This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on 2 May 2012. Click here to read it there.
“Where,” asked the elegantly dressed matron of about 80 yesterday in Virginia, “do you get your ideas?” At my side, soprano Caroline Worra and pianist Tracy Cowden, the artists whose performance had just brought my brand new song cycle so vividly to life, smiled. Post-concert reception in full swing, together we enjoyed the pleasant canapé, cabernet, and camaraderie. I squeezed the stem of my wine glass a little more tightly and thought of a small terracotta sculpture of me that my mother created during the summer of my ninth year.
Forty years after it was created, atop the bookshelf of the Manhattan bedroom that my sons share, the sculpture sits. There’s a mischievous smile on the boy’s face. He has a secret — a merry one — and he looks as though there is nothing he’d like more than to share it.
I remembered Mother, smoking Pall Malls, and fashioning the gritty clay on the back porch of our rural Wisconsin home. I recalled seeing my form slowly take shape beneath her expressive hands. I remembered the shrill metallic burr of the dog-day cicadas mingling with the purling of Paganini Violin Concertos — to which we listened, Mother having been a violinist well into her teens — one after another, as she worked on the statue for the entirety of that idyllic summer.
When my buddies swung by and asked me to evacuate the back porch for the woods so that we could play Last of the Mohicans, or Star Trek, or Rat Patrol in the woods, Mother said, “Listen, go ahead if you like. But if you want it to look like you, you have to stick with it; don’t be surprised if it starts looking a lot like your brother Britt.”
At one point, while modeling the feet, she simply sliced them off with a bit of cutting wire and dumped them into the clay pail. I fished them out, saying, “They look fine to me.” “Yes, they’re okay,” she replied, “but they’re not your feet.” “But nobody will know that except us,” I protested. “But we’ll know,” she sighed. “Where’s the satisfaction in not getting it exactly right?”
She draped a wet cloth over the statue, and for the next few days executed sketch after sketch of first her own feet, and then mine: “I’ve got to freshen up my skills so that I can understand what a foot really looks like,” she explained. Resuming her sculpting, she was happier with the results: “Let’s roll up your pants a bit, like Tom Sawyer,” she said. “Now that I’ve captured your feet, I want people to see them.”
As far as I was concerned, we were done. There was more: “Inspiration is the secret,” she whispered. “Otherwise, this will just be a statue of a little smiling boy. What do you want your secret to be?” I was a serious child. “How can a statue have a secret?” I asked. She didn’t answer. “I could be hiding something behind my back,” I ventured. “Good,” she laughed. “Don’t peek; I’ll put something in your hands behind your back when we’re done working on the front.”
In due course, the piece was finished and fired; when we picked it up at the kiln, I learned the boy’s secret: he was clasping an enormous toad. I also learned that all good works of art require six ingredients: hard work, love, dedication, discipline, craft, and a revealed secret.
I smiled at the woman, relaxed my grip on the stem of my wine glass, and began to try to answer the question I had been asked. I began by asking myself where my mother had gotten her ideas. Where? Well, she shaped my image because she needed a subject, she loved me, and because I was available. And, to this day, that’s where I get my ideas, too.