The Storyteller and the Artist
A Tale of Friendship and Tomato Sandwiches
By Marie Sutton
Illustrations by Lucy Madden-Lunsford
Never underestimate the power of a tomato sandwich. For the late, famed Southern storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham and renowned Alabama folk artist Charlie Lucas, that was the meal that set in motion a years-long treasured friendship, one that is a shining example of love, acceptance, and kindness.
The tale of the duo’s famed tomato tryst—as well as anecdotes of them hunting for stories, metal scraps, and Christmas trees; fishing along sandy riverbanks; and performing hair-comb kazoo concerts—will be told to children of all ages for decades to come thanks to Kerry Madden, M.F.A, UAB assistant professor of creative writing.
Madden, a lauded storyteller herself, took on the charge of writing about Windham and Lucas’s friendship, collaborating with her artist daughter Lucy Madden-Lunsford to create the children’s tale.
“They knew how to see the world together with love and curiosity and with eyes wide open,” Madden says of the two. “They explored back roads and city streets together like kids in a world full of possibility of discovery without the anvil of adult expectation and duty.”
(From Nothing Fancy)
Windham, who died last year at 93, was a world-famous writer and master storyteller who penned nearly 30 books about everything from grits to ghosts. She captivated audiences with her colorful stories of life as a Southerner; many aired weekly on National Public Radio.
“When you listened to her stories, you felt like a kid again,” Madden says. “She made you remember what it was like to be a wide-eyed child listening to a story. She made you feel loved.”
Off the Beaten Path
Lucas, a former maintenance man, prayed to God to give him a talent like no one else’s. Those prayers were answered. He spends his days searching the earth for old, discarded junk like busted car mufflers, railroad spikes, and metal scraps and then fashions them into magnificent statues and works of art that are sought by art lovers around the world.
Although Windham and Lucas could have lived in big, fancy houses and gone about town touting their accomplishments, they chose to live humbly in a quiet Selma neighborhood in homes that sit side by side. At first glance, the two appeared mismatched: a petite white woman more than 30 years the senior of a tall, lanky black man. But their endearing simplicity and love for art and all things Southern made them twin souls.
“For so many reasons, it’s an honor to be publishing Nothing Fancy,” says Ashley Gordon, the founder of Mockingbird Publishing in Fairhope, Alabama. “Kerry and Lucy have captured beautifully the magic Kathryn engendered and the remarkable friendship she and Charlie enjoyed.”
This spring, through a creative grant from the UAB College of Arts and Sciences, Madden and her daughter will set out on a book tour of rural and urban libraries across the South. “Kathryn and Charlie always veered off the beaten path to find interesting stories,” Madden says. “I wanted the tour to reflect that sense of adventure, to discover places where kids might not get to meet an artist or author every day.”
Plus, Windham loved libraries, Madden says. The tour is a tribute to her. “She knew the library was the greatest place in Selma for children to go and learn to read and write and tell stories,” Madden says. In fact, all the proceeds from the book sales will go to the Selma-Dallas County Public Library, Windham’s favorite place.
“Kerry and Lucy will use the book as a foundation for writing and art workshops for children to be held in libraries around the state,” Gordon says. “I hope readers will recognize the importance of libraries, books, authors, and artists in our communities and the transformative power they represent.”
Madden had not planned to write a book about Windham and Lucas. It kind of just happened, she says. After assigning her children’s writing workshop students the task of writing a ‘friendship’ story, she decided to write a friendship story, too.
“I remembered how Charlie had made Kathryn a tomato sandwich, and I thought of the day I’d spent with them the previous spring, and I just started writing,” she says.As the story goes, Windham and Lucas, although both Alabama residents and seemingly cut from the same Southern cloth, had spent years on the cultural scene but had never met. It was in France, of all places, that the two crossed paths.
They sat among artists and admirers at a fancy dinner when Windham mused that she would love to have a tomato sandwich. Lucas’s ears perked up. He’s a tomato sandwich kind of guy, too. He quickly got his hands on some tomatoes and bread, and together the two savored the sandwiches while also satisfying their appetites for down-home companionship.
Charlie told Kathryn about collecting junk. Kathryn told Charlie about catching stories. Then they were quiet, gazing at the plum sky of sparkling stars over France.
The Storyteller’s Story
Writing their story wasn’t easy. “I’ve written more than 100 versions of the story,” Madden says. She even gave a copy of an early draft to Windham for review. Slowly, the tale came together. Lucas offered Madden moral support and assured her that she would do their story justice. “You’re going to do it, girl,” he told her. “You will.”
Madden’s own interest in writing surfaced in fourth grade when the teacher told her she was good at it. “Before that, I was simply the ‘nice, tall girl who listens well’ or the daughter who could ‘scrub a floor like nobody’s business.’
“I was relieved when a teacher told me I was good at something that I cared about,” Madden says. “I loved books more than a clean kitchen.”
Today, she is the author of several children’s books, including the Maggie Valley Trilogy. She also penned Up Close with Harper Lee, which made Booklist’s “Ten Biographies of 2009 for Youth.”
Madden teaches aspiring writers at UAB and often shares the lessons she learned from Windham and Lucas with them. But even with her own literary accomplishments, she was initially nervous about meeting a literary legend, she says.
But Madden’s fears were unfounded. When she went to Windham’s home, she was welcomed like an old friend. “I’ve been expecting you,” Windham told her, and she had the cornbread and sweet tea ready. “I felt like I had known her all my life,” Madden says. Later she introduced Madden to Lucas. “Their backyards were connected, and Lucas’s Trojan horse sculpture kissed Windham’s garden of tomatoes and sunflowers.
“Charlie is pure love,” Madden continues. “He has a giant heart, and he loved Kathryn.” When Windham passed away last June, Madden said her heart broke a little. “I’m never going to stop missing her or her voice and laughter,” she says. “She swept us all up in her tales and love. I wrote Nothing Fancy to thank her for her stories.”