Art Is

2 October 2014 in Heather, Theater, Writing

You could park a big ol’ Cadillac inside Grandma’s walk-in pantry. To a child, the great windowless room stocked with jams and sauces and pickles and puddings was nothing less than a theater. The rows of metal shelving parsed the space into my very own backstage, wings, proscenium, and house. And on a shelf at the back, below the neatly indexed cake mixes, rested a simple cardboard box— the costume box.

The pantry became an escape from chores—from pulling weeds, picking green beans, and hanging laundry on the line. Grandma, perhaps knowing the futility of wringing work out of a girl on Christmas or spring break, would allow me to spend hours playing dress-up. I made tiaras out of tinfoil and cast spells with a pair of twirling batons. I built worlds and stories—lies to live with, get lost in, argue and fall in love over. The costumes were my willing accomplices as I discovered the art of performance.

In the brown tweed skirt and chevron-striped blouse, with grandma’s white scarf wrapped around my head, I sublimated my country girl life and became an international spy. I discovered the power of sound effects—the snap of the clasp as I opened the black vinyl purse—and of deliberate gestures—my hand reaching into the purse’s depth to pull out a tube of dried-up lipstick or a pair of cat-eye sunglasses. With these props I would save the world.

I did not differentiate between art and art making. Art was the world I created and the objects in it, as well as the physical actions used to articulate a story. Nothing was truth, yet everything became a strategy for dealing with the truth of the world.

Sometimes I sat outside on the porch bench, tucking the too-big crepe-de-chine dress under my bum so I looked more elegant. Turning my knees to the east, and looking over my shoulder to the west, I mentally snapped my black and white photograph. I could even imagine some soldier overseas looking at it with affection.

At the thought, my body would flush in a fever and I’d run back into the pantry and press the side of my face against a row of glass jars. This was art: the drama of the unspoken, the bodily reaction, the saving grace of a quart of canned peaches.

Eventually I outgrew playing dress-up, and grandma took the costume box to the annual town yard sale. But by then the box had served its purpose, teaching me the benevolent deception of art and performance.