Three weeks ago, a woman was passing by my table at our local farmers’ market— she gave me a friendly smile but looked as though she was on a mission elsewhere. I expect this as one of the few new craft vendors at the market– people generally come with an agenda of produce and maybe some lunch.
I smiled to her and went back to paging through a book I’d brought with me. In my periphery, I saw her stop and back up and start looking through my prints. She had on a great dress, and we started talking about that for a moment.
Sometimes, in retail or food service situations, you just start talking to someone who comes in, and then suddenly, they become familiar to you in some way. Maybe they just have a warm personality, or they’re kind of funny, or they remind you of your cousin. And this type of connection leads to touching conversations you may not even have with people you’ve known for years.
She was looking at a print of a watercolor robin I had for sale. She wanted to buy it for her friend, whose house she was headed to in an hour from then. She was supposed to come to the market to buy some food items to bring for their dinner together, but she wanted to bring her friend a gift.
Her friend, she explained, had just lost her mother, and there was a deep emotional connection that her friend shared with robins and her mother. This woman wanted to bring her a framed print, hoping she would like it and understand her gesture. She told me about walks she would take with her friend shortly after her mother’s death, and how they would look for robins and talk about her friend’s memories.
My husband sells frames at our table, so we chose a smaller frame and I cut the print down to fit. In case, the woman explained, her friend didn’t have room for a larger frame, and she also wasn’t sure if her friend would like it as much as she did.
“I..just… love it,” the woman said to me after I’d framed it.
I thanked her and she left, and I was flattered that she’d taken it as a gift.
Last Saturday, the woman came back to tell me how her friend had unwrapped the print, looked at it and said that robin was exactly how she always remembered her mother; that there couldn’t have been a more perfect depiction of that connection between that bird and her mother’s memory.
The woman went on to tell me she and her friend just began to cry, together, soon after she’d opened the print. And then she knew she wanted to come back and tell me that I’d made something that became so special to someone else.
And then she and I shared a cry, too. “I wasn’t expecting this,” she’d said, laughing a little to herself, as she wiped away tears.
I feel like this phenomenon of an artistic image or expression channeling a memory’s vision is so hard to describe in words, but I knew exactly what she meant. And that’s mostly because that’s how I painted the bird in the first place.
This robin is one of the few times, recently, that I just made a sketch of what I remembered a robin looking like. It was a fast watercolor and pencil drawing, but when I’d finished it, I loved what it meant to me. I told her that, too.
These stories are why I keep making art. My work means something to me, of course, but I measure my success in how people are moved by the things I make. This woman’s choice to buy her friend a gift on a whim, because her gut told her that it would mean something deep, and then her honest desire to come back and let me know — I can’t find the words to explain what it means to me.