This is the rest of the story about my April visit with my elementary school teacher Catherine Blackwell. You can read the first part of the story here.
When I first came into the house, I was intrigued when I glanced into the living room from the hallway. The room was crammed with sculptures, paintings and photographs. Now that we had been talking for a while, I asked if Mrs. Blackwell could show me her art collection. She padded down the stairs and guided me into the living room.
I knew her African art collection was famous, but that didn’t prepare me for the breadth of her collection occupying every available space. There were stunning masks, sculptures and weavings made of fabric, wood, animal hair, bone.
My little point and shoot camera doesn’t show the beauty of these museum-quality pieces.
I eyed the long shelf of carved figures.
And found myself drawn to this one.
Recognizing the rarity and age of this figure with its ragged fabric and fragile animal hair, I asked where it was from but didn’t touch it. Mrs. Blackwell nonchalantly told me to just pick it up and look at it, so I did. The wood was weighty in my hand.
I contemplated the long-ago sculptor who created it. Who was the person who made this? What animal had that long soft hair? And how did it come into Mrs. Blackwell’s life? She had me turn over the foot, and I saw it was labeled, archived as part of a significant collection. “It’s from Senegal,” she said.
I could have spent several hours investigating the artwork and photographs in that room. I pointed to one black and white image of a couple laughing together. She told me it was a wedding photo of Miriam Makeba and South African musician and activist Hugh Masekela.
After visiting for two and a half hours, I had to leave to meet my friends who were expecting me. But I wanted to know about every one of the 60 journeys Mrs. Blackwell had made to Africa. I wanted to hear her lifetime of stories. It had been 42 years, and this visit now seemed way too short.
I reluctantly told her I had to go, giving my email address to her caregiver Gwen and explaining that I would blog about my visit and send her the link. Mrs. Blackwell said: “Oh, please come back. And stay the night next time.” She walked into the adjacent room, and pulled a tall white book off the shelf.
“This is for you,” she said, reaching for a pen.
She handed me A Heritage of Teaching: The African Art Collection of Catherine C. Blackwell, a guide to a touring exhibit from 2003. I opened it. On the first page, there was a photo of her. She was dressed in Ghanaian Kente cloth and story hat, holding a Yoruba Ibeji figure. Beside the image, she had written in crooked script, “With Love, Love, Love, Catherine C. Blackwell.”
We hugged before I said goodbye. I knew I would start to cry if I didn’t leave quickly. I started my car and looked back toward the house. She stood in the doorway waving until we could no longer see each other.
When I think about this visit, I see again the painting of Mrs. Blackwell hanging above her fireplace, depicting her in a classroom—the storyteller and musician sharing with eager children.
She thanked me for visiting her. I thank her for a lifetime of inspiration.
UPDATE: See the comments below from 2014 for more recent information. On February 4, the Detroit Free Press published a touching obituary with a photo that captures Catherine Blackwell’s spirit.