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BIRD IN HAND -- Southeastern Louisiana
University visual arts faculty member Lynda Katz displays a prototype of
the ornament she created for the 2002 White House Christmas tree. Katz
has an "extra" ornament because she had to "throw" several versions of
the ceramic ornament to get one that fit the weight restrictions given
to participating artists by the White House.
PROFESSOR, ALUMNUS CREATE ORNAMENTS FOR
HAMMOND -- A stained glass mockingbird and a ceramic blue
heron are among hundreds of ornaments -- including a pelican, a turkey
and a flock of Christmas-red cardinals -- trimming the White House's 2002
The mockingbird and heron are the creation
of a pair of artists with Southeastern Louisiana University ties – visual
arts faculty member Lynda Katz of Independence and 1968 graduate Jerry
Hymel of Raymond, Miss.
The two were chosen along with colleagues
from all 50 states to participate in the White House's tradition of commissioning
hand-made, one-of-a-kind ornaments for the executive mansion's Christmas
tree, an 18-foot Noble fir that graces the Blue Room. The tree's American
birds theme is a nod to First Lady Laura Bush's love of bird-watching and
complements the White House's 2002 Christmas decorating scheme of "all
creatures, great and small."
The festive design scheme encompasses
an overall red-and-gold decor with whimsical papier mache recreations of
the pets of presidents past – from the Bushs' own two dogs and cat all
the way back to George Washington's horse, Nelson.
Katz, who has taught ceramics and art
history at Southeastern since the mid-1980s, and Hymel, a New Orleans native
who is married to fellow Southeastern graduate and Hammond native Paula
Cali, both got the call for White House Christmas creativity through their
respective state arts councils.
The artists' charge was to create an
ornament that depicted birds indigenous to their area.
The invitation to create an ornament
came with a few restrictions, Katz and Hymel discovered. The ornament could
not be more than 10 inches tall or weigh more than six ounces and had to
hang from a gold cord. The artists were told to ship their creations to
a post office box in Langley, Va.
"I guess I live under a rock sometimes,"
laughed Hymel, who has been a stained glass artist since 1979, when an
accident sidelined him from his original teaching profession and left him
paralyzed. "We were told not to send it to the White House and not to mark
on the package what it was. It didn't dawn on me until someone pointed
it out that Langley, Va., is the headquarters for the CIA." Naturally,
packages headed for the White House have to be checked out first!
Hymel chose the mockingbird, Mississippi's
state bird, as the subject for his ornament. "Since the mockingbird is
not very colorful -- it's black, white and grey -- I jazzed up the black
with iridescent glass, which came out nice," he said.
As a ceramic artist, Katz found the
weight restriction somewhat challenging. She adorned her wheel-thrown,
egg-shaped ornament of white vitreous clay with a blue heron, a design
she has used before, especially on her ceramic dinnerware. A pendant hanging
from the bottom of the ornament suggests a feather.
Katz first used the blue heron design
when her friend and fellow artist, Janet Gildermaster of Hammond, asked
her to make a set of dinnerware for Gildermaster's daughter, Lark Smith.
"She asked me to use images common to both our area and the Chesapeake
Bay area, where Lark lives," Katz said, who grew up outside of Philadelphia,
Pa. "I used the heron because it is indigenous to both areas and has an
oriental treatment. My work usually has a touch of the oriental."
According to the White House's web site,
the tradition of a placing a decorated tree in the executive mansion began
in 1889 when President Benjamin Harrison delighted his grandchildren with
a candle-lit tree in the second floor Oval Room. Over the years, White
House trees have reflected both the times and tastes of America's First
Families. The first tree with electric lights was created by First Lady
Frances Cleveland in 1895, while First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began the
tradition of theme trees in 1961 when she decorated the White House tree
in toy trimmings from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite ballet.
The artists were invited to a White
House reception on December 6, the day after Laura Bush unveiled the White
House decorations for the media.
"The overall decor was incredible, and
the reception was as grand as you could ever hope it would be. Everything
tasted delicious," Hymel said, adding with a laugh, "Well, there was no
gumbo, but other than that...."
"We were given a blue card with our
names on it, which we in turn gave to what my wife would describe as ‘a
very handsome Marine,' who introduced us to Mrs. Bush," he said. "She addressed
us as if we were the only people in the room. She was delightful, very
pretty, and as cordial and nice as she could possibly be."
"The poor lady had to have her photo
taken with everyone who came," said Katz. "If that's not fortitude, I don't
know what is!"
Katz said it literally took a map, distributed
by the White House aides, for the artists to find their ornaments on the
While they thoroughly enjoyed their
White House visit, Katz said their adventures returning home were the main
topic of conversation when she and Hymel saw each other again at an arts
and crafts show last week.
A major snow storm arrived on the East
Coast just as the artists were planning to head south. Hymel changed his
travel plans and left right after the reception, only to be stranded overnight
in the Charlotte, N.C. airport. Katz left 24 hours later and managed to
get home in one day, "But we could have flown to Europe in the time it
took," she said.
Katz said one of the best parts of her
White House trip was "getting to meet people from all over the country
who do what I do."
Although the White House's rules forbid
the artists to duplicate their ornaments, Katz and Hymel will have permanent
mementoes of their experience when their pictures with Mrs. Bush arrive
in the mail. Katz may have the extra bonus of having her ornament show
up in the print.
"Mine was hanging right behind Mrs.
Bush's knee in all of those photos," she laughed.
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