It was 1978. We were attending the gala opening for an art factory, a turn-of-the-century factory building converted to studios for painters, sculptors, and designers.
Pick something, she told me. Find a piece of art that you like and I will buy it for you.
At first, I didn’t want her gift. We were new friends out on a Sunday afternoon, touring a building thronged with artists, their friends and family.
Janine was a former artist, now staff writer at the government agency where I was an intern. She invited me to meet a friend who was hosting an open house in her studio. I liked Janine, had no other plans since I didn’t know anyone else, so here we were, admiring daubs of paint, kinetic sculptures, and eruptions of clay.
When we finally located her friend’s studio, she wasn’t there. A piece of paper speared on the door said she’d be back in an hour. We’d come back.
Artist space was claimed by white sheetrock boxes within soaring brick walls. Battered wooden floors shone with dime-sized nail heads. Sunshine blared throughout a building more window than wall.
Pick something, Janine urged as we tried on hats, played with building blocks, and talked with skinny, earnest-faced artists. Go on, pick something. It’s my welcome gift.
What I wanted was a room of my own, a place to type my stories for eager readers. I wanted a home where I didn’t share a kitchen with housemates who ate my cereal and left empty boxes.
Then I saw it. A wall-sized painting shimmering with blues and greens, streaks of silver and gold shining like sunlight on water. That was what I wanted.
Janine stopped beside me and stared at it. Wow, she said. I love it.
We giggled over the price tag of $55,000, more than either of us dreamed of earning in a year. Let’s see if Shawnee is back.
Shawnee’s door was open. Laughter exploded from it as we approached.
Shawnee’s studio was packed with well-wishers and other artists swathed in black, hair fastened up high with paint brushes. A short, round woman with wiry red hair grabbed my arm. She’s my daughter, she told us.
I had never seen anything like Shawnee’s copper wire sculptures . Predatory birds and wild-eyed jungle cats lacerated trolls and battled dragons. It was the kind of art that claimed its own space in your home. I would never have that kind of space.
While Janine admired her friend’s creations, I looked around. Shawnee’s mother put her arm around me. She lends me space, she said, pointing to a wood bookcase.
Ceramic jars of all sizes and colors jammed the shelves. Some held flowers, others were filled with pens and magic wands.
Then I saw it. A simple jar that said Cognitive Overload. How much is this one, I asked casually.
Her dark brown eyes bored into mine. Not for sale. It’s yours and she handed it to me.
Janine sneered when she saw the jar in my hands. You cannot be serious.
Dreck, smiled Shawnee and sighed at her mother. I’m the good daughter who lets her mother show off her puttering.
I love it, I said. I don’t care what anyone else thinks. Shawnee’s mother beamed. Me, too.
The jar sits on my writing desk today. While the contents have changed with time, it has always been full. That’s the way I like it.