When I tell the following story, I shorten it considerably. There are people in this version who are important to me in the writing of it. I want you, the reader, to meet them - not just their names. I was coming home from the Illinois Storytelling Festival one year in the mid-’80’s, when I started to make connections among many episodes of my life. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed telling it.
The Artist's Palette
Marilyn A. Kinsella
Sometimes childhood can be a lonely place. Often, mine was. While I was young, my two older brothers were away at school. There were no other children in my neighborhood to play with during the day. So, I was left to my own fantasies. But I had a great fantasy facilitator - my house.
The house was built by Grandpa Joe at the turn of the century. It was an old house by the time I arrived. There were parts of that house that I detested - like the cellar. But other parts that I loved - like the second floor. The upstairs floor was one big room with four alcoves leading off to the four directions. Each window held magic. I could look out the East window and watch the sun rise over my neighborhood. Everyday a parade of people marched by on their way to work or to the corner store for a bit of milk and a bagful of gossip.
The South window looked out over fields and woods. As I sat there, I would try to imagine my mother when she was young looking at those fields -full of animals, fruit trees, and barns. Giant elm trees that grew in our back yard shaded the west window. As the sun set, I watched the shadows of the branches make skeletal patterns across the room. The North window was the night window. It was also the window right above my bed. On some summer evenings I awoke to a spectacular lightning show. The electrical arms clamored until the crescendo of thunder shook the rafters; then I cowered under the covers until the storm passed.
On wet, rainy days I sought playtime fantasies in that upstairs room. At each corner of the alcoves there were tiny, wooden doors that lead to the attic spaces. That was where my parents and grandparents lovingly placed those souvenirs of living that were long past any usefulness, yet held such dear memories that they couldn't part with them. Going deeper into the attic spaces was like taking a walk through time - the deeper I went into the shadows, the deeper the long held memories.
I remember behind one door were all the books my mother had read to my two older brothers. I delighted in Johnny Gruelle's "Raggedy Ann and Andy" stories or Maj Lindman's "Snip, Snap and Snurr." And even though I couldn't read, the pictures led me to stories of my own. To this day I collect old children's books from the thirties and forties.
Behind another door, was my mother's wedding dress. The silken gown was wrapped in clear plastic. It hung like a ghostly apparition until one day I could no longer resist. I tore it off its hanger and put it on. Now I could be any character that I wanted to be. As I grew older, I never outgrew my desire to throw on a costume and slip into some fantasy.
The last door opened into the world of my grandmother, Adelle. She died several years before I was born. So I didn't get to meet her. But that is not to say that I didn't know her. She was a woman with a great many talents and my mother would regale me with stories about her.
She was the oldest of twelve children. Her family owned a famous inn in East St. Louis called the Lauman House. People from all over the country came to stay. Her childhood was filled with scrubbing floors and cooking. She must have looked at my Grandpa Joe as her prince on a white horse. He married her and they became one of the first residents of a new community called Fairview. Grandpa built one of three new homes on the newly plotted land. He worked as a payroll officer for the Black Beauty coal mine at the end of St. Clair Road. This was also the last stop for the streetcar from St. Louis. Grandpa was always involved in politics and his home became the first polling place as Fairview started to evolve. Their parlor was host to many parties and square dances where my Grandpa would call out the dances and my Grandmother played her baby grand piano.
She was an accomplished pianist and played everything from Bach to modern day songs. Sometimes, as she played, her brothers harmonized in their rich tenor and bass voices. My mother told me she practiced two hours every day until her untimely death.
Besides being and musician, she was an artist. Even when I was growing up, the house was filled with the works of art my Grandmother had created. Huge tapestries that hung in the living room and parlor; fine china that ran along the edges of the walls; oils and pastels that graced the entry way were testimony to her artistry.
There among the shadows of that last attic space were her paints, brushes, easel and artist's palette.. Sometimes I went inside that sanctuary and became an artist myself. I might pick up the brushes and stroke the air making beautiful, imaginary pictures. Other times I opened the oil tubes and smeared colors together on her palate. I marveled at the new colors I created.
My mother recognized the artist in me and encouraged me to draw and paint on my own. But as I entered high school, I quickly discovered that my talents were limited to copying. And although it was a useful talent, it was not enough to catapult me into the art world.
Even though I always felt there was an artist lurking inside me, I decided to pursue a degree in education at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Illinois. At least, I kept the dream alive by minoring in fine arts.
After I received my degree and my two girls were in pre-school, I took a job teaching at St. Albert. In subsequent years after Brian was born I worked at Wolf Branch and St. Clare schools. And even though I felt I was a good teacher, I never felt that I was a great teacher. There just was always something missing.
Then, while I was teaching at Wolf Branch in 1981, the librarian at the school encouraged me to go to a Saturday workshop in Carlyle, Illinois. Anyone who has ever taught knows that the last thing you want to do with your Saturday is to attend a workshop. But Mrs. Brady, the school librarian, told me that she had heard me read to kids. She really thought I would enjoy this workshop by two storytellers who called themselves "The Folktellers." She had gone before and knew it was a quality workshop.
I didn't really make up my mind to go till that morning. Reluctantly, I went, but I sat in the back of the room. Am I ever happy I did for it was a workshop that literally turned my world around. There names were Barbara Freeman and Connie Regan and, quite simply, they were magic. The audience was spellbound as they told their stories. I sat in the back and let their words wash through me and around me. I felt as if a beam of light had opened up and God said, "This is what you've been looking for." Instinctively, I knew that I could do what those two were doing. I could tell stories! I didn't know how or where, I just knew I could do it.
What happened after that is a journey that isn't on any map. Looking back at the road I traveled I see so many twists and turns that I can only believe that I was never alone in my travels.
First, the people who took me to the workshop were also the people in charge of the workshop. So afterwards we took Barbara and Connie out to eat. It was there that I got to ask all the questions my heart desired. I felt like I was in the presence of royalty. I was with the stars! They told me that if I was serious about pursuing storytelling that I should join NAPPS - the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling. They told me about festivals, and newsletters, and conferences.
When I got home I did two things. First, I sat my two girls down on the bed and told them every story that I heard that day.
Then, I got a piece of paper and wrote to NAPPS. In a week they replied with a brochure about the first weekend workshop to be held in Jonesborough Tennessee with somebody named Jackie Torrence. I had no idea who Jackie Torrence was. All I knew was that I had to go.
That summer I will admit that I tried storytelling. But, I was still in the mindset that stories had to be memorized and I had an inherent fear of memorization. It was awful. I'm amazed that I didn't let that stop me. Somehow it just spurned me on.
Finally, August arrived. I never traveled by myself so I opted for a Big Red Bus. There is no bus station in Jonesborough, so they let me off on Highway 11 E. As I walked down the hill into the town, I felt as if I were coming home. The town swept over me embracing me with its quaint houses and unique shops. I found my way to the NAPPS office and to my bed and breakfast. I came a day early so I wouldn't miss even a minute of the workshop. This allowed me time to settle in and enjoy my new surroundings. When I called home to check in, I remember telling my husband, Larry, that I thought I'd died and gone to doggie heaven. As the weekend proceeded, I relished every minute immersing myself into a weekend that changed my life.
In the workshop were women with varying degrees of storytelling experience. There were only seven of us, and we all received personal help from "thee" Storylady - Jackie Torrence.
She molded, she shaped, she scolded, she laughed, she cried. I came with the desire to be a storyteller; I went away a storyteller. Jackie not only opened my eyes to stories, she opened my eyes to the world. Suddenly, I saw stories in very ordinary things - stories lurking around the corners, stories in the faces of strangers passing me by. It had all been there before, but it took Jackie for me to open myself up to them.
She invited the group to tell with her on Saturday evening at a town concert. It was my first learning experience. I told "The Hairy Man". But even though Jackie tried to tell us about visualizing the story, not memorizing words, I wasn't ready to listen. I had one of the women read along in the book as I told the story. Three times I became lost and looked to her for help. But even so, the story was well received. The next day as Jackie critiqued us I said, "You know, when I got lost, all I had to do was talk the story until I got back on track."
Jackie just threw up her hands and said, "That's what I've been trying to teach you all weekend. But you just had to experience it before you could learn it."
Before I caught the Big Red Bus for home, Jackie and I sat on the old courthouse steps and ate chicken salad sandwiches and drank Orange Whistles. As the town paraded by, Jackie picked up on a carload of good ole boys having some fun or the old man spitting on the sidewalk. She said to remember everything - someday they will a part of your story.
Jackie followed me out to the highway, where we flagged down the bus. She gave me a big hug as the bus doors opened. I was not only saying goodbye to a great storyteller, I was saying goodbye to a friend.
As I climbed up the steps the first person I saw was a lady sitting directly behind the bus driver. The bus was otherwise empty. She had white wispy hair and clear blue eyes, but I think it was the blue baseball cap that she wore that clued me in to a story. Like Jackie said - never pass up a story. So, I asked her if I could sit next to her. She looked back at the empty seats and said "Sure."
I settled in to hear her story. But before I could speak she said, "So, what have you been doing in Jonesborough?"
Well, that opened the floodgates for me. I talked nonstop for the next hour and a half. I told her about Jackie, and the other participants; I told her about the events that happened and of course, I told her stories.
As I told the stories, she sat riveted. Even the bus driver looked up in the mirror to see what was going on. After I exhausted myself of every detail, I was to find out about the lady next to me. And what a story I heard.
She was from the University of Massachusetts on her way to Chattanooga for a workshop. The only reason she was on this bus was the fact that there was an air controller's strike. She was not about to have some green horn bring her plane in, so she was taking the bus. She said she'd hitchhike the rest of the way, if necessary.
Then she told me about her past. When she was young and had just finished her psychology degree, she was sent to Japan after the bomb. When she arrived at the art school where she was to counsel, she saw that everything was contaminated. There was very little for the master artist to use to teach his students. Then he remembered an ancient art of using cloth to make pictures. Each bit of woven cloth was separated, and they used those threads to make beautiful pictures. It was not only good therapy for the students, but it also produced some memorable and exquisite works of art. When she left Japan, the master gave her several of those pictures.
She then looked at me and said, "Marilyn, I want you to look at your creativity as an artist's palette. This weekend you discovered one color on your palette - your storytelling. And you will enjoy using this color, but before long you will discover other colors on your palette. It is when you mix those colors together that you will create, and then you will call yourself an artist."
I remember thinking that was a nice metaphor, but all I was interested in at the time was storytelling. When we arrived in Knoxville, we said our goodbyes. As she walked away, I thought that, perhaps, I had just met my angel disguised in a blue baseball cap.
When I got back home, I started teaching at St. Clare's. I delighted in telling my captive second grade class my stories as I learned them. I kept to the promise that I made to myself that I was going to tell to all age groups. So, after school, I would often tell at nursing homes or community groups. Anyone who would have me, I would tell. My skills increased proportionate to the mistakes that I made.
Then it happened. One night as I was searching through Botkin's Book on American Folklore, I came across a story, "Little Eight John." I thought Dr. Jack Stokes of Belleville might be interested in writing it as a drama choir. He was the head of the drama choir, a traveling group of thespians at Belleville Junior College. Then I thought - "Why not write it yourself." That night I wrote my first drama choir. Then, I worked with the junior high students to perform at various functions. I found myself writing poems, newsletters, personal stories, original stories. Later, I found myself directing students and plays. I even rediscovered myself acting in plays. That little artist that had been lurking suddenly reappeared as I learned calligraphy. When I started working at the Edwardsville Public Library, I really started to use my artistic talents - unique flannel boards, original acetate stories, and even wall murals. It was like my angel with a blue baseball cap said… "it will all lead back to your storytelling."
In the basement of my home I have a box filled with the things that belonged to my grandma. But, now I know that those are her palettes, brushes and paints. I have my own palette with my own set colors. Just as we all do. It's a matter of discovering our palette And sometimes we are able to take color from one and add to another. It is then that we call ourselves an artist.