In most cases, I know where my columns are headed before I begin.
Then there are the surprises that take me to entirely unexpected destinations.
I met with Cheryl Beitzel last week to talk with her about her volunteer work teaching crafts to residents at the Phillips-Strickland House in Bangor. I left with a collection of stories that poignantly reveal the inexorable pull of an artistic mind.
Cheryl, a longtime Mainer, amiably describes her heritage as Irish, English, Welsh, Scotch and Native American.
Cheryl’s sense of humor is always at the ready. I soon learned that in addition to being a craft artist, she is a natural storyteller. She comes from a huge extended family. Her maternal grandmother had 15 children, 13 whom survived to adulthood.
“Mom was a slacker,” she laughed, “she only had three.”
One of her stories took place on her grandparents’ farm in Glenburn in the early 1960s. Cheryl was 4 or 5 years old, and Sunday dinner was being prepared in the kitchen. Out in the barn, two of her young uncles said she should learn where a chicken dinner comes from.
“You’re old enough to kill a chicken,” they said, and handed her an axe.
She held the head and chopped, as instructed.
She remembers yelling, “Stop chicken!” as the body ran around.
“He can’t hear you,” said her uncles, “his ears are in your hand.”
So she yelled, “Stop!” at the head in her hand.
Little Cheryl arrived in the kitchen, chicken head in one hand, ax in the other, blood spattered all over her Sunday clothes.
“My uncles weren’t invited in for dinner that night,” she said.
Although Cheryl had plenty of exposure to the practicalities of farm life, what she loved more than anything was making art.
Cheryl was an early and voracious reader, and her parents ordered a set of encyclopedias when she was about 5 years old. With it came a free gift — a craft book. That book caught most of Cheryl’s attention. She made stars, snowflakes, pop-up cards, and a magnetic circus that entertained her younger brother and sister for hours.
But art was not respected in her home.
One time Cheryl watched her mother absent-mindedly sketch out a perfect replica of Lincoln’s face on a penny, and Cheryl exclaimed, “Mom! I didn’t know you were an artist.”
Her mother crumpled it up and threw it away; “Stupid waste of time,” she said.
When Cheryl was 10, her mother found some of Cheryl’s poems and drawings and burned them, claiming that the subject matter — death of an animal — was inappropriate for a little girl.
Still, nothing could turn off her nature to create. In her teens, Cheryl applied to an art correspondence course. “You know, one of those ‘draw Spunky’ contests,” she said. She was told she had promise. A man even came to their house to speak to Cheryl’s parents. They agreed to loan her the $200 fee and started the course.
“I paid them back, but I never totally finished the course,” she said.
Life intervened. Cheryl graduated from high school and had to get a job. She began working at Ansewn Shoe in Bangor and didn’t have time for the art class.
“I suppose,” I said, “there was no room for art in the shoe factory.”
“You’d be surprised!” said Cheryl with animation.
One of Cheryl’s co-workers suffered from depression, which became more severe in the long, dark days of winter. So Cheryl brought in colored chalk and drew a window on the wall by her friend’s workstation. It had white curtains, a bright blue sky and birds.
A supervisor visited one day, called it vandalism, and said it had to go, but Cheryl’s boss intervened.
“He said, ‘since that went up, this woman’s productivity has doubled. Same for the people around her.’ And he left it there.”
Cheryl later worked for 21 years at a hardware store in Bangor.
“They really valued my art,” she said. She created displays, hung things from the ceiling, taught scrapbooking and repaired damaged products to make them saleable.
Cheryl’s creativity has found its way into most of her life — her cooking, her decades of teaching “the wigglers” (a class for 3 – to 5-year-olds) at St. John’s Episcopal Church, and her time as a medieval recreationist (another great story for another day). In the last few years, she has brought her talent to share with the residents of Phillips-Strickland House.
“Art has got to find an outlet,” Cheryl said.
It certainly found outlets in Cheryl’s life, wherever it could, much to the benefit of those around her. I watched the busy enterprise at a table full of ladies making cards together, buoyed up by Cheryl’s joyful company. But she’ll tell you that she gets more than she gives.
“This is so good for my mental health to be here. I feel valued. I feel loved.”
What could be more important than that?
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.