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The Weirder of the Absurd
The guest of honor wore a layered pinafore of delicately folded fast food wrappers, attended by a court of googly-eyed chicken nuggets in formal wear.
Plenty of cultures celebrate their teenagers with over-the-top coming-of-age parties, and Savannah’s fringe art community is no different: Patty the Cheeseburger’s 15th Birthday at White Whale Craft Ales on July 29th felt like equal parts quinceañera, bat mitzvah bash, and debutante ball as friends filed past her frilly paper platform. Some paid homage by bearing gifts such as tiny plastic Barbie purses. One particularly creative sycophant donned a specially crafted tiara of ketchup packets.
“Thank you for coming, so good to see you,” murmured proud guardian Rubi McGrory—cheeseburgers can’t have mothers, don’t be ridiculous—as she accepted praise for her comestible charge’s lovely countenance.
While no one has any idea what 15 means in burger years, Patty herself looked remarkably preserved, bedazzled with the same sapphire Swarovski crystals as the day she was brought home from a local McDonald’s in 2008.
Which, of course, is Patty’s raison d’être.
The origin story goes that Rubi, a multidimensional artist and lifelong vegetarian whose first job in high school was slinging burgers and fries, decided one summer day in 2008 to purchase a plain cheeseburger as an experiment.
“I had no preconceived ideas of the outcome, I just wanted to watch the progression,” she recalls in her online artist statement, explaining that she added the blue sparkles because she didn’t want to forget the date.
What ensued was…not much. Patty lived unrefrigerated in an old granola bar box for a while, then loosely wrapped on a wine rack, occasionally trotted out for a field trip to be ogled. Mostly she was ignored. Within a few months, her inner middle became a desiccated slab, her once-spongy bun maturing into a crisp shell. The lack of protection proved kind to the little cheeseburger, and over the years Patty has crumbled slightly but otherwise changed very little.
You know what else has ignored her? Rats, roaches, ants, flies, mold, mildew or other decomposing agents that any Southerner knows will find a way through a solid oak door to get to a cookie crumb that someone tracked in on the bottom of a shoe.
What this seems to confirm is that Patty is not, and never was, food.
Each year on Patty’s birthday, Rubi has issued a cheerful report on her status, garnering an ardent following not only for the compelling statement on what sort of inedible garbage is considered nutritional quality in late-stage capitalism but also because there’s something about anthropomorphizing a fast food cheeseburger that is just fucking hilarious.
In her longevity, Patty has attracted a whole passel of supporters: For her 10th birthday, award-winning local filmmaker Pat Longstreth made a delightfully awkward documentary, and Location Gallery’s Peter Roberts gallantly presented her with her own show. For her cusp-of- adulthood celebration, it was decided that Patty deserved a fancy formal gathering with some of her fast food peers, and Rubi’s ride-or-dies Heather Szatmary and Libby Hersch provided artistic assistance by gluing googly eyes on all those nuggets and fries and baking a stunning fondant cake in Patty’s likeness.
When Rubi first requested that White Whale host Patty’s 15th, owner Jason Piccolo confessed, “we thought we were being pranked.” But he and wife Jocelyn quickly recognized the reach of this unlikely local celebrity as they saw their place packed with Patty’s friends and family.
Oh, that’s right: Patty also has a sister: A Twinkie dubbed “Pammy,” whose Swarovskis display a date a few days after Patty’s. Like many who grow up in the shadow of their famous siblings, Pammy hasn’t achieved Patty’s notoriety, probably because her ilk never pretended to be food in the first place.
“No one is surprised to see a Twinkie turn 15,” deadpans Rubi. “It’s like, ‘call me when she's fifty.’”
I met Patty and Rubi on the same day back at an art market in Trustees Garden as I was weaving in and out of booths and hissing at my two small children not to put their greasy little hands on everything. We came upon a dark-haired lady in a cute dress standing quietly over what appeared to be her lunch.
“What’s going on here?” demanded my four year-old, pointing a chubby finger at the bejeweled burger. The lady introduced Patty, who was then only a few weeks old, giving a direct, straight-faced explanation to a rapt, preschool-aged audience.
I stared at her, trying to decide if she was some overly-serious academic or a deranged person that I needed to hustle my children away from immediately. Then she leveled her eyes at me and her nose twitched, and I realized I was in the presence of comedic and artistic greatness.
From that day on Rubi has proved to be a fellow tender-hearted weirdo and loyal family friend, not only to me but for so many in Savannah. She’s served as a creative fairy godmother and collaborative force in countless community endeavors, from Project Period to baking birthday cakes for homeless veterans.
She draws, she sews, she designs magnificent things on paper and in digital realms. The townhouse that she shares with hubby Bill is a cross between an art gallery and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, with endless caches of art supplies and espresso shots. She sends original postcards to politicians who deserve dressing down. She is an ordained minister and a Reiki master. The manifestations of her talents are basically boundless. Yes, of course she is for hire, with a menu of fun, effective workshops on meditation and mindfulness.
What I am saying is that Rubi has so many superpowers, I can’t even list them all. But my most favorite is her undaunted enthusiasm for creating Art for Art’s Sake, often with everyday objects, or as she describes it, “elevating the banal to the absurd.”
Her recent gorgeous trash mandala series is a case and point. But often absurdist art isn’t even about the thing; it’s intention and attempt that matter most, as those who witnessed Rubi’s Great Rainbow Jell-O Disaster of Summer ‘21 can attest. (For those who didn’t; in short, sun plus sugar equals kaleidoscopic goo.)
It’s not necessarily about being silly, either.
Celebrating Patty year after year evokes elements of the Theater of the Absurd, the European literary movement that responded to the apocalyptic anxieties of the mid-20th century and spawned the careers of indecipherable weirdos Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. Plays like Waiting for Godot and The Chairs (as well as Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, teehee) questioned life’s meaning after the horrors of the Holocaust and Oppenheimer’s bomb, emphasizing the abject ridiculousness and hubris of the human condition in a world where reality is terrifyingly fragile.
In 2023, we have a similarly tenuous grasp on our common experience. Complex concepts have become reductive memes that pit us against each other. Corporate criminals are protected by the highest courts in the land. Solutions to humanity’s darkest problems are nowhere in sight. Instead of trying to “make it make sense,” perhaps our best means of surviving with our sanity intact is reflecting back different nonsense that’s at least more delightful than what the wannabe despots are dishing out. How else to answer the asininity where billions fight over resources but only a privileged few sit at the table—and what’s being served isn’t even food?!
A burger’s birthday party might not address any massive issues. But if lying politicians and greedy capitalists can play absurdity’s long game, so can we.
In any case, a cheeseburger in a dress is pretty hilarious. Mark your calendars for more of Rubi’s focused genius when she and the splashy innovative whimsy of Maxx Feist take over Location Gallery on Sept 7.
Speaking of Savannah celebrity birthdays, this week brings a couple of other notables who must be in on Patty’s secret of longevity: Tybee’s legendary Captain Jack Flanigan celebrated his 90th turn around the sun on August 8, flaunting his requisite fishing cap and gold chain while amiably enduring a roast by friends who know better than to share their saltiest stories about him in public. Over the past 40 years, he’s transformed The Original Crab Shack from an old fish camp into the most charming watering hole around—don’t let the tourists deter you; cracking crab legs under the oaks and wiling hours in the arcade is “Tybee Time” well spent.
And then there’s the inimitable Miriam Center, who’s welcoming year 97 on August 10 with her signature sassy grace. “I can’t believe I’m still here,” this ultimate Savannah icon told me a few days before. “I’m the oldest person I know!” The writer, seeker, and bon vivant attributes her longevity to “compassion and willingness to change,” and believes that the most important things anyone can do is “go within and learn who you are.”
Here’s to these nonagenarian Leos for answering the call of life’s absurdity with undaunted creativity. May they inspire us to keep Savannah—and ourselves—weird forever.
Oh, for art’s sake ~ JLL
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