“Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a water pump?” The little knot of men standing around me were used to hearing such questions. They shuffled slightly and gave each other furtive glances over the tops of their glasses as I gushed on, “And it would be really something if actual water came out of it!” And then a stifled, collective sigh as they made their way back stage to make it so or die trying. You see, I am slightly obsessed with sets. Of all the many aspects of running my small Theater, I loved creating atmosphere the best – that magical setting in which the actors move. I would do it late at night when the cast went home after rehearsal. I would wander in the darkness below the lit stage sipping at my gallon mug of coffee until I entered the fantasy. Sometimes I would hear Darcy talking to Elizabeth, or Puck to Oberon, or Algie to Cecily and I made each of them a solemn promise to build a magical place in which they could come alive. How I was to do this never once occurred to me, somehow. I cannot for the life of me pound a nail in straight, or wield a drill. Circular saws make me tremble. But I had the secret weapon of each and every small high school theater director. I had “the dads.” That’s what we called them. And “the dads” always made my dreams come true.
These were guys who went fishing on week ends, were crack shots at the shooting range, hunted with cross bows, and loved their football. ‘Taking in the theater’ wasn’t exactly on their list of things to do. But they knew how to build things, and because of that fact I became a veritable moth to a flame . I managed to corner them at the back of the gym and asked quite brightly if they would be interested in building a “few” things. They always, to the man, said yes. Then I would present the “vision.” A few of them shook their heads and questioned my sanity, some went slightly white in the face, some searched anxiously for the exit door of the gym; but what could they do? They were trapped. Then something quite magical happened. They started to look interested, and even excited some of them. How would they build an upstairs bedroom on a stage the size of a postage stamp, how would they build a moon hanging above a forest floor, or the windows of a Regency house? And that tricky staircase that needed to look like the Misty Mountains? In short, they caught the spark of my “vision” and started up their power drills. I looked on with wonder every single time at what they created to give me my sets . They had no idea what Regency England was supposed to look like. I had no idea how to wield a hammer. But together? We were a theatrical juggernaut.
Isn’t this the way it is? There are visionaries, and there are the people who help make the visions come true. All through history this has been the case. Aristotle had students all over Athens conducting experiments to help him prove his theories. Ptolemy had his Helots, his human calculators, helping him build his ordered astronomical data. Michelangelo had Vittoria Colonna to catch the fire of his art. St. Jerome had St. Paula and her faithful companions as scribes for his genius and calm for his irascible nature. Bach had Anna Magdalena to copy sheet after sheet of his genius for each member of the orchestra. Shakespeare had his favorite and familiar little troupe of actors who understood his genius intimately and acted it into life. Even Jesus had Andrew who caught His Master’s Divine vision early on and gathered all his friends and brothers in to “come and see.”
Sometimes, however, the visionaries are not the most practical of people, and they are usually poor. There is also many a genius poet or writer who simply cannot “sell” his or her unique vision to the world although they desperately long to do so. Visionaries live within. They are introverts and dreamers. They see beautiful visions of what is and what can be and they translate it into art. They usually want to share with others these great inner discoveries. They are great believers in sharing. But they shrink back helpless in the face of the extroverted practicalities needed for this task. They simply lack the skill, or money, or the social courage to sell the vision to that great outer world. Enter now all the supporting actors; those practical men and women who somehow catch the beautiful spark passing over the face of their introverted artist friends and decide to fan it into flame.
I came across this kind of genius in my reading recently. His name is Wilson Bentley. He was the son of a farmer who never left the little town of Jericho, VT where he was born and raised. Wilson was a wondering, curious kind of fellow. He watched his little world closely. He loved all the books his school teacher mom passed to him, he composed music, he liked poetry. But his true passion was snowflakes. He peered at them intently on his mittens, on horses hides in the pasture, on fence rails. He tried to remember what they looked like before they quickly melted. He was determined to capture their beauty for the world to see. But how? The answer came in the form of a birthday present on his fifteenth birthday; an old microscope used by his mother in her school teaching days. This thoughtful little gift from an observant mother who had recognized his vision, was to open Wilson’s eyes to the inner world of snowflakes.
Under the microscope I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty: and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design; and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind. I became possessed with a great desire to show people something of this wonderful loveliness, an ambition to become, in some measure, its preserver.
He tried to draw what he saw, but the flakes only lasted five minutes on the glass slide before they disappeared. He was daunted by this conundrum, but did not give up. Probably on one of his many visits to the Jericho Post Office to pick up the mail, or maybe on some random trips to the General Store, he met an older gentleman named Henry Seeley. Henry Seeley was born near the Bentley farm. He had fought in the Civil War, but now had opened a photography studio in Bridgeport, CT. He liked visiting Jericho and returned there often to talk with his old friends. He met Wilson on one of these trips and took a shine to this young fifteen year old waxing poetic about snowflakes, dew drops, and the like. He caught Wilson’s vision and helped him make it happen. Years later, Seeley would say,
Wilson was a genius, known the world over. No question about that…I got him his first camera, and showed him the making of plates, and whenever there was a new book published on photography I used to send it to him, but it was not many years before he could send me information.
The entrance of Seeley at just this moment in Wilson’s life is truly serendipitous. This older gentleman seeing in the shining eyes of an eager fifteen year old a tenacious vision to capture beauty, did not turn away and smile indulgently at the whims of a child. He helped him with an eager humility that admitted genius when he saw it. He, like Wilson’s mom, became a supporting actor to the visionary.
With all this new information given to him by Seeley, Wilson eventually figured out that he could put together a contraption involving a microscope attached to a camera, which would be able to capture the snow crystals on film. His mom talked Wilson’s dad into spending 100 dollars to buy a better microscope and camera. His dad was not sold on this idea and, being a frugal farmer, did not wish to part with cash for the useless “hobby” of snowflake watching. He never did catch the vision, but gave up the 100 dollars to please his wife.
Wilson experimented many years with his machine and managed to take the most exquisite photos of snow crystals – thousands of them, and unbeknownst to him, he had discovered the fine art of micro-photography. But for many years it remained unknown and Wilson, tucked away in obscure Jericho, wondered how his dream of sharing his snowflakes with the world would happen. He knew he had to write about them. He did make a valiant effort in this regard, but admitted that he was no writer. The magazine he had sent his article to agreed with him, and rejected it outright. He did not give up.
He decided to travel to the University of Vermont to share his photos with someone, anyone, there. He put on his best suit, stuffed all his data under his arm and set off. Enter now: Professor George Henry Perkins, a PhD who happened to be the department chair of Natural Science at the college. Humble, kind, and affable by nature he was a student favorite there. He welcomed Wilson kindly, and then opened his book of data. There he recognized a rare genius he had not encountered before. He quickly caught Wilson’s fire and told him he must absolutely write down his findings in a book. Wilson dutifully went home and tried once more, but to no avail. He was a master snowflake artist who could not string two interesting sentences together. Perkins came to the rescue and assured Wilson he would write it for him, and he did. It soon appeared in a Popular Science magazine and Wilson quickly became famous. Professor Perkins could have taken advantage of this “bumpkin farmer” from Jericho, VT. He certainly could have taken credit for all this, being a prestigious professor of Natural Science, but he humbly bowed to the vision and said of the article:
Though I put the pages together from Bentley’s notes and photographs, the facts, theories, and illustrations are entirely due to Bentley’s untiring and enthusiastic study of snow crystals.
Because of Professor Perkins’ kind help over this hurdle to his vision, Wilson’s photos were to find an honored home at Harvard University in the Mineralogical Museum there. The world at last was to experience the vision, and would hear for the first time from Bentley’s mouth the old adage he invented: “no two snowflakes are the same.” They would be able to see it with their own eyes. The snow crystals’ beauty would never melt away and be lost again.
Bentley’s observant mom, Henry Seeley, Professor Perkins, my theater dads: all the humble supporting actors to the visions of introverted artists. We don’t always think of them, but without their practical knowledge, their ability to see greatness and to make it a happen, their kindness in lifting up, in seeing a need, of being a humble bridge from inner genius to the world at large, we would be far poorer in actual art without them. And I think every introverted artist could find the grateful courage to stand, raise their glass to each and every one of these supporting actors and cry, “Long may you reign!”
Denise Trull is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children, and has recently acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St Louis Missouri where she reads, writes, and ruminates on the beauty of life. She is a lover of the written word in all its forms.