Saturday, April 19, 2008

Art of the Heart: Irma Turtle

The reason I’m writing about Irma today is that this week saw the opening of a show of her paintings, and I want you to see these unique and beautiful works and read attentively what she says about them.

If you’re very, very lucky, you meet someone who changes the world.

Irma Turtle is such a person. It was as if she woke up one morning, combed her hair, and commenced to change the world. She was no more equipped to begin, alone, non-exploitative cultural, medical, and ecological tours into the depths of West Africa than a saguaro is to do cruises up the Inside Passage. But precious indigenous cultures were disappearing because of economic, medical, and environmental perils. The UN and relevant African governments couldn’t be bothered to help, so someone had to do something, fast.

Who would help them? Turtle would. Irma, Smith-educated, piss-elegant, pricey Jewish American Madison Avenue advertising princess. Not by flinging pennies from her penthouse, either. By putting both well manicured feet on hard, dry African ground.

I am many things, but pricey and high style just aren't among them. So I confess: I was really nervous when I first drove the 30 miles to her Cave Creek home to meet her. Though I should have known better, I actually thought she’d live in a 6,000-sq. ft. adobe palace, and that she’d be six feet tall, a social X-Ray odalisque sipping chilled Perrier by her vanishing-edge pool overlooking Four Peaks.

I was there because I had been impertinent enough to ask if I might use some of her slides to show trade beads in their living context. Doubtless because of a mutual friend, she had consented. So I thought I’d be ushered into The Presence and leave ten minutes later, sticky from condescension. After all, what could I bring to a life like hers--except maybe the walking stick I’d made for her of a saguaro cactus rib, the one I’d carved a turtle on. Now it seemed all too completely lame.

Down the dirt road I drove, through stands of prickly pear cactus, a gaggle of Gambel’s quail, and wicked cholla thickets, dust roiling in great baffles behind me. I parked in a turnout to the left of the house, beside the carport, catty-cornered from a walled courtyard painted with black and brown West African geometrics.

As I got out of my car, the door from the carport into the tiny 1950s adobe opened. Out she stepped, on the far side of her beat-up old Jeep Wagonneer with its AZ plate reading “Timbuktu.” In her magenta dashiki and half a pound of hand-made silver African jewelry, she was striking, gorgeous even, in a sunburnt, Wise Woman, Been There/Done That kind of way. Yet, there for a moment she seemed slight, even tentative.

Irma Turtle shaded her eyes, peered into the white Arizona glare at the backlit stick in my hand, and said, “Did you bring a baseball bat?” Her white teeth flashed and in that moment her whole being smiled. Rhodo, a brindle pit bull mix beside her, her soulmate, inseparable except for Irma’s African expeditions, gently asked if I really meant to let that Doberman out of my car. Now suddenly I didn’t.

Of the few things I truly admire, one surely is the combination of world-class accomplishment and zero pretention. Irma had me from “hello” and so did Rhodo.

From that day to this I’ve been devoted to her. I’m certain that this is not unusual, that it happens to her 13 times a day and 14 on Saturdays. For me, it started with her completely unwarranted generosity, grew geometrically as, over time, she shared her perspective on life or a healing massage, and was a totally done deal once it sunk past my cynicism that the warmth surrounding me in Irma's presense really wasn’t about fund raising at all.

The reason I’m writing about Irma today is that this week saw the opening of a show of her paintings, and I want you to see these unique and beautifu pieces and read what she has to say about them.

I had the privilege of a private viewing some months back and listened as she talked to me of willing a better world into being, of living with intentionality, of expecting epiphany.

You see, Irma goes places most mere mortals just won’t bring ourselves to go, spiritually and philosophically arriving long before the physical trek even begins. It couldn’t happen any other way.

She routinely says the most impossible things right out loud, like they make sense. If anyone else said these things to me, I’d be out the door. But Irma isn’t merely saying them. She has done them. She continues to do them. She proves that what she says is actually how it is, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.

Yet here I stand on my hyper-rational high dive, mute and ossified, afraid to lose control. As if I ever had it to begin with.

But I’m in awe. Ask anyone. Irma springs off a drought-baked AZ desert as if it were a trampoline, back-flips over Kilimanjaro, lands head first in a lake of fire somewhere in Niger, and looks back smiling: “Come on in! The water’s fine!”

And this is what she does every day, right after breakfast, for a living--for her living and for theirs, the Wodaabe and the Fulani and the Tuareg and the Hamar and the Songhai. I’ve seen this with my own eyes.

I could go on. And on. I bid you, instead, to visit her art website, linger over her paintings, and read what she says about them. And then visit Turtle Will—-who will? Turtle Will! See what she accomplishes. Irma's the Real Thing and she's obviously on to something big.

Oh, by the way: Your generous financial support won’t go to waste. It's desperately needed and in the hands of Irma Turtle, it will change the world.