Two colleagues and I recently traveled to Arkansas to give some workshops at the Delta Heritage Symposium. On the way from the Memphis airport to Jonesboro (home of the Arkansas State University, go Red Wolves!), we visited the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess. Dyess was an interesting planned community, built by the U.S. government as a WPA project in the 1930s. Families were picked after a rigorous application process to come live there in brand new houses, albeit in a reclaimed swamp, with designated farm land to work. (Remember the Johnny Cash song, “Five Feet High and Rising?” That was about a notorious flood which brought water to their front door in Dyess.)
Yes, the Cashes were poor, but they had a nice new home and by all accounts they tried to keep it up well. I was impressed by the level of detail in the restored house – lovingly recreated with the help of surviving family members. We were quite impressed at the little touches – historically accurate cleaning products in the kitchen pantry, shaving cream and cod liver oil on the bathroom shelf and a lot more – as well as the bigger items – furniture, quilting frame, linoleum “rug.” It felt as though a family could walk right into it and live in Depression-era style, quite well just as is. Attention to detail.
During one of our workshops, one of our activities was an open interview (we call them “narrative stages” at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and they usually include a couple more people) with Jonesboro sign painter Vince Pearcy. Vince learned his art from a master sign painter in the days of lead paint (this prompted a whole discussion about what the consequences were of those earlier sign painters messing around with lead paint without any protective clothing, but that is another story). Vince paints new signs based on old photographs (he painted the one on the reconstructed Dyess Theater, for one) and commercial signs, but one of his favorite things to recreate are signs from “ghost marks” on the side of buildings. He has done some dandies in downtown Jonesboro, including this one on the side of the Arts Center. It emerges from the plaster and brick, unfinished but just right, like a glimpse into a past we can feel and may even want to touch. It is sharp in its detail, but still haunting. (Maybe that’s one good reason to call them “ghost marks”?) Again, attention to detail, continuing to amaze and delight.
Look around for attention to detail in your travels, or even right in your neighborhood – or home. In a museum, on a front lawn, or on your own bathroom shelf. It seems to be a human trait which we often look past. When we should using it to look into the past.
What’s makeshift is not the memories, actually, but the method of delivering them. In the past week, I have encountered two memory projects of interest – one at our local library and the other at a memorial service. I was most closely involved w
ith #2, but #1 caught my fancy as well. Let’s start there.
This, in case you can’t tell from the photo, is a listening station of World War II memories from local citizens. It is almost retro in its simplicity. I couldn’t resist trying it out. There’s a boom box, and you pick one of four thematic edited recordings. I picked one on victory gardens. The sound was fine, and the story was well edited, and the directions (just put on the headphones and pick the track) were clear. There was also a transcript of the story. In this world of everything online and high(er) tech, the hands-on quality of this method of delivery was refreshing. Bravo, Arlington County Public Library!
The second example was at a very moving memorial for recently passed Smithsonian Under Secretary for Education, Claudine Brown. My friend Diana recruited me (very willingly of course) and her interns to help with the crafting of a participatory memory quilt made from paper. The premise was, again, very simple and even lower tech than the listening station: attach heart-shaped post it notes to attractive squares of craft paper and let anyone so moved write/draw a message or symbol or some combination in honor of Claudine. The squares were hole-punched in the middle of each of the four sides, and then connected to each other with pipe cleaner pieces. As you can see, the display method was also simple: we borrowed a yellow (Claudine’s favorite color) tablecloth from the caterers of the event, and covered a big sheet of alligator board (from a sign left over from the 2004 World War II Memorial opening event, which was hanging around in our office, somehow very fitting!) and balanced it on several chairs. It was a little curvy, a little funky, but still very beautiful in its own way.
The only trick was getting the table cloth out from under in order to return it to the caterers. But we managed, and hopefully the quilt will have an afterlife. I am sure Claudine would have liked the ingenuity and simplicity. She probably would have approved of the library listening station too.
I’m thinking of launching a new weekly blog feature. (Well, I guess when this hits my blog site, I will have actually launched it.) The premise is, I go for a walk around the neighborhood with my cell phone camera handy, and notice three things and take a picture of them. These three things need a theme (sorry, I am a curator what can I say?). So, my theme today is “things made of metal.”
Observation #1 is a tiny metal car (probably a Matchbox) on the curb between sidewalk and road. What wayward child left it there? It is obviously well used, perhaps a favorite toy of this child. Yet, he or she left it outside on the curb to the fates. Or someone else found it in the street and placed it there in hopes its owner would find it? Who knows. But it is fun to speculate.
Observation #2 is the gate to the “mini-park” that our kids (as in, the neighborhood kids since we only have one) used to play in when they were younger. I never noticed, but this metal gate has the name of our neighborhood fashioned into it. Who was the metal artist who constructed this sign and added it to the gate? The same craftsperson who made the rest of the gate? Nice job, regardless.
Observation #3 is a (partially) metal bird house. (Or is this a bat house? It doesn’t look like other bat houses if so!) There are actually three of them, that I saw at least, in the Thrifton Hills Park at the end of the streets I was walking down. There is no explanation of why these are here; no markings indicating their intended inhabitants. No clues whatsoever. If anyone has any ideas, I would be happy to learn what sort of bird or other creature these are intended to house, and what benefits they might have for the neighborhood.
One walk, three observations. Try it in your neighborhood, and watch this space for my next foray into the unknown and mysterious thematic material culture of Maywood, Arlington, Virginia and maybe some other places I might walk around in the future!
Well, here in DC it is cherry blossom time again, and yesterday evening my husband and a friend of ours and I went walking around the Tidal Basin to see the blooms. (Full disclosure, this photo is of last year’s blooms.) We began to talk about all the things that make us grumpy while walking around the Tidal Basin during Cherry Blossom Madness. These include: Photographers who set their tripods up in the middle of the walkway. Parents with double strollers hogging the sidewalk. People jogging – really, you can’t find a better place to jog than a sidewalk clogged with tourists? People walking multiple dogs. Not just one little dog, but three medium to large sized dogs. On long leashes that get tangled around people’s legs. Oblivious people taking selfies with the trees. Kids who pick blossoms off the trees for a souvenir. Okay, so there are always too many people, not enough sidewalk, and things that are going to annoy you. But, still, the cherry blossoms are gorgeous and despite it all, you have to enjoy them and share them with everyone, be they considerate or not. The blossoms remind us of everything lovely and fleeting, soft and seasonal.
For those of you who have been following me on my Homestead site, I have finally taken the plunge into the world of WordPress. It is going to take me awhile to learn this new platform (thanks to all my friends who already use and have been giving me pointers, as well as the You Tube videos that walk one through), so stay tuned while I figure this out. I am sure once I get it figured out, it will be a whole new ball game.