January 19, 2023 – I meander along the display of silent auction items, looking for those one or two items I might want to bid on. Mostly, I’m enjoying the hunt and the display of art work at the Chamber of Commerce Gala and Silent Auction. I recognize the names of most of the artists and think I might bid on one of the paintings by John Doyle, beloved partner of my good friend, Nanci. John died 13 years ago, the same week I was recovering from cancer surgery. A momentary sadness, but mostly good memories.
As I near the end of the line, a pottery display stops me: large plate, bowl and cup. The pattern and glaze are familiar. The bid card identifies it as: “Unknown Yancey County Artist.” There are no bids yet. Easy to overlook among the items from well known artists and local merchants. I move down the line, searching my memory. I return, stand before the pottery display.
Dani. The artist is not unknown to me. Danielle LeHardy, clay artist, potter, lover of dogs and life. Her work is unmistakable. Ed and I still have two of her bowls, one with the pattern that is in this auction display. The colors in our bowsl are different – bright blues, greens, aquas, rose, orange, yellows dance in swirls along the inside of the bowl’s sides. The colors remind me of the vivid colors she painted her studio, “The Pot Hole.”
I do not need to see the tiny “LeH” etched on the outside bottom of the bowl. This is no unknown artist. This is Dani’s work. I know that I am not the only one who remembers her. But tonight I wonder if anyone of the people at this gala knew Dani or remember her.
I bid on the display. By the time I find Ed and tell him about the pottery I’m almost in tears, my heart breaking at the thought of Dani’s pottery being designated “Unknown Artist.” I did not know Dani well, but I remember her love for her work, her dogs, all dogs, her joy in life even though she faced severe and debilitating health problems. Her life mattered. Her art still matters.
October, 1992, and the staff of Rural Southern Voice for Peace holds a retreat, a walking meditation led by Joseph. Five of us follow: Marilyn, assistant editor to the organization’s bi-monthly journal, Jenifer, the office manager, Herbie, the organization’s founder, David, the executive director who hired me in August, and me, the editor who renamed the journal Voices.
It’s an all-day retreat on a perfect Indian Summer day. The woods and trails are new to me and I want to remember every detail – the early morning chill, the bog, the pond, the seamless blue sky and the sunlight ever-changing, falling through the rhododendron thickets. By mid-afternoon we wander out of the woods into a clearing. Barking dogs greet us, tails wagging, tongues lolling. There’s a house, but what I remember most is the studio, still a work in progress, but already painted in bright colors. A woman dressed in paint spattered t-shirt and jeans comes out to greet us and calm the dogs.
“I’m Dani,” she says to me and smiles. The others know her well. A perfect ending to a perfect day. I realize once again that I’ve landed in a magical place.
Four years later when Ed and I started dating, one of the first places I took him was up the long steep dirt drive to Dani’s studio. He was as taken with her work as I was. Over the years, one of our favorite stops on the Toe River Arts Council Studio Tour was The Pot Hole. Often, Dani was too ill to participate in the tour.
Dani had no children. Her loving partner was older and had his own health problems. The time came when he could no longer care for Dani or himself. He made the heartbreaking decision to leave their home and live with relatives who could care for him. Dani lived alone, and had caretakers as her health deteriorated. Last year I heard that her caretaker found her dead on Christmas Day. I searched Google for an obituary, but found none. There was a legal notice in the local newspaper, June, 2022, publicizing the estate settlement. I also found notices of her studio equipment and contents offered at auction.
What does one life matter? What does the creative work we do matter? Is it only the famous who have a lasting impact, whose names are remembered. I know there are others in Yancey County who remember Dani and her work. I want to honor her, so I bid on the pottery. Before the bids close I go back to check. There’s another bid. Ed increases my bid. At the end of the night we take Dani’s plate, cup and bowl home. We will use them and remember Dani.
One reason her story touches me is that I know it could be my story too. I’m an only child, have no children. If I outlive Ed, it’s likely someone will find me alone and dead in my home. It’s less likely that a bundle of my poetry books will find their way to a silent auction with the tag: “Unknown Yancey County Poet.” I’ve joked that I’m a “famous unknown poet.” Most of the creative people I know create out of love for the work, the craft. But I also think most of us enjoy sharing our work with others.
How long will any work of art last? Who will remember the artist, the work? There will come a time when no one on this earth remembers Dani – or me. But, for now, I have my memories that keep the people, the art, the events alive.
Years after that retreat in 1992, David and I are the only ones still alive. But the memory remains, at least for now in this poem from When There Were Horses:
The sky’s an aching canvas, seamless
like our walking meditation.
October’s morning chill enough
for zipped jackets as we amble down
the dirt road into the woods. We stop to explore
a bog, marvel at the life we cannot name.
By lunchtime when we unwrap sandwiches,
feast on apples from Arbuckle’s Orchard
we’re wearing short sleeves, sweat beading
above our lips. Midafternoon we reach
the pond, our bodies baked in heat.
We shed our clothes, swim naked.
The water still summer warm,
leaves above already turned to rust.
When we reach the deep middle, we float
on our backs, dip handfuls of water,
splash our faces, each other, talk of nothing
I can remember. Sunlight and shadow shift
across our liquid bodies, playing hide and seek.