by Joshua Ong
Apollo’s massive arm encircles Daphne’s throat. The man’s veins and muscles bulge from constraint. Daphne is held tightly to Apollo’s chest, her legs falling limply between his. Both are naked. Daphne’s head is the branches of a tree, her feet setting roots, evading Apollo’s grasp. A Greek god and a nymph of ancient mythology. A statue, The Embrace of the Tree, frames the garden courtyard of Bonniebrook, Rose O’Neill’s reconstructed Ozarks home.
O’Neill’s unlikely homestead, just north of Branson, Missouri, is nestled in a valley off Highway 65. It had rained hard the night before I arrived. The smell of damp cedar wood filled the air. In the damp, the vibrancy of the forest colors came to life. Leaves golden and brown overspread the grounds. The place is named for the creek, O’Neill’s “bonnie brook” which flows southward through the grounds.
Before me was the museum in which O’Neill’s art is displayed. Beyond is her home, a towering Victorian-style mansion of 14 rooms. The house is filled with original wood furnishings. The middle floor is living quarters. The top floor the artist’s studio. High above the forest, windows encompass three-fourths of the room. Sunlight beams in from all directions. Concept drawings of a “kewpie” doll are arranged on O’Neill’s desk. There is a balcony with a view of the creek from which I can see a couple walking the trail to the murmuring water. Out front of the house is the courtyard where Apollo and Daphne reign, keeping company with an enigmatic and faceless faun. Past the open garden court are trails winding into the woods, leading — eventually — to O’Neill’s burial place. (continued below)
Quick steps and fast feet! The dancers leap back and forth, accosting the floor in sync. It is as though they could be creating a speckled painting with their toes. Irish dance troupe Eitilt is at Bonniebrook to display their talent — a reunion of culture!
Dressed in black and white with green sashes, these local children and teens dance. The sharp notes of the violin are seen in the quick, deliberate steps of the Irish dancers. In one piece, the dancers are airborne with a quick hop like swimmers. Feet flutter. On another set, long ribbons are stretched and woven like the hands of a quilter moving in-and-out, up-and-down, to the rhythm of the music. Possibly not since O’Neill herself walked the grounds has Bonniebrook seen such culture brought to life. Behind the dancers, a giant, paper machè Kewpie stares serenely.
The museum is filled with O’Neill’s work: an array of diverse art. Dark charcoal drawings of demons and devils next to innocent Kewpie dolls fill the rooms. O’Neill was the first woman to have her comic art published. The most well-known piece she created? The Kewpie doll. Resembling a small baby with big blue eyes, the Kewpie seemingly combines impishness with innocence.
O’Neill came from Irish heritage. She moved often in her early years, spending time in Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Missouri. She came to the Ozarks in the 1890s. Young and devastatingly beautiful, O’Neill’s art had already gained her riches and notoriety in New York City. Her illustration money paid for the mansion. Her nomadic and wild spirit compelled her to host a bevy of often-penniless artists. That same wild spirit would lead her to Paris to study under master sculptor Auguste Rodin as an associate of the Société des Beaux Arts.
Sitting in O’Neill’s studio on the top floor of the house, I took a moment to consider. The sun, refracting off the autumn leaves and the walls, filled the room. A light, joyous glow. Hills on either side, covered with bare, ominous trees, loomed over the house. With winter just around the corner, such leaves will soon lose their color. Reflecting. Onrushing winter in Branson leaves the tourist town empty, colorless. As the tourists leave, so do the jobs, the work hours, the money. Cold winter in a seasonal tourist town can be a hopeless place.
Somehow, presciently, O’Neill showed it all in her art, illustrating the fight, both internal and external. We can relate today. This visionary artist’s struggles left a great legacy of hope and inspiration if we will only listen and look and reflect.
Outside, another golden leaf slowly spiraled to the ground.