Grandma Tillie tenderly passes on her passion for gardening to her young grandson in a plot across from the railroad tracks in Smithville, Texas. She wears an old-fashioned sunbonnet and a dress with a long skirt. An apron is tied around her waist. Mason is clad in a long-sleeved shirt, overalls and the straw hat his grandmother insists he wear to keep the sun off his face. He reaches up to gently touch her shoulder just as his dog, Luna, trots between them.
Although they appear so lifelike, Tillie and Mason are frozen in time, stunning concrete statues gracing a community garden.
The sculptures were created by passionate self-taught concrete artist Stephanie Shroyer of Fayette County, Texas. This garden art goes far beyond adding visual interest to a vegetable plot run by volunteers; the two figures reflect a mother’s profound grief over losing her only child.
On Oct. 24, 2015, Stephanie’s 26-year-old son, Mason Bednar, died following a Colorado Springs auto accident. Before his death, Mason had served eight years in the U.S. Army, surviving multiple tours to Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait. After completing his service earlier that year, Mason had began studying engineering while working as a mechanic. He was a good guy with many friends.
When he was a child, Mason would often help his mother in their La Grange, Texas, garden. However, Stephanie never stopped to consider if her son really enjoyed the work or if it made any impression on him at all. His first job, though, was cutting neighbors’ yards with a brand new lawnmower. That was a strong hint that he preferred spending as many summer days outdoors as he could manage.
Years later when Mason was serving in Kuwait, he sent his mom an unusual request. Could Stephanie please send him some soil and seeds? He wanted to plant a mini-garden outside his barracks.
According to his pals, it wasn’t much of a garden to begin with and, unfortunately, it never got a chance to flourish. Someone tore Mason’s fledgling plot apart shortly after it was planted, a thoughtless prank.
Stephanie’s love of gardening goes back to her childhood. It took root when she would help her Grandma Tillie (whose name is identified with the sculpture) and Grandma Emma at their homes in Illinois.
Now, Stephanie says her artwork often begins in the garden where she picks plant greenery, the bigger the specimen the better. After passing through her capable, creative hands, the leaves often end up in a customer’s garden to serve as birdbaths, fountains or yard art. www.cment2b.com
Following Mason’s death, Stephanie went back to her studio and started aimlessly making hollow people with no feet or hands. After a while, she realized this was a reflection of her grief and she found solace in it. In addition, this creative process built Stephanie’s skill in concrete art.
When Stephanie was encouraged to submit a proposal to Smithville’s “Arts Bridging Community” initiative, she eagerly accepted. This project was supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. (To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov.)
Tilley and Mason emerged in Stephanie’s hands as her interpretation of building community while creating art.
“I call the technique we used ‘concrete couture.’ We saturated clothing in a concrete solution and draped it over a pre-engineered armature (framework) I’d built,” Stephanie says.
“When word got around, more than 20 volunteers came to help me. Pearl, an old high school friend, drove from Houston every weekend and some of my art students like Renee got involved. It also was neat that complete strangers heard about the project and showed up to help. It took several hundred hours to complete Tillie and Mason. Talk about building community!”
Tillie and Mason were installed in their first Smithville Community Garden home https://www.facebook.com/TheSmithvilleCommunityGardens/ in November 2018 and later moved to their permanent location on Washington Street.
“Now this art form has developed into something a bit more joyful for me as I create planters that give pleasure to those who take them home,” Stephanie says.
While the grief never leaves, she finds it somewhat easier to bear after almost five years. Stephanie firmly believes that someday she will be reunited with Tillie and Mason, as well as other members of her family.
Until then, memories of those Stephanie loves are etched on her heart and on her art.
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