“There are a few moments in your life when you are truly and completely happy, and you remember to give thanks. Even as it happens you are nostalgic for the moment, you are tucking it away in your scrapbook.”
― David Benioff, When the Nines Roll Over and Other Stories
I am giving thanks today to two artists whose work transported me to another time and place, linking me to other moments when I was completely happy.
It happened the first time in the Boston Public Library, when I stumbled across these marionettes designed by William A. Dwiggins in the 1930′s. Each puppet is remarkably detailed and reveals a distinct personality. They belong to a puppet troupe called the Püterschein Authority and performed in Dwiggins’ backyard garage. Dwiggins, better known as a graphic designer, carved marionettes as a hobby and produced shows for small audiences in his town of Hingham, Massachusetts.
Here’s the memory it stirred in me: My sister and I had our own version of the Püterschein Authority in our backyard when we were growing up on Long Island. Our theater, created from a discarded cardboard refrigerator box, featured a hand-sewn curtain (thanks to our mother) and two puppets given to us as Christmas presents. We wrote our own dramas, which always featured raging arguments and happy endings. On holidays, we put on a show for a captive audience of relatives, who whispered among themselves and sipped their drinks while the drama raged on. At the finale, they rewarded us with applause and praise. Our younger cousins, who filled in as stage hands, shared the glory.
The second memory was sparked by the carousel pictured below. We had stumbled across it on a Parisian side street one afternoon. It triggered a memory of another carousel in Little Italy one Christmas Eve. The woman who was selling tickets told us that the carousel once belonged to a traveling circus, which was disbanded. The horses were auctioned off, stored in a garage and re-discovered decades later. Lovingly restored, their paint gleamed and they seemed to spring to life on that quiet street, their hoofs raised, their heads lifted proudly. We claimed our horses, along with a few other people, and swung into the saddles. As the carousel started to spin and the horses shuddered to life under us, I was transported by the magic of that moment–the snow falling, the music filling the quiet street, and the beauty of the horses. I reached forward and stroked my horse, my fingers registering the details of its mane, its perked ears, its flaring nostrils, its nearly life-like gaze. The photo below, taken on a quiet street in Paris, conveys the artistry of these mostly unheralded master wood carvers, who created magic out of wood and paint for an audience they may have never seen and whose praise they may have never heard.
Today, the artistic ideal is to reach a wide audience and have work “go viral.” It’s tempting to measure success that way and quantify it by books or tickets sold, or the number of awards we have earned. But, Dwiggins and the nameless carousel artist remind me that the value of art should not be determined by numbers alone. Sometimes the most remarkable artistic “moments” have occurred on a small scale. This week I recall the power of these artists to create nostalgic memories that bridge time and space.
Here are other interpretations of “Nostalgic:”