Arts & Leisure

Bristol artist reimagines nature’s discards

BRISTOL HUSBAND-AND-wife team Diana Bigelow and Jim Stapleton recently collaborated on a series of short storybooks based on the creatures Bigelow has constructed from found natural materials over the years. Bigelow’s work, along with the books they’ve made, will be on display at Bristol’s Lawrence Memorial Library through November.

BRISTOL — Much of the creative activity behind Diana Bigelow and Jim Stapleton’s new exhibition at the Lawrence Memorial Library may have occurred since the pandemic began, but the utter enchantment of their work has been decades in the making.
“Sticks, Stones, Shells & Bones” consists of 30 fantastical creatures Bigelow has fabricated or repurposed from her decades-old collection of natural ephemera, along with a new series of storybooks penned by Stapleton over the last six months.

THE COLLECTOR
Bigelow’s penchant for picking up odd-shaped branches, unusual rocks and other intriguing natural objects began more than 50 years ago on a hot summer day along the Poultney River. As her children played in the water, Bigelow spotted a rock that resembled a tiny grand piano. It gave her an idea and she began combing around for other interesting stones, which she brought home and glued together to make dollhouse furniture.
So began a lifelong habit of collecting items from the natural world that sparked her fancy. “Whatever caught my eye, I would put it in my pocket,” Bigelow told us during an interview at the library last week. “Then I’d bring it home and put it on a shelf or in a drawer.”
Over the decades, on countless walks with Stapleton, who is among many other things an environmental scientist, Bigelow honed her gift for spotting treasures in “Mother Nature’s discard pile.” She got the idea to recycle or repurpose the items in her collection when the couple were living in Washington state in the 1990s and early 2000s.
One day she discovered some bones on a beach that reminded her of a doll exhibit she’d seen at the Plains Indian Museum in Cody, Wyo. She picked up the bones and decided she would try to make some dolls of her own. Two of her earliest creations, which she calls The Elders, were made with marine mammal bones, beaver fur, deer skin, pheasant and kestrel feathers, turkey vertebrae, beads and earrings. More works followed. Some were built as elaborately as The Elders. Others were found objects that stood alone: rocks like eggs, shells like flowers, branches like dancers.
When the couple moved to Bristol in 2009, the Vermont woods offered up new perspectives and new opportunities. Bigelow’s collection — and her creature-building skills — continued to grow. Sometimes this habit poses minor challenges for the couple, as it did last January in Costa Rica, when Bigelow spied a branch of strangler fig that had been cut and discarded along a jungle path. With its multi-pronged, vine-like pattern of outgrowth it reminded her of a flying insect.
“Do you think I can take it?” she asked Stapleton.
“But how will you get it home?” he said. This was not something that would go into a suitcase.
She picked it up nonetheless, and they managed to mail it home to Vermont, which was “a whole other adventure,” Bigelow said with a laugh.
By this time, Bigelow had begun showing some of her creatures to friends and neighbors, and the couple had compiled a small book of photos and reminiscences. Then Cynthia Huard suggested they create stories for the creatures. “And I thought, ‘Well, I do live with a storyteller,’” Bigelow said. She turned and looked pointedly at Stapleton, who was comfortably ensconced in one of the library’s reading chairs and who smiled, somewhat sheepishly.

THE STORYTELLER
Running with the idea, Bigelow selected a cast of five characters, and Stapleton wrote a short, witty tale about them called “The Curious Goings-on in Matilda Mouse’s Kitchen Garden,” which they had printed as a photo-storybook in May. In that story, the fig branch cutting from Costa Rica gains new life as Hortense Z. Hornet, who is “Trouble with a capital T.”
Two months later they printed another storybook, “Under the Niceness Tree,” then a third in September: “Who Can Do Magic?”
Stapleton, a scientist by training, doesn’t necessarily think of himself as a storyteller, he said, but he does enjoy weaving yarns for children. “Wild stories, with fascinating creatures — and a moral, or something to be worked out in them.”
In the afterword to their first storybook, Bigelow provides further evidence of her husband’s creative talents. “Forty years ago when Jim and I were first together, we began each morning as follows: upon waking I would turn to him and say, ‘Tell me a story.’ He would take a long breath and begin, ‘Once upon a time….’ It would be his own story made up on the spot. After many such mornings I convinced him of the merit of these stories and he agreed to write a few down. Eventually he even recorded some and passed tapes along to family and friends.”
Really, though, “he’s more of a story writer than a story teller,” Bigelow acknowledged.
Stapleton has published two memoirs and has also written a number of plays. His playwriting chops are apparent in some of the storybook characters, whose uniqueness often derives from wordplay or unusual speech patterns.
A few times, though, Stapleton’s interpretation of a creature’s personality has been at odds with how Bigelow conceived it. “This sometimes prompts … vigorous debate,” Stapleton said, smiling.

LIGHTING A SPARK
Bigelow’s 10-year-old granddaughter Leya, who lives in Poultney, was so smitten with the naughty storybook characters Eustace and Nestor that she asked Bigelow to help her make her own creatures. Later, she told Bigelow a story about her new creatures, over the phone, for a half-hour, while Bigelow frantically took notes. That story would eventually become its own photo-storybook, called “The Revenge of the Mudskipping Princesses.”
Leya’s enthusiasm has been contagious. Last Wednesday, after Bigelow presented “Sticks, Stones, Shells & Bones” to a group of 15 children participating in an outdoor workshop at the Lawrence Library, Leya read a brief passage from her own book. By the end of the workshop she had made a new friend, with whom she planned to collaborate on another creature-based storybook.
At this time, Leya’s work is not on display at Lawrence Memorial Library, but “Sticks, Stones, Shells & Bones” will be there through November. The creatures are not for touching, but patrons are encouraged to read the accompanying storybooks.
For more information about visiting the library visit lawrencelibrary.net.

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