A Legacy of Lifelong Passion: Molly Kaplan and Her Minstrels

This month, I am celebrating artists who have actively designed a creative legacy, how they have shaped my creative experience in the here-and-now, and how their creative legacy continues to inspire others.

As discussed in the previous post Designing a Legacy,

Legacy, which gives honor to the past and is founded in the present, is also an investment in the future — the future of your heart, the future wellbeing of the people around you, and the future wellbeing of people you will never meet.

I was first introduced to artist Molly Kaplan’s legacy through life coach Bonnie Cohen.  Bonnie recounts her bubbe Molly Kaplan’s life story on the Molly’s Minstrels website (first published on the Clarion Content):

Molly Kaplan had lived a long life in an unhappy marriage. That story, in and of itself, is a remarkable tale of a naive eighteen year-old Jewish girl in Chicago as sheltered as if straight from the Shtetl, who met and married the man with a fancy car who always brought fruit to her family. Only to later discover, she had married Al Capone’s bagman, when he threatened to kill her one night, gun to her head, for simply asking where he had been. She never asked again.

Molly silently retreated into her art, turned inward from the suppression and rage of her husband. The classic outsider artist, she made art out of the found objects in her everyday life, covering whiskey bottles and lamps in hundreds and hundreds of tiny, fragile seashells. Finding beauty in the daily, rendering the ordinary extraordinary.

Whiskey Bottle Gone Wild

When my grandfather passed, Molly was in her seventies, and they were living in a retirement community in California. At the funeral, she danced as she never had before, she let her braids out in public for the first time in many years. I saw this joy in my Grandmother and thought about the unconditional love of my teen years. We spontaneously leaped into the moment and decided that she move to Durham, North Carolina.

She landed in Northgate Park, in a little house on Shenandoah. Free of her millstone, in Durham her art leapt to the forefront. She was in her eighties and on a creative roll as never before experienced. She bought her own home at eighty and paid it off by ninety. Her neighbors nurtured and watched over her. Her community embraced her, helping her with her shopping, mowing her lawn, and thrilling in her art.

Molly created with the passion of lifetime. Her media were limitless. With my encouragement she started a new project, a series of handmade dolls. But not just any dolls, spirit guardians, later named Molly’s Minstrels. They were made from the torn scraps of a lifetime, a lifetime of dresses, quilts, blankets, dishclothes which she started deconstructing and reconstituting. This one from a wedding she attended, that one from a graduation, another from the workaday kitchen stock, torn and rewound, mixed with pins, buttons, and jewels.

A sampling of the multitude of Molly Kaplan’s “Spirit Guardians”

These handmade one of kind creatures were popular with Molly’s friends and neighbors and now live on in homes all over Durham and the rest of the country. I bought myself a collection, all the while telling Molly that I was selling them to a store in New York City. Ah, beautiful little lies.

Imbued with life by touch, intimate connection, and love, Molly’s Minstrels have secret messages tucked deep inside their fabrics by their creator, a metaphor for the messages that each of us have tucked in our own hearts by life and loved ones. Towards the end, Molly used to say to visitors and friends that she might be blind as a bat, but she had an eyeball in every fingertip. And indeed, she did, along with drive, passion and desire in heaping measures. She created right until the end. She passed in my arms. She held me in her arms on the way in and I held her in my arms on the way out. The never ending circle of life continued.

There is a Hebrew expression  L’dor Vador, which means “from generation to generation.” I was given a rich inheritance and legacy from my grandmother. At this time in my life, I choose to creatively and lovingly share her story and artwork with the world.

Heartfelt messages, earnest meditations, thoughtful advice all embedded with Molly’s spirit, given to live on within each of us.

Bubbe’s lifelong legacy of creative passion and love was passed onto Bonnie, which she has in turn passed on to me.  As my friend, collaborator, and confidante, Bonnie has cared for me when I was sick, invited me to take brief reposes in her cozy home, and asked me poignant questions that pushed my thinking and writing to new levels of clarity.

Whose artistic legacy did you inherit?  Email me his/her story if you are interested in having me write a blog post or recount your fondest memories in the comments below.

Click here to receive the weekly Molly’s Minstrels email newsletter as a gift to go with your Saturday morning coffee.

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