In Thornyhold, one of Mary Stewart’s later novels, the heroine says that a message came to her “like a gift from the air.”
That phrase perfectly describes how I feel about the beautiful ceramic vessel in the photo above, the work of Jim Kempes, husband of my friend Lesley Poling-Kempes. Lesley and Jim stayed with me last night on their way home from the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association show in Denver, where Lesley’s newest book, Ladies of the Canyons, won the Reading the West Award.
When Lesley and Jim arrived, Lesley handed me a gift bag decorated with a sky-blue ribbon holding a sprig of juniper and chamisa from their place outside Abiquiu, New Mexico. In the bag was a copy of Black River, a novel which also won the Reading the West Award, and, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, Jim’s vessel.
I took the ceramic piece out and cradled it in my hands, feeling the glassy smooth glaze, the lines of bumps like the knobby layers of sandstone in northern New Mexico cliffs, and the four sides with their rounded corners reminding me of the four directions of the earth. The lid was taped shut, and I didn’t peel back the tape and open it then because I was eager to show Lesley and Jim around Salida.
We walked down the trail that runs across the creek from my house, explored the Steamplant, the historic steam generating plant that is now our town theatre and convention center. I took them through the Sculpture Park and showed them “Matriculation,” Richard’s sculpture there. Lesley ran her hands over the chisled rhyolite top stone with its 128 embedded marbles; Jim admired the big steel gate hinges that join the lower two rocks, opened like an opportunity beckoning.
We walked along the river and I told them about the transformation of the Arkansas from a drainage that periodically ran orange with toxic mining waste to Colorado’s newest and longest stretch of Gold Medal trout water. We strolled F Street and admired the historic brick buildings, and visited Cultureclash, one of my favorite Salida galleries (the other is Gallery 150).
When we got hungry, we headed to The Fritz, my favorite downtown restaurant. It was hopping and there wasn’t a table, so we sat outside on the patio with our drinks and talked about art and writing and life. Then we went inside into the busy warmth and ate delicious food while talking more.
By the time we walked the few blocks home, Lesley and Jim were tired from their long day, so I made sure they were comfortable in the studio. And then, back in the house, I remembered I hadn’t opened Jim’s vessel. I carefully peeled away the tape securing the lid, lifted it, and gasped.
The inside is glazed in a deep midnight blue with lighter speckles that shimmer like the stars in the night sky. Carefully holding the ceramic in my hands, I turned it round and round, watching the light illuminate that starry interior.
“It’s like holding the universe in my hands,” I said this morning when Lesley and Jim came over for breakfast. “Thank you.”
Jim smiled his warm smile, “I call that glaze Milky Way Blue.”
“That’s exactly right,” I said.
Before they hit the road for Abiquiu, we took a silly selfie of the three of us below. Then they packed up and headed south.
As I settled on the couch later to finish the slides for the WILLA Awards banquet at the Women Writing the West Conference in Santa Fe this week (where I’ll see Lesley again, since Ladies of the Canyon also won a WILLA), I remembered the phrase from Mary Stewart’s novel.
“A gift from the air” describes both Lesley and Jim’s visit, and Jim’s beautiful ceramic art. Before they arrived, I had been feeling harassed and overwhelmed by all I have to do before I leave on Tuesday; by the time they left, I just felt good–my spirits refueled by our conversation and their company.
I also felt a wave of grief that Richard, who left this life too soon, never got to meet Jim and Lesley. They would have enjoyed each other, and Richard would have especially treasured talking art with Jim. Their work is in a similar vein, abstract and rooted in a love for this earth.
Richard outside his studio with Matriculation suspended by the crane he built for moving sculptures.
Richard appeared in my life 34 years ago with his then three-year-old daughter Molly. They were another gift from the air. I’m fortunate to still have Molly, I know. But that doesn’t keep me from wishing her daddy–the great love of my life–was with us too.