'I have a wall of books in my office that is 90 percent fairy tales from around the world," says professional storyteller Harlynne Geisler. Geisler has divided her books into subcategories: "Hispanic, African, African-American, Spooky, Celtic, East Indian, Animals.. . " On Saturday, July 1, Geisler will demonstrate her storytelling prowess at the Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park. This will be the second of five planned storytelling events at the museum, each story inspired by a different painting in the museum's collection. The paintings that have been selected are Cho-looke, the Yosemite Fall, by Albert Bierstadt; Mrs. Thomas Gage, by John Singleton Copley; The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket, by Eastman Johnson; The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Guercino; and Blindman's Buff, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
Geisler's first gig as a storyteller was for a women's business association for which she told the story of Molly Whuppie, an old English tale. "It's the female version of 'Jack and the Beanstalk,' the differences being [Molly] steals a sword, a bag of gold, and a ring, and escapes on a single strand of hair placed across a chasm instead of [climbing down a beanstalk]." Geisler enjoys finding stories to which she can relate.
"This is the story of my life: A girl is lost in the forest, pursued by giants, doesn't know what's going on. First she steals a sword, which represents personal power, then a bag of gold, which is success -- however you define it -- before she can have the ring, which is love."
For Cho-looke, the Yosemite Fall, painted in 1864, Geisler spoke of Bierstadt's life ("how he made Yosemite famous through his paintings") and El Capitan, a 3300-foot-tall chunk of granite that is an attraction for rock climbers. After describing the setting, Geisler shared a legend from the native Miwok people, who believed the huge rock grew from a small boulder.
"The Legend of the Tul-tok'-a-na" begins, "There were once two little boys living in the Valley of Ah-wah-nee who went down to the river to swim." The boys fell asleep while lying on a boulder to dry off in the sun. As they slept, the boulder grew, until the boys "scraped their faces against the moon," though this did not wake them. Many animals tried unsuccessfully to help them down, but none could jump high enough. Finally, the tul-tok'-a-na, an "insignificant measuring worm, despised by all the other creatures, began to creep up the face of the rock." The measuring worm eventually makes its way to the top and brings the boys down from the rock.
Mrs. Thomas Gage is the subject of Geisler's July 1 presentation. Geisler researched John Singleton Copley, who lived from 1738 to 1815, and his real-life subject, Margaret Kemble Gage. American-born Margaret Kemble married British-officer-turned-General Thomas Gage. "She's a New Jersey girl; she's an American. These are her people who are going to be murdered in the street. Is she going to be loyal to her husband or to her country?" Geisler's research reveals, "There is a very strong suspicion that [Mrs. Gage] passed military information she got from her husband to the American forces. I'm going to say, 'Do you think all spies look like James Bond? Look at this picture -- would you even begin to guess that she was a spy?'"
For The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket in August, Geisler will compare wooly mammoths with cranberries to tell "a fruitful story." For The Return of the Prodigal Son in October, children will learn how a boy's overspending leads him to have to eat pigs' food. In November, for Blindman's Buff, the story will be about "rich peoples' games 300 years ago."
During the pilot program at the Timken last summer, Geisler told a story inspired by Portrait of a Lady by Nicolaes Maes. The painting is of a young woman (thought to be Mary Stuart before she married William III, with whom she ruled England) and features a King Charles spaniel. Geisler began her presentation by telling dog-related riddles. She then told a British fable about a man who, with the help of a dog's ghost, regains his family's lost fortune.
After the story she sent the children on a scavenger hunt to count every image of a dog that they could find in the museum. Finally, she taught the group how to make an origami dog. Each child was able to take his or her paper dog home, the prize they received for counting...though not one of them had come up with the correct number. -- Barbarella
Storytelling with Harlynne Geisler
Saturday, July 1
11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Timken Museum of Art
1500 El Prado
Info: 619-239-5548 or www.timkenmuseum.org