“Witness,” you know that word? I’m testifying. No, not like in court. You’re not from these parts, I forget. You can be a witness for other things, you know.
Why do I think people’re interested in my art? Well, lands, honey, you’re the expert. That’s why you’re making this movie, ain’t it – isn’t it? I do it because I have to. If other folks see something in it, that’s for them to say. I guess if they’re putting my play pretties in a museum and making a movie about them, other folks must see something in them besides twigs and scraps and buttons. I guess they see my people too. David, Jonathan, Jacob, and the others.
A “play pretty” is really a toy, something you make for children. You take whatever’s at hand, and you put it together, and you make something pretty. Pretty don’t – doesn’t – have to mean beautiful. Got to watch how I talk and be all proper if you’re recording me. And what a fancy title you’ve got – The Folk Art of Bathsheba Kirkland. I hope I live up to that!
So, fiddling with toys and such, that’s how I got started, I reckon. How about I talk about that?
Wasn’t anything in particular, as I recollect. When I was a girl at home, I was always making toys and such for my little brothers and sisters. I was the oldest, you see, and I had to look after them a lot for Mama so she could get her chores done. I used whatever was handy because we sure couldn’t buy nothing like you have today. That craft stuff, they have whole stores for it now. Sort of takes all the work out of it. One of my daughters has got into that scrapbooking stuff. She’s a regular scrapbooking fool. Made all of us real nice albums with the family pictures and all. It was a lot of work and right expensive too. She has special scissors and paper and whatnot.
See, I didn’t have a penny to call my own when I was a girl, so I just took whatever was extra or going to get thrown out. Here, I’ll show you one of the things I did back then. Here’s the family Bible. You want a picture of it? All right.
On these pages, right here at the back, see? I traced the young’uns’ hands and pasted them in here. Law, it was a rainy day, and they were all just wild. Mama had some sewing she was doing for a woman that she had to get done. It was a treadle machine because we didn’t have the electricity yet. My sister still has it. Mama told me to keep those young’uns out of her way. So I had some tablet paper, and I started tracing their hands on it, and then I cut out the tracings. I drew in the fancies they wanted. See, the girls have rings, and the boys have watches. Now none of us had such as that. June 5, 1929 – there’s the date. And the name’s on each hand – Bertha, Pharona, Adam, Daniel, Miriam – she died of scarlet fever two years later – and Ruby. Little Jonathan was already gone before that. Died of membranous croup they called it. Diphtheria they say now.
More about growing up? Well, not a lot to it, I reckon. I went to my first year of high school, and then Dad took sick. Mama needed me to help at home, so I did. Things just all run together there for a while. We had a big garden in the summers, and a lot of that was my job. Never went hungry. Luckier than some. And we owned our house. It was the Depression, but none of us could tell much difference from the way it had always been.
Then I married Emerson. I think I mostly married to get out of the house. I thought it’d be less work taking care of one man, I reckon! Love came along later. But it wasn’t just the two of us for long. I started having my young’uns. Emerson was hired on at the aluminum company, and that’s when we moved up here. Now that was a good thing. Hard to think he’s been gone almost twenty years now.
I made playthings and doo-dads for the children and told them stories to go along with them. But they were all just play pretties, not like the later pretties that folks are so interested in now.
Things rolled on. Eh, law. If we start telling family tales, we’ll be here till the cows come home.
Now, my name, Bathsheba. People ask about that. It’s something of a burden sometimes. That’s why I like my nickname Basha. My little brother Jonathan, the one that died, gave me that name because he couldn’t wrap his tongue around Bathsheba. People wonder what Mama meant by naming me Bathsheba. She’s something of a hussy in the Bible, isn’t she? I always thought Mama had a little admiration for her. But I tell you, Mama always walked the straight and narrow. All she’d say about Bathsheba was she liked the sound of the name.
I guess my name is what interested me in the story of David so much. So when I started making my Bible pretties, I just naturally took to tales about David. He had his victories and tribulations, didn’t he? Like we all do. He survived it all too. Tough as whitleather.
Let’s go into my workroom, and I’ll talk about some of my pretties. I’ll give you a tour of my “studio.” That’s what the Atlanta lady called it. She was from a museum. It really tickled me to think about having a studio. It’s just part of the old garage. I think the lady was a little disappointed when she saw it.
Watch your step on that doorsill. Here’s my worktable, this big piece of plywood on the sawhorses. Emerson did that for me. There’s the glue, spray paint, shoe polish, aluminum foil, jars of screws, washers, toothpicks. Balls of yarn, string, twine. Jars of beads, buttons, sorted into size and color. This old silverware tray is handy for holding things too. On this shelf over here is my boxes of cloth, different colors in different boxes. And here’s the wood, ready to have the spirit brought out of it. This box of small twigs, then the trash can with bigger sticks and then these big branches leaning against the wall.
No, I don’t always see them like they’ll be in the end, but I know who they’ll be.
Oh, yes, almost always it’s people in the wood.
And here are some finished ones that are drying – Jacob’s Ladder, Jonathan, Come Before His Presence with Thanksgiving, Green Pastures. The Atlanta lady said I needed to give them titles. I thought that was a right smart notion, so I took it up.
Now this here one, I’ve done several versions of, but this is this first one. Just can’t let go of him. Do you know who he is? Look close. The branch I started with is as tall as me almost. One of the smaller branches stretches forward like an arm. And this little branch on the other side pulls back like the other arm. This little leather strip holds a little rock. I put a striped headdress on his head. The knot in the branch is his face. I added the beads for his eyes and painted a little bit to bring out the expression. And this big old knot at his feet, I hardly had to do anything to it. It’s just like a head, isn’t it? Now, do you know?
Umm hmm, right! David and Goliath! David at the beginning. It’s all before him, a long path of righteousness, sin, triumph, and sorrow, like we all have.
All right, I’ll tell you that story about how I found him. I was walking along the creek bank behind the house where we used to live. It was restful there. I heard somebody say just as clear as birdsong, “Come get me.” I looked around. Nary a soul to be seen. A big forsythia bush was weaving back and forth in the breeze, blazing yellow.
I didn’t know who was calling. But I looked, and there he was. A limb held fast under that bank. I had to wrestle him out of there. “Help me, Lord,” I said.
When I stood that limb up, then I knew who he was. “Why, David,” I said. “Take me home,” he said. And I did.
Yes, spoke to me. People ask about that all the time. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s not exactly like you and me talking right now. One or two words, maybe. Just as clear, like the tapping of rain on a roof. Other times it’s a seeing, like looking through flowing water to the rocks at the bottom of the creek.
This one here I haven’t fixed yet. It’s David the sinner when he strays from the path of righteousness with Bathsheba. This rascal did not want to be found. He was hiding, but the Lord told me where to find him. And verily, verily, there he was. “Thou art the man,” I said to him.
Well, when the Lord speaks, you know it. That’s all I can say. I’d never heard any speaking until that first David branch. I reckoned that the speaking meant I was supposed to be doing this.
Now that upsets some people. As long as I was making little toy pretties, nobody minded. But when I said the Lord had spoken to me – oh, my lands! It caused trouble at church, I can tell you. I didn’t make any big secret of it, but then I wasn’t calling the newspapers either. If folks asked, I told them. Well, the preacher came to see me. He questioned me for some time. He seemed doubtful that it was the voice of the Lord. He said it could be a false voice or the voice of pride or even the voice of Satan. And how could a stick speak? I told him that if God spoke from a burning bush or a whirlwind, he could certainly speak from a twig too. The preacher seemed to think that a twig was too small, too humble. And I said that I was not Moses or Job, so maybe a twig was just the right size.
But he made me worry about it. Was there some twisted messenger fooling me? But why? Were my pretties leading people astray? I didn’t see how. I asked Emerson what he thought, but he just saw them as a hobby, I guess, and didn’t see how they could be any trouble except taking up room around the place. Some women made quilts, he said, and I made toys.
But for a time I put them away. I just let them be.
But I kept seeing things in the sticks and branches and wood knots. They still called me. Then this Atlanta lady showed up, Ms. Satterfield, she called herself. That’s Ms. like the woman title, not like the Miz we say around here. Seems like she’d come across one of my pieces that I’d given away and that had landed in Atlanta. She was the one who told me what I was doing was art. Called it “folk art” and “primitive art.” Told me I should set more store on my work. That I shouldn’t give it away, that it could be sold. Well, I thought she was plumb crazy, but she told me she’d prove it. I let her have two of the pieces, one big one and one small one, and said, “Go to it!”
I wasn’t sure I liked being called “primitive.” You know now they call me a “feminist” too. That tickles me. If that means working hard and keeping on, then I reckon I am!
My children fussed at me for letting my pretties go so easily. They said I’d never see that lady again, and I’d certainly never see my pieces. But my daughter Zella looked her up. Ms. Satterfield was some art bigwig. Two or three months passed with no word, and then one day I got a letter with a check in it. Do you know that check was for $500? I like to have died. I just couldn’t believe it. She’d sold both of them, and said she thought she could sell more if I wanted her to. She also said that maybe I should see a lawyer and get an agent and have a contract, and I don’t know what all.
I just said, whoa there. That was a lot to ponder. Especially since I was still betwixt and between about whether or not I should even be making them. Maybe making money was the sign. Now you know a lot of folks think like that, but I’d never thought about money. Still don’t really. Emerson had a good job with the union and all. And even after he passed, I have everything I need.
Zella helped me out some. Zella’s the most like me and has a good head on her shoulders. I guess that means I’m bragging about myself now. She brought me a book about other folks like me who just up and make things without any lessons or anything. And there were some big time artists that were primitive on purpose, so there. Some of them didn’t make a penny while they lived, and some were cheated out of what they should have had, and some made some money all right. Zella said I might as well have the benefit of it as anybody else. Emerson said if anybody wanted to pay for such, then I should give them the opportunity. So they convinced me. We sold a right smart number of the ones I’d already done.
But it still laid kindly uneasy in my mind. There was a struggle going on inside me. You see, people that bought them, I think they saw them as some kind of decoration, but when I made them, I saw a spirit in them. I was helping the spirit to speak is one way to say it. That’s what worried the preacher and some of them.
I took to sitting and thinking a lot. I’d sit right there in that chair all day and think round and round. My mind went this way and that way. I’d forget to eat. Finally I decided that if it was causing me so much turmoil then making my Bible pretties must be the wrong thing to do. So I said, all right, I’ll fix it.
I gathered up all my pretties that were left and all my odds and ends in the boxes and took them out in the back yard to burn them up. I was just going to end it for once and all … this part I don’t like to talk about.
I know … I know … Zella said to tell it.
Well … as I was fumbling with the matches, I heard, “Basha,” just as plain as if you said it right now, and it stayed my hand. I looked around. No one there. And then a stiff breeze swept through. The leaves were thrashing in the trees. The wind whirled my hair and snatched at my dress. It was surely too much of a breeze to be burning anything because it had been dry for some weeks. So I picked everything up and brought it all back into my workroom.
I pondered those things. And then I said, “All right. There’s my sign. I’m taking it up again.”
Who was the voice? I can’t say. Wasn’t the same as any of the others.
Not won’t. Can’t. I know what I think, but some things are sacred, and if you talk on them too much, you pull the sacred away. Let’s leave it there.
Next day, I went back into the workroom. I took up this here branch. The words from Psalms 103 came right into my head like they were painted there – “As for woman, her days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so she flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it and it is gone. But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting.” Isn’t that beautiful?
I looked right at this piece of wood. See it has an arch, like a rainbow. And all along it, I made a woman twig figure at different ages in her life. Here at the bottom of the arch on the left, she’s a baby just born with her mama at the beginning of the arch. Here she has her first grown-up dress. Here she gets married. Here she is with her children. One of them dies. She’s working here at the top of the arch in all her strength. Here she’s mourning her husband. She’s with her grandchildren. She flourishes in the field. And at last here she is ready to shout to glory. That’s all of life. You flourish like a flower, and then the wind passes over.
I guess I was thinking about Mama.
See, while you’re here, you have to do what you can do. I make pretties. I see stories in the sticks I find hither and yonder. That’s my work. Then one day the wind will pass over me, over us all. And we’ll know the perfect everlasting. Glory, glory!
Now, there’s my witness. Understand?
Author's CommentIn writing “Play Pretties,” I was exploring the roots of inspiration and the creative process. The muse appears to us in different guises. The voice I was trying to channel is that of my grandmother, Lillie M. Giles Jenkins. She was a self-taught seamstress who sewed clothes for her children and herself as well as others; she also worked in a sewing factory for a time. She was the kind of woman who got up in the morning and did the things that had to be done. We all know someone like her. Another inspiration for the story was the folk art of Bessie Harvey, a Tennessee artist.