Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Egg and I

After our Mammoth Cave visit, Dan and I headed to Nashville for the rest of our vacation. Seeking an indoor activity on that last cool and rainy day, I faintly recalled reading about a botanical garden and art museum in town and then Dan found it online.

The Cheekwood Estate, built in the late 1920' and early thirties, is the former home of Maxwell House tycoons Leslie and Mabel Cheek (she the former Miss Wood). Their daughter Hulda inherited the estate and in 1957 donated it to the community for the purpose of creating a fine arts center. Cheekwood encompasses 55 acres and includes several gardens, a woodland sculpture trail, and a Museum of Art housed in the founders' mansion home.

Though we hoped for a greenhouse to cheer us on that dreary day, we learned shortly after our arrival that the public green spaces resided outdoors and that our time would be best spent in the Museum of Art. I was disappointed for the few moments before we climbed the stony summit to the front drive that wove a half circle in front of the mansion. Then I realized that I was about to enjoy one of my favorite activities, known as "Jane Austen time".

Jane Austen time can occur in any situation or place that makes me feel as if I'm living in one of her stories. It could be an event, like last summer's Pie Lovers Unite at the Ladies' Literary Club in Ypsi (which I reviewed in this blog). Or it could happen when I'm working with a self-important customer; I pretend that I'm dealing with Lady Catherine De Bourgh from "Pride and Prejudice" and that's how I stay sane. But my favorite instances of Jane Austen time occur in physical settings that remind me of Austen's world. More than any other place I've been, this Georgian style mansion made me feel like I was walking through the set of a BBC production of "Persuasion". Wandering from the grand dining room past the loggia to the west wing of the house, I could imagine the ladies and gentlemen on their divergent paths after supper - the men to the library for their cigars and the women to the parlor for their cards. As a museum, the space is wonderfully bare, allowing visitors to take in the lovely architectural details, like the arched doors and windows, or the curl of the sweeping staircase and it's balustrade. Staring out from the loggia to the rolling green fields below, I felt the closest I've ever felt to Mr. Darcy's Pemberley (Admittedly, I have a long way to go - these Cheeks weren't half as rich as Mr. Darcy).

To have enjoyed such authentic Jane Austen time would have been worth a great deal more than the price of admission, but it turned out that this also happened to be a fantastic museum of decorative arts, painting and sculpture. I can't say anything for the contemporary arts section in the stables as we missed that part, but the William Edmondson sculpture gallery blew me away.

According to the Cheekwood website,

William Edmondson (1874 - 1951) was the first African American artist to be featured in a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937. Edmondson was a stone carver, born to former slaves, who worked with a hand-made chisel on limestone block discarded from demolished buildings; inspired, he said, by religious visions, he did not start sculpting until he was about sixty years old.

When the Depression hit in 1929, Edmondson lost his job as a hospital orderly and began carving tombstones for the two African American cemeteries in Nashville, Mt. Ararat and Greenwood. Edmondson told the story of how God spoke to him. "I was out in the driveway with some old pieces of stone when I heard a voice telling me to pick up my tools and start to work on a tombstone. I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight He hung a tombstone out for me to make.

Edmondson carved the sculptures for his and his neighbors' gardens. I admit that these deceptively simple pieces struck me as no big deal initially, but I was utterly charmed by the end of my tour through the exhibit. All I can say is this guy had a really beautiful vision of god.

What could be the antithesis of Edmondson's humility and minimalism? A Faberge egg perhaps? There were three on display in the Museum's Faberge exhibit, just down the hall from the sculptures. That one little trinket filled room honestly changed my life. Talk about underestimating a big deal. I always thought Faberge eggs had to be the dumbest thing that humankind sold for tens of millions of dollars. An egg made of gaudily displayed jewels, are you kidding me?

I feel like a fool. Just like a Georgian estate, all I'd known of Faberge eggs were pictures, which don't tell you a thing. Staring at a Faberge egg is sort of like contemplating the cosmos. There's a universe of detail in those little eggs. You can understand the rise of Communism when you consider what the Russian Czars spent to commission these playthings, just by guessing the sheer monetary value of the jewels, not to mention the painstaking craftsmanship and two or so years of labor that went into a single egg.

Oh, and pains were taken, indeed. I commented to the very informative security guard, "I would go crazy making one of these things." He said, "Yeah, I meet a lot of Russian women who come here to see the eggs and they really know the history behind this stuff, and I ask them if those guys went crazy. They say to me, 'Oh sure, they went crazy, they went blind."

This man - I'll call him Nick (we never got his name) - had become a Faberge enthusiast. He was very knowledgeable of the entire exhibit. He helped me understand why the Faberge flowers were arguably more exquisite than the eggs; they took twice as long to make and every part was made of some precious material. The lilies of the valley, with their gold stems and pearl buds, laid upon gold spun grass. Diamond chips glistened at the end of each pearl.

The eggs were nevertheless my favorite, especially the Caucasus egg pictured in the left corner. Like so many of the eggs, it held a special treasure, a miniature folding screen. Each bejeweled frame held a tiny, intricate landscape painting. "Those are painted on mother of pearl," Nick noted.

I have to say, that as much as I was enchanted by the Faberge collection, I was impressed by Nick. I think he appreciated my attention and I learned much about him. He spent 28 years working security at Opryland USA before that shut down. I'm not sure how long he'd been working at Cheekwood, but he's been protecting the Faberge exhibit for the three and a half years it's been there. He told me a story that one of his Russian ladies had shared, about a woman on "Antiques Road Show" who had stumbled upon a Faberge craftsman's journal. Expecting a few thousand for her find, the woman almost passed out when she learned that each page was appraised at $100,000. But what I loved most about the story was Nick's preface, "I'd never watched 'Antiques Roadshow' - but I definitely do now...". To imagine this seemingly average burly man, trading tales with mysterious Russian women and developing a passion not only for Faberge but also antique culture at large, made me so happy. It reminded me what it's like to feel an enormous passion for that thing you do or encounter every day at work.


  1. It sounds like you had a good time. Cheekwood is a beautiful place. The gardens at Cheekwood are incredible as well.

  2. I would like to go back and spend a whole day there, when the gardens are in bloom. Though, it was nice to go on an off season rainy day. I think we were the only visitors in the whole estate, and they gave us the royal treatment.