by Nina Tisara
Alexandria, VA – My first car was a second-(or third-)hand Plymouth that I bought from a friend. I was around 26, newly separated from my husband, and had just learned to drive. The car had a push-button transmission on the dash with a cover plate that frequently came loose. I carried a Phillips screwdriver in the car to tighten it.
But that wasn’t its most interesting feature. The most interesting thing was a painting on its hood done by another friend. It was a painting of a nymph-like creature who looked a lot like me riding a horse. In her outstretched hand was a butterfly representing love and transformation. The unspoken message was that the butterfly would likely fly away from that outstretched hand, but if the hand closed, it would surely die.
Years later I was given a sculpture created by artist Ruth Tansill (1925-1985). Ruth and I met at the Torpedo Factory when I was a photography student at Northern Virginia Community College. I was assigned to photograph an artist at work. I felt like Brer Rabbit thrown into the briar patch and, in part because Ruth I shared a history of breast cancer, we became friends.
I long admired her bronze sculpture of a girl releasing a bird and, after Ruth died, her family gave it to me. It lives in my garden, where its simple grace and beauty is a reminder to let go, to set free. The statue is under a crape myrtle whose bark peels off every year to allow new growth. A variation on the same theme.
The message of shedding the old for the new was repeated by “Buster the Crab.” At a wedding I photographed, a crab and two red swordfish in a bowl were the table decorations. The bride was a marine biologist. At the end of the wedding, the bride’s mom offered me a bowl and I accepted. I’m not much of a pet person (dangerous to admit in Alexandria) but I liked that little guy and named him Buster after Buster Crabbe, the actor (King of the Jungle and Flash Gordon) and a two-time Olympic swimmer.
Buster was easy to care for. I fed him a tiny piece of raw chicken each week and cleaned his bowl when needed. One day I was alarmed to see his lifeless-looking shell. I thought he had died. I later found Buster alive and well under a rock. Although perfect in every detail, the shell was indeed lifeless. He had outgrown it and was growing a new one. I still smile when I envision him backing out of it.
There can be a certain serenity in letting go. The Serenity Prayer is the common name for a prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The best-known version is: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
I first saw that prayer as an 18-year-old on the wall of the Justice of the Peace who performed my wedding ceremony. I still quote it to myself and others. The gecko, yet another symbol of transformation, of death and rebirth, of letting go of old things for new, has become my personal totem. Each of my mosaics is now signed with a small silver gecko.
Mosaic artist-photographer Nina Tisara is the founder of Living Legends of Alexandria.