Seeing extraordinary in the ordinary

Raleigh teen wins contest with essay starring a chair

schandler@newsobserver.comOctober 21, 2012 

When Isabelle Blank looks at an antique object, what she sees isn’t limited to its monetary value or even just its aesthetics. She sees a story – experiences and feelings passed down from all the people who owned that item before to the person beholding it today.

That vision – plus a lifetime around antiques and a love for writing – came together in the story that won Isabelle, 15, the top prize for her age group in “The Biography of an Object” writing contest.

Sponsored by several antiques firms and publications, the contest asked entrants to pick an antique object and write a story about its life. Isabelle chose to write about a Chippendale chair, giving the simple object a remarkable life story.

In her story, Isabelle creates a young girl who learns that her grandfather has a secret in the midst of the Civil War. She discovers decades later, when recovering her grandfather’s well-worn desk chair, papers that reveal her grandfather had made his home a stop on the Underground Railroad.

From a suggestion list that included such tantalizing antiques as a mummified bird, a vampire-slaying kit, and a doll carved out of a wooden bedpost, Isabelle chose an ordinary chair precisely because it’s ordinary.

“Everybody has a chair in their house,” said Isabelle, a sophomore at Cary Academy, “and I thought it would be cool to create an extraordinary history for such an ordinary object.”

“I think that part of the power of antiques is their history and that they’re relatable and usable,” she continued, “and I thought that the chair was a perfect manifestation of that.”

Even though her story is a work of fiction, Isabelle wanted to make sure she got the details right, so she researched actual houses in Philadelphia that were part of the Underground Railroad and read up in one of her parents’ many books about antiques to learn all about Chippendale chairs.

She admits that as a young child she didn’t share her parents’ passion for antiques, but as she got older and wiser, she started to understand all their trips to shops and sales.

“I’ve grown to be interested in antiques because I think that antiques silently tell a story,” she said. “When I go to those shows, it’s really cool to look at all of these objects and think that many people have owned these objects beforehand, and each of those people have lives and stories and varying personalities, and these people are a part of these objects.”

Her favorite piece of antique furniture in her own house is a bow-front chest that she calls “a treasure that holds treasure” in the form of her own family’s belongings, but her most cherished items are pieces of antique jewelry, especially a Victorian seed-pearl and garnet ring her parents gave her.

“That’s my favorite because I get to wear it, I wear it almost all the time, so I think that it’s cool my story is being added to it, my experiences,” she said.

A big part of Isabelle’s story is competitive figure skating. She says she skates “for 20 percent,” explaining that 80 percent of skating is hard work that sometimes “messes with your head and your confidence,” but the other 20 percent is all about “the purity of the movement.”

In times that fall in that 20 percent, she said, “I’m not thinking about writing or school or even memories, I’m just focusing on what my body is doing. When I’m in those sort of moments, I feel so powerful and able, it’s just a really great feeling that I get from skating, so it’s worth all the hours.”

She spends many other hours writing.

“Ever since I was little I’ve loved to write,” said Isabelle, who lives in Raleigh. “I love that writing can convey such truth about human nature and about causes behind actions of people.”

One truth about human nature is that some people – especially young people – dismiss items from the past as old-fashioned junk. But Isabelle knows that history and its artifacts have something important to tell us, including lessons that can be useful in modern times.

“People who disregard history or antiques as useless and out-of-date or boring, they’re missing the point of the past,” she said.

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