An artist, an activist – for Puerto Rico

Savannah Morning News

Oct. 15, 2017

There are certain people in this world you would never want to count out, never want to bet against. They will always surprise you. They will persist. Life has not been particularly easy for Sandy Branam these past few years. You wouldn’t know it by looking at her. She’s still playful, impish, good-natured. She’s still game enough to show up at the plant swap looking for the next gem to add to her burgeoning collection on what has to be the best-named street in Savannah: Fennel. She’s still looking for the next tableau to paint, the next personality to draw. And at four-feet-11-inches, she’s still short (“and shrinking,” she adds).

Her focus is still strong. Once, a few years ago when she and her husband Harold – “a poet and a scholar” – went on a vacation with their son and his family, she wandered off to find something to draw. A tree. She spent hours on that one tree. By that time her family was worried about her. They contacted a park ranger who finally found her.

That was in Puerto Rico. The vacation was pivotal. Sandy never forgot the beauty of the place, the complexity of the tree (and the shoreline), the kindness of the people, the simple dwelling she and her family rented, the hardscrabble nature of life on the island. They’re a patient people, she said of Puerto Ricans.

When Hurricane Irma devastated the island she knew it was time to do something. A few weeks ago she decided to appeal to her legion of artist friends to donate art that will be for sale one day only. “We want to raise money for the infrastructure, not for things that go in boxes,” she said.

To get some advice for the fundraiser, Sandy called her daughter-in-law, Cathy (Slemp Branam), a public health physician in West Virginia, for advice. Her husband, Christopher – Sandy and Harold’s son – is a family medicine physician.

“Cathy works with all kinds of humanitarian organizations all over the world,” Sandy said. “I knew she could tell me the top ones and that I could trust her.”

They landed on UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Which is why Sandy decided Asbury United Methodist Church would be the perfect venue for the fundraiser, “even though we’re Quakers,” she said. “But people know Asbury and they know (Rev.) Billy Hester, whose always been generous with his time. The church has a big hall that will be perfect for an art show.”

The concept is simple. Artists will donate a piece of art – “even by children,” Sandy said. “Kids need to know they can be part of something and make a difference.” All the money will go to UMCOR.

Sandy and Harold moved to Savannah 25 years ago. Harold taught English at Savannah State University. As a Montessori teacher trained in Pennsylvania, Sandy started teaching at Charles Ellis elementary school and then at the Senior Center. She started exploring sculpture with John Jensen at Armstrong State University and took her whimsical drawing style to illustrate a few children’s books. After sitting up front at the First Friday for Folk Music concerts to sketch the musicians she would reproduce the drawings to raise money for the Folk Music Society.


Art has been a big part of Sandy’s life – until a few years ago. That’s when she started to have some balance problems and difficulty finding the right words. That’s when she stopped teaching. Not long after she had a seizure. When she got out of the hospital she was a little rattled, a little shaky. She stopped drawing for almost two years. But that would not last for long. A year ago, after Hurricane Matthew, Sandy turned a corner. “I just decided this has got to stop. I can’t deal with not drawing. I have to paint again.”

And so she did. At first she said her drawings were childlike. But she kept going.

“I knew I could do it. I just kept doing it, which is what I tell my students. Just do it.” Now her friend Katherine Tanner will call (Sandy doesn’t drive anymore) and say, “You want to go draw?” and the two of them will find a spot along the river or in a park and draw what they see.

She refers to her setback as “the incident” as in “before the incident” and “after the incident.” But she doesn’t dwell on it.

On Dec. 16 – the day Sandy turns 80 years old – she will be at Asbury Memorial collecting pieces of art, overseeing the fundraiser (1 to 4 p.m.) and probably pulling out her sketchbook to catch a moment, an expression, an articulation because that’s who she is. An artist. An activist.





Toss the junk, live like a turtle

Savannah Morning News

Oct. 8, 2017


If Matthew helped start the process, Irma sealed the deal.

We have too much stuff. Every one of us. It’s spilling out of drawers, jammed into closets, wedged into boxes, sandwiched into old suitcases, lodged under our beds, frozen beyond recognition in our freezer.

Even our parents – god bless them, the repository of our life’s detritus – can only put up with so much. A few decades ago when my mother was moving from one apartment to another she put her foot down. I would have to take charge of my own life. I would have to move my boxes, she wrote me (wrote – as in handwriting, envelopes, letters, stamps): papers from elementary school (cut out maps of Alaska and its main industries), notebooks from college (microbiology, history of art, historical interpretation of the Bible), letters on thin blue paper from Europe when I was a summer exchange student. I protested. I didn’t believe her. What are mothers for? What are basements for? (This is an “up north” activity: basements as the original storage units).  Then one day they all arrived at my house in Savannah. My boxes. She was serious.

That was then. This is now.  Irma was a powerhouse, a pending disruption. A sizable hurricane. This was serious. Even though I live inland, I live high, I live far away from a possible surge. Even though it was way too late to worry about falling limbs, weak trees, vulnerable cars with no protective garages.

The call came to me from a friend. I was on a train somewhere in the middle of nowhere, drifting off, spacing out, taking a nap.

“What do you want me to take?” she asked, preparing to evacuate. To my way of thinking I had everything I needed on my person: phone, computer, favorite clothes, checkbook, credit card. I was a turtle. I was self-sufficient.

“My passport,” I said first thing, revealing its secret hiding place in the house. Passports are precious these days and not all that easy to renew. After that came my grandfather’s ginormous Masonic ring. I can still see it on his hands and after “misplacing” it for years I didn’t want to lose it again. Then I thought of my mother’s handwritten notebook that listed all the books she read between 1928 and 1931.  How could I ever replace that? But then I was stuck. I couldn’t think of what else I had to save.

It reminded me of the time I moved to Pittsburgh for three years. To rent out my house I emptied the closets, the pantry, the dressers and my desk, looking for things that didn’t make the cut. Jeans (old, new, flared, straight-legged), long-sleeved black shirts (stained, tight, scoop-necked, three-quarter length), t-shirts (where to start?). I bit the bullet, made the decisions, packed them up in extra suitcases and stored them in my attic. The knickknacks, doodads, trinkets went next – into a box I labeled “precious things.”

It took a couple of years after I returned to town to even think about these boxes and suitcases and precious things. It was only when I had to go into the attic to deal with a critter who was making his home up there did I pull down the cord, climb up the retractable stairs, see my stuff and lug it all downstairs.

(And this from someone who bragged I never rented space in a storage unit). Wrong.

When I finally opened the suitcases to see what I couldn’t bear to throw away I was unmoved, unimpressed, dry-eyed. Fact: I didn’t miss anything – not the tchotchkes, the gifts, the t-shirts. Nothing.

Why is it so hard to get rid of stuff? Clothes that don’t fit, coats we’ll never wear, scarves by the dozens, bowls we have in triplicate, unmatched socks, broken lamps, scratched sunglasses, chairs waiting to be repaired.

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Alexander Pope said that in 1732. Was he talking about losing weight and fitting into certain clothes? Locating the missing sock? Finding the time to fix a chair? Gathering the courage to throw away a lamp with nostalgia value?

While some of us struggle with our junk, others – the entrepreneurs – know what to do, know how to seize an opportunity. They buy up land, cut down trees, put up boxy warehouses and rent out space to hoarders, deniers, quasi collectors. The last time I did a Google search I found 22 such opportunities in our county, from 24 Hour Storage to Stop N Stor and Life Storage. Uh-huh, that’s what they want – for us to store out stuff for life. Kaching, kaching.

Too many tchotchkes. Too much stuff. Time to edit.