I picked up the phone to hear Elizabeth Bell say, “You want to go to England?” She went on to explain that we could apply for a fellowship through Rural Teachers’ Fund and that we could spend five weeks in the British Isles and perhaps jump over the canal to Paris for a day or two. I thought that the smell of mineral spirits and turpentine had finally done her in. But, no, she had all of her faculties and had it all planned.
“What are we going to do there?”
To my way of thinking, to enjoy art one must go to Rome or Paris.
“We are going to research farmers’ markets and art co-ops so that we can bring the information back to our community.”
My mind went into overdrive, mainly with fear of how two seriously right-brained women traveling alone in foreign countries without a formal tour group were going to survive. But, it was October and the deadline was March. In my mind, we didn’t have a chance in the world of getting that fellowship. So, I decided to humor Elizabeth, and if nothing else, it would be good grant writing practice. When March comes, I will console her and tell her maybe next year.
In June, we got off the plane in London, England. Sarah Beth Turner had come along as a graduation trip. In the early morning we stood in the middle of Heathrow Airport, looked at each other, and said, “What do we do now?” But the trip began to slowly unwind and spiral into a month of one of the greatest vacations I had ever had. Doing what I loved and being sponsored to do it. All thanks to that October phone call, and the diligence of a high school art teacher who saw something she wanted and wasn’t afraid to go for it, and graciously invited me along for the ride.
Elizabeth Bell is retiring, and we are witnessing the end of an era. Being axed due to budget cuts, for the first time in over 20 years, the high school will be without a visual arts program. Elizabeth invited me to come and get some supplies and things she had accumulated through the years, and I was excited to get them. Those few hours were filled with reminiscing and stories about the years we were the only two art teachers in Grundy County, and how we had to stick together. I was astonished at the materials she had collected. She is a self-proclaimed hoarder. But, I have to say, she is a “Hoarder with Order.” Everything is logically grouped, boxed and tagged.
She began her career teaching first grade at Shook School, but she had to take a leave due to illness. She then taught special education in another part of the state. Elizabeth finally came home to Tracy City, and began teaching English. She was approached about taking on one section of art. She had a room, no supplies, no immediate means of getting any, and no curriculum. It was up to her to decide what she was going to do with this group of 30-plus students who had never had never had formal art education in any form or fashion. She said she could afford pencils and paper, so she taught them to draw, and draw well. This class eventually turned into a traditional yearly display of some of the most intricate drawings of babies, cars, horses and other subject matter that hung proudly in the cafetorium. Along with that display came a pride of accomplishment and surprise of the students who always vowed, “I can’t draw!”
She is an exceptional artist whose work is so meticulous it almost looks like photography. She is a little obsessive however, she sent me pictures of her progress on a drawing of her dad next to a train. I know she reworked it 42 times! But the result was a drawing that was nothing short of photographic quality. She also did a drawing of the singing group The Proclaimers who live in Scotland. She made a connection with a man who knew them and agreed to hand deliver the portrait to the Proclaimers himself. When we got to Edinburgh he was to meet us. Now, only Elizabeth Bell could make such a contact with a man she didn’t know and had never seen before, in a foreign country. I was a little apprehensive to say the least, especially when we got into a cab with him. I began worrying what my family would bury me in, if they found my body. I paid for the cab myself. But Elizabeth is my elder, and I had to trust her instinct. As it turned out, he was perfectly delightful man with a wife and son. He went with us to Edinburgh Castle and we had a nice lunch, gave him the portraits of the Proclaimers, parted ways, and lived to tell the tale.
Elizabeth always puts her trust in God to take her where she needs to go. Many times we were lost, confused, and had no idea where anything was. We depended on a lot of strangers who all turned out to be, to our way of thinking, guardian angels. Whether it was sitting at a deserted train station at 2 a.m., or schlepping our luggage down the streets of Dublin looking for a place to stay, I depended on Elizabeth, and she was depending on the Lord. What we brought back to our students was a rich wealth of knowledge and stories that always pointed out that there is nothing you can’t do. You just have to trust God, keep going, and find an Elizabeth to attach yourself to.
She is a dedicated equestrian as well. If you ever saw her paintings of horses you would feel the love and respect she has for the noble creature. Her house is full of awards, ribbons, and plaques that honor her fine horsemanship. She shared this love with students in 4-H and trained them to be grand champions as well. She was doing more than just helping them to be winners; she was also teaching them work ethic, love and respect for God’s creatures, and building their confidence to do what they had to do. To this day there are kids all over who learned these lessons from her and are successful in many ways.
She also had art students who won accolade on the state level. Not a shabby deal for students from the poorest county in Tennessee. But Elizabeth never let that be their excuse to not work hard. Whether it was drawing with students, working horses with them, or having one of her famous Dr. Who parties for the small group of Whovians she created with her passion for the series, she gave it everything she had. She never does anything half way. Once she is “in” she is in for the long haul and gives it 100 percent of herself.
For most of her adult life, she was a single parent assisted by her parents and siblings. But she never faltered in her dedication to the wellbeing of her sons. Of course, she went through the valleys that we who have children often find ourselves, but she has loved and supported her sons unconditionally. Both boys did tours of service and one is even a flight instructor in Huntsville. She also has a quiver full of grandbabies, both biological and by marriage. But she has never made any difference, she loves them all with a love that only a grandmother possesses.
Her children are grown. Her parents have passed on. Elizabeth’s prayers were for God to send her someone to share her life. She told me several times God said, “It isn’t time yet, be patient.” And when he told her it was time, he handed her Charles Blankenship of North Carolina. They were introduced by a mutual friend and she knew that he had been sent by God. Elizabeth married Charles Blankenship on June 3. He is a farmer, a horseman, an artist, a builder, and a man that loves the Lord and was handpicked by God. Hence begins a new chapter in her life. Miles away from where she began teaching the first grade at Shook school many years ago.
God also released her from the commitment of teaching. I know, if things had not worked out this way, that Elizabeth would continue to dedicate her life to teaching art. Sometimes, God has to pry our fingers loose from things we are afraid to let go of. But, as I said, Elizabeth trusts God and waits on him to tell her when things need to happen.
I am going to miss Elizabeth Bell Blankenship as a colleague, but our friendship will stand the test of time. She is the one who kept the hope alive in me that what I do for a living has an indelible imprint on the lives of children whether they know it or not.
Cheers to you Mrs. Elizabeth Bell Blankenship. Your ship has arrived and I am sure that you are in for many fun and often hair raising adventure. And Mr. Charles Blankenship is in for the ride of his life!