as told to Eric Metcalf
I’ve spent my life in Chattanooga, a beautiful city that’s located in a bend of the Tennessee River and provides a beautiful riverfront walkway. Chattanooga has a deep appreciation for the arts, and our Hunter Museum of American Art is located on a bluff overlooking the river.
Every year, the museum hosts a fund-raising gala and auction, which I’ve attended for many years. This particular year, sometime in the 1970s, a local man who was active with the museum had donated a piece for the auction. I don’t remember exactly what made me raise my hand to bid on the little ink-and-watercolor picture. I knew it was by an American artist … and that I liked the boat and river he had drawn. I’ve always found water to be therapeutic, and I’ve gone on riverboat excursions before. I think the people who operate those boats have the most interesting stories to tell, much like the river itself. The sepia tone coupled with the seemingly excellent technique appealed to me.
Once the auctioneer opened the bidding, a woman with an art collection—and plenty of money—started bidding on it. I waited, never thinking that I stood a chance at winning. I raised the bid one time, to $500, after she stopped bidding, and in that moment, I unknowingly became an owner of a piece of fine art.
At the time, I was a stay-at-home mother, and my husband was early in his career as an orthopedic surgeon. We had always been careful with our spending and, although I had saved some money, $500 was a lot to spend on artwork. I hung it in the breakfast room so I could glance at it often. As the kids grew older, we’d often have what seemed like 90 kids and their mothers over to eat. Every time I went back and forth to the kitchen, that boat would still be paddling its way along the river.
Many years later, in the summer of 2008, Antiques Roadshow visited Chattanooga. This was a big deal for our little city. On this PBS show, people bring in their collectibles and antiques, and experts give the owners an appraisal on how much the items are worth. My daughter, Johanna, had some friends who couldn’t go, so they gave her their tickets, and she suggested that we go. We gathered up some items that seemed like they’d be worth something: a Tiffany vase and two big solid silver spoons that were passed down from my mother’s side of the family in Alabama. Carpetbaggers had burned their place down, but somehow these spoons had escaped. I wasn’t even planning to bring the riverboat picture, but my daughter insisted, so I took it along too, almost as an afterthought.