Earthworms’ Castings

With Jean Ponzi

Let Them Paint Cake!

Happy 250th Birthday, City of St. Louis! How about some cake?

How about 250 GIANT CAKES, painted by a fleet of artists for display all around this town throughout your semiquincentennial year!

Trés bien for a city girl, hey?

I wanted to be in that number, to contribute my tribute to my adopted hometown.

But I am not a painter. My drawing skill is limited to repeating patterns, esoteric symbols, sunshine happy faces, hearts and worms. I should only wield a paintbrush when it’s time to spruce up the screen door trim.

And what design could I propose, to have a prayer of being accepted?

My husband Dale (who is a painter, and a builder) jumped in too, but his ideas at first were no-go:

  1. Replicating the Climatron on the cake’s top layer (too intense, he’d have to weld it).
  2. Combining a fiberglass egg-shaped planter rescued from my 1960s family home with various PVC pipe and shape segments to construct a dead ringer for The Old Courthouse (sorry, can’t modify the basic Cake structure).

Then his Eads Bridge Cake design came up a charming folk-art winner. He rendered sky and forested swards in delicate shadings, architectural details so fine he had to dip a pencil point into color to show the girder system, tiny paddle-wheelers steaming by – and a little-known local history moment. On June 14, 1874, James Eads (a P.T. Barnum pal?) walked an elephant over the bridge to calm the city’s bridge-strength terrors. Dale painted his pachyderm on the span led by a wee showman in top hat and tails.

And my design got in! To my astonished delight, no one else had proposed it – among 250 Cakes! Simple enough, I knew I could paint it (just stay in the lines) and profoundly meaningful to me: the big view of Our Watershed.

So beautiful, those shapes, that pattern – you know it in an instant, the curves of the confluence, our “watershed address,” our place on this planet. At the Heart of the 4th-Largest Watershed on Earth.

Now to make this work in paint, on a four-foot-tall three-layer giant fiberglass CAKE – on a deadline!

I started with the square base (wrong choice, drops spritz down from upper painting), brushing swirly yellow-orange. Nice. Bright! My repurposed palette was a Mayor Slay campaign yard sign.

Then I drew that Confluence pattern, erasing ‘till I got it right. For one whole day.

I based-coated the main two layers in (duh! what else?) GREEN, then experimented with a sponged overlay. I worked out a yellow-greeny-bluey mix and covered the whole cake, camouflage-y. It was way too much. It was A Mess.

Dale (a painter) toned it down, and I waded into the rivers with brush-loads of blue. Somewhere in the Big River lines, I stopped dab-dabbing, befriended the paint, and felt a spirit in me flow.

I had one day left, with a lot to do. I traced and filled in golden Fleur-de-Lis, outlined in red, around base and top and at the spot where City of St. Louis sings out “We Are Here!” I squiggled cascades of fine blue lines around an imagined continent, enriching the land with tributaries in simple repeating riverine patterns.

Through one rapturous all-nighter I stenciled the base with clear block-lettered names of our Big Rivers – Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois – and each one’s three major sub-watershed streams. That was a lot of letter painting, precise and demanding, to honor those names and the mighty life force they represent.

I listened to KDHX all the way (blessedly free of distracting commercials), tied to voices of my longtime radio companions, buoyed by their wealth of musical knowledge, sailing on the swellest current of tunes.

I whirled inside letter lines, letting the brush move the paint (remembering to breathe) in smooth moves along the shapes: arm, hand, brush and paint in a water ballet of liquid color.

As the sun rose on deadline day, I stepped back to view my Watershed Cake, vivid beside Dale’s whimsical, masterful cloud-frosted Eads Bridge.

I received a birthday gift from the City St. Louis! I got the chance to affirm our region’s fortunate place on our precious planet, to send this image out in a host of 250 Giant Cakes, for people to find and enjoy all year. And I got to live one of the skills I most admire in those who really have it.

I was, for those watershed days, A Painter.

Hear Jean Ponzi Mondays 7-8 pm on “Earthworms” on FM-88 KDHX, Sundays 3-4 pm on “Growing Green St. Louis” on the Big 550 KTRS-AM. Explore Cakeway to the West at www.stl250.org.