During a recent visit to The British Museum, London . . .
I thread my way through packs of school children, up the stairs to the fourth floor, past the mummies to the not-nearly-as-popular Prints and Drawings room. The door is locked. I press the small black button to the right, and moments later a woman’s face appears in the window. She unlocks the door, pops her head out – ever so slightly – and says, “Yes?”
“My name is Twylla Alexander, and I have an appointment to see Mary Delany’s paper mosaics,” I explain, in the most library appropriate whisper I can muster.
“Oh yes, Ms. Alexander. I notice you’re on the schedule. May I see your identification?”
"Identification?" I wonder, but dare not ask.
I present my passport then enter my name and address in a leather-bound ledger atop a mahagony lectern. All so wonderfully proper.
The research librarian, Angela Roche, ushers me into a long rectangular, two-storied room of paneled walls and hushed tones. Four other visitors are scattered among tables pouring over books, so intent in their research that not one looks up as we walk in.
“All is in order for you,” Ms. Roche says, pointing to my official spot at one of the tables.
“Here is one box (10 pieces) of Mary Delany’s collages, a pair of white gloves and a magnifying glass. Be sure to lift, never slide, the frames. As you know, they are over 200 years old and quite fragile. And by no means, no photos. (Imagine Queen-like British accent).
A year ago, I had never heard of Mary Delany (1700-1788), had no clue that she had created a new art form of paper collage, that she had produced almost 1000 botanically correct flower “mosaiks,” (as she called them) — all after the age of 72!
Then the cover of Molly Peacock’s book, The Paper Garden, caught my attention while browsing the shelves of a bookstore in Portland, Maine. A delicate pink rose in full bloom, surrounded by a host of pink buds, looked like a delicate watercolor. But it was one of Mary Delany's creations, crafted entirely of cut paper – layer upon layer of meticulously cut paper.
Every afternoon for a week I sat on a bench on Portland’s Western Promenade, reading Mary’s story. I copied her quotes in my journal and sketched Maine’s spring flowers in the margins. I collected my own specimens and pressed them between pages.
I became inspired, energized by a woman who died 230 years ago! A woman who walked her talk, even when she literally couldn't get out of her chair. She proclaimed, "An ingenious mind is never too old to learn."
I was determined to meet her – or rather her art – stored in box upon box in the British Museum, when Drew and I visited London next year. I felt as if Mary had sent me a personal invitation.
I scour Mary's mosaics through the magnifying glass, taking notes in my journal, marveling at details, until I reach the final frame, The Opium Poppy, created in 1776. I sit back in the creaky wooden chair, take off the white gloves and allow the beauty to soak in. I imagine Mary, at age 76, cutting and gluing at a table beside an open window, with a brilliant red poppy spread before her. She is totally in the flow as the morning sun shifts from table to floor then melts into shadow.
I (gently) hold the same cardboard frame that Mary once held and feel her presence. For a moment, we are connected. I sense her vitality, her resilience, her ability to reply "why not?" when a creative voice speaks of new possibilities. Qualities that travel through time – and cardboard – to me.
I smile at her across the centuries and mouth, quietly, "Thank you, Mary." I tidy up my space, walk back past the mummies, skip down the four flights of stairs and out the front door. It comes as no surprise as I pick up my pace, that I feel as if I could do. . . anything.