One of our favorite thrift shops is in Ann Arbor. Its mission is to support the public school system with whatever profits it can come up with. We like it, first because our purchases give money to school kids and, further, their art is donated by a truly drastic diversity of people, some very sophisticated cultured university students and professionals. They donate beautiful things that in other cities and cultures would be sold for good profit because they know they are putting kids through school. They forgo the possible proceeds from a garage sale or flea market. We could find a real gem in need of rescuing any minute.
And we did. Among the abstract originals by trained art students and nicely framed Impressionist prints with French signatures, we found these four fancy and fanciful prints of pre-teen girls. They are unashamed in bright unsubtle colors. And they made us slightly uncomfortable because they were so . . . personal. All four hung together, beaming smiles that revealed almost more about the little girl who had owned them than we felt we as strangers should see.
Each print shows a pre-teen looking straight at the viewer. They are so bright and bold, simply sharing without fear and definitely without the coy pre-teen tease of a Hannah Montana. Each wears a nifty designer outfit, as if the owner of the prints was dreaming of going into fashion as she grew older. One in Capri pants, another in very Angelina Jolie sunglasses, a third in clunky shoes with hair swirled into loop-di-loops with baubles on the end, and the fourth suddenly gone African American dancing in fuchsia socks. The owner of the prints hung these on the wall in her bedroom. She gazed at them as possible futures for herself. She looked at them as brightly and unashamed as they were looking back.
We walked around the shop for a while after first encountering the prints, finding two others to rescue, both mature original watercolors. We didn’t rescue the four pre-teen girls right away because we didn’t know if we were really up to the challenge of facing the young person who had owned them. Yet, on the way back past them, with our questions about the owner attracting us again, we stopped for another look. Who was this little girl who gazed at her future self in these prints in her bedroom? If we could find out no more, our discomfort would nag us and we would most likely leave without rescuing them, trying to convince ourselves that the two mature watercolors were rescue enough for this day. And then a long strand of hair picked up a glint of light.
The hair was 18 inches long. (Rescued Art Secret: we always carry a tape to measure the size of frames to see if they might fit in certain wall spaces sent to us by our customers.) Too long for a grown up and very much too thick for it to be my own. It was crinkly in a natural way, blonde in a natural way too. It was caught in one of the cute little flower decals that the girl owner had stuck to the corners of the rose pink frames. This strand of hair, mistakenly left by the girl, allowed us to feel a direct connection to her. Allowed us to feel comfortable, almost like her friends who had dropped by for a little TV in her room with a few Oreos after school. Allowed us to rescue her four prints.
Though Rescued Art can’t afford to have DNA testing done on the strand of hair to root out more details, the mere finding of it told us how the prints came to this thrift shop. The little girl had them on her wall for over two years, a long time in the life of a little-growing-up-to-pre-teen. For two years she gazed at them, flying out in hopes of looking like them one day, flying out in dreams of dressing like them and even making the clothes they wear. And then, one day she looked in the mirror and actually saw them looking back. She flew out of her bedroom, out of her front door and into the world of big girls.
Her mother was the one who brought the prints to the thrift store. She didn’t realize the strand of hair stuck to the flower decal would tell the story of her daughter to art rescuers. But that is OK. We had become friends and, anyway, our purchases helped kids go to school.