I was once asked to explain what in my past contributed most to my being an artist. After much thought I came to the realization that my answer was my relationship with my grandmother.
As an only child and as the only grandchild, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She was quite eccentric and her house in the inner city of St. Louis in the forties and fifties was full of magic and mystery: miniatures of all kinds, including an exquisite scale model of the English Coronation Coach, a small model coffin used by itinerant salesman, a child’s bagpipe, a two story Victorian doll house, a doll that wore clothes meant for a two year old – she had a bisque head, human hair and her two front teeth were real. My grandmother had collections of Ouija boards, kaleidoscopes, stereopticans, Victorian travel games and greeting cards, perfume bottles, tea cups, buttons, bolts of lace, boxes of costume jewelry, boxes of costumes and books: books of fairy tales (Mother Goose and Grimm), ghost stories, the 1904 World’s Fair, the Great Cyclone, murder mysteries, strange places, stranger people and medical oddities. She spent much time in resale shops and antique stores, selling as much as she bought and always on the alert for the whimsical, exotic and often grotesque. Our weekend excursions reflected her unusual interests. I never knew if we would end up in a doll hospital, puppet show, or mortuary. (She didn’t have to know the deceased, she was showing me the dead body!) I inherited her love of old cemeteries. We would reconstruct imaginary lives from the tombstone epitaphs. All of this was done in a spirit of adventure and fun.
What she did not take lightly, though, was her religion. Stories of the saints and martyrs held the greatest part of her considerable story-telling repertoire. My childhood with her was grounded in Mass in great old stone churches damp and dark on weekdays but bright and jubilant on Sundays. Her great faith and continuous prayer is what kept her from loneliness in her old age and enabled her to be fearless to the end. Our shared life, with no clear distinction between reality and fantasy, the ordinary and extraordinary, the natural and the supernatural, cultivated creativity and provided an atmosphere where anything (including making art) was possible.
- Jean Carruthers Wetta