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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Another great story! Mason was a student while I was the school nurse for the district – a very polite, caring young man. And, of course, Stephanie is an outstanding artist. Thanks, Elaine, for continually documenting the stories of the people of our county.
Thank you, Carolyn. I’m so glad you remember Mason. That will mean a great deal to Stephanie. You’re right about Stephanie’s talent. The first time I saw Tillie and Mason I could hardly believe my eyes.
What a tragic yet heartwarming story.
So glad you enjoyed Stephanie’s story. We can all learn from each other in so many different ways.
God bless you, Elaine, for saving precious stories like this lovely tribute, that would otherwise never be known by most of us, and lost in the mists of elusive time…
I appreciate your feedback and encouragement, Linda. So many fine stories like Stephanie’s were popping up in my life that I decided to tell them in blog posts.
I can’t wait to share this with Granddaughter Samantha! Talents and motivation are so, so important for all of us! This is amazing! Thanks Elaine!
Thank you, Carol! You and Samantha need to take a field trip later this year to meet Stephanie. Her enthusiasm, dignity and spirit are amazing.
Thanks for sharing this piece about Stephanie and her art. Steph is so creative and talented.
Yes, Stephanie is truly gifted. She’s also a wonderful human being and I don’t think I am biased!
This is the kind of story I so enjoy and how you tell it is a gift.
Thank you so much, Linda. As I began prodding Stephanie with questions, the story told itself.
What a heartbreaking, but tender story. Your talent for bringing real life to your stories shines.
Thanks, Denise. I know you can relate. I hope you meet Stephanie.
Thank you for sharing Stephanie’s story. God helped her work through the grief and brought beauty from the tragedy using her gift of art and her good memories. The Tillie and Mason sculpture honors her son and grandmother and brings joy to many others as well. I connected with Stephanie’s story on another level, too. A couple of years ago I enjoyed making concrete leaf sculptures for Christmas gifts.
Yes, Deb, you are so right. Stephanie’s faith helped her through the pain she has faced.How fun that you have worked in concrete. Take a look at Stephanie’s website. She was created some beautiful art. I love that Mother Nature is her inspiration.
Literally heart-warming. Considering the situation, not only in USA, but the entire world, at this moment, a little warming of our hearts and souls is vital. You are sharing your gift with all who will listen/read. Most of us now have time to pause and reflect. You’ve given your gift to all who will just pause and read and they will ‘feel’ & their hearts will be lightened.
Thank you for your comments, Jeanie. They mean a great deal to me. When I started this blog on top of my other writing commitments, I decided that if it was something I should be doing, I would find a way.
An emotional post. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you, Anne. I appreciate your heartfelt words.
What a beautiful story!
Thanks, Bev. Coming from you that is a great compliment.
What a thought provoking Story. Amazing
Thank you, Myron. Stephanie will appreciate your feedback and I do, too.
it has been an amazing journey…. very spiritual
Thank you for sharing it with us, Stephanie.
Such a touching story Elaine. You write with such grace and eloquence that I truly felt this mother’s pain.
It also brought back fond memories of being in the garden with my grandmother. She taught me so much. I planted a garden again this spring and added marigolds like she used to have. Gardening is very therapeutic for me, as I’m sure it was for Mason and still is for his mother.
Thank you, Leera. I remember your grandmother, your namesake, fondly. She was a delight: so quiet, so gentle, so warm and loving. It would thrill her to no end to know that the time you spent with her still is meaningful to you. I love the smell of marigolds. My mother grew them, too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Enjoyed reading this story & hoping you do many more! Always enjoy your writings!
Thanks, Cathleen. I sincerely appreciate your encouragement.I’ll keep writing if wonderful readers like you keep reading!
What a beautifully written story. It really warms my heart to know she finds solace in her talent. Elaine, I’m so glad Rick and I got to meet you and your husband. You’re a fabulous story teller.
Thanks so much for your atta-girl! I really appreciate it. Emil and I think it’s so neat how we met. If you hadn’t shouted, “Turn here, turn here.” we would never have been friends! So excited about your new home and Rick’s shop. You two deserve the best!
Hi Elaine, thank you so much for sharing this incredible story. I studied the art photo so deeply detailed I can’t imagine what it is like to really “see” it. Along with the detail comes the beauty of a heartwarming story and use of God-given talents to deal with grief and pain while honoring her son and grandmothers. Gardens were definitely part of my life as it seems my Mom always planted at least an acre and we preserved every bit of it. Memories. I, too, plan to share with my family. Thank you for sharing your talent, as well. I look forward to future posts.
Thank you for writing, Irene. In my mind’s eye, I see you as a little girl darting around the garden as her mother picked vegetables to can and later, when electricity became available, to freeze. I think our memories will help sustain us through this dreadful period of world history. We know our ancestors faced grave dangers, too. They survived and with God’s grace, we will, too.