La Sandia or How Art Fosters Connection / by Susie Lubell

The flattening process before framing. 

The flattening process before framing. 

This story is at once a simple telling of how I ended up with a poster from La Sebastiana Museum House in Valparaiso Chile, the home of legendary poet Pablo Neruda, and a sweeping narrative of connectivity that defies borders and time to make found what was once lost.

In 1996 I traveled alone to Chile. I had just graduated from college and I had a bee in my bonnet to learn Spanish. I hadn't managed to find the time to study abroad during school but I had taken a year of Spanish and wanted to practice. I did some research using the newly discovered interwebs and found several Jewish organizations in Central and South America. Then I started writing letters. Hand written letters to whatever contact person I found. One such letter landed in the hands of a woman who worked at La Comunidad Israelita de Santiago. After we spoke on the phone to make sure I wasn't loca, she offered me to stay with her family in Santiago for however long I wanted. Which I did. I became an honorary hermanita to her four young girls, ages 7, 9, 12 and 16. It was a wonderful experience and we are in touch until this day. I have made ketubahs for two out of the four girls so far...

During that time I traveled the length of Chile with a cast of traveling companions both random and entirely sent by a higher power. One of those companions even eventually led me to Mr. Rosen in a circumvention that only the universe could have concocted. At one point I was visiting Valparaiso, the seaside town where Neruda built a home overlooking the Pacific to spend his days writing poetry in peace. While I was there I bought a poster. On it was a screenprint of a watermelon on a cake stand with an excerpt from Neruda's poem, Oda a La Sandia, Ode to the Watermelon, inscribed around the edges. 

…the round, magnificent,
star-filled watermelon.
It’s a fruit from the thirst-tree.
It’s the green whale of the summer.
— Pablo Neruda

I can't tell you how much I loved that poster. We all have things that we've collected which hold more value than the small sums paid for them. Some originally belonging to a relative. Some reminding us of our childhood. And some that just dive right under our skin and lodge themselves there for no reason at all or not one we can understand at least. Or at first. I took the poster home with me, along with a few advertising posters I'd lifted from Metro stations, some Pomaire pottery, a woven purse, a brass chicken wall hanging, a carpet and a few CDs. 

At this time I was still in my twenties so the idea of spending money to frame something, even something as beloved as a watermelon poster from 6000 miles south on Pacific Coast Highway, was never even a consideration. I also moved around a lot at that time. Four years in Israel. A year around the world. Two years in North Carolina. Finally, in 2003, we settled in Northern California for a stretch and I found my watermelon rolled up in a tube. Still unwilling to spend money on framing, I attached it to some foam core board with spray glue. Over the years it became warped and wrinkled and dirty. I attempted to remove it from the foam core and it tore. Finally I said Vaya con Dios to my watermelon and heavy-heartedly put it in the recycling. I made a few attempts over the next few years to find another copy, all in vain.

Fast forward to March 2017. A friend of mine is now traveling in South America and I'm following her journey with her husband via Facebook. I have never met this friend. We have only connected online and via email. She is a graphic designer and ketubah artist from Vancouver named Naomi Broudo and in 2010 she contact me while she was setting up her ETSY shop. Over the years we have sent each other clients, asked for advice, offered advice, encouraged one another and generally supported one another's growth as artists and business owners. We even share a common trajectory. She and her husband lived in Israel for a stint. Her son was born here and then they moved back to Canada when he was nine. When I was going through the horrors of our first weeks in country, she read my words and deeply understood my suffering. But we have never met. 

Since I have a special place for Chile in my heart, I commented on a few of her posts. Around the same time an issue came up for me about licensing my work to an online ketubah re-seller with whom I knew she was at one point involved so I sent her a message. And from across the globe, she replied immediately. She also mentioned that their next stop was Santiago and then on to Valpo. In half jest I typed, ...if you happen to be at Neruda's house and see a poster with a watermelon, please get it for me and I'll pay you back... 

A week later she messaged me that she had indeed found the poster and had purchased it for me. Just at that time my inlaws were visiting in North America and they would overlap a few days when Naomi returned. A week ago they brought it home with them on the plane.

Oda a La Sandia is mine again. A gift from my friend Naomi. 

It turns out that is just the beginning of the story of La Sandia.  Just this morning I was perusing a weekly newsletter I subscribe to called Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. It is masterful, in case you feel like subscribing to something. In it she mentions a children's book about Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), the world's first computer programmer, a book she has added to her list of other children's books about important figures in art and science, including one about Pablo Neruda himself. With Neruda on my mind and my new poster unfurling in my studio, I clicked on the link which uncovered an article about how a childhood encounter taught him about the unity of all beings and why we make art.

One time, investigating in the backyard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared — a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvelous white sheep. 

The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole, but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pinecone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.
— Pablo Neruda

Maria writes that the great poet never saw the hand nor the boy it belonged to again but that the brief encounter, with its childhood simplicity, impressed upon him a lifelong lesson about the longing for commonality that compels us to create:

To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses — that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things. That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together…
— Pablo Neruda

This is the power of art and the creative spark. Countless times it has helped me forge connections that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. So I continue to put my gifts out into the world and I wait for them to return to me under a new guise. Art, in its most general and expansive definition to include all works created from our imaginations, functions like a magnet, bringing people, ideas, energy, stories, and inspiration directly to us, along its own divine frequency, only to  leave us again as new work which, in turn, moves along to touch the next person in an endless, unbreakable circle of creation and connection. Viva la sandia.