Thursday, September 24, 2015


The mission of the Convent of St. Mary here at Sewanee includes providing a Sister or minister to a small congregation of Grace Fellowship Church on certain Sundays, and the visiting member of the Religious coordinates "Reflection" time about the Gospel assigned for that Sunday. On the Sundays that I preach at St. Mary's, I also go down the road and deliver the same sermon to Grace Fellowship, and I've grown fond of the people who gather in the little church at the edge of a pond on Garnertown Road.

Yesterday, at the invitation of Carolyn and Charles ("Chuck") Tocco, a couple in this Fellowship congregation, I went out to Winterberry Place in Deep Woods to see Carolyn's studio paintings. I had seen many of her depictions of Jesus that hang in the sanctuary at Grace Fellowship and had asked about exhibits she schedules twice a year at times when I won't be on The Mountain, so she offered a private showing of her art.

I thought I'd hiked in and seen all of the deep woods around Sewanee, but Winterberry Place is situated in a wood Robert Frost would have called "lovely, dark and deepest." We drove down the Fire Tower Road just past St. Andrews School, then traveled about three miles on a paved road and on to a gravel path that ran through dense woods leading to Wormwood Lane, a lane ending at the gate of Winterberry Place.

Everywhere we looked, we saw flowers and gardens, and the Toccos stood on the porch to welcome us, attempting to shush the barking of several dogs (mixed breeds, Carolyn explained) that had been penned up so we could visit without interference. Just inside the front door, we glimpsed several of Carolyn's large oil paintings, one of a snow scene in the woods and another depiction of Jesus on a hill overlooking an ancient city.

We walked through the house and onto the back porch to get a view of the bluff that overlooks the town of Pelham, Tennessee and toured the tea house at the end of the porch. I had brought Carolyn a copy of my book, Porch Posts, and it proved to be a perfect gift because the Tocco's porch would make a good photograph for any home and garden magazine and appears to be a favored room of the home. My friend Vickie, who accompanied me, had brought her book Why Water Plants Don't Drown as a gift, and it was also a "hit" for the Toccos, two seasoned gardeners.

Carolyn, a native of Sewanee (actually Garnertown) has been painting since childhood and spent four years studying art with a private instructor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has done most of her excellent work in oils, although she has tried acrylics and watercolors, choosing oil as her favorite because "it's the most forgiving medium," she says.

Before we went upstairs to see Carolyn's studio, we sat and exchanged stories about our backgrounds. Both Carolyn and Chuck had been in the Air Force and met at an airbase in New Jersey, and both say that when other retirees tell them that they retire to travel, they're amazed because they've already had their peripatetic experience, traveling with the Air Force to stations in Alaska, Okinawa, Thailand, Guam, the Philippines, Hawaii, and other posts.

When the Toccos decided to join the retiree population, they were living in Sweetwater, Tennessee where Chuck worked as a Systems Engineer at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant (TVA) following his stint in the Air Force. Both sang in a Methodist Church choir in Sweetwater, and nowadays Chuck sings solo and a capella for the Grace Fellowship congregation.

Although Carolyn's former work had included a sophisticated assignment as an Air Force Communications Specialist executing flight plans and decoding cryptographic messages in a "vault," her background as a hardy Tennessean served her and Chuck well when they bought the ten acres of woodland in Deep Woods. She joined Chuck in clearing the land much as women of Tennessee stock must have done during pioneer days. "Chuck used one chain saw, and I used another until we had cleared the entire space for our home on the bluff," she says.

We climbed stairs to Carolyn's studio and entered a room with long windows that let in the generous shafts of light that artists need for painting. Bookcases on two walls contained Carolyn's eclectic reading, including books of poetry, religious writing, and classics. We were also intrigued by a small insect display that Carolyn had been collecting for her "bug paintings." Renderings of owls, dandelions, cotton plants, milkweed pods, horses plowing in a field, sheep, and other outdoor scenes leaned against the wall beneath the long windows, and a painting of a road resembling the entrance lane to Winterberry Place stood on Carolyn's easel. Carolyn paints in the afternoons and says the subjects for her paintings are inspired; she disciplines herself to carry out the work as "it is a gift from God."

We lingered longer than we had planned and were invited to return another time when Carolyn
promises she'll have two of her small paintings ready for us—a "bug painting" and a "berry painting"—mementos of this wonderful artist's haven in the deep woods on The Mountain at Sewanee that we'll take back to bayou country in October.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

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