On Meeting Gemma Taccogna, My Mr. Miyagi

Hi darling readers, I am taking a break from the creative alphabet today. I sat down to write “C is for…” but then this poured out instead. And you know what, I am glad it did.

If you’ve ever talked to me for more than 5 minutes, chances are I’ve talked to you about Gemma Taccogna. But just in case I didn’t, or if you’re always up for more of my many Gemma stories, I have a new one for you today.

A peek into my studio. As you can see, I have not kept up the lesson to keep the paint organized by color.

I met Gemma in the spring of 2002. I had been in Los Angeles for just about a year and I felt like an alien. I knew almost no one and the prospect of feeling as connected and loved as I had with all of my friends and family back east felt slim to none.

Then one fateful day I met Gemma. I was 25, Gemma was 79. Her dear daughter Gemi inspired the whole meeting. See, they were my neighbors. But I, in all of my focusing on being an alien in martian territory, failed to realize this. Gemi came over one day and introduced herself. After just a few minutes she proclaimed, “You have to meet my mother.”

My eyes tear up every time I think of this. Right now, they are tearing up. For me, it feels like my soul has been struck by some magic chord. It felt like it then and now, almost ten years from that day, it still feels that way.

That summer, I joined Gemma’s classes that she taught in her living-room-turned-studio, right next door to where I was living. I’d stay long after class, for hours on end, talking to Gemma. She would invariably put me to work, which I loved.

Another peek into my studio. Paint bottles everywhere...

One of my first jobs was organizing the paint by color. That is, remove the hundreds, dare I say thousands, of small paint bottles from their racks, and order them by shades of colors so that from a distance the bright whites led to the beiges to the yellows to the oranges to the reds… you get it.

This took not just hours, but days. Was there a moment when I wondered what was this woman trying to teach me? YES! And I didn’t figure it out until years later. Part of it was commitment. Was she testing me out to see how committed I was? Part of it was she could use the help. Part of it was she enjoyed having me around and the job kept me there. The truth is, I so enjoyed being there I often did the dishes and scrubbed the counters and replaced the paper on the table just to stay longer and longer.

Eventually these charades were no longer necessary and Gemma proclaimed I was part of the ‘famiglia’ – a phrase I will forever treasure. Perhaps my biggest theory is that she was preparing me for some future I could not even imagine yet. It occurred to me recently I was not organizing the paint by color. I was “waxing on and waxing off.” I was Daniel-son and Gemma was my Mr. Miyagi. That whole summer and for the next five years – until her passing in 2007 – I studied with Gemma and had the honor and joy of calling her my darling, dear friend. A legendary creator took me under wing and now I could swear I have wings.

I would love for you to meet Gemma, too. If you have not seen this mini documentary by her granddaughter Evie Elman, I would love you to check it out. You can also check out this bio of Gemma that I wrote. It originally appeared as Gemma’s obituary – her family gave me the privelege of celebrating my dear friend’s life in this way.

PS – I am having so much fun with Pinterest right now, are you? Check out my Gemma Taccogna Board here.