It was a cold windy April evening when the FBI agent and the actress met on the patio of the Columbia Museum. I had been invited to moderate and guide a conversation about their lives, their unique work and their passions. We started out as complete strangers who had come from different backgrounds and professions but discovered that we had a great deal in common.
Kara Gunter was the artist that created this project to unite individuals in a dialog as she created an art project. When the three of us arrived on the museum patio, Kara motioned us to a small table where we would talk while she prepared for the wrapping of the hands. We found a spot under an eave that was somewhat protected from the wind but it was not enough to keep us from shivering. I welcomed them and began our session as the sun was going down behind the buildings. All I knew was that we had very different professions and were currently living in Columbia. We had no clue how we were connected and very few details about why we were selected to form this trio.
It only took a few minutes for us to get acquainted since we were all extroverts. To my left was Denise, a lively FBI agent and on my right was Shannon, an actress and theatre professor. My name is Jane Zenger and I am an educator, writer and part-time farmer. On my clipboard was a list of leading questions to get the conversation started, but it was clear from the beginning we did not need prompts to tell our stories.
As we settled in to our opening remarks, an adorable little girl was spinning around the patio and enjoying interacting with the other folks involved with the celebration going on in front of the museum. Her name was Zoe, and Shannon was her mom. Kara took a break from her stirring and gave us our ground rules and an overview of what was about to happen. As I asked questions, Denise and Shannon would reach across join their hands in any position that felt comfortable. I would continue an informal interview and the hands would be covered in wet gauze and white plaster-like paste that would eventually harden into a hand to hand sculpture.
I started the conversation and Kara made sure my new friends were in a comfortable relaxed position. It was important to be sure they would be able to maintain this position long enough for the mixture to set up.
As we talked, Kara went back and forth to the staging table beside us continuing to add layers and stir the mysterious muddy mixture that she used to coat the hands. All through this process we chatted about our educations, careers, family life, and what brought each of us to Columbia. Denise began the discussion. I was fascinated that this seemingly gentle woman was an FBI agent and I asked her to give us a rundown on how her unusual career began. She was dressed in a bright green city of Columbia t-shirt and matching skirt. She had a wonderful voice and laugh that made us feel at ease. Based on her accent, I was not surprised when she explained she had grown up and trained in New York City. She started her law enforcement career at nineteen and moved up the ranks to become an FBI agent. She went through courses and rigorous training and the inevitable moves to different locations. It was a challenge but through it all she felt that it was a great career choice. She would recommend it to other young men and women. It helped to have mentors along the way that believed in her and now she can do the same for others coming through the ranks.
Shannon filled us in on her journey to become the actor, educator, activist and director she is today. She has also been a featured Tedx presenter and let me say, that her talk is one worth checking out. Since daughter Zoe was by this time, helping Kara with the plastering process, the conversation morphed into the challenges of being a mother while juggling such rigorous and intense careers. Zoe dashed in and out throughout our discussion and offered suggestions to Kara who was lathering on the plaster. Zoe would fly by and touch the white goo, letting us know if it was drying properly.
Both women had been a single parent at some point and they discussed what helped get them stay focused and get through the tough times. We all agreed that friendships, especially those with other strong women were essential. Often it was the same best friend who stayed with them through the years and sometimes it was someone in the right place at the right time. Different friends bring particular skills to a situation and the person you call may be great for some issues and not others. You can call on that one particular friend that can bring the best support and and judgment into a situation. At times it was a true sister, or an older mentor that could serve as the “wise mother” character. Or it may be a colleague in the same office or university. Most often however they called on those lifelong enduring friends who knew and grew with them throughout their life changes.
We switched subjects and I asked if they had accomplished had what they set out to do when they first started their careers. Both Denise and Shannon expressed an ongoing love for their work and felt they had achieved their goals. They both see the future with even more opportunities and adventures to come. I wondered how they felt about living in Columbia after being in other larger or more exciting cities. They both feel very happy here and feel that Columbia is a perfect place to live at this stage of their lives.
As a last reflection, Denise mentioned that she had lost her mother when she was very young and she was determined to always be a strong involved mother for her older children. I asked her how she managed to combine the role of being a mom and and FBI agent. I imagined that an FBI agent would have to be uptight, rigid and somewhat secretive. Not exactly what most people might imagine as a mother’s demeanor. She laughed at that and it was clear after meeting her that she was very relaxed and full of fun. She felt that being an FBI agent had offered her an interesting and satisfying career. Shannon felt the same way and that acting, teaching and being an acting coach was exactly the work she aspired to do as a young student. Columbia continues to offer her many opportunities to do exactly what she wants to do.
The plaster was finally setting up as the sun was fading behind the buildings. We were shivering from the chilly evening wind and reflected on our conversation. We thought about how many other people here in Columbia that we pass every day and never get to know. What might we have in common with so many interesting people, and what might we have to offer to others getting started in our community. The plaster was removed, the form of the clasped hands was revealed and the moment was preserved in a delicate sculpture of two hands clasped together in a lovely work of art. Cell phone photos were taken, goodbyes were said, and suddenly our time was over.
Jane F. Zenger- Moderator and Writer