When St. Louis attorney recruiter Aaron Williams became interested in croquet 30 years ago, it was about partying, not poetry. Getting some friends together to play croquet in Forest Park was just “something to do.”
“It was an opportunity for everyone to wear white and bring a bottle of champagne,” Williams quipped.
But soon, croquet became a passion, then an obsession that grew to include collecting all manner of croquet-themed items. Now Williams hopes his assortment of 1,200 objects, including 275 framed pieces of art, can encourage middle-schoolers to put their feelings on paper.
Williams is selling the collection to expand his 7th Grade Poetry Foundation. The organization – also known as 7GP – offers students in St. Louis and around the country the chance to write their school’s winning poem, be published in an annual anthology and win $25.
In this, its fourth year, the foundation attracted 119 poems from 14 states. On Wednesday, the 83 St. Louis-area school winners will read their work before an audience at the Missouri History Museum in an event called “Poetry on Their Own Terms.”
When in France …
Back in 1985, Williams’ original small croquet group expanded to 30 people, who organized a tournament that drew 47 doubles teams to benefit Forest Park Forever. Williams took lessons to improve his game and played in tournaments around the country.
Then in 1990, he started a nationwide attorney-search firm, which left him little time to play the game. That’s when his interest turned to accumulating all things croquet. He ran into his first piece of art while browsing the former Circle Art Gallery in Clayton.
“I just happened to see a piece by New Yorker cartoonist Jan Balet, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to own this,’” Williams recalled.
That set Williams off on what he calls a “Holy Grail” trek. Vacations provided further opportunities for his quest. When in France, he learned how to ask vendors about croquet art in their language – sort of.
“They’d show me crocheted pieces, then they’d bring out croquet games,” Williams laughed. “So I knew I had to get this ‘depiction’ thing down.”
The advent of eBay accelerated his mission. He formed an uneasy alliance with a Wall Street trader who shared his passion so they wouldn’t bid against each other.
For many years, Williams displayed his framed works in his office, against a backdrop of custom-made Waverly croquet-themed wallpaper. But when mold was discovered there, he packed it all up and stuffed it into every available storage space in his downtown condo, where it awaits a buyer.
Williams estimates he’s spent about $50,000 in all. If he got an offer anywhere near that amount, he’d throw in shipping for free. He imagines a bar, restaurant or hotel decorated with not only his art but his hundreds of croquet-themed advertisements, Valentines and postcards and a St. Louis Croquet Club jacket.
Paul Oligschlaeger of St. Louis' Link Auction Galleries said he couldn't speculate about the value of Williams' particular collection. But in an email, he acknowledged that croquet has been a valid artistic subject, especially given the game's historical prominence in England. Edouard Manet and Winslow Homer are among the artists who've featured croquet in their work.
"... many important artists have portrayed it in paintings [but] each of the 1,200 pieces would need to be evaluated," Oligschlaeger wrote.
‘I Know What’s Coming for Me’
Williams also imagines a much bigger reach for his Poetry Foundation. He chose to concentrate on seventh graders because most states already have a poetry focus in their curriculum for that school year, and also because he believes 12- and 13-year-olds – standing at the threshold of maturity – have a lot to tell us.
“You’re looking at that transformative age of them saying, ‘I am still a child but I’m about to be a young adult,’” he said.
Jordan Morris, this year’s school winner at South City Preparatory Academy on South Grand, would argue with anyone who would discount a seventh grader.
“They might say, ‘Oh, you’re just a 13-year-old; you don’t understand,” Morris said. “Well I haven’t seen life yet but I know what’s coming for me.”
And what’s coming? “Terror,” she answered.
Worrisome, perhaps, coming from a seventh grader, but fear and even death are subjects many 7GP students tackle. Still, others also focus on lighter fare and more mundane topics. Diversity is also evident in their skill levels. Morris’ arts communications teacher Michelle Oyola pointed out that students don’t have to be talented writers to enter the contest.
“The great thing about poetry is it gives everyone a way to express themselves. Every level of writer can find something to say,” Oyola said.
Nationwide, more girls than boys enter the contest. But young men are starting to participate in a bigger way. Four years ago, in the city of St. Louis, 20 percent of the entries were from boys; this year it’s 42 percent.
In all, more than 4,000 students across the country wrote poems for the competition, from states including Massachusetts, Alaska and New Mexico. Twenty-eight schools sent in their school's winning poem. Williams is especially touched by kids who write about their unique cultural experiences.
“Like Native American kids, talking about the loss of a grandfather who’s now joining the clouds,” he said.
The ideas are the kids’ own, following 7GP’s number-one rule: Teachers can’t influence the choice of topic. It’s a tactic that’s prompting students to produce excellent work, he said.
“We’re surprising the educators. We’re exceeding their expectations about the quality of a poem that kids will write about when they’re given absolute autonomy,” Williams noted.
Like wooden balls traveling through a series of wickets, the progress of William’ poetry efforts can be seen one child at a time.
“As Martin Luther had said, if you want to change the world, just pick up a pen and write, and these kids are doing that,” Williams said. “They’re changing their school’s culture.”
Yes, Croquet Art Really Is a ‘Thing’ and Other Cultural Croquet Depictions
Queen of Hearts: “Do you play croquet?” Alice (in Wonderland): “Why yes, I do, your majesty.” “Then let the game begin!”
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL