Who doesn’t know of the beauty and wonder of the ordinary may as well be blind and deaf.
The Tin Man & The Selma & Dallas County Library Book Group
It’s February and one of the coldest winters on record as a group of women in their 30s to 70s gather in a circle. All but one is dressed in black and she’s an art historian who’s come from Montgomery to attend. As the women wait for everyone to gather, they argue amiably, ask after a friend who's ill, and relate tales about the hours and days of their lives. They take orders for the book they’ll read next. Last month it was The Elegance of the Hedgehog; next month the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Most have deep roots in this town that’s experienced violence and whose name made the front pages during the Civil Rights Era. Now, like so many small towns in the rural Deep South, it’s struggling with extreme poverty. But surfaces can be deceiving.
Today, The Tin Man, Charlie Lucas and the coffee table book about his ilfe and art are front and center. In his own words – he’s a toymaker. He’s also a wonderful storyteller. His narrative emerges in wild shapes, moving parts, canvases and rusty metal strips. A handsome dark skinned man born on a sharecropper’s farm, he’s had his share of hardship, but the mischievous glint in his eyes reveal a man who knows how to mine pain for joy.
Raised with 14 siblings he left school in 4th grade and ran away at 14. Following a serious back injury in 1984, he returned home. It would take a long time to heal. There would be no turning back to the work he’d been doing, cotton picking, unloading freight and construction. With ten dollars in his pocket and no visible answers for the future, Charlie prayed for a vision. I asked God to talk to me like he’d never talked before, to slow me down.
Not only did he receive a look at what the future held for him and his family, he saw his work would take him around the world. Already known as a bit crazy, Charlie had his kids write down what he’d seen. I needed something of substance to prove my vision was real. He had neighbors; family and friends witness it by signing those papers. When he showed them to his father, his father spit in his face.
Descended from several generations of metal men who knew how to fix things, as a boy, Charlie made toys for himself and the other kids who worked in the fields. During his recovery, bits and pieces of trash and scrap from sidewalks and junkyards found their way to his studio. They came because ‘they spoke to me.’ And before too long, the living images in his mind and his dreams spilled out of his house and into the garden. Each animal, each bird, each creature, the elderly aunts, friends, old quilts wrapped around carved table legs - each comes with a story. He hears music in them. They tell him their names. And each is signed The Tin Man, because ten dollars is all he had in his pocket when he started out.
‘Art expands you out.’ Each time Charlie sees something different he’s ‘expanded out.’ Seeing with fresh eyes happens through play. When I’m working I’m playing and when you’re playing the mind is free.
The conversation in the circle takes a turn to ‘what is art’ and ‘who is an artist.’ More than one of these ladies has accompanied Charlie dumpster diving to retrieve bits and pieces they shaped by their own vision. Charlie believes lies beyond the traditional interpretations. Being an artist and creating art has to do with how you live your life. We’re all artists.
You have to pay attention or you lose it! What you see in that fleeting moment, that idea, that image is precious. As artists creating our lives, a change in how you see sometimes means taking the side road or a footpath to take, as Robert Frost wrote ‘the road less traveled.’ Dali once suggested to a friend that to really see differently, she should spend the day walking around with her left shoe on her right foot and vice versa - a simple, and likely torturous path for the feet.
According to Ovid if a hook is always cast, in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish. Whether it’s a broken hose, a weathered pine board, the sound of rain on the roof, a colorful snatch of fabric, there’s magic in the ordinary. It seeks to speak to us. We have only to look and listen.
Sometimes it’s found in a book group.