craneAlways for me, since the very beginning, there was story. The “telling,” as my paternal grandmother would call it, sometime sung, always spoken, richly descriptive, with many flourishes and asides, “stories within stories,” my maternal grandmother would say-- snake’s hands that run off the snake path of story, because a snake has no hands (or so they say), and for each of us, there is only one path. Sometimes the snake’s hands in a story, as in the story of a life, are the best part if the story is a long one.

There were family stories, sometime wildly raucous, often poignant, innovative histories and true lies, like the black sheep great-great-uncle who ran off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, came home to die of malaria (or was it yellow fever?) before he could give his sweetheart the beautiful yellow silk patterned shall that he had carried for so many miles. Many years later, my mother would give that shawl to me. There were liturgical, ritual and seasonal ceremonial stories of Anglo-Irish Protestants and Catholic Scots, which made for a certain amount of creative spiritual schizophrenia in our extended clan for it was no small thing then for a Catholic to marry a Protestant, or a Protestant, a Catholic. And of course there were the stories of legend: of gods, goddesses, warriors and heroes, martyrs and virgins. (At nine, the ferociously gruesome and bloopurpledy stories of an endless number of virgin martyrs—a two for one, so to speak, were endlessly fascinating to me.)

But the stories I loved best were those given to me by my Irish grandmother, the magical stories of the Good Folk, the people of the Hollow Hills, the grand and fierce royal Sidhe and those most mischievous fey of all, the shape-shifting Phookas, who could be either cat, dog, horse, goat or human in appearance, and who could be powerful protectors and friends if approached in a respectful manner. Gifts of corn cakes and sweet cream couldn’t hurt, either.

From the time I was very small, these tales were the wellspring of innumerable images, and I drew them constantly in pencil or crayon, on paper white and brown, sometimes in paint or chalk. I listened and I drew the stories that I heard.

Travel and the experience of living in other cultures began when I was nine as my father’s work took him from a small river town in Ontario to the large island city of Montreal, the heart of the province of Quebec. Although the distance from one to the other was but some few hundreds of miles, the cultural distance between English and French Canada was, and is, great. An understanding of the world is startlingly different when seen through the prism of a strange language. New words shape the mouth in unfamiliar fashion, the taste and texture, startling in flavor and intensity, meaning and understanding, manifest themselves in concepts never entertained before. So I learned to speak in French, think and dream in French, and gained the treasure of a whole new world of story.

My mother wanted me to attend art school, Beaux Arts Montreal, but I considered an artist training a chancy and insecure way to earn a living. So I chose instead to study literature and philosophy with plans to become a teacher. Than in the summer of my graduating year, the snake’s hands of my path took me to a summer job, an interval (I thought) before graduate school, as a Pavilion Hostess at the World’s Fair of Expo ’67. There I met and two years later married the wandering gypsy delight of a man who enticed me first south of the border and then took me on an exciting voyage of discovery and learning in Asia and the Sub-Continent. For five years we lived and worked in Okinawa, Japan, Pakistan and Korea, where the stories and customs, the music of the languages of peoples and cultures so different from our own was fascinating, enthralling, and at first, both a little disorienting and unsettling. Still, small discomfort gave way soon enough to wonder and amazement at the artistic gifts of the artists of these lands. The potters of Korea, the wonders of Celedon and Dragon Kilns, the woodcut floating world prints, ink paintings and calligraphy of Japan, the textiles and metal work of Pakistan, the architecture and sculpture of temple and masque, and always the stories: of the fox fairy folk of Japan, Kabuki and Noh, the Tengu angels and shamanic spirit trees, the tiger old man guardian and trickster hare of Korea’s NamSam mountain.

When we came home again, we brought with us a two year old tow-headed son, and I, a great desire to acquire the technical skill to make visible in form the images woven through the pattern of all the stories I had heard, seen and kept in my heart.

My husband and I returned to school, me finally in art, he in business, both together at first, then turn by turn, one of us working so the other could finish. Graduate school would follow, then teaching positions in Ohio and California, along with raising a family. Then travels again: all of us to Africa, a year in Kenya, and many more stories, both dark and light. (And the light is not always pleasant, and the dark is not always not.) Peoples of many hues and every shade, of terracotta, brown and black and cream, in a land of bright, warm colors where there sphinx moths the size of small birds, and leopard’s spotted tail, often hangs from an acacia tree, a furry bell pull.

Some years later there would be other adventures of mind, heart and spirit altering transformation, living in South Africa and then Saudi Arabia; and ever the stories of people and place, of word, song and image that would nourish my artistic vision.

Sometimes people ask what is the source of my imagery, the odd human figures with the animal heads of fox, coyote and raven, the dancing female women with colored, patterned legs and wild hair full of eyes or leaves, the trees and swamps that invade interior rooms, the many windows in one room that look out into a different season. I tell them, with a straight face and solemn expression that the work comes out of my life. They look again at the images, turn to me, some a little bewildered. But for those who smile or dare to laugh with me, I tell them a story. And if they have time, sometime the story turns into a snake’s-hands tale.

©2019 Barbara-Ann Carver-Hunt