Folderol | Tween Painted Ceramic Turtle
Ah, summertime! For kids giddily tearing out of school buildings as the chorus from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” blared out of car windows from FM radio on the last day of classes, summer meant 10–12 weeks of blissful freedom. For single working mothers with school-age children, it meant scrambling to find affordable childcare options for those potentially supervision-less weeks. As a child of a single working mother, my grade school summer vacations were spent in the most educational places a kid could be outside of summer school. Early on, I cozied up to my grandmother’s 10-inch black-and-white TV with the syndicated sitcoms and game shows of the day in between shelling butter beans and going across the street to the Big Bear grocery store with Grandmother so she could get her a fresh six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The next couple of summers put me at for-profit daycares that constantly challenged my parental-guided risk analysis through mandated outdoor activities. As I got older and forged my brand as a well-behaved Quiet Child, I could sit quietly at my mother’s workplace or the public library reading my way through the Book It challenge for a free personal pan pizza.
At some point, I determined that I was desperate to be creative and longing to discover a talent to justify the creative impulses. I was already writing short stories, dabbling in social commentary and mature subject matter like depression and teen pregnancy and marital infidelity. Where did I learn about such things, wondered the very people who kept the family television tuned to daytime and nighttime soap operas. Writing, though it was a quiet pursuit, and one that could be done using free office supplies, did not fully sate my creative urges. I made cassette tapes as a terrible radio DJ. I wove useless square potholders from nylon loops on a plastic loom until too many pegs snapped from the tension. I dabbled in light defacement of the apartment walls with pencils and crayons, to the chagrin of the single working mother desperate for her security deposit to be returned. I wanted piano lessons, but all I got was a small blue Casio keyboard to practice snippets of pop songs from the radio. For a couple of years, I was enrolled at Miss Tammy’s Academy of Dance, which was less a prestigious academy and more a small weathered studio behind a gas station off the main drag. We’d hoped that the rigorous schedule of jazz, ballet, tap, and gymnastics would make a more graceful couch potato of me. After two years of little miss thunder thighs here missing cues and not being able to manage even a half-assed cartwheel, my inner creative monster started to wonder if her place might not be in the performing arts. In the age of Dirty Dancing, this was one Baby who could be put in a corner.
My mother felt that my last preteen summer needed to be filled with some activity, but I hotly dissented. I’d voraciously consumed The Baby-Sitters Club series to date and was wholly convinced that if 13-year-olds in Connecticut could be trusted to babysit actual tiny babies for money, I could spend my summers at home alone with our old 19” Curtis Mathes television and basic cable instead of being placed in the so-called care of so-called responsible adults. I wound up joining a casual friend — the daughter of one of my mother’s work colleagues, another single working mother — at a ceramics class at the Capitol Heights Community Center. I don’t think the girl and I were so much friends as children of the same age who weren’t overtly evil or malicious towards each other…which I suppose is akin to BFFship for preteen girls. We weren’t about to start a child-minding business together in any case.
The ceramics class was an odd choice, as I’d been mostly discouraged from having messy creative hobbies. I was never permitted to have finger paints or Play-Doh at home. I could use the Paint with Water colouring books so long as I was very careful with the small cup of water. But it was okay, maybe, for me to make a mess in a pottery studio, where cleaning up was somebody else’s problem. And maybe my inner creative monster would be able to dismiss another potential talent. The single working mother struggling to pay bills did not need her child to possess an innate aptitude for a creative pursuit that required costly supplies and a dedicated workspace.
Still I went, down to the basement level of the community center, three days a week for approximately eight weeks, to slop some paint onto some pre-made pieces of pottery. It was less of a structured class and more of a budget precursor to the Color Me Mine pottery painting studios that cropped up in strip malls as a fun activity for restless suburbanites twenty-odd years ago. Institutional fluorescent ceiling panels flooded the subterranean ceramics workroom with ample artificial light for students young and old to create their masterpieces. Several large communal tables stretched the length of the room, with moulded plastic chairs tucked in around the perimeter to accommodate wannabe sculptors and fledgling craftisans that populated the continuing education classroom. A large paint-splattered sink was set into a paint-splattered counter on one side of the room. The countertop held a rack of damp brushes sorted by size lined up like soldiers, bristles up, waiting to go back into battle with painters and their muses. Under the sink was an open cabinet with stacked of paint-splattered bowls and tubs to hold paint and water for rinsing brushes between colours. A shelving unit near the sink held completed works waiting to be retrieved by other students at their next class visit. Other shelves and cabinets around the room were stocked with the supplies for turning clay slabs into artistic clay lumps. Bottles and jars of paints and glazes sat stacked on countertop shelves, their fumes permeating the mostly windowless space. Lining the longest wall in the room were industrial, floor-to-ceiling metal racks loaded with all sorts of pre-fab, pre-fired bisque pieces ready to be prepped and painted. An adjacent room stored the workshop’s kilns and larger materials not meant for general class use and opened out to the loading dock via a metal fire door, which was kept propped open for a trickle of fresh ventilation.
Although it was clear there were classes held in this space for proper potters and sculptors, I was part of the beginner track getting an introduction to handling ceramics and the tools and materials used to make the artifacts of the future. Basically, we selected a piece to work on from the shelf of blank bisques and decorated it however we saw fit. If the class met three times a week, the first day was spent mostly shopping for our piece for the week and picking out the paints and maybe starting to sand the rough edges, the next session was all about painting, and the last session of the week was for finishing touches and getting it ready for the kiln or spraying with sealant out on the loading dock. Because we were all working on different projects, it wasn’t so much a class as three hours of independent study while the instructor patrolled the room and offered one-on-one guidance as needed. Terri, the instructor, had a Bob Ross approach to instruction, often providing gentle reminders about technique and kind encouragement to embrace and work with mistakes. She was legally blind and held the pieces close to her face for careful inspection, running her fingertips over bumps that hadn’t quite gotten smoothed over and spots not quite covered by the white dried glaze. My mother seemed pleased for me to have a role model who was working within her abilities, as I grappled with moderately-dulled vision and hearing early in life. Would Terri be the Anne Sullivan to my Helen Keller (“my little Helen Keller” being a pet name my mother would sometimes use for me to highlight my shortcomings whenever my ambitions seemed too audacious for her comfort)? Terri recognized my natural gift as a well-behaved Quiet Child and agreed to let me hang out in the adult or senior classes when it suited my mother in summertime childcare binds. The grown-up classes were far superior to the kid-oriented class, where children were loud and messy and there was always that one kid who wanted to use the exact paint I was using just to be a spiteful little jerk.
Over the course of the ceramics classes, I worked on a dozen or so pieces with varying degrees of success, experimenting with glazes and paints and molding a couple slabs of clay into…something vaguely intended as an ashtray. Among the pieces awarded prominent display in our home were a couple of glazed white and grey cats, a pink ballet shoe, a small imitation Precious Moments figurine of a little girl graduating, a wedding cake topper done to look like my half-sister and her betrothed, a speckle-glazed pitcher and bowl set, a 12-inch replica of Michelangelo’s David, and a turtle. Most of the pieces tracked logically in their selection. Cats seemed natural choices as we were cat people, despite living in apartments that didn’t allow for pets. The ballet shoe was obvious as I’d just done two years of dance and had several intentions of taking it back up in some form later on. My mother had specially requested the pitcher and bowl as a new centrepiece for the dining room table. If it seems odd that I’d’ve chosen to publicly handle a replica of a famous nude man statue, please note I was not so precocious in this regard — the wee David and his fig leaf genitalia was another request from my mother. He stood sentry on the carpeted ledge of the large garden tub in her trailer’s ensuite bathroom for many years. But the turtle…that was a bit of a left-fielder.
I could say I chose the turtle as a fan of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series. Nope. I might guess that we’d recently studied turtles in school and I was impressed with the stately reptile. Nah. My best reckon is that Terri suggested I needed a creative challenge or my mother wanted me to work on one piece that would take more time than buying up and racing through a bunch of smaller pieces. Something about the turtle’s expression amused me, even in its plain bisque state. My mother was not amused. It prompted several disputes about gender — chiefly that reptiles were icky-poo things that boys liked and if I painted it to look masculine, it should have a masculine name. I fumed to myself, while sanding down the rough seams around the shell, how unfair she was trying to squelch my interests. What if this had propelled me into an interest in marine biology — never mind that I couldn’t swim or even float in the pool without putting inflatable arm thingies around my ankles. While slathering Barbara the turtle in shades of Kentucky bluegrass green and earthy chocolate brown, I silently crafted arguments that animals in nature don’t conform to human gender norms and who in the general population could even tell a boy turtle from a girl turtle anyway. But when it came time to carve a name into the bottom of the piece, it was decided that the turtle would be called Michelangelo since we’d just glazed my mother’s sensual David figure and didn’t it seem fun to pretend that this non-ninja turtle was David’s creator. Ugh, fine. So, scratched into the underside of Barbara’s shell is “Michaelangleo.” Well, nobody had an encyclopedia handy at the time to double check the spelling, did they?
Barbara Michaelangleo has been with me for 32 years now. She’s lived in two countries, been sniffed by three cats, and accumulated trillions of dust particles on her shell. She’s always been on hand to share a knowing glance about the ridiculous state of things or to offer a warning glare if I was poised to do something rash and ill-advised. Whenever Barbara’s in the room, I know that my soliloquies are being delivered to a sympathetic soul. Although it pains me to admit, in all this time I have been woefully incurious about Barbara’s origins. I never bothered to look up whether she was based on the Eastern Box Turtle and whether there were distinct manners I ought’ve attributed to her. As far as her personality goes, she’s a mystery — a tabula rasa, really. I didn’t get around to burdening her with imagined hobbies and habits, either. Perhaps that’s the key to our long-lasting relationship; the less you know about someone, the better you can co-exist with them. At least I haven’t projected onto her a load of cringeworthy traits and interests. Or maybe I did and forgot. It’s very possible that Barbara Michaelangleo loved Hypercolor shirts, Hubba Bubba Bubble Tape, New Kids on the Block (Jon being her fave, obvi), and Dennis Miller’s Weekend Update. Oh, Barbara, the 1990s were quite a time for us all.
This turtle is the sole remaining artifact from my ceramics summer. It may be all that’s left of any of my earliest creative efforts. The dance routine I choreographed as an assignment for jazz class is long forgotten, the stories and song parodies and comedy sketches were trashed in fits of artistic frustration and embarrassment, and my much beloved little blue Casio keyboard was cast aside for slightly larger and different instruments with dwindling returns on investment. Barbara looks good for her age. She turned out nicely all those years ago, despite my beginner skill level and having never actually looked at a turtle or considered what they should look like. It gives my inner creative monster a sense of validation in her relentless pursuits of the arts. Someday I may play the audio cassette I found labelled “kathi milller’s comedy tape” for the monster and she may finally pack up her carpetbag and leave me to sit quietly with my more practical delusions.