Happy birthday Greenville

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Those who stopped by the recent Fine Arts League show in downtown Greenville couldn't fail to take note of a striking arrangement of colorful handcrafted pinatas and whimsical collages that was on display.

The creative and equally colorful lady behind those works of art is Fine Arts League member Carmen Lancaster.

Carmen has another extra-special creation currently on display in Greenville's City Hall-a giant cake pinata honoring the Camellia City's 130th birthday celebration.

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This labor of love is the artist's gift to her adopted hometown.

"This was my first birthday cake [pinata]," admits the effervescent Venezuela-born Lancaster in her charmingly accented English. "I worked on it about a week . . . if you count them, there are exactly 130 candles' on top, too," Lancaster comments with a broad smile.

The papier-mache creation is a "whopper", measuring in at one and a half feet in height and three and a half feet in diameter. Lancaster "frosted" it with amazingly life-like red "roses" ("I can make those very quickly while I watch the television") and all those celebratory candles with their orange and yellow "flames."

Lancaster created a special hinged lid for the pinata that will allow it to easily be filled with a bevy of goodies prior to Greenville's big birthday party in Confederate Park on Saturday morning, April 21st.

The artist's dark eyes sparkle when she imagines the fun both children and adults will have that day while trying to break open her creation. "Traditionally, the pinata is hanging from a tree or a pole . . . someone raises the pinata up and down by the ropes attached to it to tease the party guests trying to hit it with the stick to break it."

She recalls an incident here in the U.S., which serves as a cautionary tale to those unfamiliar with the customs of pinata parties.

"I was at a party and this American child who was blindfolded suddenly took off running very fast and swinging that stick like crazy-I was so afraid he would hurt someone!" Carmen sighs and shakes her head.

Luckily, no damage was done, but the uninitiated, Lancaster explains, might be better leaving their blindfolds off.

"Latino children understand for safety to stay in one place and swing the stick-the pinata is supposed to move, not the child," Lancaster explains.

The creating and breaking of the colorful papier-mache figures has long been a part of her life.

"I grew up with pinatas as part of my childhood in Venezuela . . . we use them not just for birthdays but for other special days, too," explains Lancaster, who has seen pinatas become more and more popular across the U.S.

She began building pinatas of her own several years ago and today is available to create a variety of styles and sizes for local residents to purchase for their own family celebrations.

"These are crafted Venezuela-style . . . not the, well, cheap quality of the Mexican imports today," Lancaster asserts.

It is believed Spanish conquistadors first brought the custom of pinatas to Mexico centuries ago, and the custom spread into Central America and the upper portion of South America (from where Lancaster hails.)

"I have even been in Asia where there is something very similar to the pinata used to drive evil spirits away . . . who knows, maybe the custom originated over there," Lancaster muses.

And what, one might ask, brought this lovely and talented lady, who has traveled and lived all over the world, to settle in this "neck of the woods"?

"My husband Bill is a native of this area . . . Greenville is the first place I visited in U.S. many years ago.

It is such a pretty town, safe, clean, easy to get around in," comments Lancaster, who today lives with her husband in their custom-built Spanish-style home in Brushey Creek.

Lancaster is delighted to have this opportunity to share a part of her cultural heritage with the citizens of Butler County.

"I have been wanting to do something really special for my new hometown' and now I have the chance," she comments with a proud smile.

Lancaster's giant pinata will be on display at City Hall for a few more days.