Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Gift of Music

The Gift she shared. 

My mother-in-law, Alleen Watt, believed music could start a conversation. Music did more than start a conversation in her life. People in her audiences were given a chance to dance, share stories of times passed, laugh and clap to the beat, and rejoice in the moment. She was blessed with an ear for music called 'perfect pitch.' Playing the guitar and piano came easily for her, a talent she inherited from her Papa, Charlie Morris. So many times as Alleen and I sat together in those last few years of her life, her sentences began with "Papa used to...."

Growing up in Little Axe on a farm during the depression, she and her sisters picked cotton and helped in any way possible. I felt the struggles she endured as she shared her memories, but more than anything else I felt the lasting love that her Papa had given her with the gift of music.  

Her Papa was born in 1878 in South Texas. During his eighty one years he rarely missed making music at a Saturday night dance. In her papers I found these words to a song she wrote to honor her Papa.

The lyrics are written from his point of view growing up dirt poor in Oklahoma.  

There were many times we were so hungry.
There were many times we were so cold,
When we lived there in that old half dugout
Back in those hills so long long ago.

       We came here from way down in Texas.
       Thought life would be better for sure.
       The farm we got kept us from starving,
       The bad times we learned to endure.

Papa had left us for heaven.
As the oldest child I took his place.
I was young but grew up in a hurry,
When I found out what we had to face.

       We hadn’t been long on our homestead
       When measles came to call at our home.
       Mama and sister joined Papa,
       Leaving me and two other brothers alone.

We had an old guitar and banjo,
And a two dollar fiddle and bow.
Soon we were playing for dances,
Then the time didn’t go by so slow.

       We’d ride those old horses bareback.
       Didn’t care how far we had to go.
       Those dances might last until morning,
       And oh, how that moonshine did flow.

Yes, times were hard and we did struggle.
Didn’t dwell on what might have been.
Just thanked God for all of our blessings,
And started all over again. 

*words by Alleen Watt, 1980

Saturday, November 18, 2017

...and her monkey named "Woo"

Rickshaw driver in Victoria, BC

On a rickshaw ride through downtown Victoria, BC our runner stopped at the most curious places.  Twice he pointed out homes of the famous painter from Victoria named Emily Carr. I wrote a note on my phone, 'Who is Emily Carr?' (to see photos and learn more click on this link:Emily Carr's house

Then we passed an outside museum of Totem Poles where we stopped and took pictures. Little did I know that one of the reasons Emily Carr became a famous artist in Canada  was because at the age of 27 in 1899, Emily took herself to the islands off Vancouver and began to paint the life and richness of the West Coast native people and the totem poles they carved.  Sadly,many of these totem poles were destroyed by loggers in the decades to come, but Emily's paintings saved them for us to enjoy. 

Arriving back in Seattle I asked my sister-in-law if she had heard of Emily Carr.  Immediately, she went on line and began showing her artwork, so many of which were in the Seattle museums.  Her pictures were filled with life and adventure in the Canadian wilderness, and we had just returned from an Alaskan cruise that had given us the opportunity to see the lands, trees, and  shades of green that I'd never imagined.   Emily had loved and painted these places that gave her strength and energy. 

Squee Stah a Lo He...

Like Emily Carr, I'm never alone if there is a tree or trees nearly.  It is books and stories that create the art in my imagination and connect me to others who journey through life.  In Louise Penny's book The Brutal Telling I jumped up with energy and curiosity when I read these lines:

     In dowtown Montreal Inspector Gamache stood outside of Heffel's Art Gallery on Sherbrooke st. searching for an answer to a clue.  What was Woo and what did Woo mean?How can knowing Woo solve the mystery?  What he saw was an almost life-sized bronze of a frumpy middle-aged woman standing beside a horse, a dog at her side and a monkey on the horse's back. 
     "This is 'woo'?" he asked.
     "No, this is Emily Carr. It's by Joe Fafard and is called Emily and Friends." (to learn more click on these linksImages of Emily Carr    Joe Fafard's statues of Emily Carr

Emily Carr and her Monkey Woo in Montreal
     Gamache looked more closely at the bronze woman.  She was younger here than the images he'd seen...They almost always showed a masculine woman, alone. In a  forest. And not smiling, not happy.  This woman was happy.
     "Normally Emily Carr looks gruesome. I think it's brilliant to show her happy, as she apparently only was around her animals. It was people she hated." Supt. Brunel said. 

Emily moved to London and then Paris seeking experts to teach her about painting, but what she saw and painted was not in vogue, nor noticed. Her health began to fail in the confines of the cold wet cities.  Coming back to Victoria she gave up painting and lived off pennies selling pottery and other crafts and running a boarding house. In despair, she struggled to survive.

In 1927 a gallery owner, looking for art of the West Coast, heard of Emily's paintings and asked to see them.  Stored in a dusty attic she brought them down for him to see.  Her paintings were sent to the gallery and a show of her works introduced her to the art world. 

At the age of 56 she began to paint again. Buying an old trailer, she called The Elephant, she loaded her pets and began to travel into the deep green forest where she painted in solitude, surrounded by nature and her pets. When her curious monkey 'Woo' squirted the green oil paint, the deadliest of colors, into his mouth he nearly died. She nursed him with a hot water bottle and epsom salts. During the night she dreamed of a hillside covered in greens that began to move. She wrote in her journal,

     "The next morning, the light was so pure that I decided to go out and paint....I felt the nearness of God, the invisible spirit inhabiting he leaves of the trees, the rocks under my feet, the clouds in the sky..every scrap of the Universe seemed to advance and recede, to move, swirl and dance in a continuous celebration of joy...the full pure joy of life." 

As her health began to decline she continued to paint and also to write her memoir, in her journals, and stories. One book call Klee Wyck won the Governor General's Award in 1941. 

I was secretly excited to learn that I'm not the only American who knew nothing about Canada's most famous woman painter and writer. Susanne MacNeille from the NY Times writes with the same joy at having discovered Emily Carr and her works.Vancouver Island Through an Artist's eyes 

It is through life's journey that we discover writings, paintings, sculptures, history, and people across all continents...and the pure joy of life.   

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Route 66 -- Times Gone By

Original backdrop to the stage productions from 1929.

Lobby of theatre with Mr. Dillon
An afternoon tour of the historic Coleman theatre, on Route 66 in Miami, Oklahoma, opened my eyes and filled my head with layers upon layers of stories about the wealth that came out of the lead and zinc mines in Ottawa County from 1910--1950's.  Learning that George L. Coleman believed that he could draw the world to Miami, Oklahoma if he built a stage to match the elegance of the European theatres. Which he did in 1928-1929. The magnificent Spanish Revival era Coleman Theatre was built to match the style of Louis XV, complete with gold leaf trim, hand woven carpet with the Coleman insignia of a pick and shovel, velvet curtains from Belgium, and a crystal chandelier from Czechoslovakia. I found myself and friends spellbound with every story shared that day by Danny Dillon. 
Ceiling and staging

However, George L. Coleman also built a golf course, as a place for his son George to practice, and for Hollywood stars to play on when they visited the Coleman mansion on Rockdale Blvd. In the early 1920's Rockdale Country Club was built. During my childhood in the 1950's I met Ben Hogan, Patty Berg, Mickey Wright, Mickey Mantle and other great golfers and performers. These celebrities, I began to realize, all visited my home golf course thanks to the connections of the Coleman family and my father, Johnie Stapp. 

Dave Marsh, Mickey Mantle, Patty Berg, Johnie Stapp 1956

Pondering those pieces of times gone by an epiphany occurred. I discovered my next writing challenge. It became apparent that this colorful history of a golf course built by a visionary man in the 1920's needed to be recorded--through research and through the eyes of child who witnessed part of this history.  Slowly, I began to dig and sort, through the NewsArchives, notes I'd taken, and stories collected. Then one night, my puzzle pieces began to fall into place, when much like George L. Coleman I found a jewel of a story.

Ky Laffon, a champion golfer, who learned to play golf in Miami at the tutelage of Ed Dudley, spent decades crisscrossing the country playing professional golf, returning to Miami from time to time. My father willingly told stories of Ky, and I'm sure to retold some tall tales in the classroom after his visits. 

It is recorded that Ky's uncontrollable temperament more than likely kept him from winning more first place trophies in professional tournaments, but it did secure his place in history through his legendary act of "club-icide."  After watching his putt lip out on the 18th hole, and numerous other putts that didn't fall that day, shaking with anger he walked off the golf course carrying his putter.  Reaching the trunk of his car he pulled out a gun and proceeded to shoot his putter three times, yelling in a colorful slang the entire time.

Ironically, the same weekend I visited the Coleman Theatre I also laid a personal story to rest. Thanks to John Finley, Rob Kimbrough, and others at the First National Bank of Miami, we were able to lay my father's "Pro Emeritus" stone to rest outside the Dobson Museum in Miami, Oklahoma. It originally had been placed by the putting green at the old Miami Golf and Country Club, after my father died in 1989.  The putting green where many a man won and lost bets during an evening a friendly putting contests, where hundreds of people took lessons from the pro, and where famous stars once walked.

Where one story may end, another begins.  

Letty Stapp Watt
Johnie Stapp's daughter and historian