The Butterfly Myths
We all have our personal myths. Mine, the Butterfly Myths, are tales I kept to myself. The unlikely hero was my dad, a humble blue-collar worker who never…
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, No 13 Dance of the Knights (Valery Gergiev, LSO)
As a visual artist, I can't help but envision the novel The Butterfly Myths on the big screen, and to hear the musical soundtrack as well. Prokofiev's Dance of the Knights from Romeo and Juliet would accompany the scenes of fire and brimstone from inside Crucible steel mill.
The Cage - James Michael Starr
Book Two of The Butterfly Myths will flash back to the story of Marie, based loosely on my mother's childhood during the waning days of the Depression. True to my mom's love for animals, Chapter One finds Marie wanting to save a canary from what she considers a fate worse than death: life inside a cage.
Eerily similar to the barely-standing house my mother grew up in is my own childhood home a few miles west, across the state line in Ohio. If I wanted to, I could read all kinds of metaphysical significance into the fact that both remain with vacant lots all around. But for now, just file this under Truth That’s Stranger Than Fiction. Still there as of January, 2015 at 731 Daisy Alley, East Liverpool, Ohio.
In 1969, at the age of 40, my mother finally married her third husband, Paul Lauria, the man I believe made her the happiest, if she ever really was. I think at that point she had abandoned any hope of ever singing again, or at least found in Paul the best, safest substitute for pursuing her dream. The problem came when Paul died, and she slipped into what a therapist told me was decades of depression–I believe because she finally faced the price for running from herself.
It could be a still from an Our Gang film of the same era. My mother, age 11 at the time, may have known one of these kids. They were photographed in January of 1940 by Jack Delano for the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, as part of a Work Progress Administration (WPA) project now preserved in the Library of Congress.
When my mother died at the age of 83, I found this employee badge among her things. Was it my father's, who worked at the steel mill as a security guard when I was just a kid? Was it my grandfather's, who spent most of his life in the shadow of the hundred-foot stacks? Or someone else’s? I suppose it doesn’t matter, as whoever it belonged to, finding it tucked away in her dresser speaks most to my mother’s secretive nature, as well as to how the mill left its mark on everyone. Even me.
What are the chances that the Midland house where my mother grew up would somehow still stand amidst vacant lots, nothing else either side of it for hundreds of feet? But there it is, 314 Midland Avenue. I use Google Maps to check back every once in a while, just to make sure it's still there. As silly as it might sound, I expect I’ll feel it in my gut if I check back one day and it’s gone. Here it is as of August 2012.
On the left is my father, James Frank Starr, around 1952, when he would have been about 25. I'm being held by my Uncle Sonny, my mother's brother. To his left is their brother-in-law, Leonard Bloor, husband of my Aunt Kate, my mother's sister. The grime on their hands, and on my knees, says much about our barely-middle-class life, as does the name of the East Liverpool address where this snapshot was made: Daisy Alley.
It wasn't until I was about 43 that I began making art with any serious intent. One of my first collages employed a snapshot of a teenage Joan Marie Scelp. This marks my earliest disclosure, to myself or anyone else, of the Butterfly Myths. Up until this point I'm not sure that I knew of their existence.
A photo from the early '30s shows my great-grandmother sitting on the front step of a company house in Midland, holding my Aunt Kate (left) and Uncle Sonny (right). The girl in the front would become my mother, Joan Marie Scelp Starr Cartwright Lauria. For every name she took she seemed to live a whole other life, without ever finding her way back to herself.
My great-grandfather, Nicola Scoppa, who immigrated to the U.S. from somewhere in the area of Naples, Italy. As a musician, he may represent the earliest known link to the artistic chromosome that ran through his son and, in turn, through my mother, into me, and which now continues into my own children.
The phrase "Hell with the lid off” was once used to describe the steel mills of Western Pennsylvania. One of them was Crucible Steel, just yards from the house where my mother grew up. It's easy to let these gritty, black-and-white photographs paint too melodramatic and morbid an impression of life in that time and place, but I think they do serve to capture a sense of the darkness that helped drive my mother to a tragic end. And their shadows hang over me still.
Midland from the same vantage point as the hand-tinted postcard, and as captured in January of 1940 by WPA photographer, Jack Delano. My mother was around 11. When I was around the same age, my parents pointed out a yellow glow on the horizon. It was the glow of these fiery furnaces, eight miles east of our house on a hilltop in East Liverpool, Ohio. I doubt they could have known how far into the future, and how deep into my own life, those fires would reach.