With nuns on roller skates, onions and a crescent moon, memory wall helps sister overcome grief | Entertainment / Life
Loretta Cousin calls the colorful fresco she commissioned to be painted along her aisle a dedication to her poet sister.
Caroline Hill, the muralist, calls it a love letter.
Either way, it’s a living monument to poet Shannon Marquez McGuire, a former LSU English teacher who died aged 67 in 2018.
The idea for the mural led to all kinds of magical events, starting with Cousin pondering his need for a muralist to a complete stranger who turned out to be a muralist.
“What do you think of me?” Hill responded when Cousin brought up the subject while they waited for their dogs to finish their greetings at City Park.
Over the summer, despite repeated thunderstorms and a severe hurricane, Hill recreated McGuire’s poetry in shades of blue and peach to coincide with Cousin’s pale blue cottage near Fair Grounds racetrack.
Nuns in black and white dress rollerblade on the water; a wagon carries a yellow onion; a crow perches on a crescent moon; and the bare trunk of a cypress arises from dark irises. The parents of the true irises that McGuire nurtured grow along the bottom of the wall.
The dreamlike quality of the mural captures the natural world and family love that lives in McGuire’s poetry. As a combination of older sister, friend, and mother figure, McGuire’s death left Cousin heartbroken. Sensing that she needed to do something to ease her grief, she obtained permission from the owner of the wall to turn the ugly strip of cement that ran along her driveway into a series of memories.
As it turned out, Hill was the perfect painter for the project. Who better to celebrate the work of a poet than a muralist who decorated a New York law firm with a giant octopus cradling a sleeping woman?
Hill’s charcoal black hair, imaginative highlights, and native love for everything in New Orleans – all like McGuire herself – convinced Cousin to go ahead with the project. She gave Hill some poems to study and made three requests for pictures – nuns, a crescent moon, and a crab. After pondering McGuire’s footage for a while, Hill gave Cousin a preliminary drawing.
“The first time Caroline showed me the sketch I knew Shannon was in the best hands,” Cousin said. “She saw what was seen, and the unseen, all the layers and complexity of Shannon’s poetry.”
Hill started painting the wall in May and finished in mid-September. Rain and Hurricane Ida stalled the project so many times that raindrops that were not part of the original sketch appeared in the final product.
Other changes have been made along the way. The two women discussed the job during each phase, with Cousin often asking for small changes to reflect the family history or one of McGuire’s poems. A magnolia flower became a night-blooming cereus because McGuire wrote on the flower, and a jar of okra became a jar from Magnalite, a kitchenware brand recognized by its ridged handles.
“It’s everything my family cooked with,” Cousin said.
The central image, however, remained faithful to the initial sketch. Arms pumping, three nuns are roller skating on the water in a whirlwind of joyful fantasy.
Skating nuns are part of Cousin’s family tradition because his grandfather owned an ice rink called the Comet near Bayou Lacombe, a scenic waterway between the Pearl River and the Mississippi. McGuire wrote about the nuns arriving in a yellow school bus on Saturday morning to skate for free.
In the poem “Nuns Skating at the Comet”, she remembers three nuns who ran with their flying hands “like birds”, their veils “pulled back from sweaty eyebrows”.
Other winged creatures are important. Mallards fly in a “dawn in the pink sky” just as they do in a poem called “Lightning Man”, about Loretta and Shannon’s brother who has been struck by lightning three times, the final blow killing him.
A crow wearing Mary Janes – awkward shoes once worn by schoolgirls – sits on a crescent moon. A butterfly emerges from its chrysalis.
The crow wearing Mary Janes reflects aspects of McGuire. “The Raven is Shannon for me,” Hill said. “She appears to be an old soul while still being young.”
Hill inserted the Gulf Fritillary Butterfly because she saw one come out of its chrysalis while she was painting one day. She had noticed the chrysalis hanging from the overhang of the roof of the wall, and she had watched it for hours before the butterfly finally emerged, dried its wings and flew away.
A covered wagon carrying an onion rides the waves of water that cross the entire fresco. This wagon references McGuire’s fond memories of trains running near his childhood home in the 9th Ward. The onion comes from a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye called “The Traveling Onion,” said Cousin, one of McGuire’s favorites.
Box cars have often appeared in McGuire’s poetry as a metaphor for the journey of life, Hill said. For this reason, she placed the onion in one to carry it along the waves of water that plunge and rise up and down the table.
Halfway through the project, Hill said she watched a real onion in the waves, then float down to the Florida beach where she was standing: a single onion, whole and looking fresh. She found this event odd, but when another lone onion washed up near her from the Mississippi River the day after the mural was finished, she made the two incidents more meaningful.
Cousin began to think that the onions were sent by McGuire to telegraph his spiritual presence. She said her family members often talked about sending messages from the afterlife. Onions, water, artist, timing: everything seemed to fit.
“My sister was a force of nature,” Cousin said. “Caroline succeeded. She really helped me get to the other side of my grief.