At one point, a few months after receiving the scopes and after I had begun cataloguing them, I became a bit possessive. That is, once I knew how costly the kaleidoscopes really were, I began to worry that something might happen to them; that someone might see them through our front window and decide to break into our home and steal them. In my defence, I had never had so many objects of both sentimental and monetary value, and for the first time ever I actually considered getting insurance just to cover the scopes should they ever be taken or damaged.
Absurd, I know. It was then that I decided that it was time to start giving them away. I was holding onto the kaleidoscopes far too tightly. I was holding onto the memory of Aunt Betty inappropriately. They were objects, easily replaced, and far less valuable than any time I had ever spent with my aunt. So, I took all the scopes out of the cabinet and began deciding which ones would be best suited for my cousins who had not yet received one from their aunt. I took as much time and care as I could, if for no other reason than I knew Betty would have done no less. I wrote out what I knew about the artist who designed the scope and carefully gift-wrapped it with a note that stated that the kaleidoscope was not from me but from Aunt Betty, with love.
With love…That part gets me every time. I knew full well that the kaleidoscopes stored in the cabinet in the corner of our dining room didn’t belong to me. They belonged to my aunt. But she’s not here anymore, and yet I truly believe that the scopes have not ceased being hers. The kaleidoscopes were bestowed on me that I might have them for safekeeping until that time when I fascilitate their endowment to family and friends. So every time I chose a scope, wrapped it in tissue, wrote a note, and gifted it to someone, I did it with a sense of reverence because I was merely the intermediary between Aunt Betty and the receiver of her scope. I truly felt that it wasn’t about me, and as I continue to take photographs of the kaleidoscopes, I know it’s still not about me. It’s about limitless love; Betty’s limitless love. My aunt is dead, for sure, and one day I will be dead, too, and my photographs lost forever. But for now, there is a legacy that I feel a responsibility to nurture. The legacy isn’t one of things; of scope-collecting or photo-taking. It is a legacy of generosity. I understand now that one becomes richer having given all away. That’s an endowment worth leaving.
[“Still Life No.1” Photo I took of Carolyn Bennett’s Nadelstern scope.]
Carolyn Bennett is a kaleidoscope artist who I got in contact with very early in my photography days. There were two of her scopes in my aunt’s collection, and I ordered another, Nadelstern, aptly named after Paula Nadelstern, the incredibly talented artist behind exquisitely designed quilts that are serious works of art. Carolyn’s scope certainly didn’t disappoint. Another of her scopes in the collection had all cream and brown stones and created bouquet images which was very pleasing to the eye.
So, why am I writing about Carolyn Bennett? It is important for me to include her in this story of my journey because it was her scope with earth-toned stones that marked my kairotic moment as a contemporary artist. I looked through my viewfinder, and when I saw the stones in the cell, I didn’t see fractal images suspended in oil. I saw composition; I saw still life. It was at that moment that my eye sharpened to “the shot”. I took it and stopped, not unlike a fashion photographer who hands the camera to her assistant and confidently walks off the set because she knows she just got the cover page.
Am I saying that the photo is up there with Annie Leibovitz’s work? Absolutely not. That’s not the point. The point is that this photo of Carolyn Bennett’s kaleidoscope was the first step on a long road in establishing a relationship I never thought possible between a camera and a kaleidoscope, all in an effort to produce contemporary art photography as I’ve never seen it before. Was I excited? You bet I was. The image itself isn’t necessarily outstanding, but the drive it created inside me was beyond outstanding, and it’s a drive that continues to this day, pushing me to produce photographs of the interior of kaleidoscopes at a calibre beyond what anyone had done or thought possible.
Oh, and I insisted that if I was going to go forward with this, the final product had to be achieved without the use of digital editing programs.
There was never a quick word with my aunt, Elizabeth (Betty) Spoelstra. This, of course, was on account of her being a master at engaging. When I was with her, I felt like I was the most intelligent and gifted woman — she brought out the best of everyone she was with — and I never wanted our visits together to end. She was eccentric, engaging, and full of life even when she was full of death; her body inwardly decaying from cancer. Aunt Betty left behind a legacy of faith and joy and music, among other things, when she died 12 years ago. One of the things she left me in particular was a cabinet overflowing with kaleidoscopes. I had always admired her scopes when I visited her. I would take them out of her cabinet (there were over 60 of them) and go through them one by one, competely enraptured by the vision of light and colour that would scroll by in front of my peeping eye.
Shortly before she died, she told me she would bequeath the scopes to me with the instruction that I was to give them all away. So, one by one, I have been doing as she requested and gifting cousins on their wedding day, teachers on their retirement, and friends transitioning into new homes with kaleidoscopes from my aunt’s collection. One by one I have watched various scopes pass from my hand to the grateful receiever; scopes by Bennett, Chesnik, Karadimos, Knox, Paretti, Weeks, Van Cort, and many others.
Honestly, there is pain in the offering. But I know that’s a good thing. Gifts should cost us something if they are to be a true gift. And in case you’re wondering, the pain is not in parting with such costly collectibles. The pain is when I must take the scope in one hand and a cloth in the other, and carefully rub all of my aunt’s fingerprints off the scope before wrapping it in tissue and gently laying it into a giftbox. I’m not losing money or beautiful artistry. I’m losing another piece of that which remains of my aunt.
Today, only a few kaleidoscopes remain in the wood and glass display cabinet that Aunt Betty gave me, and I will continue to give them away as she requested. And as I hold her scopes in my hand and rub away the smudges and prints, I will remind myself of the gift I received that’s worth far more than her collection: The memory of a woman whose love and life shone brighter and more beautifully than any person I have ever had the privilege of knowing.