On what I learned at the art fair

This past weekend, Jessica and I showed her glass at an art fair, the first time we’ve done something like that. She was anxious because she knew that people would want to talk to her and she wasn’t sure what she would say to them, and while she can talk your ear off if she knows you, she has trouble engaging when she doesn’t.

So she and I practiced ahead of time, and I made my many lists, and I didn’t forget a single thing. Once we got set up, we walked around and looked at what the other vendors were doing, and I talked to people to get their best show tips.

All along the story about Jessica’s glass has been that she makes something beautiful, that this is her thing, the way that words are mine, and that my job is to support her, and stay out of the way, and see where it takes her. We all need that thing, that special whatever-it-is that people will pay us to do, or makes life more interesting, or sets us apart. Maybe it’s folding origami swans or speaking French with a passable accent or remembering the names of every person you meet. The thing.

So I thought what I might learn at the fair was how to support her in the thing, like I might figure out a better way to display the glass, and get the name of someone who runs a local gallery, the thousand little details that turn a thing into a vocation instead of just a clever party trick.

The girl who showed me otherwise was about seventeen, Jessica’s age, with dark hair and lots of eye makeup that she didn’t need because she was so pretty, and she had that edge of sharpness that you get to protect the vulnerability; if you weren’t so damned vulnerable, you wouldn’t need the sharpness. She stopped, and she touched a piece, the tray the color of flames, and she didn’t say anything except, “Can I take one of your cards?”

“Of course,” I said.

She nodded, not looking at me, and touched the blue-gray candleholder, the one Jessica calls Overcast.

“Have you ever been downtown? To the this-and-that shop? They have antiques and everything,” she said after a while.

“No,” I said. “We don’t live nearby.”

“I love that place. I’d love . . . .” She didn’t say what she’d love, she just opened her coat for a second to show me the logo on her shirt. “I work at the pizza place down there.”

This was sort of important but I didn’t know why or how. Seventeen year olds often work at pizza places and there are many things they would love to do but their parents won’t let them or their grades aren’t good enough or they don’t have the money.

“How do you even make it?” she wanted to know, her fingers trailing over the glass.

“Well, I don’t make it,” I said. “Jess does.” I gestured toward Jessica, who was sitting forward in her chair, anxious; she didn’t know what to say, and so I spoke in that slow and easy way I have learned, with lots of pauses so she can jump in when she’s ready. Sometimes she isn’t ever ready.

The girl looked up then, her dark eyes flashing, surprised; until I said something everyone who stopped at the booth assumed I was the artist and Jessica was only there because she had nowhere else to be.


Jessica nodded, her own dark eyes watching and watching.

“You made all this? How?”

Jessica didn’t answer right away; the answer is complicated, and people mean different things by the question, so I said, “It’s all kiln-formed glass, except those couple of blown glass pieces there. The kiln-formed glass is worked cold, and you use these glass tools—” I couldn’t remember their names and I looked to Jess and she said, “Glass cutters and running pliers.”

“Right. Glass cutters and running pliers, and you arrange the colored pieces of glass on a base. Jess usually uses clear or white glass as the base though sometimes she uses black.”

The girl touched one of the black glass vases Jessica had made, the one with bright green and blue pieces.

I went on describing the firing process, how the piece is fused and then slumped, but she wasn’t listening and when I trailed off she said, “Can I have more cards?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Because people should know about this.”

She sounded fierce, and I was once a fierce teenager, so I just nodded. She wasn’t paying any attention to me anyway; something had lit her face, something from inside her and it wasn’t the chance to hand out some business cards to people. That was just the symbol.

I have seen that look on other faces, students of mine when I taught at the university so many years ago. I hadn’t seen that look in a long time, that sudden knowing, what happens when your soul catches on fire and you get it. It isn’t so much that other people should know about this, it’s that you finally do, and you feel like you need to share it with someone else but you’re not really sure who or how, you just know, in your bones, that there is more in this world than the pizza place. No matter what anyone says, no matter how practical you think you’re trying to be. Sometimes all it takes is a girl your age sitting behind a table with a glittery pink tablecloth, too nervous to speak for herself, to show you what possibility is.

“Thank you,” she said, and turned away, cards clutched hard in her hand.


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