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In this installment of These Ozarks Hills, Marideth Sisco reflects on why we need the artists.
This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. I had intended to say something about Spring in this segment, but I understand it's been cancelled, at least for the present. There's nothing like frozen water pipes and a malfunctioning hot water heater to let you know just where you stand in Nature's estimation. In any case, life has intervened, and the subject of Spring and winter's passing has had to step aside in order to honor other passings. The older you get, you know, the more of your traveling companions in this life's journey seem to have reached their destinations. So it was with two of my favorite people this past week. One of them you probably know if you live in Springfield or its surrounds. Or you've encountered his work. Robert E. Smith was Special with a Capital S. Stories about Robert and his doings are so widespread that I couldn't put them all into this little essay. Most people understood that Robert was differently-abled, but few could decide where to put him on the divide between developmentally challenged and mad genius. He may have been a little of both, but I always leaned toward the latter. Of all the stories one could tell, there was one that was my favorite. It happened several years ago, in the early 1980s somewhere, and I heard about the incident just after it happened. Robert, for the few people out there who never encountered him, was a prodigious producer of paintings that documented life in the Ozarks, often painting events like elections and holidays with great attention to detail, but full of fantastic characters and circumstances as well. Well, Robert had been considering his own circumstances as an artist, and had begun to doubt his talent. He thought maybe folks were complimenting his work just to be nice. In fact, he began signing his work Bob Smittyboob. Then someone suggested he get in touch with a bona fide art professional and have his work critiqued. The details are sketchy, but he apparently went to see MSU art professor Jerry Hatch with some samples of his work, and Hatch told him his work was wonderful art, very honest, yet so surreal. As he was leaving the art building, someone asked him how the critique went, and Robert replied, "He really liked it. He said it was sure real." And so it was.The other artist we've recently lost was less well known, and more certifiably mad, but there was no question of her genius as a fiber artist, writer and musician. She obviously knew the extent of her tenuous ties with reality, because she renamed herself, and the name she chose was Kiteweather. In her saner moments, she prowled area thrift stores from here to St. Louis, searching for cotton knits in colors she could use for her stunningly crocheted rugs and blankets. Sometimes she wrote clever tales about the people in her life, or in the culture's spotlight. Or spun songs full of wit and sorrow. At other times she would roam the Ozarks Hills, sometimes silent, sometimes crying and calling, always fiercely elsewhere.When she knew she was dying she sent people away, so she could pay attention to the process. She didn't want to miss anything. For many years, in Don McLean's words, she had suffered for her sanity. But it seemed the more time passed, the less she was driven by madness, and the more she was fully engaged in her art. For my 60th birthday, she sent me a blanket that contained a fire to warm my feet, forests and rivers to feed me, a blazing white sun to light my way and the aurora borealis to color my dreams. I felt blessed beyond measure by this artistic embrace. I sleep under it every night.It is often said of such iconic figures in our life's landscapes that their like will not come again. I'm not convinced that's true. For sure, they were singular figures. In fact, you could say that after they were made, that mold was broken. They each were one of a kind. And yet, that kind, that special blend of art and madness, is bound to come again. We need it. The days of our own lives are enriched by its presence. Edgar Degas, one of the best of the Impressionists, once said that Art is not what you see. It's what you make others see. For me, that was where their true genius showed. Each, by their art, carried a message, a swift poke at our common reality that said, "Really? You think so? Well, watch this."If the value of our lives consists of what good we accomplish, then what better can one do than to face the life that's given us, to embrace chaos, and make of it art. In this new century that's shaping up, we need the artists, every last one. Someone's got to be fearless for us. This is Marideth Sisco, trying to make art out of words, here in these Ozarks Hills.