No yolks, please: Mitzi Perdue, debilitated by a back injury, found a diversion in egg art. Now she's famous for more than being the chicken guy's wife.


March 30, 1996|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Not only is Mitzi Perdue tolerant of all the chicken jokes, she says that she and her husband, chicken magnate Frank Perdue, actually enjoy them. It's a good thing, too: These days, people toss egg jokes her way as well.

Mrs. Perdue has been making a name for herself as an egg artist. She has become quite accomplished (an eggs-pert, she's heard more than once) at crafting intricate miniature worlds inside emu, rhea and ostrich eggs.

"Frank and I joke that we compete to see who can produce the most eggs in a week," Mrs. Perdue says. "He can produce 20 million and I can usually do one. So far, he's ahead. But I joke that mine have value added."

Many, in fact, are decorated with jewels -- a detail which makes them appear Faberge-inspired. They have been shown at the Ward Museum in Salisbury and in a traveling exhibit mounted by the National Agricultural Library. Now the Maryland Historical Society has assembled 61 of her Eggscapes -- as Mrs. Perdue has named them -- as the core of an exhibit of eggs handcrafted in Maryland.

Mrs. Perdue creates fantasy snow scenes and homey interiors, glimpses of Christmas mornings and calm Constable-like pastures. There are sparkling fairies, tiny ice skaters, forest creatures, figures from Greek mythology. Some eggs hold coral reefs, others contain mustangs and Wyoming landscapes.

"I guess you'd say that my specialty is creating reality-free worlds," the 55-year-old artist says.

Escapism seems a curious goal for an accomplished Harvard-educated heiress who has always been able to afford a jet-set life.

But in 1992 Mrs. Perdue injured her back in one of those strange little accidents that do more damage than anyone expects. She was on her way to a speaking engagement in Florida when her driver pulled away from the curb not realizing that she was still getting into the car. She wrenched her back badly. "I was in dreadful pain, but it's kind of a little point of pride for me that I was able to give the speech without anyone guessing," she says.

She didn't know it then, but she had ruptured a disc. Told by her physicians that most back injuries cure themselves, Mrs. Perdue suffered stoically at her home in Salisbury for almost a year before finally having surgery.

"Just about from the beginning, I lost the ability to walk, it hurt too much," she says. "If I wanted to go from one room to the next, I'd crawl. I was strongly advised that back surgery is a tremendous thing and don't go into it lightly. So I put it off and I put it off. I was totally housebound. The times I had to go out, like a funeral or something, I'd rent a wheelchair."

That's when she began to create pain-free worlds inside eggs, an activity that required a level of concentration that allowed her to escape her condition.

A changed perspective

Mrs. Perdue taught herself how to carve and decorate eggs. She watched how-to-art programs on television for tips on painting. She experimented with a dentist's air drill until she was proficient enough to carve intricate lattice; at first, she broke one of every 10 eggshells.

As she became more skilled, she discovered that egg art was not only therapeutic but also transforming.

Mrs. Perdue says she had no interest in the visual arts before her back injury. Once her daughter-in-law, Jan Perdue, invited her to see the Monet exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"I said, 'Jan, why would you want to go see Monet? Ick! You're a grown-up -- there's no parent forcing you to do this!'

"Instead, I tried to get her to come see a tire retreading facility with me," she says. "That's how artistic I was -- or wasn't. Now I'm more Catholic than the pope. You tell me there's an art exhibit and suddenly I look at it through renewed eyes. The designs! The colors! The beauty! The balance! There's so much there that I'd never seen before. It's like suddenly seeing."

To Mrs. Perdue, being an artist also means finding a way to engage others in the art form. She lectures to groups about egg artistry -- her speech is titled "The Low-Tech, User-Friendly, Highly-Interactive Egg Talk" -- and holds public workshops on "hatching your own Eggscape." Her own eggs sell for between $60 and $1,000, with the proceeds donated to charity.

While she works on her eggs, she also manages to writes a weekly syndicated newspaper column, develop book projects and attend to the various social obligations required of the wife of the head of a multimillion dollar company.

The youngest child of Ernest Henderson, the businessman who co-founded the Sheraton Hotel chain, Mrs. Perdue grew up in a wealthy Boston family. She graduated cum laude from Harvard with a B.A. in government and international law and received her masters in public administration from George Washington University.

After her first marriage settled her in California, she took up farming, eventually serving as president of the 35,000-member American Agri-women. She still owns a rice farm near Sacramento and a vineyard near the Napa Valley.

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