By Sheryl Nonnenberg | Special to the Almanac
You would think that, as the only girl growing up in a family with three brothers and a father who was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, Dianne Tittle de Laet would either be a complete tomboy or would have rejected the world of sports entirely.
In reality, Ms. de Laet, a longtime resident of Menlo Park, is a Renaissance woman: a musician, a poet, an author, a performance artist, a sculptor and an avid runner.
And she is quick to credit her upbringing, as daughter of sports icon Y.A. Tittle, with providing the fodder for her lifelong passion for the hero story. It is an obsession that has led her to her most recent creative endeavor, a book entitled "A Story from the Earth."
To understand the trail of events that led to the publication of the book, one has to begin with Ms. de Laet's childhood.
Growing up in the Lindenwood neighborhood of Atherton, she clearly remembers loving and writing poetry as a very young girl. She also loved the stories found in Greek mythology and, as she watched her father play the often brutal game of football, she realized that he was like the heroes of myths: men who were knocked down but always rose again to fight.
She paid tribute to her father in 1995 with the book "Heroes and Giants." It was a cross-over hit with readers of sports biographies and classical literature.
Ms. de Laet then turned her attention to her mother's side of the family and found, to her surprise, that her great-grandmother, Margaret Watts, was part Cherokee. She had been buried in an unmarked grave, next to six of her nine children, and the anonymity of her final resting place sparked a fire in Ms. de Laet's heart.
"A door was opened to find heroes in my own backyard," she explains.
Shortly after, she learned the story of Quatie Ross, a Cherokee woman who died in 1838 during the infamous forced relocation of Native American peoples, often referred to as the Trail of Tears. Quatie was the wife of Cherokee chief John Ross and died of exposure after giving a blanket to a sick child.
Ms. de Laet tells her story in a soon-to-be published book called "Unmarked Grave." It is a novel based on real events with some fictional embellishment, and honors the compassionate action of Quatie Ross.
Ms. de Laet created a performance piece that combined spoken narration, music and dance to tell the story of Quatie Ross.
A self-described "writer and poet who cross-trains," Ms. de Laet is eager to explore a variety of media in her quest to tell the hero story. Because Native American history is inextricably entwined with respect and love for the earth and nature, it seemed like a natural transition to focus on her extensive collection of found objects -- wood, stones, roots, pine cones and shells.
"These elements seem like a universal language," she says, and many hold special meanings for her as they were gifts from her mother and her children. She has created 100 small, fragile sculptures that celebrate the lives of unsung heroes such as Quatie Ross, and all Native Americans who suffered during the Trial of Tears.
The assemblages (most are less than 12 inches high) usually begin with pieces of wood that have an evocative shape. Using a stone as a polishing tool, she peels back layers of bark, often revealing unexpected colors and textures.
She then selects from her collection of ephemera -- acorns, fish bones, flower parts, seaweed, etc. -- gluing the pieces onto the peeled wood. Each sculpture is titled, and it is surprising how the combination of disparate objects can result in a recognizable form.
"In the Wind" is made of carefully placed shells, a red leaf and garlic skins, but they join to form the figure of a woman, perhaps collecting flowers on a blustery day. In "Home," a small figure created from a eucalyptus bud stands in the opening of a naturally carved crevice in a rock. The "home" is solid and safe, but it rests upon an uneven, craggy surface of burl wood -- indicative, perhaps, of the tumultuous history of Native Americans.
Ms. de Laet selected several dozen assemblages for inclusion in "A Story from the Earth" and they are dramatically lit and photographed by her husband, Steve. The book was self-published and is available through the de Laets' Arete Foundation. Now in its 15th year, the foundation provides entry-level college scholarships to seniors from Menlo-Atherton High School.
It is Ms. de Laet's hope that the book will find its way into museum bookstores across the country, so that the life, and sacrifice, of Quatie Ross will not be forgotten. It is, she says, "an act of remembrance for one whose act of compassion stands for many others, and for the trails of tears and journeys of democracy that are underway in our own time."
Go to aretefund.net for more information about the Arete Foundation or to obtain a copy of "A Story from the Earth."
Sheryl Nonnenberg is an art researcher-writer who lives in Menlo Park.