cheshire cat sculpture made from the old baseball.

That smile returned as the bus bumped over the wooden bridge leading to the museum. They were so close! Huge green fields spread out on either side of the road. On one side, a couple lay on a blanket while their dog chased the geese. On the other, a man held on to a string while a large kite bobbed and danced in the spring breeze.

She saw the pond first, sparkling like liquid sapphires and dotted with geese and ducks. A few swam with determined focus, but most drifted wherever the current took them. A stately building sat behind it, white trim stark against warm, red brick. She pressed her face to the window. It was beautiful.

She stood the moment the bus came to a stop, bouncing on her toes until her pig-tails danced. The door was right there, and if they didn’t go in soon she was gonna explode. But first, Mr. Lowery had to talk, and talk, and talk! Finally, he opened the door.

The museum was everything she could have wished for. She circled the exquisite figures of Hiawatha and his bride, Minnehaha. The white marble glowed under the museum’s lights and made the sculpture come to life. She made faces at the paintings of dour historical figures posing in uncomfortable clothing and fell in love with The King’s Temptress, a sloe-eyed seductress carved from mahogany.

Ms. Nadine, Mr. Lowery’s wife and her group’s chaperone, played the audio tour information on her cell phone when available. The docents described the works of local artists with the same enthusiasm as famous classics. Most of Tish’s classmates rolled their eyes, but she hung on every word. Her feeling of rightness, of purpose, grew. Some of the works were from local artists. Local artists… like her.

And yet…

They weren’t like her, not really. All these magnificent works of art, some of which spoke to her very soul, yet not one resembled hers. Theirs were carved from marble, cast in bronze, or painted with the finest pigments on expensive canvases. Hers were pieces of light in the darkness, joy created from the depressing reality of her mother’s unending exhaustion and their struggle to just hold on while the world rocketed past them. She used the bits and pieces others considered trash because she’d been called that more than once. Her sculptures were beautiful, and so was she.

She stared at a porcelain vase, the reds and blues vivid and beautiful against milky white and gleaming gold, and thought of her latest project. The art in this place was clean and pure while hers started out as a broken and dirty baseball destined for the dump. Maybe… maybe she didn’t make art? Maybe her mama was right, and her sculptures were nothing but a little girl’s dream of something better, something prettier? She bit on her bottom lip to stop its trembling.

“Tish?” Ms. Nadine knelt in front of her. “Tish, honey, what’s wrong?”

She shook her head. She couldn’t tell her. Ms. Nadine was a sweet lady, but she wouldn’t understand. This hurt. It hurt worse than when her daddy left. She missed him, but there was hope there. Hope that maybe one day he’d come back, and they could be a family again. This? This had shattered a dream, and the broken shards cut her deep inside.

“Did Tyrell hit you again? I done told that boy to keep his hands to himself.”

“No, ma’am.” Tish dropped her gaze to the floor, blinking rapidly. “Ty didn’t do nothing. It’s just…”

“Just what, baby?”

“I like to make stuff.” She sniffled “Like… like I made a cat once out of an old shoe. I broke the round bits off a couple of spoons for ears, and Mrs. Waters cut the left-over piece of her clothesline off and gave it to me for a tail. I used some of my birthday money for paints from the dollar store, and it was so cute. Even mama thought so. But…”

“But there’s nothing like your cat here, right?”

Tish nodded, wiping her eyes. “I thought I was makin’ art, but it ain’t like this. It’s not fancy carvings or twisty glass. It’s just trash.”

“Hush now. Does it make you happy? Do you like doing it? Then it’s not trash. Besides, we haven’t seen everything yet, have we?” She rose and took Tish’s hand. “Come on. The other children swear they’re dying of hunger. Tyrell’s threatening to eat one of these sculptures if he don’t get some food in him and soon. Let’s eat our lunch, then we’ll check out that garden. Maybe we’ll find something to change your mind.”

Tish nibbled on her sandwich and flicked pieces of the crust at the geese. They squawked and pecked and chased after every crumb. Kind of like her, she thought with a sigh. She hoped more than believed Ms. Nadine was right. Making things distracted her when her belly started rumbling two days before mama got paid and comforted her when she “lost” requests from the school for special supplies she knew her mama couldn’t afford.

Was it art? She stared at the piece of bread in her fingers, rolling it until it formed a hard ball. Did it matter? She shrugged. Kinda. She wanted to be good at something, to do something to help her mama so she didn’t have to work so much. She thought it would be art. She tossed the ball of bread to a duck and sighed again. Maybe not.

Unlike her excitement to get off the bus, Tish dragged her feet to the garden area. The first thing she saw was a trio of white pillars that reminded her of carved up tractor tires. She blinked, stared. They were still there. She took a step forward, then another. They were… interesting and strange and nothing like the pristine objects inside the museum. They spiraled into the sky, their shadows casting geometric patterns onto the grass. She walked around and around them, unaware of Ms. Nadine’s growing smile. Then she looked over and her breath caught.

A pair of sculptures stood in the shade of the nearby trees. One looked like an odd chair or a four-legged creature made of rusty shovels and old rakes. More garden implements adorned the other sculpture. Shovel and rake heads, hoes, and trowels had been welded together and hung from rusted chains around a narrow iron post. Unusual sculptures. Beautiful sculptures. Her kind of sculptures. She flashed Ms. Nadine her biggest smile and ran to read the placard. Joe Minter. The artist was African-American, like her, and lived in Alabama. He created his sculptures from discarded bits of metal and wood, and Atlanta, New York, even the Smithsonian displayed them!

She spun around, her smile so big it hurt, and saw even more. This one looked like an upright centipede or a strange alien made from old metal plates and cooking utensils. That one resembled a couple, with dangling metal bits for hands and hair of rusted chains. Further along the path, she saw two large spheres made of rebar and rubber taken from blowouts along the interstate.

Art. It was all art, and it was like hers. She gave a watery giggle when Ms. Nadine pulled her into a hug.

“You see? Art don’t need fancy tools or expensive paints, baby. It just needs heart and hard work and belief, and you got plenty of that.”