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Wacky or wonderful, I write it as I see it
I am drawn to the unusual, and I think I'll credit my parents for my tastes. I was born and raised in South Florida by Cuban immigrants. We didn't have a lot of money. But we had imagination. We entertained ourselves with trips to the library and home-spun magic shows. For family vacations, we tooled around the state in our station wagon and visited freaky landmarks like Gatorland and the mermaid-laced Weekee Watchee. Even a trip to the mainstay Magic Kingdom required back-to-back rides on the Haunted House, where portraits on walls stretched to gruesome shapes and a gypsy's head floated inside a crystal ball(!). I could not get enough.
Today in my living room you'll find a collection of hand-painted saint statues, a monkey lamp, a painting made entirely from glitter by a New Orleans folk artist, and a rather large black and white poster of an albino sword swallower, plying her trade, chalky arms outstretched and head flung back against a dark swatch of circus tent.
The photograph was taken by the late American photographer Diane Arbus, whose work I saw at the Met on a recent trip to New York. Arbus liked to document both the fringe and the folk: carnies, strippers and dwarves, but also children playing in city parks, couples with their arms wrapped around one another. Through her lens, the strange was softened and the daily made sinister. For Arbus there was barely a border between the two.
I looked hard at every photo -- all 180 of them. Although I wasn't working, I still wrote down what I saw. Here's a clip from my notebook: Four people in a field wearing rags and sacks. Paper bags over their heads. Cardboard masks. Crazy, wonderful, makes me lose my balance... Beneath this I had scrawled the museum's own note about the photo's subjects: four adults from a 1971 home for the mentally retarded. They were playing dress-up. In a letter to her daughter, Arbus wrote, "They are the strangest combination of grownup and child I have ever seen ... I think you'd like them."
I know I did.
Why should you care about my fondness for oddities? Because I'm the Sun-Sentinel's new arts writer, and besides covering the fine offerings from our established cultural community, I am also bound to write about some weird stuff. As you already know by virtue of living here, this is a strange place (you could fill the pages of several books just with stories about our schizophrenic weather). Yet often enough, what's unusual is only so because it's unknown.
Arbus once wrote that there were things that nobody would see unless she photographed them. To me, writing is a lot like taking pictures. Whether it's a story about a local musician reviving long-forgotten songs or the second coming of the world's most famous pharaoh, a writer shows what she sees. And in this round corner of the world, there's plenty to look at.
Emma Trelles can be reached at email@example.com or at 954-356-4689.