Bob Dombrowski and Mary Petruska of the Trenton Arts Council in an "American Gothic" pose in 2010 in front of the Wildwood barn Bob used as a sculpture studio. He had to share it with the tractor.
Bob Dombrowski died in December, a death that went unmarked for some weeks. He had been living alone in Wildwood since his partner in life, Mary Petruska, died in 2016. He had surviving brothers but they lived out of state and had never been close in the other sense, either.
Bob's body was found by Katie Kasch Bien, the next-door neighbor who checked in on him from time to time, on the floor of the crumbling farmhouse he and Mary had rented since 2003. Traumatized by the discovery, Katie was slow to announce the death, especially as she awaited the arrival of one of Bob's brothers to take charge of arrangements. There was not even an obituary until mid-January.
It was an ironically obscure end for an artist who in life had yearned so desperately for fame. But for the Dade community, the larger significance of Bob's death is that it marked the final demise of the Trenton Arts Council, and with it Trenton's brief but rather glorious heyday as a bastion of public art.
Birmingham has its Vulcan with his sharply-articulated cast-iron butt cheeks, Gadsden its bronze Indian princess towering tragically over Noccalula Falls with her sad love story and her perfectly enormous feet. And many a Southern town as small as Trenton has its statue of a general on a horse or its fine old houses. But Trenton had always had to make do with the beauty of the surrounding forests and mountains because it didn't have so much as an antebellum mansion. (There was the McBryar House behind the Burgar King, but it fell to pieces when it was moved to make room for the CVS. Now even the Burger King is gone.)
Then came Bob and Mary and the Trenton Arts Council, and for a few years there Trenton was an art town. Between March 2006, when Bob and Mary hosted TAC's kickoff event, "Public Art: A Panel Discussion and Exhibition," which was jointly sponsored by Trenton, the Dade Chamber of Commerce and Allied Arts in Chattanooga, and Mary's tragic cancer death 10 years later, TAC bombarded sleepy rural Dade with everything from abstract statuary to splashy children's murals, marble sculpture to eye-glazing poetry readings. There were installations. There were events. At one point there were belly dancers for crying out loud.
Photos: Above, Mary designed the TAC logo over one of her "Big Sky" paintings. At right, the handout she designed for the Trenton Arts Council's kickoff public forum became the cover art for the scrapbook she kept chronicling TAC's accomplishments. By the time she died it was stuffed with cuttings that wouldn't fit in the binder, which was bursting at the seams.
All that's over now, leaving only a couple of permanent installations to remind us of what I can't help recalling as Dade's Golden Age. But when is better than the end of an era to chronicle it? And who is left to chronicle it but me?
Sorry to butt into the narrative like that, but this is my story, too. I followed the Trenton Arts Council for years as a writer for The Dade County Sentinel, then chronicled the end of it here in The Dade Planet. I believe Mary's was the first obituary I ran in this newspaper. But I was also a close personal friend of Mary's and as such the TAC tale is so entwined with mine that it is impossible to tell it dispassionately. I tried. No, I must intrude into the tale from time to time, as I have just now--cry for Mary, bitch about Bob, maybe brag just a little about what a seriously cool place the center of the universe got to be in those days, with all of us in it.
Well! The reader is warned. Shall we begin?
First, meet Mary and Bob: Mary Petruska, a painter and graphic designer, was a native of Troy, N.Y. She studied art at the prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and then moved into a Manhattan loft where she lived for almost 30 years. In her late 20s, she met Bob Dombrowski, a sculptor and graffiti artist from Buffalo, nine years older than she was, while he was playing experimental bagpipe music on the streets. "I fell in love," she later told me. "Head over heels."
"I never loved Mary," Bob later told me. "But she had a bigger studio so I moved in."
Well, he was drunk, and trying to be funny. But their relationship--lopsided, some said abusive--puzzled many who knew them.
Photo: Bob and Mary in their NYC years, in a snap by Laura Leber
Mary had a way with people. She made friends with fellow artists, well-to-do people who could afford to buy art, poor people who couldn't afford squat, accountants, lawyers, state troopers, glassblowers, welders and folks who waited on her at the grocery store--everybody. Bob had a way of irritating people. At parties he would squeeze one woman's breast, ask another at what age she'd lost her virginity, corner a third and tell her about his dastardly sexual adventures at a free-love art commune. (I had to keep fending that one off the whole time I knew him.)
Mary paid the rent, cooked, washed the dishes, found Bob commissions for his sculptures and drove him around so he could drink as much as he liked. Which was a lot. Meanwhile Bob contributed nothing to household expenses, never turned a hand around the house--not even to fetch in firewood when Mary was dying; he told her to put on another sweater--and once banned Mary from TAC meetings for interrupting him when he spoke.
But Mary didn't seem like an abused woman. When Bob exiled her from TAC she spent the evening having dinner with me, noting cheerfully that somebody else would have to take the minutes this time. She loved Bob and thought he was a genius--so did he!--but as a practical matter didn't take him that seriously. When he tried to kiss a pretty young woman at a party, and the pretty young woman recoiled in horror, Mary got mad not at Bob but at the pretty young woman, for hurting his feelings. But not for long; she never stayed mad at anybody for long. That included Bob, which explained a lot. She never seemed to mind his drunkeness or boorish behavior, though she also never seemed surprised when it got him--or them--into trouble.
Bob and Mary had moved to Dade County in 2003 after Mary's building in New York was bought. Mary described it as a straightforward eviction, adding that she'd been paid $50,000 not to make a fuss--tenants have more rights in NYC--which she thought would be enough to buy a house down South. But friends from NYC later said other tenants had managed to stay, or at least to get a better settlement, and suspected Bob's desire to do large stone sculptures was a factor in Bob and Mary's move to the South--he needed more room.
(Photo: Bob and Mary are pictured in September 2010 on the lawn in front of the farmhouse. This is not so much my favorite photo as a photo from my favorite day, which I call The Day We Ate The Lobsters.)
The couple found that in 2003, even here, $50K wasn't house money. But they had friends from NYC who now lived in Chattanooga, and through those friends they met Cathie Kasch, mother of Katie, whose family owned the east side of the old Dave L. Brown farm in Wildwood. There were two old farmhouses on the property. Katie lived in one, and Cathie rented the one next door to the two New Yorkers. Katie and Mary became fast friends.
The farmhouse had stood empty for years. There was a hole in one wall big enough for Bob and Mary's cat to get in and out. When they tried to heat with propane the first winter, the gas was gone in a couple of weeks and Mary had the gas man out to look for leaks. "Lady, your house is a leak," he told her. They began heating with the woodstove in the front room instead, and it would get so cold in the rest of the house the olive oil froze on the kitchen counter. Close to her death Mary bought an electric heater. The directions said to put it on a level floor, and Mary laughed and laughed because she didn't have one of those.
The long table crammed full one Thanksgiving dinner--Mary must have taken the picture because she's not in it. One of Mary's big paintings is above Bob's head.
But Bob and Mary loved what they called the Farm. Bob studded the lawn with sculpture and Mary made paintings of the big sky and plowed fields. Bob used the barn that housed the tractor--part of the property was still a working farm--for his sculpture studio. As for the house itself, after the cramped NYC loft the couple were thrilled to have so much room. The dining room was a long, narrow room and there they installed a preternaturally long table that took up almost the whole length of it. That table became the hub of their many brilliant parties--and of the Trenton Arts Council.
The first mention local folks heard of a Trenton Arts Council, and the first clipping in Mary's TAC scrapbook, was a November 2005 Sentinel article by Peter Cervelli, then Trenton's "Better Hometown Manager." Cervelli, perhaps not coincidentally a transplanted New Yorker himself, wrote, "Artists are not extraneous luxuries but rather essential to the functioning of a healthy community." He warned that the art group would in the future probably "struggle and beg and badger for funds." For now, though, he wrote, its projects would be funded "through public money made available to the city and from the city."
Trenton would eventually, under a new mayor, decide that not only artists but Better Hometown Managers were "extraneous luxuries," and give them both the shove. At the outset, though, the Arts Council was awarded a tiny budget from the city government which it proceeded to stretch starving-artist style to change the world--or at least one little town at the center of the universe.
The Banners Project
TAC had mighty ambitions! It wanted to erect a giant sculpture to dominate the Trenton I-59 exit the way the aforementioned cast-iron Vulcan (left) loomed over Birmingham. It wanted an art walk along Town Creek. It wanted sculpture installations throughout the county.
To finance such projects,TAC briefly pursued the idea of getting 1 percent of the city's capital spending--that would translate, probably, to 1 percent of the local 1 percent SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax)--allotted to art. Peter Cervelli had mentioned in his article that some cities financed their public art that way. But the city commission didn't buy it, and when the artists approached the county about matching what it did receive from the city, they got squashed pretty chop-chop there, too. So what TAC did for Trenton it did with very little funding at first and later with none at all.
The earliest recorded functions of the Arts Council, after its debut forum in March 2006, were a couple of local photography exhibitions, then some fundraisers for the big sculpture Bob yearned to do for Trenton. That would come to fruition the next year. But the big, splashy project TAC initiated in 2006, which would continue making ripples for the next several years, was its flagship art banners project.
(Photos: At right, an impossibly young and adorable Katie Kasch announced the second set of art banners in the "Culture Girl" column she wrote for The Sentinel. Below, the banner torch passed from Mary to silk artist Claire Vassort--and the art-reporting gig from Katie to Emily Franklin.)
The concept was that artists would design sets of 10 banners each to make their individual artistic statements. The first few artists got $300 for their work. Later the city bumped it up to $500. Out of that they had to buy materials, though Mary did cajole the screens out of a printer client in NYC. Then the artists printed the banners themselves with an old-fashioned-looking, many-armed machine that lived in a back room at the Farm. Bob's adage was that even the most successful artists found when they did the math that they made something like 85 cents an hour. That was probably a little high for what anybody cleared on the art banners.
Each set of banners would stay up for six months, then another set would replace it as each artist passed the torch on to a successor of his or her choice. Bob designed the first set of banners, adorned with the abstract geometrical designs he favored. Mary did the second set, which were nature-themed, so she elected to have them displayed in Jenkins Park. Mary, who for a time in New York had designed a line of silk scarves, had befriended Lookout Mountain silk artist Claire Vassort, who agreed to do the next set, and so on.
Here I will intrude into the story again: I can't write about the art banner project without featuring the set designed by Josh McKinley, which were hung in November 2007, because that was the TAC project that first caught my attention.
I had written a humor-slash-gardening column, Bob's Little Acre, for The Dade County Sentinel beginning in 2005, but I didn't start work there covering the local news until August 2008. Before that I didn't pay as much attention to the life of the town. My husband, the artist Jerry Wallace, began attending TAC meetings at some hazy point we have never pinned down, and in fact ended up designing one of the later sets of banners, in 2010. But I didn't meet Bob and Mary myself until June 2008, and one way or the other the McKinley banners were the first I remember hearing of TAC. I noticed the banners in town and read Katie's writeup about them in The Sentinel, because I found them so clever.
Trenton is a town with a railroad that runs smack through it. These days the trains are mostly a traffic hazard and background noise, but Josh reminded us that during the Great Depression the railroad tracks were a hobo highway that brought these transients and their culture into town. His banners depicted the secret symbols hobos used back then to leave messages and warnings for each other.
"This is not a safe place," one translated, while another advised: "A kind-hearted woman lives here." Who, you infer, might be a soft touch for a handout. But another cautioned danger! this was the house of an officer of the law. (Hobos didn't think much of cops, I take it. Remember The Hobo's Lullaby: "I know those police give you trouble'; they cause trouble everywhere; But when you die and go to heaven; there won't be no policemen there.") Josh contended the hobo symbols were very ancient, having developed from ones used by Gypsies for the same purpose.
Josh's was one of the earlier sets of banners. Later sets explored different themes. Claire Vassort, a hang glider pilot, used her banners to depict the sky and the idea of flight. An artist who came here after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina took the wind as her motif. Jerry and another artist both did their banners on environmental themes.
(Photo: A collection of one each of the banner sets at Happenings, TAC's performance arts event in 2010, except for the last set, which was still hanging in Trenton at the time.)
The banners started getting Trenton a lot of ink in the regional press starting with Josh McKinley and his hobo symbols in 2007. That was partly down to the artists and partly down to good PR. Mary's spelling was famous more for creativity than accuracy--one of her favorite adjectives was huge and she spelled it Hugh every time--but she nevertheless wrote one hell of a press release. By the time Jerry hung his endangered frogs and bats banners in January 2010, he made the front page of The Chattanooga Times Free Press. The photo at left is by our nephew, Jake Daniels, a photographer for the Freep in those days.
The banners weren't the only project TAC tackled during those early days. TAC focused a lot of its attention through the years on Trenton's Jenkins Park and Town Creek, the creek that ran through it. In January 2007, TAC induced the city to commission a mural next to the Jenkins Park playground by Shaun LaRose. LaRose was not a TAC artist but a Flintstone-based muralist who later made a name for himself with some of the larger, splashier Chattanooga murals. The one at the park is small and understated, not even a true mural but a honking big painting, large enough to take up the side of the park building it's hung on.But it was a giant step into the world of culture for our little country town.
What next? Reading back through the art columns in the Sentinel from 2007 on, you'd think the proposed Town Creek Trail was the Trenton Arts Council's abiding mission. There were plans for an art walk there to extend outside Jenkins Park and across Highway 11.
It never came to pass. At one point there actually was a path through the woods behind the park leading to a "meditation garden"--a clearing with a bench made from a stone Bob had etched. But the 2011 hurricanes closed that area off with treefall, and ambiguity about property ownership behind the park further complicated matters. The project seemed abandoned altogether for some years, though I recall Bob (unsuccessfully) bringing it back up before the Trenton City Commission in 2016 or 2017, after Mary's death, when I was covering the municipal government for The Planet.
But Bob did have one major triumph with the proposed Town Creek Trail--the permanent installation Trenton commissioned from him for the trailhead. His seven-foot-tall marble sculpture, "Totemic Raven," weighing in at three tons, was wrestled into place at Jenkins Park in late September 2007. Katie Kasch's "Culture Girl" column of Sept. 28 of that year put out a (culture-) girlish plea for help moving it. "We need the strong, the brave and the smart! You will become a hero of the community, the Trenton Arts Council, and me!" coaxed Katie blondly.
In the end, according to newspaper clippings in Mary's scrapbook, the installation took not just TAC but Preston Daniels, Trenton's longtime general factotum, a crane from Frank Wallin of Wallin Drilling and help in transportation from Clark Lumber. The sculpture is still there, and the friends who attended Bob's memorial service this January spread his ashes near it.
How much did it cost Trenton? I found this in the Sentinel write-up: "The city purchased the $800 stone and is splitting the cost of the $5000 commision with the arts council." I don't know whether that means TAC payed Bob $2500 out of the funds Trenton gave it as a regular budget or whether the money came from fundraising. But one way or the other, the article also said Bob had worked on it for two years so I'm betting it fit into his 85-cent-an-hour rule.
Before we leave the subject of Totemic Raven entirely, just how was it that a white marble abstract sculpture got named after a black bird? I never heard Bob mention it, but here's a quote from him from the Sentinel article of Oct. 3, 2007, written by Don Pittman: "The raven is a symbolic bird. It's a messenger. It's difficult to define concisely. That's what art is, it's hard to nail down."
Good old Bob. You couldn't have beaten it out of him with a stick.
After Totemic Raven the art juices were seriously pumping through the center of the universe, and TAC in early 2009 got another big sculpture project going, this time in cooperation with National Boiler, one of the manufacturers in Dade's industrial park. The project was subsidized by a Grassroots Art Program grant with a match from the city of Trenton. Engineers from National Boiler took Bob's sketches and projected them onto sheets of scrap metal, after which they were cut, welded and painted into a final grouping of sculptures that were installed just outside the industrial park. Bob named the piece Aspiration. Others immediately nicknamed it Miss Moosey or Bullwinkle but not without affection. "It's not the sort of art that people are used to in the rural area we're in," Peter Cervelli explained to The Chattanooga Times Free Press.
People are used to it now, though--the sculpture still stands beside Highway 11 a mile or so north of Trenton.
Events and, er, Happenings
The sculptures were what Bob and TAC managed to leave behind, but art is also a state of mind, a state of being as it were, and TAC went into that aspect of it in a big way. Besides participating in the local festivals--it is safe to say TAC probably ran the only dada poetry booth in the history of Dade Days--TAC staged a variety of events of its own from the git-go. One of the things Mary was best at was getting a wide array of people together and showing them a good time. It made her a genius party hostess and it also translated into good event organizing.
Most persistent of the TAC events were the Beatnik Poetry readings. The first of these happened in January 2008 at a now-defunct Trenton restaurant, and they would recur periodically--"The Beatniks are Back!" "The Beatniks Ride Again!"
(Photo: Ray Zimmerman, one of the more faithful Beatnik Poets, reads in 2008. Below, flyer for first reading.)
Bob had always fancied himself as a poet. You didn't have to know him long before he pressed one of his small "artist books" of poetry into your hands. In fact, you didn't have to know him at all--I got my first one in the mail long before I met him, having caught his attention with my Sentinel column apparently. For the beatnik nights, he and fellow Dade resident Ginnie Sams, a mainstay of TAC, would read, but so would a lineup of other versifiers they had gathered from Chattanooga and the surrounding area. The poets would beatnik themselves up in berets and an assortment of scarves and shades, and to complete the atmosphere there would be live music behind them. Admittance would be $5, which TAC used to finance bigger projects,
By my time the music would usually be the Undoctored Originals, a Chattanooga jazz ensemble with a disproportionate number of members who were PhDs or medical doctors. But Mary's clippings mention poetry readings accompanied by drum circles and one that included a performance by Contrapasso, Katie Kasch's then-dance group.
Since I am sticking my beak in so freely here I will admit that the poetry readings glazed my eyeballs and made my butt hurt. I know that in The Planet I am always inflicting Shakespeare on innocent readers who want nothing more than to know who won the county elections, but Mr. S wrote the real deal, not the formless, self-indulgent strings of unconnected and frequently misspelled words that became the norm later. I used to say: "They can make me work for a living and they can make me pay taxes on it, but nobody can make me endure modern poetry." (Mary could, though, obviously--I went for her sake.)
That said, I was then and continue to be now, reading the clippings, amazed at the audiences these readings drew in our little mountain town. Seventy people listening to poetry? In Trenton? in January? As then- and once-again-District 1 County Commissioner Lamar Lowery was quoted in The Sentinel, attending the first Beatnik event: "It was interesting--something different."
The Beatniks would read, and the Undocs play, at many another TAC event. I remember one in 2013 at the Trenton Civic Center called Appalachia Rising. I forget what it was specifically in aid of, and I couldn't find a clipping on it, but I remember that one feature at the do was a giant art poster that all the guests were invited to add their bit to. I can't draw for squat so my contribution was to render, in tiny letters, in an obscure corner, a Robert Burns poem as recited by Elmer Fudd: "Oh, my wuv is wike a wed wed wose"--take that, modern poets!
My other memory of that event is that John Michael Currie, who now runs Trenton's one bookstore, had generously bought and barbecued locally-raised beef and pork as his contribution to the event. But he hadn't gotten the Q cut up by the time the rest of the buffet was ready, and two different TAC members went in, at separate times but at close intervals, to volunteer their help. Both returned to report John Michael had chased them out of the kitchen brandishing his carving knife menacingly. A little girl shortly after that asked me where the restroom was and I told her down the hall, first room on the left. I worried later if I'd gotten that right because the other room on the left was the kitchen.
That was another great thing about TAC: the way its doings brought together such a wide array of splashy personalities, types who generally did their splashing in different pools. TAC was short on card-carrying members. Ginnie Sams, William Back, Cheryl Parrish, Ray Zimmerman and Jerry regularly went to meetings, Emily Franklin, Katie Kasch and Brandon Sharp more sporadically. Many more artists tended to come when they were involved in projects, then stop, and as I went about my reportorial duties in those days they often buttonholed me and told me why. What it usually boiled down to was: Bob.
At TAC meetings, Bob would sit at the head of the table and hold forth pretty much indefinitely, discouraging interruptions--see above tale of Mary's banishment--in the early days waving a cigarette for emphasis. One woman I talked to said it was the smoke that drove her away, but Bob kicked the habit after a lung problem hospitalized him for two weeks and I'd still hear the stories. A couple told me they'd quit because they couldn't bear to watch Bob's treatment of Mary. A woman told me she'd figured out the Arts Council was all about making money for Bob. I disagreed about the money angle but had no argument with the all-about-Bob part. Once, when Ginnie Sams and William Back had been energetically promoting the Arts Council to the local government, Bob accused them of staging a coup to wrest control of TAC away from him. It was awfully silly.
But I digress. My point was, in my memories of TAC events are all the people you'd expect to see--the artistic types and the local government people. But looking through the clippings I noticed other Dade denizens I wouldn't have associated with TAC--Jon Talbott, then an engineer with National Boiler, involved in the Aspiration project; the late Bill Marshall reporting in the Freep on a TAC photo exhibit; Rex Harrison, apparently judging a scarecrow contest. The Arts Council managed to rope in all sorts of disparate people from all over the county. And nowhere was that quality displayed quite so vividly as at "Farmer's Aid," the event TAC cosponsored in January 2010 with American Legion Post 106.
It all started when the home of a Dade soldier, sitting vacant while he was stationed in Afghanistan, was broken into and cleared out. I think it was the late Bill Lockhart, then the commander of the Legion post, who proposed that TAC team up with the Legion to host a benefit to help this local guy replace his belongings. I certainly remember seeing Bill with his big tattooed biker arms resting on the long table at that winter TAC meeting. It was a weird partnership--Bill and his vets and his bikers, Bob and Mary and their artists and hippies--but everybody meant well, and agreed not to talk politics.
I was at that TAC meeting though I didn't usually attend (see above), and I was the one who suggested calling the benefit Farmer Aid, after the famous Farm Aid concert, because the soldier's name was Jeffrey Farmer. That became Farmer's Aid, and the event itself became a uniquely Dade do, one of those everybody-pitches-in events that make a body proud to belong here. Like the Festival of Life, it wasn't a benefit for some important but general cause, it was for direct aid to a member of the community, and as with the Festival of Life people came out of the woodwork to help.
Since Farmer was the guest of honor, there was a feeling he should attend, so something had to be done to facilitate that despite the fact he was half a world away. It was Mary who first said the words "live feed," though she wasn't all that clear on what that meant. Remember, this was 10 years ago, before everybody and his brother livestreamed on Facebook. Making it happen took all Dade's big IT guns--Seth Houts from the Bank of Dade, Bill Bankston and Chris Greene from Dade Schools, plus an internet link provided by local ISP Kite Pilot, camera work from Chuck Peters--the Legion Hall was a hive of busy expertise when I popped by to take pictures for The Sentinel.
Dade being Dade, the benefit featured traditional bluegrass music courtesy of the Big Woods Band; but TAC being TAC, there was also beatnik poetry with background jazz. There was an effort to provide something for everybody and my dear, everybody came! Veterans, arty types, concerned citizens, the city and county leaders--the Legion hall was packed. The show went off without a hitch though I remember Jerry and me sneaking red wine into our plastic cups to get us through the poetry segment. I also remember then-Trenton Mayor Barton Harris stomp-dancing with my crazy-gardening-lady pal Eloise Gass during the bluegrass--the event was a smash hit.
Happenings, on the other hand...
Happenings, the performance art festival TAC staged in September of that same year, was to be the Arts Council's magnus opus. TAC, fresh from its success with Farmer's Aid, had recruited talent and solicited attendance not just from Chattanooga but from all over, determined to bring Art with a big A, not just culture but counterculture, to sleepy Dade County, Georgia.
(Photos: The event was to a 1960s-style "happening," and "Psychedelic" is Jerry Wallace's middle name, so of course he designed the poster. Below, Hindu kirtan singing and belly dancers were featured acts at the event.)
Well, not nobody, but not enough paying guests to compensate the performers even though Bob and Mary were charging an unprecedented $10 at the gate. The ticket
price included overnight camping for those who wanted to stay the night at Peewee Payne's outdoor event venue, which TAC had rented for the weekend. There was dance, "kirtan" meditative chanting, a funny belly dancer, music of all kinds, food vendors, the inevitable poetry and a woman Bob and Mary knew from New York who had trained her voice to make whale calls, which she said was a combination of healing and storytelling and which she had learned from Tlingit shamans.
Meanwhile, just across Highway 11, at the R Haven Overnight Family Park (which Jerry and I always called the R We Haven Fun Yet) was another event on the same Saturday. I forgot to tell you that Happenings was scheduled for Sept.11, 2010, the anniversary of the Twin Towers attack, and this second event was a patriotic remembrance which was not only free but which included military helicopters landing dramatically during the ceremony. I don't remember which group or groups hosted it but it has American Legion written all over it, doesn't it? Though I seem to recall the high school band was scheduled to play as well.
Anyway, the denizens of Dade did not dither excessively over the choice between events (a) and (b). One cost money and the other had helicopters. So whatever wisdom the Tlingit shamans might have passed on to Dade will never be known.Traffic lined up on Highway 11 for the helicopters but at Happenings there were probably more performers than audience members.
Mary was disappointed in the attendance, and especially about the lack of representation from the city government which at that point was still sponsoring TAC. But she was a determinedly cheerful woman, alcohol was available and as I recall we core faithful ended the evening consuming buckets of it and dancing our middle-aged asses off to one of the rock-and-roll bands. Later, Mary told me she'd had a cathartic letting-go of her dashed hopes by burning the 500-odd unused programs in a bonfire at the Farm.
ArtScape was the last big Trenton Arts Council program, in 2012 and -13. Like the art banners project, ArtScape featured the work of individual artists, not purchased by Trenton but on loan to the city for some specified period of time. But this time, the focus was on sculpture. Various installations were deployed around the city at locations deemed appropriate for them, and whose owners had shown willing to host them.
One of my favorite pairings of sculpture and location was "Running Man," by then-21-year-old Brandon Sharp. Young Sharp's sculpture was installed in front of the old motel now used for housing by Southeastern Lineman Training Center. Get it? Lineman? And the sculpture is a line man?
The first sculpture in the Artscape series was, of course, by Bob. I couldn't find a cutting or really a whiff about it in the local press, but there's a funny story about it I can't resist telling here. The sculpture was an assortment of rocks Bobs had etched and mounted on old pieces of metal he had found piled up beside the railroad tracks. I regret not having a picture, but the end result looked kind of like an artist's impression of a carnival ride, one of those old-fashioned kid-friendly ones that hoist you up and twirl you in a circle. Bob installed it in front of Moore Funeral Home at the corner of highways 11 and 136 East.
Well, it turns out if you find piles of metal stacked up beside the railroad tracks, you are required by law to leave them there. They are railroad property and the railroad is a gummint all to itself, a harsh and undemocratic one. A railroad representative driving by spotted Bob's oeuvre, called the funeral home, which called City Hall, which called Bob, and Bob had to proceed postey-hastey to Moore's and take the sculpture down--that or be banged up in stir.
ArtScape also included a Jerry Wallace creation, Temporal Transect 2 (above), which stood just north of town on Main Street in a lot then leased by a trucking company, later occupied by a business that sells those small, ready-made outbuildings that must be all the rage because now there's another place selling them just across the road. TT2's major component was a concrete-over wire menhir studded with line drawings and embedded with objets trouvés throughout, so that it was best viewed up close. Nobody much did, but it attracted a lot of attention from drivers passing by.
That Rusty Thang
But probably the ArtScape project that garnered the most attention, and the least appreciation, from the local population was "Holey, Wholey, Holy" (that's how she spelled it) by Denice Bizot, a Chattanooga artist. Large, mangled and multiply perforated, Bizot's piece of industrial metal stood at the center of town on the lawn of the historic courthouse, and insulting it on Facebook got to be a countywide sport. Peter Cervelli at a recent meeting (more on that later) attributed TAC's loss of city funding to the sculpture, and stated assertively that TAC had mounted it before the artist was through with it.
I assert otherwise. I interviewed the artist back then for The Sentinel, and I can attest whatever Dade thought of it, that's the way she wanted it to look. Furthermore, Bob and Mary both respected her and her work. I expect it was just a matter of the good people of Dade feeling the same way about abstract art as I do about modern poetry.
My favorite story about all this comes from Jerry. He was out putting some finishing touches on TT2 when an old farmer-looking guy wearing overalls pulled up in his land yacht, left his wife sitting in the car Dade-style and got out to look at the sculpture. He questioned Jerry courteously about it and Jerry explained that this was another installation in the same city-sponsored series as the metal sculpture which was then still sitting in front of the courthouse.
"That rusty thang?" said the man.
But he was interested in TT2. Jerry explained about the objets trouvés--baby-doll heads, a toy pistol, computer components, like that--and the native-American style animal drawings being emblematic of different time periods, to say nothing of the primordial cave-art handprint signature. The man walked slowly around the sculpture, inspecting all these elements, and finally pronounced gravely: "I lak it."
I speculated he was only being polite but Jerry maintained he was quite sincere.
The Artscape sculptures were supposed to stay up only six months or so. TT2 had been a bear to install, though, and there was no plan for taking it down, so it stood there looming over the landscape just outside town for over three years. When the trucking company vacated and the pre-made building business came in, the menhir began to be obscured by miniature barns and gazebos and Jerry knew it was time to move it. But the real push came in June 2016 after Antique Alley, when the yard-salers who had rented the road frontage were observed using TT2 to drape their used clothing, old curtains and souvenir beach towels.
I took this picture of Jerry and his friends moving the sculpture for The Dade Planet, which I had launched just four months earlier. I knew TT2 was being disrespected where it was but I was still raw and aching from Mary's death the month before and I hated like hell to see it go. Even now the photo makes me blow my nose a little, and looking back through Mary's scrapbook, and through TAC's old Facebook page (from which I have pirated photos for this article pretty freely), I can see why: Moving that sculpture really did punctuate the end of that era, when the Trenton Arts Council was in its heyday and art bloomed in Dade County.
The rest is aftermath. Trenton stopped funding TAC after ArtScape. I didn't research how much the city paid for the sculptures, but in my 2016 article I referred to it as a "small installation fee," and as the bookkeeping spouse of one of the artists I can personally vouch for Bob's 85-cent-an-hour rule on this one. Really, though, I sat through city and county commission meetings all those years, first for The Sentinel and then for The Planet, so I know how tight money always was and I'm still amazed TAC got any funding from local government at all. But remember, Mary induced me to sit through those beatnik poetry readings...
TAC kept meeting after Artscape, but not undertaking anything near as mighty. There are no more clippings in Mary's book after that and on the FB page only links to the TAC arts column that it became Bob's project and obsession to publish in The Dade Sentinel, and online on Chattanoogan.com, each week. Bob got every regular TAC member, plus every friend, acquaintance or casual connection he could rope in, to write 500 words plus about art. I wrote one of the columns myself, again at Mary's urging, a faux-investigative piece about clothes appearing on naked statuary, notably a knockoff of Michelangelo's David, at a local garden center. Since this is my swan song for The Planet, I don't mind sharing with you that Jerry and I always called this peculiar episode The Case of the D--kless David. You can still read it on the Chattanoogan by clicking the pic here.
Anyway, the TAC newspaper column was more a matter of talking about art than doing art, but it was pretty much what TAC was up to during this time and keeping it going became such an idée fixe with Bob that he was recruiting contributors full-time. Once at a party at my house, he announced he'd found a new contributor and I was amused to find he was talking about the neighbor kid who'd slipped in, and was 12. Well, as I mentioned, Bob drank a right smart.
I did find this picture from an exhibition TAC put on at the Dade library in 2014 about the little "artist books" Bob was always making and pressing on people. I believe there was a seminar on how to make them, then on another day a lecture on their history and signficance. Marshana Sharp, who manages the library, said she still has the whole collection of them there.
The little books were very much Bob's project. He toward the end there began talking about buying an old cigarette machine for them so that people would have to feed money into the slot to get one dispensed. In one of the few instances I ever heard Mary contradict Bob--she let him ruin the coleslaw once with exotic spices and hot peppers because "I don't want to discourage him"--she reminded him that he usually gave them away for free. But she said it very gently, she didn't add that sometimes it was a hard sell even at that price, and really she didn't even nix the idea of buying the vending machine. Now I think about it, that was the beginning of what became a trend with Bob in those latter days--him wanting to buy something odd and expensive, for reasons I could not fully grasp.
But back to our history: Nothing much was going on with TAC, but TAC was Bob's life and Bob was Mary's life, so the first Tuesday of every month they'd clean up the farmhouse a little, set out a few refreshments and hold a meeting with whoever would come.
Then, in October of 2015, Mary was down for a few days with what she thought was a stomach virus. She told me about it when we went out for lunch in Chattanooga at a Vietnamese place--it was her first stab at spicy food since she'd been sick. Then I thought I'd caught the virus, too, from us dipping our spring rolls into the same sauce, because I came down with a digestive ailment just after that. But I got better quickly and all that fall, Mary got worse and worse.
Mary didn't have health insurance and was anyway one of those people who think doctors make you sick. But by the week before Christmas it was so clear we were way beyond stomach virus here that Mary finally let one of her Wildwood friends drive her to Memorial. She was admitted and on Christmas Day diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. They fixed her up with pain pills and hospice care and in January sent her home to die. They gave her four to six months, which was right on the money because she died May 16.
Jerry and I offered to take care of her at our place, I believe many of her other friends did the same, and she had a large and loving family of brothers and their wives and grown children who were also desperate to help. But of course she wanted to be nowhere but at the Farm with Bob and that's where she stayed.
The Dade area is a good place to live, and what I observed during those last months is that it is a good one to die in, too. Not just Mary's close friends, not just TAC members, but the whole community turned out to look after her. People just kept showing up with food and firewood and caring. I don't want to dwell on Mary's death here but I must tell one story about that.
Mary's brothers organized one last big family reunion that winter at the Farm--here's a pic, again at the long table--and a few of us close friends were invited, too. One of the nephews cooked a turkey but I wanted to do my bit so I was allowed to make the mashed potatoes. At the end of the evening, there were some left and I took them home with me because they were in my bowl and I didn't want to fool with finding another container to put them in.
But I was over there a day or two later when Mary got hungry and I asked what I could get her from the kitchen. "Weren't there some mashed potatoes left over from the other night?" she said.
Can you say grovel in mortification? My beloved friend was dying, all she wanted in the world was mashed potatoes, and I had absconded with them. I vowed then and there to make her another batch ASAP.
And of course I didn't get around to it. I was just rolling out The Planet, remember, I was busy, so though I was coming every couple of days I kept coming without mashed potatoes. Finally, when a week had passed mashed-potatoless, I brought it up with Mary, apologized for my laxity, and promised to bring them next time.
"Mashed potatoes?" said Mary. "Please!" She went to the refrigerator and began pulling out: mashed potatoes. She had three or four separate containers, left by as many well-wishers who'd all showed up with food just since I'd made off with the reunion batch. Dade County may not have learned anything from Tlingit shamans but there's not much it doesn't know about mashed potatoes...or about looking after its own.
So Mary died surrounded by loving care--but not necessarily Bob's. He went about life pretty much as normal, which is to say, as Mary's friend Helen once put it, about as helpful as tits on a bull. Mary would call us to help get in firewood. "Bob's sick of winter," she'd say. Or: "Bob's on strike." When the weather warmed up, Cheryl Parrish went over and moved Mary's plants to the porch. Bob showed up while they were sitting out there afterwards and said they were deliberately making him feel left out. That made me grin sourly--if he wanted to feel included, why not help move the plants? Or fetch the firewood for that matter? But the most he ever pitched in was to hover around when we friends were washing the dishes and warn us not to put the good wineglasses in the wrong cabinet.
Once on a Tuesday afternoon I remember him bustling in from the store with soft drinks. Mary said, "How sweet you are to bring me Coke to settle my stomach." Bob said, "They're for the Arts Council meeting tonight." But he did let her have one. That didn't always happen. When the spring got cold again, and Jerry stopped by to build a fire in the woodstove, he was not allowed to because Bob would need the firewood after Mary had died, both of them explained earnestly.
Mary asked me to help clear out her studio, where she now spent most of her day on a hospital bed. We spent a Saturday morning getting rid of old tax returns and such, then as it was a pretty day she insisted we stop and sit out on the grass as we used to do, and we never did get back to the cleaning job. We were trying to find a subject to talk about that didn't make me cry--she'd also asked my help arranging her cremation--when Bob wandered up and said, "A good printer is important to me." What he wanted was Mary's input on which one he should buy for printing his little books. And of course she gave him her best advice
That was the second big art-related purchase he mentioned during this period. I don't know if he bought it or not, but he did buy the third thing that for some reason grabbed hold of his imagination during this grim time, some sort of microphone setup that he called a P.A. system. He was not exhibiting much TLC for Mary but he did remain devoted to the Trenton Arts Council and I recall him explaining that the P.A. system would allow TAC to stage more and better public events.
Toward the end, Mary told me Bob was having a dinner party and she hoped Jerry and I would come. She was pleased he was trying to organize social occasions now that she was getting past it herself. What Bob himself said was: "I'm having a dinner tomorrow. Will you bring the food?" So we came and brought food and another couple came and brought some, too, and the evening hadn't progressed far when it became clear that what we were attending was a dinner party for the P.A. system. Bob wanted everybody to look at it and listen to him read his poems into it.
The evening was a disaster--Mary was far too sick for a dinner party--and I never wanted to hear about that P.A. system again, but every time after that that there would be people gathered around her I would hear Bob somewhere off in the distance saying, "I sensed that kind of energy in the community so I bought the Arts Council a P.A. system."
I don't believe the Trenton Arts Council ever staged an event with the damn P.A. system. The Trenton Arts Council wasn't about any old P.A. system. What Bob didn't see or wouldn't admit in his monstrous self-absorption was that the Trenton Arts Council was all about Mary, and it died when she wasn't there anymore to do the work and schmooze with the officials and take the minutes and set out the crackers and provide everybody involved one good reason for putting up with Bob.
Remember that story I told you about Bob exiling Mary from TAC meetings for interrupting him when he spoke? Of course I wasn't going to those meetings but Jerry was, and he told me at the next meeting all the other members just came to tell Bob what a jerk he'd been to ban Mary, and at the one after that they hadn't shown up at all. When I mentioned it to Mary later it turned out this was the first she'd heard of it, Bob not having seen fit to tell her the reason for her reinstatement.
Well! I warned you this would not be a dispassionate history of the Trenton Arts Council. By the Friday night before Mary died, I was so disgusted with Bob I briefly considered running over him with my car. I knew it would not help the situation but felt it would cheer me up a little.
And I'm afraid Bob's behavior during Mary's sickness may have also disgusted other friends and TAC members. One of them told me he'd said of it, "This is taking too long." So probably not many of them kept up with him, either, and I'm afraid he may have died sad and lonely. I am sorry about that.
I began this history by saying that Bob's death represented the end of the Trenton Arts Council, but I kept fumbling around with redundancies like "last end" and "final death." Now you see my problem. Bob lived for over three years after Mary died and I understand he did try for a while to get people to come to TAC meetings. I told you about him appearing before the Trenton City Commission, too. But there was really no Trenton Arts Council without Mary. She was not just the workhorse of the group but the one with the sparkle, the one who made things happen.
Anyway, now as The Planet prepares to sink into the West itself, I didn't want to wrap up without providing this requiem for the Trenton Arts Council, not so much to tell you about its death as to describe how it lived, to remind you what it accomplished in our quiet little backwater. When I think of those years my life was entwined with Bob and Mary's, it always seems like a Hemingway novel, my café-and-bullfight days, I call it. It occurs to me that's sort of what TAC did for Trenton. There was always something happening, something weird and wonderful usually but even when it was weird period it made a splash. You can still feel it now that Bob and Mary are gone, a glint of color here, a ripple of weirdness there--just why is there something that looks like Bullwinkle outside the industrial park?
And now, since we have wallowed so long in the past here, let us close with a view to the future. In February, Jennifer Blair, pictured at the head of the table here with former TAC members, from left, Jerry Wallace, William Back and Sue Gridley, started the process of forming a new arts council for the Dade area. The new body will be called TriState Heritage Art and Culture Coaltion. That's a mouthful but I have already started thinking of it as THACC as opposed to TAC. Spell the whole moniker out and you can find it on Facebook. "Like" the page to keep up with the embryonic group's inaugural doings--and, if you are still in the wallowing mood, you can scroll down to view posts and pics from the days of yore, since THACC has incorporated TAC's old Facebook page.
Good luck, Jennifer & crew! Readers who faithfully follow local news know that Jennifer's a mover of mountains. But I expect the old Trenton Arts Council is going to be a tough act to follow.