Guarded by a towering old pine tree, there in the middle of the field was Juanita's house -- a weathered shack with a red rusted tin roof and rough unpainted clapboard siding. It looked like the Sailor Dog's house boat, built from scraps and patched with whatever could be found. A weathered 2 X 2 board propped up the front steps. A bent zinc tub leaned up against her front porch next to a pair of large black rubber boots and randomly placed plastic buckets. The cicadas droned out their summer song, and crickets chimed in with a stacato accompaniment. A lone bob white call signaled our approach.
As we arrived closer to Juanita's porch, I could see a pile of about one hundred smashed aluminum cans and old soda bottles. Next to the aluminum cans was a big bag of broken glass, and a gunny sack filled with Spanish moss. Leather scraps for an old saddle hung from a nail on the side of the house. Then my eyes rested for the first time on an army of crumbly and decrepit mud monsters. They were like creatures from another dimension staunchly perched on her porch. The ominous animals of all shapes and sizes, "petrified in mud" had powerful expressions They stood camouflaged against the old weather boards. Before I had time to investigate all these strange objects any more, Juanita peeked from behind her door, decorated with a good luck horseshoe. She shyly opened the door wider and ventured onto the porch, her bare feet carefully avoiding the mud and debris scattered across the porch.
Juanita Rogers was a striking dark skinned woman, thin and only about five feet tall. Her high cheek bones protruded from beneath a red bandanna wrapped low over her forehead. Her hair was in small corn rows. She cautiously greeted us. "Good Afternoon, Mrs. Boone." She had a unusual beauty about her. She was dressed in a light cotton moo-moo. Her thin dark velvet skin shone in the sunlight, and her dark eyes darted intensely from left to right in a nervous way. She nodded to me ever so slightly, "Hello," she said. As she spoke, I noticed a few dirtdaubers buzzing around the rafters. She looked up at the insects in their mud nest, and exclaimed with the first hint of a smile," Theyse' been a working all day roun' here!...and using all my mud too." That sort of broke the ice for me, and I laughed ever so slightly, hoping to generate some kind of contact.
Mrs. Boone moved forward as if she were about to approach a snake den. She looked toward Juanita with caution and said. "Anton has come with me to visit and look at some of your mud sculptures." Juanita moved to one side leaving the doorway clear. I felt uncomfortable as if we were intruding invading her privacy. I walked inside with Mrs. Boone. Her front room was dark and smelled of burned logs and old ashes. The window panes were smoky black with years of fireplace soot. She didn't offer any courteous niceties or make much eye contact with me at all. She seemed unsure if she welcomed our visit at all. Obligingly she showed us into her work room where the rest of the mud pieces were.
Inside her house was dark like some mysterious cave. My eyes had to adjust for a minute after coming out of such strong sunlight. It was all very different from any normal house. But I was used to that. After all I had just returned from a journey palm roofed lean-to's, like in Sua, Ecuador, where main street was nothing but a dirt path and the hospital was only a closet size room with two human embryos in jars.
But even so, I was titillated by the unexpected ambiance and disarray. Mud sculptures everywhere, and among them was everything from an unclothed plastic baby doll with one arm missing to just a pile of pure dirt right on the floor. The furniture was like the toss aways from Sanford and Sonís junk shop -- an old rusted chrome and Formica table.
Two of the largest sculptures caught my eye right away. I donít know if it was their size or their stance, or perhaps even the power she embedded in them. But they stood out right away. If her mud was like a chess game these two mud ram men would be the kings.
She saw me looking at the one of her mud covered deer headed monster. He was about two feet tall and foreboding.
"I had in mind a man sitting on a stump for that one." she blurted out as if to see my reaction.
"Some man, he is!", I said as I thought to myself-- Iíd hate to see him on some dark night sitting on a stump!
When I entered the room, I noticed several crude sculptures that looked like devils with rams' heads. They had a demonic look to them. These sculptures were not pretty what-nots, as Juanita had told Mrs. Boone. They were monstrous beasts made of deer antlers and skulls covered with mud, with a strange fetish-like quality.
Most of the sculptures were stacked in open suitcases, while others were crowded onto a T.V. tray and a rusty chrome breakfast table. Shoe-boxes full of bones and mule teeth protruded out from under her bed. The mud was falling apart, so there was a lot of dirt and debris on the floor and table. These mud sculptures were like nothing I had ever seen!
"Juanita, these are wonderful pieces."
"Yesím?" she said as if it were a question. She tilted her head in disbelief.
I noticed under the bed I was sitting on those boxes of bones and teeth. I couldnít help but wonder what that was. I just had to ask her
"Juanita, whatís these boxes of bones and stuff here?"
"Just bones and teeth from out in the pasture. I use it for the mud. I use it for the eyes if I want to. I chip the bones and teeth up sometime too."
She talked in a an awkward way, nervously fanning herself with a rag. She was so full of thought it seemed alive, intense, almost like a wild animalís energy and she was on her guard. But she seemed curious too as to why I was even interested in her or her mud. She turned her head upward and showed the white parts of her eyes. She then looked away as if she didn't want to appear too interested in me.
The sculptures were crude, scary, and foreboding. One horned creature had bulging eyes of clay balls and real animal teeth. He glared straight ahead at me. From the head of another sculpture protruded a bleached white cow femur. I darted from one sculpture to the next. I was in instant awe of this woman and her haunting sculptures. The mud pieces were fascinating, and without a doubt the work of someone in the grip of an intense compulsion.
The afternoon light shone a steady ray through one cleaned pane onto a clay animal. I asked her what this was and Juanita simply said as I was looking at him, "A Duck is a Duck- it goes quack".
I let out a nervous giggle. I then gingerly began to ask Juanita about how she started making the sculptures and what materials she used, but she wasn't eager to provide me with much information. She was obviously suspicious of me. She glanced up to the wall as she talked.
I quickly learned that Juanita was not a woman easy to get to know, and especially not a woman to make idle chit-chat.
Juanita quietly followed Mrs. Boone around and showed me more of the mud pieces in the house. Juanita stood by her mud pieces like a mother would cautiously guard her babies. In what I guess you would call her living room about 20 or 30 mud sculptures of all shapes and sizes sat everywhere there was space for them. On a old 50's formica kitchen table was a broken suitcases filled with mud sculptures the dirt crumbling into the suitcase bottom. Next to them was a unclothed discarded flesh colored plastic doll with its eyes tilted into the back of its sockets. Several small mud dogs dusty sat in front of a red colored clay life size cat.
I later asked her if she would let me take a small mud sculpture home with me to look at more carefully. She refused, explaining, "You might take this mud piece to prove I'm crazy or something!" I guess I could understand her concern. She didn't really know if we were there to help or harm her.
We rested for a few moments in Juanita's bedroom. The bedroom was dusty like everything else. Two old iron beds covered with tattered quilts almost filled the entire room. I sat on the edge of one bed and Mrs. Boone took one of the only two chairs. Juanita chose to remain standing. We made small talk for a little while, and then Mrs. Boone said we had better leave before it started to get dark.
I said to Juanita, " Thanks for letting me see your work, Juanita. I feel lucky to have seen all you clay sculptures.I hope to come see you again, O.K.?"
"Yes maam," she answered.
"Iíll talk to you again soon Juanita," Mrs. Boone said.
We turned to leave, and she walked with us a little ways out past her porch. I waved goodbye. She said at the last minute, as if she just realized she might have actually enjoyed having some visitors that day. "Bye, now, ya'll be careful going home."
I didn't realize how much I would appreciate a simple goodbye. But to have received a few words from her that day were a welcomed gift.
Driving back to Montgomery with Mrs. Boone that afternoon, silently wondered what all this might lead to. I was amazed how understanding Mrs. Boone was. She had the sensitivity and insight to approach Juanita as a person and not just a number in the bureaucratic files. Other social workers might have dismissed Juanita as crazy and taken steps to have her committed.
Mrs. Boone talked to me as we drove. We both agreed that we did think she's was a dynamic woman, and an eccentric one. I guess to most people, Juanita's sculptures would look like strange ugly piles of dirt.
Mrs. Boone said, "I just had a feeling that there might be something to this all. I hope something will work out." She only had to look at me, to see that I agreed that there was something to this. I could hardly believe what I had just seen.
The rest of my trip back home was spent in partial shock of the surprise visit from which we had just returned As we neared my home, Mrs. Boone asked if she could call me after I had time to think about this all.
"Maybe you'll have some ideas, Anton?" She said.
"I'll try my best to think of something," I said.
I got out to leave and I turned to Ms. Boone, "Thanks for the most interesting visit I've ever had, Mrs. Boone!"
"Good-bye, Anton. I'm glad you enjoyed meeting Juanita."
After I arrived back home, I pondered over my meeting Juanita. I was surprised at the turn of events. I could tell something was pulling me to know more about this woman. what makes her tick? What she would be like if I knew her better. This was the reverse of what usually happens to me. Iím always looking for the most exotic and then reality strikes with the mediocre reality, like the trip I took through the jungles of Ecuador, in search for the jungle creatures anacondas, mystic tribesmen. In reality I only saw ugly American pipe lines and the closest to an exotic bird was a psychedelic orange baseball cap sitting on a stick and a group of missionary-fed Indians drinking Coca Cola and wearing "Lifeís a Beach " T-shirts. In this situation with Juanita, I wasnít expecting to find anything and Iíve found these weird mud things that I couldíve never dreamed up in a fantasy. And they are real. It is the epitome of what Iíd been reading about, fascinated with -- "primitive," "visionary," "tribal," "primal," primordial, prehistoric, awesome, ugly, enchanting like the Beast.
I knew that to accept responsibility for her bills and care would be a major commitment, but I felt I had to get to know this woman, ruled by this incredible urge to create. Since I had already been collecting the work of other self-taught artists and reading about their lives, I could appreciate what Juanita was doing. Her life was so different from my own. I couldn't help but want to do it.
The next day I spoke with Mrs. Boone again, and we began to devise some ways to help Juanita. We figured if we could get Juanita to work with us instead of fighting help, she would slowly agree to receive some form of social aid. Since Juanita felt she already had a job for some man whom neither of us knew, we agreed that we should not just ignore that. But since she was so behind on her rent and had no money for food something needed to be done soon. It was a shame to just force her to do something against her will. Maybe she would agree to receive food stamps if we presented it in the right way. It looked like an a possibility.
Mrs. Boone and I decided to devise some ways to help Juanita. I agreed to pay her bills and rent, and to take care of her deliquent bills that she had accumulated in the months since her husband's death. In exchange for my agreement to help support Juanita in lieu of welfare, we hoped Juanita would agree to enroll in the federal foodstamp program. Throughout the next few months, Virginia Boone continued to help with Juanita, periodically driving out to Snowdoun to check on her.And so my visits to Juanita's began.
Copyright © 1998, 1999 ANTON HAARDT
All Rights Reserved.
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