When I exhibit with Art Crafters, I’m fortunate to be booth-neighbors with Jean (Allen) Belknap. I spend early mornings, coffee in hand, marveling at her intricately carved and whimsically painted gourds. Running my hand over their organic twists and turns soothes me, and getting acquainted with my neighbor is pure delight. Jean, 79 years young, has a playful sense of humor, a great love of nature, an unbridled imagination, and a very steady hand – she uses an Exacto knife to execute the cut-outs on her gourds. An Exacto knife!
Jean graciously invited me to her home and it was a visit I’ll remember ‘til the end of my days. I should have been tipped off by the piles of petrified wood and bone, the chunks of black obsidian, split geodes, and other ancient wonderments of the natural world that lined her entryway. A lotmore than gourds was going on here.
Turns out that before she was the Gourd Lady, Jean was the Copper Lady, the Mosaic Lady, the Rock Lady, and the Fossil Lady. I find she has painted on a variety of surfaces: canvas, stone, leather, wood, (and things I couldn‘t even define!) She has assembled collages, cut intricate images from paper, tooled sheets of copper, and made mosaics from wood, stone, and broken pottery. Her motifs are plants, animals, birds, sea creatures, and insects; a talented testament to her kinship with all things out-of-doors. And, before all these, at age six, Jean was billed as the world’s youngest Snake Charmer.
Stunned me, too. Jean’s family were show folk. Childhood was spent traveling with her parents, sister, and brother in circuses, comedy companies, medicine shows, carnivals, musical troupes, and burlesque revues. Her father was a self-taught magician and both parents made and manipulated marionettes to the delight of small towns in the Midwest and down the Eastern Seaboard. They walked tightropes, swung from trapezes, and sawed each other in half. Little Jean adored it all, except perhaps standing in for the knife-throwers assistant. They had exotic animals, and theSerpentarium was where Jean, a very lively four year old, was placed to keep her from getting underfoot. No, the snakes weren’t poisonous, but still an original approach to babysitting.
Jean Belknap’s entire approach to living is original, for which she credits her father. Paul Allen was a performer, but also did everything that needed doing: made costumes, painted banners and posters, built and decorated wagons, even built the family’s trailer. “My father gave me my first coloring book,” said Jean with a laugh. “He had built a circus wagon and outlined pictures on it. My job was to color everything in with paint!”
“It got harder for my parents to school three children on the road, so we were sent to live with our grandmother, but we’d rejoin the show every summer. My father would send money for what he considered a better education. There were dance lessons – I was terrible. Piano lessons – no talent for that either. I was sent to art school and I really enjoyed that. I was never as good as the best, but I was better than a lot.” Paul Allen gave his daughter the best advice a true showmancould give. “He said, ‘You don’t have to be the best, just do what no one else is doing and they’ll never know.’” He taught his children they could and should do anything they wanted. When it was time to settle the family down they built a house in Michigan. Built it themselves. Jean remembers making their own cinder blocks. “The last gift my father gave me before he died (at age 53 from a cobra bite) was a set of paints. He always believed in me.”
Jean’s just warming up as she brings me into her garage to share some of her other passions. She’s a life-long collector of shells, fossils, rocks, petrified wood, arrowheads and pottery shards. As children, she and her brother would comb each new campsite like junior archeologists. In later years, Jean’s husband would share this passion and the two would make rock-foraging trips to the Southwest Desert. They polished some rocks to make jewelry, others simply to admire. Her husband is gone now, and their lapidary equipment donated to a local high school. “I’m just too busy!” she explains.
An animated storyteller and delightful show-off, Jean shows no hierarchy in herinterests. She speaks as profoundly about rock collecting as rock painting; about Archeology as Art. As I stand admiring a large ‘animalscape’ (think French painter Rousseau), she slaps in my hand a hard grey lump the size of a mango. “Feel the weight of this, it’s a mammoth’s tooth!” And her hands nimbly search for the next treasure. At day’s end I am sent home with a bag of petrified sharks’ teeth and a pad of illegible notes.
Jean Belknap is a member of the Southwest Florida Archeological Society. You can visit her at the Archeological Lab in the Collier County Museum where she volunteers every Tuesday and Thursday morning. See her art in Cambier Park, on the second Saturday every month, October through April. [Her brother Paul Allen, Jr., gives a free lecture on reptiles and serpents at Rookery Bay Research Center every Thursday at 11:00. You just gotta go.]
Tara O’Neill has been an area resident since 1967. She holds a Bachelors Degree in Fine Arts from the University of South Florida, Tampa, and currently has a studio-gallery at the Artist Colony at the Esplanade on Marco Island. She welcomes comments and suggestions through her web site www.taraogallery.com.