The Greatest Artist in the Whole Wide World



One of our favorite places to play, all throughout my childhood, was in cemeteries. We would go get fried chicken at the Woolworth’s on Broughton Street and go with our sketch pads to the Colonial Cemetery to picnic atop the family vaults that were all shaped like gigantic brick bedsteads. Helen and I loved to climb on these strange bed-shaped vaults and to lie there on the gently curved bellies of the tombs and play at being dead. And while we played, Mother drew in her sketch pad.

At the very back of the cemetery was a playground with old, rusted iron swings that shrieked when you swung in them. Helen and I loved to swing high and make the swings shriek mournfully—the cry of our flight. On the other side of the brick wall, overlooking the playground, rose the Savannah jailhouse—a tall old building with a tower topped by a red onion dome. High up in the jailhouse wall were dark arched windows where you could sometimes see the silhouettes of men’s heads—the prisoners watching us as we swung.

“You’re the greatest artist in the whole wide world, Mother. You’re also the best, funnest, most beautiful Mother in the whole wide world. And you cook such good food too.”

Mother made us say that to her over and over again—every day. And I think we said it sincerely. Mother almost never cooked—but when she did, what she made was always luscious. And I think Mother was a great artist. There is an innocence to Mother’s work that is like a form of revelation.

Over the years of our childhood, Helen and I were to become Mother’s most trusted and devoted encouragers and critics. Mother would call us in from the backyard to examine whatever painting she was working on. We would make our pronouncements with great authority.

“It’s finished, Mother. Don’t do another thing to it. If you touch it again, you’ll ruin it.”

“But isn’t it a bit sketchy?”

“You may think it sketchy, Mother. But that’s part of its power—its sketchiness. If you touch it again, you’ll ruin it. You know what happened to the last painting?”

“The one in oils?”

“Yes, Mother. We told you it was finished. But you didn’t listen to us. And look what happened.”

Mother: “It got all muddy. I ruined it.”

Wee all three look at the painting.

Mother: “So you’re sure it’s finished?”

Edgar: “Yes, Mother.”

Helen: “Absolutely, positively certain.”

Then we all three study the painting for some minutes.

Helen: “It’s a masterpiece, Mother.”

Edgar: “Yes. Truly a masterpiece.”

Helen and Edgar together: “You’re the greatest artist in the whole wide world, Mother!”

Mother: “What else?”

Helen and Edgar together: “You’re also the best, funnest, most beautiful Mother in the whole wide world! And you cook such good food too!”

And then we kiss Mother thirteen times—at the end shouting out jubilantly all together, “Thirteen!”

This piece originally appeared in The Folio Club’s drawing issue.

Edgar Oliver is a writer and actor. His one-man show Helen & Edgar (2012) featured some of these drawings, all of which are by his mother, Louise. Edgar’s newest theatrical work, In the Park, was performed at Axis Theater this past spring.