StoryART by Elizabeth Ann Terry
“They told stories. . .with effortless art and technique. They were natural-born storytellers in the oral tradition."
-Paule Marshall

Daddy tell me a story!

My father, John Alexander Terry, Jr. was the best storyteller! He loved telling stories of his youth in the peaceful woods and gentle streams of Western Pennsylvania and the vibrant and jazzy streets of The Bronx. Big John’s stories told of his ancestors in Virginia and Antigua (British West Indies), detailed mythical escapades in far away lands, and proudly acquainted us with the thrilling victories of Jesse Owens in Hitler’s stadium. Telling stories with “art and technique,” he was his generation’s Griot, the Terry family’s storyteller. Sometimes his narratives were made even more delightful with embellishments of singing and dancing. He shared stories that he had been told as a boy, those that he had read, and others that he just made up.

What I was really yearning for with my eager “Daddy, tell me a story!” was for him to make art in my head. My child’s mind wanted him to paint me a brilliant picture or to shape me a sleek sculpture or to weave me a cloth of many textures and colors. Like the best of Griots, he always delivered.

Daddy crafted words that formed a rugged framework -- one vibrating with an intensity of color beyond the two-dimensional, monochromatic markings in a book. His Bible stories leapt off the page like a Henry Ossawa Tanner painting of a trek through the hot, dry, treeless desert -- you became thirsty and could feel the sun’s blazing temperature. Ghosts formed like Barbara Chase Riboud multi-textured sculptures of bronze, gold, and silk -- the cloth would sneak up behind you on a cold breeze and twist its way around your body in a scary caress. A Brer Rabbit tale flowed like a painted story quilt by Faith Ringgold with Big Joe Turner singing the blues in the background.

So adept was my father at creating art in my mind with his tales that once I learned to read on my own, I filled my life with books and stories. My exploration of the living word -- both written and oral -- became a full, rich and beautifully rewarding experience beyond the mental images made possible by mere flat, black squiggles on a white page.

My lifelong passion for stories has led me into the community at large sharing epics and anecdotes -- stories large and small -- as a way to effect social change. Sharing stories empowers communities. As we have for generations, we heed the call of the Griot -- we come to listen, to contribute, and to learn. COSACOSA’s Memory Mine project gathered residents of Philadelphia’s Nicetown-Tioga community to tell their own tales and those of their shared community. Three artists of three disciplines made art from the experiences of community elders and the dreams of neighborhood youth: a giant book of hopes and fears, an interwoven tapestry of sound and story, an interconnected web of words and visions.

Our stories preserve memory and express identity. We must carefully tend and pass on those stories which define us, both as individuals and as communities. I will be forever grateful to my father for weaving me enduring narratives that I could put on and wear for my lifetime. Thanks for the stories, Daddy!

Elizabeth Ann Terry is a Philadelphia-based storyteller and activist for pro-gressive social change. She is founder of NIAwork, an organization exploring innovative ways for individuals and communities to grow and achieve their purpose through art and social action.

Artolatry bread image after Salvadore Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926).