I call them The Apple Girls. I found them about three years ago, in an old American Art and Antique magazine (1979) which had a feature on the artist John George Brown. Even in black and white, they caught my attention. I tend to collect paper. Before tossing, I give everything a quick look so that nothing important is lost. My filtered collection is eventually re-assessed and tossed, shredded or filed. Eventually is the key word. I do have a lovely shopping bag (once full of new clothes) in my office closet for items in waiting, but I am not a bag lady.
The Apple Girls have been in waiting until I could do more research on the artist. I've probably touched the pilfered page five or six times. Why a particular item strikes our fancy, I don't know. But the copy of this sweet painting of five girls eating apples played on my heartstrings, even though I had never seen a color version.
This past weekend, I finally arrived at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a new museum that opened two years ago, in the northwest part of the state. Hats off to Alice Walton and this gem of a gift! The quiet location of the museum, the caliber of the artwork collected and the fortune spent in purchasing the collection has had the art world in a frenzied tizzy. Imagine, most folks don't even know where our state is located. Ha.
My college cohort-in-mischief and I met and went together, with her daughter. I had only seen snippets about the exhibition Angels and Tomboys but wanted to see it before closing. I told A. it should have been Rebels and Tomboys, like the two of us. The special exhibit was a large collection of work focusing on artwork depicting "Girlhood in 19th Century American Art" which originated with the Newark Museum in New Jersey.
The exhibition walls were painted in fresh, bright colors one would associate with young girls - soft pink, rosy red, sky blue and apple green - reflecting the colors seen in the silk sashes, coral jewelry, hair ribbons, shallow streams, dappled sunlight, and blushing cheeks of the girls' forever, captured with the artists' brushstrokes.
The "Angel" portrayed the young girl with symbols of her future, a storied house in the background, a pampered doll or pet, a sprig of red flowers held in her lap while properly posed in clothing not made for rambunctious pursuits. The "Tomboy" enjoyed outdoor settings that allowed the girl to play in a barn, walk in a stream, swing on a gate and sled on the ice, enjoying the freedom of movement and the raw experience of the moment which had only been acceptable in the depictions of boys.
The stages of womanhood. A baby in mother's lap. A young girl feeding her dolls. A young lady looking at a new bonnet. The girl poised between the little children and the responsibility of womanhood. At a certain age, an awkward dance back and forth, between the desire to be the carefree girl and the desire to be a woman, until societal expectations encourage "behavior befitting a young lady" and the first chapter is closed. At the time of these paintings, home and family were the options.
On the way home, a song came on the radio, Cats in the Cradle by Harry Chapin. For me, music and memory are like an old 45 record, music stamped on one side and vivid memory on the other, no B side. Maybe my mind just works differently. Beginning with the son's birth, the father tells the story of the passage of time and the lessons learned. This song was playing on the radio the very last time I played with my Barbies. I was a teenager and beginning the process of letting go of childish things, even knowing the afternoon would be the last time I cared about clothes and characters. It didn't interest me anymore, years and hours spent making up stories, and using imagination and humble pieces to peg together "set-ups" which stretched out across the floor and remained for days.
There was a boy I liked. My family had just returned from a weekend in New Orleans, which I proclaimed "sin city" before going, begging not to go. Of course, I had to go because my family did everything together, no exceptions allowed. The magic of the place drew me in and I was hooked - by the hot beignets and the strong coffee of the French Market, by the young, uniformed French sailors stopping by as I was sitting for a charcoal sketch on Jackson Square and knowing, because of my first semester of French, what "Tres Jolie" meant, a hippie selling carnations, a Grambling State parade with floats and tokens and beads, a real New Orleans styled funeral with the saints marching, the sound of jazz as we passed by Preservation Hall, the flavors of the restaurants exhausted into the sky, mixing with the salty Gulf of Mexico breeze, I loved New Orleans. But I had also seen the girl on the velvet swing, swinging out over the crowd from her second story window. She was just a few years older than me. I have never forgotten her.
I have never talked to other women about the peculiar dance between, but I remember wanting to look for guppies in a stream and climbing trees in a skirt because I was there and it was the best tree for climbing. Definitely a tomboy. And then a first kiss. Seeing those paintings brought back memories of swaying between the two, the girl and the woman.
When I walked to the next passage of the exhibit, they were hanging on the wall, in their sheltered fall afternoon, enjoying the sweet, juicy apples they had been picking. So unexpected, brilliant colors jumping from the canvas, close enough to almost smell the fragrance of the apples. A moment when my breath was taken away and tears came to my eyes. Pure happiness to find the surprise of their placement in the exhibit. The magic of art to touch all of one's senses, without anticipating the moment. My Apple Girls in color, hanging on the wall.
When I came home later that night, I knew the picture from the magazine was in my office, somewhere but I didn't know where. The clipping was discovered two pages from the top, in a stack less than two feet from the rollers of my chair. Every now and then, one day will be good, the very best, when you least expect.
|John George Brown, The Cider Mill, 1880|
a lady who will soon have a framed print of The Cider Mill hanging on the wall