Tai’s Story

I’d like to share a story about a boy who helped me become the artist I am today. Tai was four years old when he changed my life, decades ago. Because I painted on eggshells, he thought I was more like a bird than a human.

“If you can lay eggs, you can fly,” he called from the riverbank. “Show me how!” Tai and I giggled and flapped our arms before jumping off small rocks into the creek behind my Lake Tahoe home. He was convinced I had wings tucked under the back of my t-shirt. “Teach me,” he pleaded as we headed toward the place where a waterfall emptied into a small swimming hole. Washo grinding holes pitted the granite boulders overlooking our jumping-off place. I distracted Tai from the troubling responsibility of flight by grinding imaginary pine nuts and speaking in invented tongues. Choosing not to play my game, he decided to chase me through the forest in an attempt to make me fly away.

On an unusually hot day—too hot for even Tai to run around—on a day when the water table was low due to drought, and the swimming hole was muddy and unattractive, Tai asked if we could go inside and paint eggs. He had been in my studio with his mother many times and was fascinated with the eggshells I’d painted for galleries and collectors. It was hard for him to keep his hands in his pockets—even harder to resist racing around my crowded space touching everything in sight—so his mom seldom let him stay long. That day, before I could object, Tai was already skipping stairs to the loft. When I entered the studio I found him sitting cross-legged on the floor with my old painting pillow in his lap. While Tai scattered pencils and markers around him, I rummaged through boxes for empty chicken eggs. I found three dozen. Plenty, I thought.

I handed him a carton of eggshells. Tai opened it like lightening, and all the contents flew out. We gathered the broken pieces in silence. I thought that would be it, but Tai was already on the floor, pillow in lap, ready for the next round.

This time I opened the second carton myself, carefully handing him a single egg. He fumbled. The eggshell flew across the room and hit a table. Tai beat me to the scene of the accident, quickly retrieved the pieces, threw them in the wastebasket, and returned to the pillow.

Chkk! was the sound the shell made as he crushed the next empty egg. “I didn’t mean to,” he said with doe eyes. I couldn’t say no. I gave him another. He took it in both hands, placed it on the pillow, and chose a pencil. Chkk! He jabbed the point right through the shell.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as he threw away the pieces.  Take him outside, I thought. Wade with him in muddy water. He’s too young for this nonsense.

Instead of following reason, I handed Tai another egg. He reached out, cupped it in his hands, and stared it for a long time. It was as if he’d never seen an eggshell in his life. He turned it, touched it with his fingertips, his thumbs. Then he placed it in a “nest” he made in the center of the pillow. Without saying a word or making a sound, he decorated the shell with four-year-old marker paintings and handed it back to me. Before long he successfully completed twelve egg paintings and presented them to his surprised mom when she came to take him home.

I’m embarrassed to say I tumbled that experience around in my head for days before I understood what happened. When the epiphany finally hit, it surged through my body.

Tai was like any rambunctious boy back then. Because of this, most of his family and adult friends kept him away from breakable objects. In my studio, after he realized that eggs were actually fragile (that they weren’t golf balls or plastic toys), he knew what to do. His focus became intent, his motor skills more controlled, and he cradled eggshells like an expert as he carefully drew on each surface. He was a genius as far as I was concerned. That hot day Tai became my muse. He taught me about the relationship between fragility and caring—the importance of being “full of care” in a world that often shies away from such things.

An acupuncturist once took my pulse and felt the fluttering of wings in my veins. She asked if this was why I became an egg painter. It took me a while to understand the depth of her question. Then I realized this: I share so much in common with the egg. Ever since I was a small girl I knew I was fragile, sensitive to the slightest imbalance in my world. I also knew my strength was in what others considered my weakness—that same sensitivity. What I wanted to experience most of all was primal: warmth, connection, love. I also wanted to be like a bird in flight, to be able to see my landscape from many perspectives.

When Arts For the Schools director, Terry Yagura, asked me to share what I’d learned from Tai with elementary school children, I developed an extensive program to allow kids to create their own worlds on the surfaces of eggshells and write poems about that world. After decades of teaching what has now become a tradition in our local school district, I finally get it. Every day I hatch my tenacious dream anew. As I nurture and connect with children, I get a glimpse of what I consider unconditional love whenever I’m in the classroom. And I get another invaluable gift from the students: insight. They show me that we are all fragile, yet strong. We’re filled with an abundance of life. And, like eggs, we’re bursting with stories to share.