The following essay was written in 2002 by Jim Kincaid and was originally published in the book titled "Anna's Eyes - The Story of Theo the Artist." The publisher is L'Art de Theo, Ltd., 990 Sulphur Spring Road, Prospect, VA 23960. The essay is rekeyed and reprinted, without illustrations, with permission of L'Art de Theo, Ltd., ISBN 0-9742541-0-X. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you would like to obtain a copy of the book, please contact L'Art de Theo, Ltd. directly through either this phone number or web address:
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Before this excursion into the joys of country living could happen, it was necessary to make some arrangements with regard to Catherine's career and my own. Theo was quite prepared to continue his, without interruption, and anxious to get cracking.
There was, however, the little problem of how to make a living.
ABC, and the other networks, had neglected to establish bureaus in Farmville and the major airlines had failed to establish hubs nearby. Prince Edward County was in what city dwellers often refer to as the sticks, or the boondocks. Nobody in the region was hiring correspondents.
As for Catherine's prospects, about the same story. Nothing appeared in the Farmville Herald's want ads that offered any promise of putting her language skills and union experience to work.
We did have some equity in our house in Silver Spring, enough to cover the down payment on the farmhouse and about fifty acres of land at Elam, and leave us with a few thousand in the bank.
Now, if I could figure some way to get ABC to fire me, the severance pay, added to the bank account, would be sufficient to get us through the first year. We thought.
Here was the hitch. ABC was relatively happy with the work I was doing and my job was about as secure as jobs ever are in the volatile business of television news.
But, one of those happenstances happened that solved the problem.
I was assigned to make a quick trip to Kentucky to cover some sidebar features around the running of the Kentucky Derby. The trouble was, the assignment came on the day preceding the great race itself, and there wasn't a hotel room to be found anywhere within about two hundred miles of Churchill Downs. I finally located a room in a neighboring state about a half day's drive from the track, in one of those establishments that usually rents beds by the hour, and rented a car. Over the next two days I assembled reports on some meaningless side events, did what sleeping I did in the car, and was driving back to the airport when I experienced what I truly believed at the time was a heart attack.
It wasn't, it was just a very bad case of exhaustion coupled with indigestion and stark terror.
I returned to Washington and fired off a memo to my superiors to the effect that I would accept no further assignments that might impair my physical, moral, or mental health. And signed it.
I didn't actually refuse any assignments, mind you, just said I would.
But the effect was what I thought it might be. I was fired that same day, and left the building with a check representing my severance pay and my contributions to that point in the company retirement plan.
Elam, here we come.
Theo had no loose ends to tie up; he merely began tying his completed work in bundles in anticipation of the move. And he anticipated it constantly. In the weeks that remained while we arranged for the sale of the Silver Spring house, Theo and I devoured several volumes of the "Foxfire" books and everything we could find on the subject of log houses and cabins.
Finally, the great day came. A Mayflower van picked up our belongings, and the four of us piled into a four-wheel drive Ford Bronco we had bought for the purpose, and headed out for the wilds of Virginia. About five o'clock that afternoon, when Catherine would normally have been in one of Washington's daily traffic jams, we found ourselves on a stretch of Highway 15 north of Farmville, with nary another vehicle in sight in either direction. Our joy was complete. It was to be tempered slightly in hours to come, but just then, it was complete.
The house, when we arrived, wasn't quite what we remembered.
We had inspected the old structure, months earlier, mostly from the outside, since it was occupied by tenants. But, we had been able to determine that the front part of the house was an old double-pen log structure, the evidence of which was to be seen in the window and doorframes, where the pins holding the logs in place still showed. The size and shapes of the windows were further proof, small, and deep, and somewhat angular at the tops and bottoms.
What we didn't see, at that earlier time, was that the exposed logs inside, spoken of in the real estate ad, were only in one room, an upstairs bedroom, or more properly, sleeping loft. The remainder of the house had been clad, inside, with wainscoting, sheet rock, and cheap paneling, all amateurishly installed, and ugly as sin.
We had seen enough during that earlier trip to know, rationally, that this was the ultimate fixer-upper, but had elevated it in our minds over the intervening months into a pristine log house of the early days of our nation, and one that we would fit into very well indeed.
In the light of that November day, a light that was steadily diminishing in the gathering of rain clouds that would empty themselves on us for the following month, we could see that we had some work to do. Lots of work to do. Beginning with the installation of light bulbs. The previous occupants had taken every one with them.
Theo did not share the misgivings prompted by reality in the slightest. His earlier life as a restorer of antiques had provided him the ability to look well beyond dismal outer appearances, and spot the treasure within, The challenge was to know it was there, and to know what to do about it.
Behind the main house stood yet another log structure, with a large stone fireplace and a sleeping loft. This, Theo laid claim to immediately, seeing it as a perfect location for his studio and living quarters in spite of walls that promised to release any heat produced in the fireplace to the great outdoors. Piles of trash and discards in the cabin were an added bonus for Theo, who believed the junk pile would yield treasure. He was the proverbial boy, overjoyed at the sight of a pile of horse manure, reasoning that "there must be a pony in there somewhere".
The crew of the Mayflower van, which arrived the following day, did not share Theo's optimism. They had moved our furniture out of a modern, well-equipped home in Silver Spring that had at least three times the usable floor space of the Elam house. The Silver Spring house had also looked like someplace where a civilized family might choose to live. They thought there had been some mistake. Rational people simply wouldn't do this. It took some persuading to get them to take our stuff inside.
Of course it didn't fit, and never would, and the great part of our first year was spent trying to accomplish the equivalent of getting a one-gallon bucket to hold two gallons of water. We finally realized that it would be best to get rid of much of what we had, and replace it with what we needed. The requirements of a two hundred fifty year-old log cabin are quite different from those of a modern split-level in the suburbs of Washington.
The lawn, and the surrounding acreage, presented quite another set of challenges. People who live in the country, especially people who have moved to the country from urban climes, often refer to their property as a farm. Well, I'm from Arkansas, and grew up on a farm. This was no farm.
This was fifty-plus acres of ground that hadn't had the attention of a farmer for years. Many years. The part that was wooded had been bulldozed a few years earlier, and planted in loblolly pines. The pines, by now were hardly waist high and competing with a vigorous stand of mixed woods, mostly wild cherry and sassafras, with oak and maple coming along behind. There were some acres of tall trees, hickory and oak and cedar of several varieties. I could see that my childhood dreams of being a forester were in need of rekindling. Not an unpleasant prospect, but there's no money in it.
Several fields that had been cultivated in times gone by were still somewhat open, but unfit for farming because of an overgrowth of woody shrubs, briars, and representatives of every weed family native to the State of Virginia and several neighboring states.
The lawn was even worse. The previous occupants had seen no need for a lawn. Space on the yard had been cleared for a driveway and a path from the driveway to the house. They obviously merely slept here and worked elsewhere, and had no visions of getting their rental quarters into the pages of "Southern Living".
Again, these were disadvantages seen by Catherine and myself. Theo was thoroughly charmed. It was as easy to paint a weed as it was to paint a flower.
A few days after we moved in, Theo and I took off into this jungle. I, to walk the borders of our new property, Theo to assess its possibilities for new oil painting. When we had gone a couple of hundred yards from the house, Theo caught my arm and expressed the fear that we were trespassing on another's land. I assured him that we were well within our borders. Another five-minute's walk produced the same fears in Theo, and again I had to reassure him. A third episode sort of rankled me, and I told him to simply trust me; I had the plat, the map of the acreage, and knew what I was doing.
I had forgotten, for the moment, that Theo had spent all his life, to now, in a part of Europe where farmers lived in villages, and one entered the confines of one village just steps away from exiting the former. Open lands were rare, and when they did exist, were usually the properties of the very wealthy. A fellow with a good arm could throw a rock across most Luxembourg farms.
But it takes a while to walk around a fifty acre tract in Virginia, especially when it's overgrown.
When we finally arrived back at the house, I again reassured Theo, showed him the plat and reminded him of the markers we had located, and convinced him that the land we had explored was indeed ours.
His reaction. "Mein Gott, so much land, ve must be barons."
Thus was Theo christened "The Baron of Elam" and thus he held sway for the remainder of his life.
"Baron" Theo lost no time beautifying his realm. Starting with the summer kitchen behind the main house that he had chosen as his studio.
While I employed my time trying to get the main house into some sort of weather tight condition, Theo used his to learn the ancient art of chinking log cabins. It was a trial and error affair, mostly error, until he devised a mixture of mud from the creed that runs though the property and Portland cement. This sufficed to fill the gaps between the logs, and hardened into a satisfactory protection against the cold that would not wash away in the rains that were now falling generously on southern Virginia. It was a race against the approach of winter that winter mostly won.
First, the rains that began in November fell steadily into the early weeks of December, threatening to raise the status of the quiet brook that meanders through the back yard to that of a white water rafting venue. The same rains also enabled us to locate the many and copious leaks in the roofs of both houses, without affording us the slightest opportunity to repair them.
Then, with the struggle to stay dry still unwon, the rains changed to snow and added the struggle to stay warm to our full time attention.
It was, according to some of our neighbors, the worst winter in recent memory in that part of the Old Dominion, and the wettest. Until the cold hit. Then it became the slickest, the snow having taken on an upper crust that defied our best efforts to shovel it, melt it, or stomp a path through it.
The old house had been fitted out with an oil furnace in times past, but if it ever had sufficed to keep the interior warm it was well past that ability and about the only noticeable effect it had on us were the enormous oil bills that began arriving.
Having failed to make our appearance at Elam in time to lay in a good supply of firewood, we were obliged to buy from local woodcutters, a pickup truck load at a time, at premium prices. And the four wood burning fireplaces we kept fired constantly required such purchases on a BI-weekly basis.
The romance of country living faded somewhat in my mind, and in Catherine's, but not in Theo's. He had experienced much more severe discomfort many times in his past and the possibilities he saw in Elam far outweighed the reality of the moment. Where we younger hearts viewed Elam as something akin to a scene from "Tobacco Road", Theo saw "Giverny".
It took awhile, But Theo gradually brought us around to his way of thinking, helped in no small measure, by the eventual arrival of a spring that as heartbreakingly beautiful as the winter had been discouragingly ugly. The romance came back, but tempered with a hardening dose of reality. When winters of the future came, we would be ready for them.
Theo, on the other had, stayed ready. He remembered only the beauty of that first, hard winter. Before our first summer would pass, he would transfer those memories to canvas. His studio, indeed, began to fill with memories of all seasons past and yet to come, as Theo entered on the most prolific period of his career. Home at last, it seemed, Theo found himself free to fully explore his talent, experiment with color and technique, stopping only to take a leisurely walk and ponder the trees, weeds, and flowers he encountered along the way. Quite often he would come back from such walks, and almost like a florist, arrange some of the things he had seen and mentally stored on an empty panel. Such florals would appear in a matter of minutes, Theo merely placing on the canvas a picture he had already composed in his mind. These florals and still lifes appeared at Elam with astonishing rapidity, sometimes severely taxing our ability to keep him supplied with paints and canvasses.
The lack of a canvas, however, was never a problem for Theo. Some surface would be available, and for Theo, the only thing that a surface needed to quality as a suitable one for art was to be there. The piles of castoffs in his studio, and in a couple of barns on the property provided a wealth of unpainted material. Odd pieces of plywood, old cabinet doors, sections of tin roofing, an interesting bottle or length of firewood, notebook covers, old greeting cards, even a deck of playing cards. All provided Theo opportunities to beautify his world. He filled sketchbooks with oils, old stationery as well, the rag paper pages of an old scrapbook, and the covers and flyleaves of the scrapbook as well. I once gave him a small box of dried fruit as a present, and a few days later got back the box with a delicate painting inside and another on the outside. A very satisfactory exchange as far as I was concerned.
A great many people profited in similar ways. Visitors to Elam had only to hint that they would like to see Theo's paintings and a full tour as the immediate result. As they would look at the paintings, Theo would look at their faces. Before their visit was ended, Theo would select a painting and with great ceremony present it, saying "und Zis, Madame, iss for you", if the recipient was a female; or if it happened to be a man, "Take care, Mister, und in ze times zis will make you rich".
It is impossible to know how many paintings Theo distributed in this manner, but it would easily amount to more than half of his lifetime production. Casual visitors got one, special friends, sometimes as many as six. Six was his stated limit. The remainder was to be his legacy for Catherine and "Peepchen".
His resolve never to sell a painting, however, remained intact. The only deviation being an occasion donation to a worthy charity auction, always with the proviso that he not be told what the painting sold for and that I would place a respectable reserve price on it. The results were always quite favorable for the charity involved, since the bidding always continued well above the reserve price. No dollar figure was ever mentioned to Theo, thus preserving his artistic "virginity".
Among the special friends in Theo's life, the ones who qualified for six paintings, was Marge Swayne, a "next door" neighbor living about a quarter mile away. Marge and her husband Rick, a Navy family, had bought the property next to ours at about the same time, looking for much the same thing we were a place away from urban confusion where they could settle for the remainder of their lives.
Rather than restoring an old house, Marge and Rick had decided to build their own, from scratch, and do the job on weekends during the last years of Rick's Navy service. The first we knew of them was the sound of hammers and saws on weekends that drifted our way.
The first member of the family to make contact with Rick and Marge was "FiFi", a mixed breed, mostly English setter who had been found as a puppy when we were living in Silver Spring, Maryland. FiFi, always curious, wandered down to the Swayne's property one weekend and found not the Swaynes, but the lunch they had brought with them from their weekday home in Virginia Beach. She was just unwrapping the last sandwich when the Swaynes showed up. But, FiFi being the sort of dog that one falls in love with at first sight, sort of drifted into a part time relationship with the Swaynes and became a two-family dog, spending subsequent weekends with the Swaynes, then coming home on Sunday night to weekday residence with us. It was a friendly arrangement that lasted for years. We didn't actually meet the Swaynes for quite some time, but since FiFi liked them, it was clear that they were good folks. Once we did become acquainted, Marge and Theo developed a close friendship and kept each other company on many occasions. That friendship influenced the entire family as time passed until we had sort of adopted each other, the Swaynes and Kincaids and Wildangers, dogs and all.
At our house, the cash cushion that we had expected to last a full year dwindled rapidly under the influence of high oil and firewood bills, unexpected but unavoidable repairs, and not least of all, a technicality in the income tax law that ate about half of it in one gigantic bite. It's all very complicated, but the long and short of it was that the house we had bought had little value, but the land we got along with it did. And the difference, on paper, was income. Go figure.
So, unable to afford either a good tax lawyer, or a long term in a federal slammer, I was forced to cast about for gainful employment. I found it at last in Norfolk, Virginia as an anchorman for a local television station. About three hours' drive from Elam, I was able to spend five days a week on the job, and the other two at Elam. Not what I had in mind, but doable.
Catherine and I moved into a small apartment in Norfolk and became weekend commuters.
During the week Theo held down the fort at Elam, and was freer than ever to paint what he wanted to, and when he wanted to, which was just about everything and all the time.
Marge, now living full time at Elam while Rick wound up his last years at the Navy base in Norfolk, looked in on Theo from time to time, shared FiFi stories with him and discussed art in general and his art in particular. Over the years, the Swayne collection grew to the stated limit of six, all exquisitely framed and proudly displayed in the Swayne home. A measure of that pride shows clearly in a story Marge likes to tell about a woman visiting her home for a club meeting who admired the lovely Theo "print". She had seen such a print in one of Farmville's finer homes, part of a limited edition Giclee series that had recently been published. Marge, a quiet woman, thanked her gently and pointed out, modestly, "but that's the original".
She could also have described, as she often does, the occasion on which she received the painting, and what she and Theo talked about that day. In spite of their fondness for each other, their relationship remained quite formal. Ever the old world gentleman, Theo addressed Marge, and all grown women, as "Madame", and his presentation of a painting was always carried out with the gravity one observes in a French military medal ceremony.
Almost as precious to Marge as the paintings Theo gave her over the years, were the memories of their afternoon visits. On one occasion, she remembers, she complained about the winter rain which seemed to go on forever. "Ah, no Madame," he explained, "ve must haff ze rain, it bringt ze beauty time".
For Theo, "ze beauty time" was bankable, in oil
paints and could be preserved for times when conditions at Elam were on
the bleak side. The boy in Theo maintained faith that there was a pony in
that manure pile somewhere, and was determined to find it.
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This page was originally published in 2003 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.
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