City Paper is not for tourists
Sheila first noticed the teal-painted tree branches and mysterious stone mounds about two months ago on her way to her job in Chinatown. Over the past few weeks, the strange, crafted-clutter sculptures have come and gone, sporadically decorating the most natural of inner-city public gallery spaces: a triangular concrete median at the intersection of 5th and Massachusetts Avenue NW. She wondered where it all came from; word on the street was that the artist was an old lady squatting at the neighboring Salvation Army, who emerged in the inkiness of night to charitably bestow on D.C. her homespun visions.
“This used to be really grunge, an awful squalor place. She’s put an order to the garbage. She’s using her art to try and make things beautiful,” Sheila says. But like most of the people who have happened upon the installation, Sheila has never actually seen the artiste.
I am taking in the miniature beach scene arranged in the grassseashells, sand, a wire crate, and cheap, painted figurinesone crisp afternoon last week. My reverie is interrupted by a tap on the shoulder: “Would you help me put this up?” She smiles, holding a red plastic poinsettia in one hand and a burning cigarette in the other. She is grandmotherly, with curly gray hair and wrinkly blue eyes, wearing a wool jacket and soft shoes and a battered purse slung across her chest.
I stand up on tiptoe and stick the fake flower onto the highest spire of a branch. “Perfect,” she says.
“What’s your name?” I ask. “What’s yours?” she counters. I tell her. She smiles again. “I’m Friend of Sharada,” she says, tucking a bunch of dried flowers into my coat pocket.
We walk together across the street, where we stare at a tangled patch of squash behind the housing projects. “Is that cool or what?” she asks. This is not her garden, but she has an affinity for the plant world, pointing out the various rosebushes and rows of corn and cabbage. Back at her midstreet exhibit, she has placed a half-dozen red and white begonias”the colors of the D.C. flag”which she procured after the city uprooted them elsewhere to plant new ones.
She’s a cagey sort, dodging almost all of my questions and giving stubbornly vague answers to the others. Her occupation? She shakes my hand heartily: “Diplomatic street liaison.” Her origin? “I don’t know about you. I mean, I didn’t come from a place; I came from my parents. My father planted the seed in my mother, and here I am.” Her education? “Oh, lots of different places.” Finally, she cuts short my inquisition with a simple, “I believe in privacy.” But she doesn’t hesitate to pry into my life, asking where I’m from, where my parents were born, and then commandeering my notepad to draw a rough and inexplicable sketch of Andrews Airforce Base. It’s hard to be mad.
She is at least willing to talk about her “project.” Like the begonias, most of the materials for her artistic installation are found objects, the detritus of businesses or homes in the area. There are bales of hay, endless loops of videocassette tape, wooden boxes, ribbons, and artificial Christmas-tree limbs. She explains that it’s a progressive, ever-changing exhibit, chronicling the seasons and the holidaysan ambitious undertaking. The Columbus Day tribute is gone now, and the Halloween corner won’t be up too much longer.
She points at the beach scene (the “summer” display) and says, “See the mouse on the bridge, the mouse with no cheese on the cheeseboard?” She stops and looks me square in the eye: “You are that girl-mouse.”
She offers little explanation for her work, other than to say, “I promised some young people.”
Just then, a photographer named Mary happens to wander by. My artist friend persuades her to take my picture. Then she makes me promise to come back soon and make my own contribution to the exhibit at the intersection. After giving me pecks on both cheeks”As the Europeans say, you watch my back and I’ll watch yours”she begins to stroll down the sidewalk. Hearing my protests, she turns around and grins: “Don’t worry. You’ll find me.”CP