January 24, 2011

Of saints and sardine tins: Lynne Block's port-a-shrines

Last month I blogged about tree decorator extraordinaire, my neighbor Lynne Block. A few days ago, she invited me to her apartment to take a look at the religious shrines she makes out of sardine and other tins. Little did I know that without even leaving my building, I was in for a trip to an apartment-size cabinet of curiosities, and the lair of a true folk artist.

Lynne’s double-unit living space, which she shares with her husband and bestselling crime author Lawrence Block, is bursting at the seams with the booty of their world travels (over 140 countries visited; they lost exact count a while ago), including collections of crystals, masks, paintings and ceramics. As she led me through the apartment, one room gave way to another, revealing a cache of her husband’s Edgar Awards, bedroom walls coated in opulent, gold-flecked paint, and a hallway with a canopy of shimmering, gauzy fabric and shiny stars. It occurred to me that Lynne could have had a successful career as a set designer had she wanted to.

Her expressive eyes and silver-streaked hair bring to mind Anne Rice, only more beautiful; in fact the two share roots in New Orleans. Lynne lit out immediately after graduating from high school with $40 in her pocket, did odd jobs and taught herself bookkeeping. Despite over 40 years spent living in Greenwich Village, her apartment--especially the room dedicated to her shrines and altars--exudes the moss-covered, gothic perfume of New Orleans. Against one wall of the south-facing room, an elaborate, multi-tiered and heavily embellished altar display drips with angels, saints, masks, rosary beads and other religious objects, presided over by paintings of sacred scenes and crosses.
On the opposite wall, Lynne has installed a more austere, eastern-style shrine. The pile of rocks sitting at the foot of the Japanese tansu cabinet is composed of one specimen from each country that she and her husband have visited.  A head of Buddha, a statue of Ganesha, and a photo of the Dalai Lama share the tansu with an assortment of other eastern relics and one visiting western saint.
Lynne’s hand-made shrines blend in seamlessly with the antique artifacts on the western shrine: Her Paul the Hermit’s garment of palm leaves is made of tiny, lustrous green beads; the arched edges of the tin cover are beaded in amber to resemble the gothic arches of an altar. In another tin, the messenger angel Gabriel, index finger in air, is half-revealed behind the tightly wound, rolled-down top of a sardine tin, (these old-fashioned tins with key openers are harder to come by these days, notes Lynne). Much better than my snapshots of Lynne’s Port-a-Shrines, as she calls them, are photographer Jim Coyle’s examples on Flickr, “Private Altars.” (All of the shrines pictured in that album, except for numbers 373, 378 and 383 are Lynne’s. The others were made by a friend in homage to hers.)
This tinfoil-embellished shrine is titled "All Hearts Are Sacred"
The Port-a-Shrines came to life first in the late 1980s when Lynne and Larry took to the road for two years to drive across the country. They made a pit stop at a writer’s colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. While Larry wrote, Lynne gathered all the materials she needed, and began making her shrines. The impulse to make them, she says, came in part from the fact that she was raised by nuns in a New Orleans orphanage, in a building that was eventually turned into Anne Rice’s doll museum. One of Lynne’s jobs during her seven years at the orphanage was to take care of the chapel.

“I think everybody should have an altar, a small sacred space for photos of loved ones who are gone, or who are far away at the moment,” Lynne told me.  Suddenly, and with great clarity, I recalled the small Buddhist shrine my grandparent’s kept in their bedroom, with a picture of my great-grandmother, and the offerings of food and drink that they prayed to and changed daily. It’s funny how it took years, and a messenger from another culture, place and time, to make me fully understand the significance of that other small, sacred space.
Lynne reached into one shelf of the altar and held out an antique ivory bobbin that she bought a decade ago in England for her granddaughter. Factory girls used to inscribe these with the names of boyfriends or with their own names; this one bears her granddaughter’s name, Sara, who is 23 now and about to embark on her grown-up life.  “It has lain on the altar all these years, soaking up good energy,” says Lynne. “I’ll give it to her when we go on her graduation trip in the spring.”  

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