Joan’s “Witchy Wood Sculptures” sat on one of the first tables inside the entrance for “Arts in the Park,” an annual Towson event.
“Monkton wood!” she called out, a reference to the nearby town where her crafts were found raw. They were being sold glossed, some with objects glued to, if not between, the branches. A wind chime even hung from one. We were both wearing sunglasses, though I knew our eyes met when she started to smile. I smiled back and asked how she was doing.
“I got my book and the sun’s shining – I’m great!”
I asked her where specifically she found the twisted pieces of wood. She said they come from the trees behind her home, in Monkton, of course, and could be bought for as little as $25 and as much as $125. It was Mother’s Day eve, and I still needed a gift or two. But I refuse to buy anything I can make myself, shiny sticks included.
She said she didn’t mind if I snapped a few photos, so I did. I thanked her and said I wanted to make my rounds before buying anything. That was a good idea, she conceded.
I walked across the grass to a painting display. Most of them were of what looked liked barns and churches. Many of them were set in a snowy winter. No one greeted me, though, so I made my way down the line where I met Barbara, an acrylic canvas painter from Lutherville.
There were three tubs of hand-painted greeting cards – $4-6 each or three for $10, depending on the size. One of these would make a great Mother’s Day card, I thought.
“One box has animals and the other is buildings and stuff,” she announced. By animals she must have meant cats, because that’s the only creature I could find in the pictures. I moved toward the bins full of building paintings, many of them also resembling farm and religious structures.
“Are these from anywhere or did you make them up?” I asked.
She hesitated, then laughed. “I make them up in my sick mind.”
I smiled, scribbling down what she said so I could write about it later.
“Do you paint?” she asked.
“No. I’m a writer.”
“I started a novel once. Didn’t finish it,” Barbara said. She regretted not finishing it. Her 12-year-old niece was a fabulous writer, and if she didn’t make something of herself it would be a terrible waste. Why, just the other day, Barbara was on the phone with the niece, who told a wonderful sci-fi story, going right along without stopping. If she would just write it down she would be successful. I told Barbara I thought that was nice, and I meant it, even though I’m not a sci-fi fan.
“Who does he remind you of?” she asked her husband, pointing my direction.
“Billy,” he confirmed.
“Our neighbor,” she clarified for me. She said Billy was a nice, good-looking man. Our voices even sounded the same.
Then, out of nowhere: “We have a range of prices depending on the sizes.”
All the vendors want to tell you how much their work costs. Hard to blame them, though they could use sales lessons.
If it weren’t for the gap between their tents, an amateur festival-goer like myself would have trouble telling the difference between Barbara’s work and that of Trish next door.
Trish did watercolor paintings. In fact, she was painting a Christmas-looking elf card when I stopped by. She said to let her know if I had any questions. I asked how she had the patience to paint with such detail. Trish laughed, but Barbara overheard the question and shot a look of jealousy out the side of her face.
Trish began telling me the fable of a Japanese monk called Daruma. He was so restless he climbed to the top of a mountain to learn to be more patient, she said. By the end of the story he had grinded down his legs, then his arms, and turned himself into a rolly-polly that you can now find portrayed in Japanese restaurants. She painted me a rendering of the Daruma figure on her napkin. The point of the story was that he had to lose all his limbs before he felt at peace. I thought it sounded like a terrible way to obtain patience.
I was intrigued, but wanted to know more about living in Japan. She had done it in a pair of three-year stints while her husband served in the military in the late 1970s and mid 1980s. She taught English as a second language while living there. I told her I aspired to live overseas at some point. “You should go,” she confirmed.
I looked through some of her larger paintings and found a Maryland blue crab. I asked to take a photo, but she said everything was copyrighted and she would appreciate if I didn’t. She also appreciated that i asked first. No problem, I told her. I understood completely, and promised to return.
The woman at the next table didn’t look up from her magazine when I approached, so I kept moving.
Among the paintings outside Karen’s display was a trio of Chinese food portrayals. Each featured a to-go container with an unwrapped fortune cookie next to it. I collect Chinese fortunes, so I felt connected to the frames, but the $50 price was too much. She said they were fun to paint.
I scribbled something in my pad. “I have a card since you’re taking notes,” she said, handing it to me with a smile. These people must have though I was some kind of buyer. Really I just wanted to find something for my mom.
I asked if I could take a photo of the fortune cookies. She cocked her head sideways, straining, but gave the OK since I “showed so much interest.”
"I won’t post them anywhere," I promised. "I just want to show them to a friend." I wanted to post them on Instagram, too, but I couldn’t go against my word. She also thanked me for asking. Just then I realized, and immediately felt guilty, that I took a photo of one of Barbara’s cat cards without asking. I stepped out of Karen’s tent.
Further down were a pair of competing artists selling bird paintings. The first man’s display caught my eye. There was a section of vividly painted roosters, one with his head toward the ground as if there was feed just below the frame. Another had its head cocked back, wattle fully stretched, like it was about to cock-a-doodle-doo. Beautiful, for sure, but I recoiled at the $250 price tag. I put them in the back of my head, but walked around the corner to find portraits of a kingfisher, oriole, bluebird and more, painted by the neighboring artist. Mom loves bluebirds, and often seen at the feeders behind her deck.
Even better, some of the paintings were only $115 – less than half that of a rooster. Considering both were birds, the bluebird seemed like a steal. Then again, roosters are much larger than bluebirds, so feather-for-feather, the cock was the bargain. But it also cost nearly as much as my monthly car payment.
I was leaning toward the bluebird as a gift frontrunner until I noticed something disturbingly unrealistic. The bluebird’s blue was a few shades too bright, almost pastel, compared to the hundreds I observed in our backyard over the years. If it wasn’t good enough for me, mom certainly wouldn’t appreciate it, no matter how much I paid. I wouldn’t be returning to this display, though I thanked the man for his time.
At the end of the row, where the corner of two rows angles back toward the band playing atop the hill, a woman was selling sun catchers. I couldn’t decide of they were pretty or cheap. “How do you make these?”
She told me how she stained the thick, silver dollar-sized pieces of glass, smoothed them with something – I forget what, probably fire – before wrapping them in copper. Then she soldered the pieces together, creating something that looked like a biology experiment. Add a string and you can hang them in your window to – what else? – catch sunlight.
Well, they are pretty, but I could do that, I thought. Hearing her explanation was like having a magician tell you he uses trap doors. I couldn’t buy a sun catcher either.
Meanwhile, the band, consisting of four teenage Asians, was getting louder. The lead singer, a girl, had an average voice. I wished I wasn’t getting closer to the stage as I made my way along. Maybe it was the music, but I took a cynical view of all the jewelry for sale.
I don’t know anyone who would wear the majority of the charms on display. I felt sympathy for many of the vendors, wondering if they were well-off, retired, or worse, oblivious. I hope this isn’t their full-time job.
Especially the woman who was selling black-and-white letter blocks in artistic font. She had a sign out front prompting customers to “make a word.”
“Great mother’s day, father’s day gifts. Yeaahhh!” she said, patronizing me. I smiled, didn’t even take it personally, until she asked a minute later if she could help with anything in a tone that suggested she didn’t remember our first encounter. I said I was fine, thanked her, and moved along.
She was the last vendor on that side of the festival before the beer tent. I eyed the sign, which advertised an 8 percent ale. I would have it with lunch. First, however, I needed to look at the last three booths I missed on my way in from the parking lot.
As I walked across the lawn, the band played “Fix You” by Coldplay. How ironic.
I began to feel guilty, knowing I wouldn’t buy something from every vendor with which I had spoken. Especially not the two painters from the beginning, Barbara and Trish. Not because I didn’t like their work – it was great – but because their products looked so similar that I didn’t see a point in buying from both, and I didn’t want to hurt the feelings of whomever I didn’t buy from.
I put the dilemma out of my mind for a few minutes while speaking with Kris. She sold what she described as her version of graffiti. The way she explained her inspiration was respectable, but far too nichey for me to grasp. Something about decay, how your words’s meaning change over time as someone new hears or reads them. I won’t try to explain anymore, but her passion was energizing.
She lives in Annapolis now, though she used to be in Baltimore and New York. I told her I was hoping to get to the city soon.
“Baltimore’s great – very artistic,” she said.
“Actually I’m trying to get to New York,” I told her.
“Oh!” She went on about how great it was and asked me what I did. I told her where I worked as a journalist and she said she heard of my company. I should live in Hoboken, she said, because it’s much closer to Manhattan than Brooklyn, not to mention the housing surplus in north Jersey with all the recent development. I would get a bigger apartment than in New York City, but for the same price.
I said I wouldn’t mind living in a small space if I could afford it, even if it was a Manhattan closet. Our headquarters are in Chelsea, I told her. She said it was a nice neighborhood, an industrial one. I said I would like to visit the Chelsea Market. “Expensive,” she said in a low voice. But I know what I might be getting into. She said it was a great place for writers and wished me the best. Just then the wind stole a foil-wrapped pit beef sandwich from her lap and tossed it on the ground, meat-side down. It was full of dirt. “Oh well,” she said, noting it was so undercooked it was “crying.” When I first walked in the tent she had apologized for eating. I told her we all do it, and she had nothing for which to be sorry. That’s when she told me the sandwich was so under-cooked it was “mooing.” A mooing, crying sandwich. Probably best it fell to the ground before she finished it.
I wanted to buy something from her more than anyone else. Instead I just took her business card and thanked her, assuring her I would visit her website.
No one was tending to the next tent, which contained some odd looking wooden bowls, or giant mugs, I couldn’t tell which. I quickly moved along to the final display where a girl around my age was sitting by the front right corner. I browsed through some more smoothed wood bowls/mugs/shapes, wondering what practical use they had, and if none, why anyone would buy them. Then I flipped through some photography. I could tell from the conversation the girl was having with another browser that the photos were hers. I grabbed her card off the table: Monica was her name.
I liked her photos, but not for my mom’s gift. I was flipping through just to be polite, even though she was behind me and probably couldn’t tell what I was doing. Eventually I turned around and caught her eye. She smiled and I told her I liked her glasses. She smiled bigger, dropped her head and thanked me as I rounded the corner. I hoped she didn’t think I was hitting on her, or worse, that I grabbed her card so I could track her down. I should just throw her card away, I thought, not that she would know what I did with it. Unless she was expecting me to call. Poor girl. I hope she sells some photos.
I was really hungry now and walked back to the food tent. I ordered a roasted turkey sandwich and grilled vegetable kabob. They were good, but not worth $9. And I didn’t eat the onions and mushroom on my kabob, so I probably should have gotten a discount, if not more broccoli and peppers. Before I sat down to eat, though, I bought that beer. Only $5, though it was a bit risky since I never tasted it before. It was an Old Chub Scotch Ale. “It’s 8 percent,” the man warned before serving me. I assured him that’s exactly why I chose it, and he laughed. “Just didn’t want you to be surprised.”
I took my sandwich, kabob and mystery beer to a shady spot down the hill from a new band – a Bon Iver doppleganger and an acoustic sidekick – a few feet from the “make a word” lady. The meal was good on my tongue, but bad on my back. Since the band was up the hill, it made for awkward seating if you literally wanted to face the music. All the picnic tables were full, so I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t love the beer, so I drank it a little faster. That gave me a nice buzz as I made one last round looking for a present to buy mom. I knew I would have to wait an extra 15 minutes to leave anyway, just to be sure I was in driving condition.
I didn’t tease myself with the poor bluebird rendering, and gave just a passing glance to the expensive roosters, before thinking it would be nice to at least like to buy a card from Barbara or Trish. I was almost finished my beer at this point, standing precisely in the middle of nowhere in relation to the vendors. They were all around me, but none close enough to tell me their price range or how they turned hurricane rubbish into a “work of art.” I put the can to my mouth, tilted my head back and tapped every last drop out of the Old Chub.
As I lowered the empty can, I decided it best to buy no card at all, rather than create a riff between Barbara and Trish, two women I’m unlikely to see again. To avoid them, I went the long way back toward the grass parking lot, hoping to catch a glimpse of the girl in the glasses so I could act more casual, assure her I wasn’t interested. Maybe even find something worth buying after taking a second look. I rounded the corner to find her wearing sunglasses this time. And weighing about 30 pounds more than she did earlier. In fact, that wasn’t her at all. And I didn’t really plan on buying one of her photos anyway.
I went back toward the food tent and dropped my empty aluminum can in the recycling. The buzz had worn off. I pulled my keys out and headed for my car. I took the sunshades out of the window, turned the ignition and drove out of the park toward the mall.