WILL AND THE MERMAID

When I first met the man who became my husband, he had a very odd friend in tow.

The friend was Will Shipee, a homeless man who lived on the streets of Ann Arbor Michigan in the late 70′s. He was a small man, lean and tan, energetic yet quiet, with sparkling blue eyes.

He was the first guy I knew who wore earrings. They gave him a friendly pirate look.

He was an incredibly spiritual person and spoke of God’s presence in his life often. He was a vegetarian. He didn’t drink or smoke. (Well. He smoked something, but it was a $5 fine in those days.)

He was intelligent and articulate. He was peaceful, graceful, self-sufficient, wise. He’d walked away from many things in his former life–a high-paying corporate job, a marriage, a mistress, expensive cars–to live and pray in India. He returned to live in the streets of America, determined to live a holy life, free from the chains of money and ambition.

I was a little nervous around him at first. But he never asked for money or took advantage. He was there if we needed odd jobs done, asking only for food in exchange.

He sometimes moved among more dangerous people, which made me uneasy. But he kept them separate, always careful to make sure they never encroached very far into our lives.

He had a way of dealing with everyone that was quiet, peace-making, grounded. Everyone respected him. No one harmed him.

My (future) husband and I spent many, many hours talking, listening, laughing, eating with Will. (He was always hungry!)

Will was an artist, a woodcarver. He would work on a wood carving for a year, usually for a specific patron, and sell it when it was finished for a nice price. He lived very simply and frugally, but he needed the occasional chunk of money so he could get to a warm place for winter.

His carving project during that magical summer was a mermaid. A praying mermaid.

We have pictures of her, but I can clearly see her even now. About 20″ tall, carved out of a solid chunk of mahogany. Upright, with her tail curled and curved up behind her, each scale carefully and skillfully incised. Her face as serene as a Botticelli Venus, eyes closed, lips slightly parted. And her hands folded gently but fervently in prayer.

He carried her wrapped in a blanket, with his carving tools, in a sling on his back. He took her everywhere.

And people were drawn to her.

We all wanted to hold her. To look at her. When she was brought forth, our hands all reached for her, to touch the silky smoothness of her face, to feel the intricately carved hair and scales. For the first time, I understood the power and mystery of an icon.

Will didn’t brag, but you could tell he was gratified by our response. He wanted to show that even the mythical beings who supposedly had no soul, could feel and celebrate the presence of God.

Pretty heady stuff for a young woman who was in love, and who’d just left her own corporate job to shovel horse manure in a riding stable.

He had a buyer for her, a guy in Texas who would pay him a huge sum of money for her–several thousand dollars. It would be enough to find a house and feed himself for the winter.

I thought the person who owned her would be blessed. I envied him as I yearned for her myself. I could imagine her in my life forever.

Will left at the end of the summer, dreaming of a winter in warmer climes.

But the deal fell through, and Will returned.

And he kept carrying the mermaid.

He looked in vain for other buyers. And he kept working away at her, unable to stop. Til finally, he carved away at her eyes, and “opened” them.

She no longer seemed innocent and dreaming. Now she looked lascivious

He offered her to me for $300. I didn’t have it. But I wasn’t sure I even yearned for her anymore.

I wondered what it meant.

His art carried too long, went from “finished” to overworked. And in the process, changed into something….less? Certainly different.

His art became all about the money as he desperately kept working to make her what he thought a buyer would want.

I think he finally gave her away to someone for a pittance of his original price. Perhaps just enough to buy him a bus ticket out of town.

His carefree life was more grounded in his art than he realized. And when he left that connected space, even though it was for a good reason, he always seemed a little more lost and uprooted to me. I think he felt that way, too, for he disappeared soon after that.

We never saw him again.

Will taught us many things that year, beautiful things.

I often think of him. I hope he is safe, and well, and loved.

I wonder what happened to the mermaid.

I wonder where she is now. I wonder if the person who owns her has any idea what her origins were, or what she meant so so many people that summer in Ann Arbor, so many years ago?

And as my thoughts turn over in my mind–What’s next for me and my art? Where do I go from here?–I can’t help wondering…

What do we open ourselves to, when money is the only coin of the realm? What do we gain? What is lost?

Is it the smart thing to do? Is it right, or wrong?

Is it worth it?

Yes. No. Maybe. Sometimes. Who can say?

Unusual thoughts on this cold, cold day in New England, so far away in distance and time from that heady summer days of new love and wonder.

p.s. As I reread this, I hasten to add that I don’t criticize my friend’s desire to have enough money to eat, and travel and stay warm. But something changed when the deal fell through, something that was painful to watch. Something made visible even in the change of the mermaid’s expression.

And that’s what I’m trying to figure out.

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6 Comments

Filed under art, choices, life

6 responses to “WILL AND THE MERMAID

  1. Will knew what the mermaid looked like when he looked inward, into his artist’s soul. At that moment, she had great value.

    But when the deal fell through, Will traded his own certainty to chase public opinion, which is fickle and shifts.

    And in that decision, along with his certainty, she lost her value, no matter what her price.

  2. lobsterlu

    This is a wonderful story. I really appreciate all your blog posts, they are always so honest and full of the reality of
    trying to sell one’s art.

    It’s interesting that his work and his life seemed at their peak when he thought he had
    a buyer.

    The clue for me, although I don’t know answers, is that so much is in our mind about what defines success.

    It sounds like he could have made smaller, simpler but still beautiful pieces that his friends would have been happy to buy. He put all the eggs in one basket.

  3. Hi Luann,

    I read this post yesterday shortly after you put it up. It made me sad, and my gut reaction was that it was the rejection. So I went away and thought about about it and coming back to it this morning, it is the rejection that can change us and the work.

    As artists, we tend to be a bit sensitive anyway, and some of us create custom items, with or without approved drawings for the potential client, and the question with every creation is “will they like it?”. The fear is that they won’t love it like we do, that they will reject the work which embodies not only our skills, but pieces of our hearts and souls, and our ideals.

    When the beautiful item, such as Will’s mermaid, the embodiment of his lifestyle, serenity and spirituality, is rejected, we can be shaken quite deeply, and ultimately start to question our ability and worth as an artist. We question what is wrong with us, with the piece, we rarely, if ever, question what is ‘wrong’ with the potential recipient.

    As artists, we have to learn to better deal with rejection and realize that it is not always about us or the art. Sometimes it is about them… Their finances have changed and instead of saying they can’t afford it, they reject it. Their friend questioned their interest in a certain piece of work, now they are uncertain. They have to move and no longer have room for what they want.

    Will, like so many of us, allowed the rejection to colour his experience and in turn used the doubt that it created, to re-craft a precious object. An unfortunate error in judgment that I have made countless times with pieces before I learned to question the motives of the viewer.

    The point is, it’s not always about us.

    Cheers & thanks for your terrific blog.

    Cynthia

  4. A thoughtful insight, Cynthia, one we can all sympathize with, and I think you make a good point. Perhaps the money overshadowed the real cause of Will’s distress, especially as it also represented a safe winter haven.

    Perhaps what we can learn from this is that ALL of us are vulnerable to self-doubt, even those who are blessed with the gifts of wisdom and talent.

    Then, perhaps, when we fall into that lost place, it helps to know that if that we can forgive ourselves for falling, we can always find our way back out.

    For more thoughts on the potential dangers of custom orders, see GETTING PEOPLE OUT OF YOUR BOOTH #5: The Design Diva and THE QUAGMIRE OF CUSTOM ORDERS

  5. Pingback: GOALS OR GOAL-LESS « Luann Udell

  6. Quinn, beautiful!! I mean, sad…but beautiful in its truth.

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