It’s a small terra cotta dog, a curio really, barely 6 inches high, sitting on its haunches, head tilted back and cocked to the side, one ear pointing up and the other sideways, the front legs so abstractly rendered you’d think the artist left them out. The whole thing is painted in a garish palette of blue, yellow, pink and green glazes, with a pink and blue bow tie and outsized yellow rings around the eyes that look like swimming goggles. A slightly demented grin completes the bizarre appearance.
The glaze has developed spiderweb cracks over the years, no surprise there since my parents got me the little dog sculpture at a crafts fair in Athens in the early ’50s. Not what you’d call an objet d’art — although of course not even objets d’art are immune to the passage of time.
Other than being an odd but charming rendering of a dog, there is nothing remarkable about the piece, which, in an early stab at originality and wit, I had named Dog (“Skeelos” in Greek). As in, a dog named Dog. I later discovered the name was not witty or original at all, confirming that there is nothing new under the sun, although in fairness I wasn’t even in grade school yet and I had given that name to an inanimate object, not a real living pet.
It was only a year or two ago that it suddenly hit me: Skeelos had been with me for almost seven decades now, a faithful companion, which was a little shocking given my peripatetic nature that has caused many objects in my life to reach escape velocity and disappear, never to be seen again. I have moved more times that I care to count; I have upsized and downsized, packed and unpacked, loaded and unloaded boxes time and time again, editing with each move and jettisoning what I thought I no longer needed or cared to keep around. I did a bit of a mental doubletake when I realized that Skeelos had made it through all the purges and was still there, goggle eyes and all. Oddly, so had a soup spoon I picked up at my college cafeteria in 1969 that I had every intention to return, but is still in my silverware drawer after all these years.
Like old yellowed photos, these things from long ago are suffused with associations and personal meaning. But calling them old doesn’t seem quite right. I mean, the glaze on Skeelos may have aged, but Skeelos himself hasn’t. He’s still in one piece, the grin unchanged, and while I may not remember exactly when he entered my life, once he did, he froze in time — and never left.
All I have to do is pick him up and I can see those moments when I’m getting him ready for yet another move, first to a new continent, then bouncing to so many places across this country, and now finally to a small island in the land of trees and water, I can see me carefully wrapping him in newsprint and putting him in a box labeled “fragile” that feels light as a feather since it’s mostly newsprint enveloping a handful of delicate things. Then I take him out of the box and set him on a bookshelf, a nightstand, a dresser or a desk, where he will look more and more out of place and time as the world and my tastes change. But he just smiles, takes it all in and preserves that frozen bit of time.
And as I write this another realization hits me: Skeelos is also my center, the center that I haven’t always acknowledged but that’s been there regardless of how many times and places my need to roam has taken me. Skeelos is there, unchanged, in his improbable crazy quilt of colors, a grin that is perhaps more joyful than demented after all, an inanimate object that returns my stare and holds imprinted on its aging glaze so much of who I am but also who I used to be.
Not bad for a small, decades-old ceramic sculpture of an imaginative artist’s idea of a dog in mid-century Athens.
Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, historian and an avid birder who lives on Herron Island.
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