“Umbrellicon..the country’s largest gathering of artisans, tradesmen and entrepreneurs marketing a unique and diverse selection of weather-protection equipment. And it all goes down right here: Seattle, Washington.” I said, being dramatic.
“Ugh, we have to go in there? I never even use an umbrella... I actually like the rain.”
“It’s not about what you buy. There are things in there that few people have ever seen. Last year, I heard that there was a lady selling umbrellas made entirely of fruit rinds. I didn’t see her booth, but you could smell the orange peels all the way out here on the sidewalk. It’s not like the umbrellas are all that functional, or permanent. It’s about the art of it. Plus, admissions go to an organization that rehabilitates people living on the streets.”
“I thought you were taking me to the gum wall...And we still have to go by Viretta Park! I brought that photoshop of Kurt Cobain wearing a cheese-wedge hat...”
“We’re still doing all that, I promise! We can be in and out of here in an hour, tops...”
As we finish with the doorman, we’re greeted by a coffee cart adorned with a giant umbrella made out of recycled Starbucks frappuccino cups that are cut in half, longways, and overlapped like roofing shingles.
Milis doesn’t appreciate art in the same way that I do. The most exciting things to her idle on the open side of a magazine cover. The pictures we take of her adding to the gum wall will surely overrun her Wisconsin friends’ Facebook feeds, and make her feel desired. It’s okay. She’s only seventeen. Ten years ago, all I wanted was to be the world’s next Tony Hawk. I sincerely loved skateboarding, but I also wanted the recognition: and skateboarding made me feel cool. At least until I took that sculpture class in my senior year of high school…
The reception area opens into a grand chamber overwhelmingly lit by the high fluorescents, string lights and colorful, glowing displays. There are rows of cubicles intersected with floating kiosks and trolleys, all seeming to overlap in a beautiful entanglement of mixed media. Where do we begin?
I recognize an artist set up by the wall connected to the entryway, immediately to our left. I spoke with him last year about his interesting choice of material.
“Good day! It’s good to see you here again, sir. This new work is incredible!”
I’m fixed on an elaborately layered canopy, made up of fox pelts and copper furs. The head areas are removed, but the feet have been placed so precisely to attach at each rib tip, tapered off with a single black claw.
“Well, hello there! You brought your daughter along this time...”
I’m surprised he recognizes me. Less surprised that he thinks my little sister is my daughter. A lot of people think it. We both have seriously red hair and the same, pale, Irish-Scandinavian bodies. Although, I definitely don’t look old enough to have a teenage daughter. Maybe it’s the height difference. It isn’t worth correcting, though. The artist is older, in his eighties: a polite man with a bright spirit. We spoke for, probably, 20 minutes when I was here last. The artist’s unique craft started when his wife, now departed, unwittingly wished she had an umbrella that sufficiently matched her fur stole. A thoughtful husband, he spent days out working in the shed, and surprised her with a simple, rabbit-fur parasol. Pinned to the back of his booth, he keeps an old photograph of his lovely, 60’s-styled wife showing it off: a constant reminder of her and where he began.
Milis isn’t paying attention to the “furbrellas” because a funnel cake wagon just appeared from around the corner and is rolling down the walkway. I hand her a $10 bill and let her go while I reconnect with the man, I don’t know his name..
“Sylvester. Call me Vester.”
“I’m Athasa. Hope to see you again, Vester!”
When I get to her, Milis is licking powdered sugar off her arm. I nod her to follow me and we start down the first row of vendor cells. To the right is a series of booths with what look like japanese-style, paper parasols. I’ve never really been interested in the style, but I can tell these are quality-made. Some little signs read “silk”, “bamboo”, “tea-painted”, “rice paper”... They all appear thin and delicate, looking as if they would be disintegrated by a single drop of water. Some are folded. Others are uncreased and secured in a sustained “open” position. Some are tiny, like those adorable cocktail umbrellas, but more unique and realistically crafted. Many of them are bright and colorful, reminding me of the skies during a hot air balloon festival.
On the other side of the column we see a, somewhat disturbing, display of fossils and bones, mostly arranged around cast iron frames in a way that’s almost hypnotizing.
“Ammonite.” The lady walks from behind her counter. “Those are ammonites and the little slabs in between are called orthoceras. They come from a group of 400 million year old squid-like marine creatures.”
“Whoah...” I’m absorbed. Even Milis looks intrigued, eyeing the ammonites, which are iridescent spiral shells with geode-like sections that shrink towards the center. The orthoceras look sort of like headless worms with sections that resemble white mother-of-pearl, cocooned in black stone. The many pieces are placed geometrically, the orthoceras peaking in a line down each rib and encircling the colorful ammonites, leaving no empty spaces. I glance over to another “umbrella”, which isn’t made of cast iron and has been suspended and encased by glass.
“What is this?”
“Ah...That’s all whalebone. Baleen. It was hand-carved by a talented Alaskan native, a friend of mine, actually. It’s not an easy material to work with.”
I look closer at the tribal designs and texture engraved into the bones, which have been connected, flawlessly, to look like one solid, finely porous, ivory piece. The price tag... “$29,000.00”.
A loud kisshh..crashh echoes over the roar of the crowded warehouse, but we can’t tell where it came from.
Milis and I head around the corner and, instead of going down the next row, we decide to take the perimeter. This is mostly because I’m caught by the oversized gamps that are jetting over us in a slant, sticking out from the perpendicular wall. They’re made solely out of green, plastic bottles, cloaking a metal frame.
Recycled, “junk”, art has been my passion since I was seventeen. My first sculpture assignment involved gathering random materials from around the house: anything “unusable”, garbage. We were instructed not to buy anything, except for adhesive and connective mediums. I collected a burnt-out blacklight bulb, a vinyl record, a soda can and a coat hanger, along with some random household scraps. I attached the record to a slice of wood to function as a platform. Then, I screwed in the coat hanger and attached the spiral, indigo light bulb to the top end. I added a sapphire, plastic ring to the tip of the bulb, a “pistil”, and cut the soda can into silver “petals”. Bottle caps were added to the “stem” and decorated with a sage, ribbony material to look like whimsical thorns or leaves. Then, I sculpted buttony “mushrooms” and “water lilies” in various sizes, attaching them to the base. To top it off, I peeled the film from a broken cd and scattered pieces of it all around the record to represent the reflection of water. I was in love with this design. I was even more in love with the process. I decided I was going to become, not just an artist, but a sculptor. And I did.
I’m stopped by a custodian setting up signs and tape to block off an area of the floor which is dangerously littered in royal blue and scarlet glass shards. A woman standing by looks exasperated. Behind her, a few stained-glass lawn umbrellas are casting gorgeously bright golds, reds and blues into the adjoining row. Her umbrellas look fully functional: a beautiful addition to a lavishly decorated patio. They also look like they took hundreds of hours to construct. I can understand the helpless emotion that I see on the woman’s face. Back in high school, I managed to build a 4-foot, translucent pearl syringe that floated 45 degrees into the air, connected only by the very tip of the needle. The tip was injecting delicately-modeled, cobalt, tissue paper roses, forming the visible area of the base. It was the most structurally-difficult piece I had worked on, at the time. One day, an art student attempted to fire a piece of undried clay. The kiln “blew up”, melting and fragmenting the entire class’s nearly-completed sculpture projects, which were being stored in the kiln room.
Blocked off, I wrap my arm around Milis’s and we head down the closest row. It smells of damp soil and pollen. I’m amazed when I look over to see, literally, an entire living tree, stretching up, at least 6 feet, out of a pot to form a braided, webby awning. It doesn’t look at all like your traditional umbrella. I have heard of practices, such as pleaching, to weave living trees into a desired shape, but I don’t know how they do it exactly. It must have taken years to complete this. Milis’s jaw is gaping.
“Is that real?!”
“Yeah, I think so.”
Further down, we pass a booth with medium-sized, hanging parasols that look similar to those of the Victorian Era, but fashioned with many different textiles and patterns. One is wrapped in nude-toned brassieres: the canopy extending out of a mannequin torso. On the other side of the isle a banner reads “CANNABIS” in huge letters. A strong, earthy smell hits me as we pass. One of the umbrella-tops is made of coarse jute, braided with different colors that make out the shape of a giant marijuana leaf.
One of the spots is completely empty. No items, just a middle-aged man in sunglasses holding a sign that reads, scraggly, “Amazing Invisible Rain Invaders- 25 cents”. A massive jar set up on the counter holds, meagerly, a few pennies, a business card and one quarter. The whole thing sparks a memory of the time we celebrated spirit week and one of my friends came to school holding a transparent, plastic umbrella and wearing strips of wavy paper around her waist. “I’m a jellyfish!” she said, tapping chaotically at me with the strips of paper. We laughed ourselves late to class that day.
“They just let anybody in here, huh?”
“They really don’t. It costs $75-$150 for a weekend spot to sell here. I think it’s a funny joke, actually.” I say this, but part of me wonders if they let the man in for free. He looks like some of the people I’ve seen roaming the streets and asking for donations. Maybe the man is employed by the organization that helps homeless people around here. I hate using the term “homeless people”. Homelessness doesn’t define them. They’re people just like me, just like Milis. Some people find themselves on the streets because their house caught fire and they didn’t have any family or someone to help them out. Maybe they got laid off, or they’ve been dealt a crippling hand of disease...or worse. Not everyone falls under that “drug-addict” or “chosen lifestyle” stigma often associated with homelessness. Even then, they’re still people. People who have been mistreated, abused, neglected, avoided… Why? When we outcast people, we just perpetuate their circumstances.
“Mil, go find that funnel cake thing…here. I’ll stay right over there.” I hand Milis another $10.
I walk up to the man with the jar.
“Good morning. How are you, sir?”
“Jus fine. S'prised ya decided ta talk t’me. People see sunglasses an assume I’m deaf...” He laughs a little.
“Hmm, I’m sorry.. Why are you wearing sunglasses?”
“Oh, I don mind…. It’s the light. S’how they get in.”
I’m shocked. I was 99.9% certain I already knew the answer to the question I asked. Now, I’m a little confused.
“I’m sorry, what gets in?”
“Well, nothin’.. I’m wearin’ the glasses.” He points, and then smiles. Then chuckles a little, which gives me a moment to compose myself.
“So, how good are your ‘Amazing Invisible Rain Invaders’?”
“Funny joke, eh?”
Milis arrives with a steamy paper plate of funnel cake and hands it to me. I slide it across the counter.
The man looks astounded for a moment.
“Oh... thank ya. Is right ‘bout lunchtime in’t it?”
We both nod. Feeling a little awkward, I remember something I heard about starting a conversation with strangers.
“So, what’s your favorite thing in the whole world? What makes you...passionate?”
“Ice.” He pauses, his eyes expressing his wandering mind.
“Like...ice-skating or...you like icy weather?”
“Ice carvin’. Texas didn’ get no ice. Me an the boys would go up ta Alaska with ar chainsaws an...Oh, It was the best place ya could be, I thought. Moved up here so I’d be close to it. Even entered a few contests.”
“That’s so awesome! I like sculpting, myself. Did you win any...of the contests?”
“No I...I had ta stop…” His eyes get lost again. In a way that I’m not sure I want to push for any explanation. Perhaps, I’ve already gathered the answer. I’m not sure how to proceed.
“Well, what do you like to do now?”
“I like ta make people smile...Think I’m doin’ a pretty good job..” He nods over to a group of, what look like, middle schoolers, snickering and pointing in the man’s direction. Children don’t jump to the same conclusions that adults do. What Milis saw as a scam, was really just a genuine effort to put positivity back into society. When we’re young, unspoiled and innocent, we just assume the best. Unless we were, at an age..far too young, exposed to the negativity of the world.
We never figured out if the man was homeless and if he got into the convention for free. In hindsight, none of that matters. We got to share a funnel cake with a stranger and connect with him on a level that no one else had, that day.
“You ready for the gum wall!?” I nudge Milis with my elbow.
Milis looks off. “Can we..stay a little longer?”
Written by Admirer Cyan
Prompt: “Set your story at a convention for a hobby most people have never heard of.” -Reedsy