Bacchus on his Throne

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The air is full of an earthy, livestock smell that is somehow both horrible and wonderful. Small children stare goggle-eyed at carnival games or beg to ride the carousel as impatient mothers jerk them along behind. Teenagers strut around, haughty, obnoxious, hand-in-hand, others, lurking behind, engage in the silent and awkward battle of adolescence. An electric firmament wheels overhead carrying angels up, down, and around, its raucous, momentary gleam outshining the antediluvian glimmer-light beyond. Mad, calliope sounds and the din of a thousand-thousand voices wrap us all in waves of clamor-induced deafness and somewhere nearby a motorcycle’s guttural belch punctuates the night.

The county fair.

I wander through this landscape of communal madness and wonder if I’m appalled. By turns it’s amazing, exhilarating, lunatic, and abominable. I’m glad it’s here; I’m glad it’s almost gone.

I’ve seen enough of the spectacle, it isn’t why I’m here, and I go in search of the Arts and Crafts exhibit. The fair is, in this turn at least, beautiful to me. It is right and proper that a community should hold up its art, its craft, and honor those that offer it–if only for one brief week each year.

I find the exhibit at last, tucked into a small building on the outskirts. Inside there is some measure of quiet. The place is empty. I’m alone. I walk through the displays, smiling. Watercolors, oils, a quilt ten years in the making, gorgeous fruits and vegetables canned up for years to come, a dozen colored-pencil permutations of Naruto, etchings and engravings, photographs of sunsets and butterflies and children’s rosy faces, a charcoal sketched self-portrait of a black man in a white room, a pie, a pastry, a clay hand clenched into a fist. Not all are well-executed. Some are plainly awful. But they are all the expressions of a community of people. Each piece hanging is a word uttered of the soul. Some ill-formed, misunderstood and mispronounced but all spoken in hopes of being heard. And I’m alone here, listening. Of all the crowd, only I. Outside, the multitude is engaged with the noise, and the food, and their hundred carnal delights. Bacchus slouches, drunken on his throne, and eats. I’m reminded of the church sign I passed on the way here: “You seek that which consumes you.”

I begin taking mental notes of each entry awarded a ribbon and end my tour taking more interest in which pieces were passed over. I believe art feeds on appreciation. People create as a way of self-expression, they are trying to say a thing for which they haven’t words and when a person engages that creative instinct, they deserve to be acknowledged. If they aren’t, the instinct atrophies–they join the crowd outside.

I believe this is true on a community level, also. If a society ignores its art, an important part of its identity loses its voice and a silenced voice is fertile ground for frustration, anger, and upheaval. I read in the news that a school district is cutting its art and music programs and I think about that church sign and wonder what is consuming our community. It certainly isn’t beauty or truth. We, as a society, are consuming ourselves with success, money, sex, and self-gratification, a great, eyeless, serpent engorged on its own tail.

I leave the exhibit. No one sees me go. The sounds and lights of the carnival swell, pushing everything else from my mind. I buy a funnel cake and make my way through the crowd, toward the parking lot. The metallic squawk of a radio from behind makes me turn. A deputy jogs past, talking into his walkie, his head turned down to the microphone on his shoulder. Ahead of him a group of young people are crowded together, shouting, the sounds of violence almost lost in the scream of the calliope. They scatter as the deputy arrives. I lose sight of the commotion as I turn the corner into the parking lot.

On the drive home, I think about the works on display, how few they were, how valuable. I wonder who it was that created them and I hope their voice is strong. It will be a long and silent year before it’s heard again.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


12 Comments

  1. Peter B

    Man, Pete, you’re quite expressive when you want to be. I somehow regret not taking in the “homemade” exhibits; maybe this October…

    What a stretching place this is.

  2. Andrew C

    This was beautiful. This reminded me of a discussion I had with a group of guys I meet with every Monday morning for accountability. Yesterday one of them shared how something Jesus said in Matthew had been on his heart all week: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.”

    I think your post has some application to this. God has made art to draw us to him, to reveal himself to him. And it is so easy to take the wide path that ignores the multitude of ways He is speaking to us, through us. It is easy to consume ourselves in pursuit of things much less meaningful, even if they seem harmless.

  3. Greg Sailors

    This really got my heart rolling.. Thanks Pete..

    I love the older generation. Many are great pieces of art. I’m sure some of you all have heard of the Gourd Lady? She was on Jay Leno and a local show here around Shelby NC. http://www.nationalgourdlady.com I met her a few years ago at the Charlotte Convention Center.. she is a hoot.. loves life.. very creative in her own way…

    There was this guy named Norman that I lived close to.. he loved to chew on sticks… after a while, I began to notice that he could make little baseball bats out of them… whittling them down with his teeth… and so on..

    But the thing I really enjoy is their stories… life is about stories.. one after the other..

    When I was young, my mother’s family lived on a farm on the NC/SC border south of Shelby. 2 brother’s and their families. On Sunday, after church we’d have lunch there and sit on the porch or go fishing the creek.. wow.. what stories of life.. fun stories, sad stories…teaching stories.. all the old folks around the farm would sit and remember..

    Pete’s story reminded me of that time…their stories still echo in my head..also reminded me of walking through their houses… his description of the craft hall was like my aunt’s and uncle’s homes.. filled with junk and crafts and more junk.. a boy’s delight to go through looking for some treasure..

    I’m very thankful for how God used that time to give me a deep settledness (if that’s a word) and really connect me to mythic story of our lives… It gave me a heritage and man it was good!

    Thanks Pete.. and yall go hug some old folks today before I get teary eyed here and ramble some more..

  4. Drew

    Thanks, Pete. You put my feelings about the arts in our society into words I could never have found. i often think of how sad it is that the church has allowed the world to take over the arts in so many ways. I am grateful for the believers out there who are claiming the arts for Christ and are reflecting the image of God as a creator. The church needs to step and claim this lost territory for Christ. And I want to mention that the worst way to do this is slapping a Bible verse on every painting as if somehow that will make the artwork more “Christian.” Let’s look at how art for arts sake can point to God.

  5. Janna Barber

    Pete – are you still single? I would love to find a way for you and my sister to meet. I know I don’t really know you except for AP’s stories about you and your stuff here on RR. Still you seem swell, and a great catch for someone. Thanks for sharing this story!

  6. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Yes, Janna. There just don’t seem to be any hooks in the water around here. I actually just took an oath that I will not sleep in a bed again until I’m married. You can’t hear it but right now my couch is groaning in exasperation.

  7. whipple

    The cups run over in those buildings. The Golden Gloves Arena – which is a little more like a warehouse – in Chilhowee Park here in Knoxville is the place where Kat and I love to meander when the Tennessee Valley Fair comes to town. It is a labyrinth of gingham tablecloths covered with the most amazing assortments of award-winning pies (didn’t we have a conversation about this sort of thing before) and shelves of photographs that show me that beauty is not lost in my city, and all I need do is slow down and peer a bit more patiently through my own preoccupation.

    We’re fans of roller coasters (usually the more extreme, the better), so we go to the fair for the exhibits and the food. It’s very comforting to me, also, that the Jacobs building at the same fair is only half-full of sales kiosks. The other half is stacked with high-schoolers’ efforts at growing fresh fruits and vegetables and curing tobacco. The art of patience and soil is not yet lost in this world, as long as it is taught to children.

  8. Peter B

    Janna, is her name Katie? It needs to be some variation of Katherine.

    (sorry, semi-old inside joke)

    Whipple, that’s great to hear (though I wasn’t sure I understood the “kids curing tobacco” part correctly). Just this Saturday I spent some time with my girls (and the little guy), planting our sunflower seedlings in the yard. It’s amazing how many Biblical metaphors come up when you have your hands in the dirt.

  9. Janna Barber

    Ah, good to know Pete. Maybe you could let us know if you ever come up to visit AP and we can set you up on a blind date! She lives in Nashville, and no, her name’s not Katie, or Kat, nor Kathryn spelled with a K.

  10. Kirsten

    It’s intersting that a day spent with Bacchus at the fair will allow people to go home and talk about what they did. Some nice conversation, possibly, but soon over and done with because it’s all contained in time. Bring in the artist and the craftsman, however, and something new emerges. People can now talk about who they are–who they are as people, who they are as community–and that is infinately deep: that touches on eternity. Little wonder the artist is such a vital element for community.

    I’m glad for your recognition of the local community’s artists, Pete. The celebrity artist will always be well honored, but the artists in our own community are what will really shape our lives. Hearing echoes of this from christians all over makes me hopeful that the church can become shelter for this kind of dynamic.

  11. becky

    Has this vow of mattress abstinence had any noticeable affect on your marriage prospects? Are there chants that go along with this practice, or other mystical rituals?

    It is so strange, this universal need that we have for beauty and creativity. From a purely logical standpoint there is no real purpose for beauty, yet we all need it at some level. Walking in the woods in the fall, watching the sun come up over the ocean and feeling the mist on my face, seeing the path of the wind across a field of ripe wheat, looking at the stars on a clear night. The beauty of God’s creation touches our souls in a way nothing else can. Is this God’s way of telling us things that cannot be put into words?

  12. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Yes, there is a chant. It is repeated thus: “…owmyback whattheheckwasIthinking…. owmyback whattheheckwasIthinking…owmyback whattheheckwasIthinking…’

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