The True and Amazing Story of:
How The Empty Pot Came to be The Finale of Mission: READasaurus Cares!
The Empty Pot by Demi is a fantastic story of courage and doing your best. I have to confess that I knew about the book, but I had not read it until last year. Today I feel blessed to know the book, and now the true story of why unfolds:
For 20 years, Bruce Bray, was one of my best friends. We met in Williamsburg, Virgina at a conference in 1992. As he was a Jersey boy and me a Southern lad, we had many differences, but we shared the love and study of performing in common. Plus Mexican food too! Over the years we talked daily, had adventures all over the country, often meeting at conferences, and always helping each other work on our shows.
His passing in June 2011 from complications of a brain trauma accident was devastating to me. Four friends and I gathered in Toms River, NJ, at the request of his family in September 2011 for his life celebration, and to divide up his large prop collection. If you have ever had to dispose of a friend or family member's belongings, you know what a roller coaster ride of emotion that it can be, and it was, as hundreds of memories came flooding back.
Of the many items I inherited that weekend, my friend Ken Scott insisted I should have Bruce's Botania (An appearing flower bush). He said "Mark of all of us, you could really make something of this." I remember when Bruce acquired it. It was valuable then, and it is valuable now. Made by the Abbot's Magic Company in Colon, Michigan, it is handmade to order over the course of 4 to 6 months. (And that is working on it everyday by the way.) When I returned back home to NC, I spent a few minutes looking it over, I noticed it was in pretty rough shape. The chromed metal portions were rusting and dented. The flower bush had not seen the light of day in over a year, and it showed. I placed it out of the way in a corner of the kitchen where it stayed for several weeks, then I moved it into the dining room where I saw it in my periphery daily. Occasionally I would play with it for a few minutes and make note of all the repairs, then place it to the side again.
When Bruce was developing his Leaping into Literacy Program he showed the prop to a friend of ours, teacher Lisa Rizziello. For years she has coordinated the Literacy Festival at Maurice Hawk School in Princeton Junction, NJ. (Many years ago Bruce introduced me to Lisa, and he, my friend Ken and I rotated, taking turns performing at the festival to the present.) Lisa looked over the prop and suggested a few books to Bruce to consider using with it. One of which was The Empty Pot. Bruce loved the story and began presenting it. He would call me after a performance and tell me how incredible it was. (Interestingly, I knew a lot about the piece from his description, but I never saw him perform it.)
Early this year as I sat looking at the Botania, I realized it was time. Time to restore it. Time to perform with it, and time to honor Bruce's memory with it. There was only one way to do that properly and it was to perform The Empty Pot. I immersed myself in all things Botania and Empty Pot. As I learned the story, the refurbishing of the prop began. One thing I've learned in life is nothing good comes easy, and what an adventure was ahead!
First the handmade flowers looked awful from over a year of neglect, What to do? I contacted a friend of mine in Reading, PA who is one of a handful of experts in the world on this prop, and made arrangements to visit him in late May after a program in the area. Wayne Shiflett looked it over when I stopped in, and gave me a 2 hour lesson on how to reshape the flowers. Then he sent me home with weeks of nightly homework of shaping, curling and steaming. The flowers look much better!
Then there was the flower pot and metal cone parts of the botania. Remember I mentioned earlier that they were rusty and dented. I started visiting machine shops, body shops, my mechanic, anywhere I could think of that worked with metal and might be able to help. Everyone looked the pieces over and said essentially the same thing: that they were afraid to try anything as it "may make it worse." Finally I stopped into a bodyshop close to my house, the guy looked over the cone, picked up a ball preen hammer and started beating on it. He stopped, looked over his work, handed the hammer to me and said "you try it, I don't think I'm helping." Well, I knew next to nothing about dent removal and smoothing metal creases, however I'd been everywhere and gotten nowhere, and I was ready to get this done. So saying, "why not," I started pounding and shaping, and dang if it didn't look better after a bit. I tried to pay the guy as I left and he said "you did all the work, no charge. :)
About this time my buddy Kevin Hendrix who does repairs on my house was over one day, and he looked at my progress. I mentioned I thought I would like to paint the metal pieces. Kevin said "Mark don't paint it! Take the pieces down to the welding shop and have them powdercoated. (A spray on powder, available in a wide array of colors that sticks electrostatically to the metal. Once sprayed the item is placed in an oven/kiln where the finish is baked on, resulting in a tough durable finish.) That first day at Fuller Welding, Shannon Smith, the operations manger, looked the project over and set the bar of expectations really low. Maybe it would work over chrome he said, maybe not. We were both game to try.
I left the pieces with him for a week and a half in June while the family and I left for a series of performances and family getaway. Upon our return, I gave him a call. Shannon hesitated and said "Mark I have good news and bad news. The good news is the finish looks great. The bad news is the pieces were soldered and all the seams came apart in the oven because of the 600 degree temps." Ouch! When he brought the now coils of metal out to me, he asked if I knew a guy who could resolder everything. It turns out that while they are a world class welding shop, none of them solder, they weld only. "I have a guy," I said. "No charge," he said. (The finish was a teriffic job.)
The next step was a quick call to my friend Jim Holbert in Flat Rock, NC (near Asheville) and then up to see him for a full day of work on the pieces. (Jim is a master cabinet maker, fellow performer and genius!) He soldered and hammered, fixed and tweaked the structures and inner workings. He even created a special base for the pot. Exhausted I headed home for the final paint touch-ups, figuring out a way to pack and travel with everything and it was finally rehearsal time. Selecting and placing the music correctly would take several days and constant adjustment during the early performances. The result is pretty amazing. Everything Bruce had told me was true. Kids sit with rapt attenion, listening to a beautiful story unfold and when the finale comes, it's stunning! When you watch me perform The Empty Pot, if I should look a bit emotional, it's just the realization of the occasion sinking in. Paraphrasing from The Empty Pot: "It's the best I could do!" I hope Bruce would approve.
Fall Journeys and Thank Yous!
My thanks to the schools of Ashe County, NC and especially the sponsorship of The Ashe County Arts Council for inviting me to be with them in early September. It was very exciting to debut Mission: READasaurus Cares, and the kids were fantastic and receptive. In the county there, the lovely mountain towns of Jefferson and West Jefferson have long beckoned folks to a world away.
The arts are alive throughout the area, especially quilting. Quilting has made a huge resurgence in the last few years and yet it has long been celebrated there. So much so the Arts Council partnered with farmers and artists to paint huge quilt murals on the sides of barns all over the county to celebrate quilting. Blue Ridge Elementary even has two huge, and really beautiful quilt murals in their lobby. I took the photo of this quilt barn as I was leaving Mountain View Elementary. (The barn is right beside of the school.)
Returning home I pulled my copy of Valerie Flournoy's The Patchwork Quilt off the shelf, and looking through it I was inspired by Jerry Pickney's gorgeous illustrations. I was so inspired, that The Patchwork Quilt's story of respect, family, and doing your best is now a part of Mission: READasaurus Cares. I'm very excited about this special addition to the program. (Warning: It's performance and message can be very powerful for kids and bring back floods of memories for adults. This is the good stuff!)
Also as I write, I'm just home from visiting my friends at Edgemont Primary in Covington, VA. I feel like part of the family, as I've had the honor to visit with them many times over the past 20 years, thank you Ms. Nipper and Ms. Fleming!