Friday, January 20, 2012

All the Beautiful Children...

All the beautiful children have gone away
They have gone on secret pathways thru the dark
I am here in this empty place with echoes
Of lost laughter
Somewhere they play on star meadows
Under that other sun.
--Maxine DalBen

Once in desert sandstorm on a desolate spot of I-395 near the town of Bishop, California, I suffered a spontaneous abortion. Following such a loss, you go around trying to create a balance to offset the terrible imbalance you feel on losing a part of yourself.

Some years later, I paid a visit to Maxine DalBen, owner of Harlequin House Art Center in Stockton, California. She was an artist who dedicated her life to providing art scholarships to disadvantaged children. The purpose of my visit was to score some of the earlier works of her brilliant protege, James Bell, a Black Stockton artist who was struggling with serious medical challenges. We'd planned a reception and sale to raise funds for his medical expenses.

Together Maxine and I searched the darkened corners of her studio. Memories of an earlier time accompanied our hunt, as flashes of the studio filled with classes of youngsters delving in the strange and wonderful world of painting assailed my mind.

Among these children was my oldest daughter, Pamela, who as a child of eight showed artistic promise. Harlequin House was bursting with activity and Maxine and James were the instructors. The prices were affordable and as parents struggling for economic survival in that Vietnam War era, we saw our kids blossom under their tutelage. That summer Pam came away with a beautiful still life in oils, painted in a brilliant combination of colors that, to a proud mom, rivaled Van Gogh's artistry.

Things were different with Maxine then, as they had been during my previous studio visits. While her husband was beginning to exhibit the usual aches and pains of advancing maturity, he was still around to do the things that spouses of creative folks do: make frames, help with studio upkeep and provide needed safety and security for their South Stockton business/home.

Maxine's mate of some 50 years, had passed away on the Christmas Eve before our treasure hunt. The loss of a companion at any age is emotionally wrenching, let alone the devastation created by the loss of a life-long companion. With the grit that marked her career and defined the woman for all the years I knew her, Maxine continued on: running the studio, tending to special projects, holding volunteer classes at the Blind Center where she taught weaving, and continuing to mentor and fulfill a critical role as historian to the Stockton Art League.

While searching for a James Bell original suitable for posting on my home office wall, I spotted a fascinating color pencil drawing by Maxine.
"Not for sale," she said, when I held it up with a quizzical expression on my face.
Months later, the shopkeeper sent a letter with the above poem enclosed. The letter read:
Dear Alicia:
Thought you might like to see the poem that goes with the color pencil drawing of mine you asked about. Some of my friends have been pushing me to publish again, and I did those three drawings as possible illustrations. Don't know if I event WANT to do a book. I deliberately haven't tried to publish since 1960. Writing spends so much emotional energy--I just seem to have none to spare. Maybe I would feel a need to do more writing if I had a family, but my people are all gone and the children I carried didn't live. I have no incentive to create an enduring body of work.
Anyway, this is the poem for "All of the Beautiful Children." It is for my own dead sons, of course, but also about children all over the world who walk dark pathways of war, famine, abuse and death. Also for my hope that somewhere, in some time, they will come again into joy.
James Bell eventually succumbed to his illness and Maxine died last year at 90. Her beautiful spirit and her poem still linger in my mind, and I imagine her somewhere in star meadows...