Cindi Boiter has a large fortune cookie in her home. She knows it holds a great future, yet she’ll never know exactly what it says.
This cookie didn’t come in a paper bag with Chinese food and packets of soy sauce. Rather, it’s a piece of art given to Boiter by her friend, Anastasia Chernoff, who died last week at the age of 49 after a battle with cervical cancer. Chernoff was an art curator and sculptor who, in addition to running the Anastasia & Friends gallery on Main Street, was seen as a pillar of the arts community in Columbia.
At a celebration of Chernoff’s life Sunday at Art Bar in the Vista, Boiter explained to the packed bar that Chernoff’s work was whimsical, elegant and evocative. When you looked at her artworks, she said, you got the impression they had secrets.
“There was something they knew that they wanted to convey to you,” Boiter said. “And if you looked hard enough, you would get that secret, and then your life would be different. That’s exactly Anastasia – Anastasia had a message for us, and if you listened to her and looked at her and spent time with her, she would give you a secret and your life would be different.”
There was standing room only in at Art Bar, with so many people whose lives were different because of Chernoff. Several people who spoke said the packed bar was a tribute to how much the artist was loved.
Hannah Ritchie, 29, was Chernoff’s first cousin but said she viewed her as a mother, sister and best friend.
“Growing up with her was like growing up with Madonna as your aunt,” she said to a ripple of laughter. “Fun as hell, all the time.”
Ritchie said growing up with Chernoff gave her an example of the kind of life she wants to live.
“I need to always put out cloth napkins,” she said. “I need to have candles burning in my house all the time. I always have to have fresh flowers.”
Candlelight danced across framed pictures of Chernoff that were positioned around the bar Sunday. More pictures of her flashed on a screen, from when she was a baby to her daughter’s wedding day just months ago.
Her daughter, Lauren Melton, told the crowd she was thankful that in her mother’s final days, “there was never a stranger with her.”
There was laughter as Melton recalled Thanksgiving dance parties, belting the soundtrack to “Annie” as they drove in her mother’s convertible to school, their Tuesday night get-togethers and her mother’s “sick” sense of humor. Chernoff had a running joke, when Melton was a toddler, that they were all aliens.
“We would walk outside and they would point to a star and say, ‘That’s where we’re from!’” she said to another round of laughter. “I really thought I was an alien for a little bit. Apparently that did not go over well when I found out I was not an alien.”
Melton’s husband, Matt, shared a private moment he and Chernoff had just a couple of weeks ago, when Chernoff told him “the only fear she had was leaving her sweet Lauren.”
“The moment I walked her down the aisle and gave her to you,” he recalled her saying to him, “all the fears of losing Lauren on this earth went away in an instant.”
Glasses were raised multiple times throughout the night for Chernoff, as well as for her mother and daughter. A row of champagne bottles was uncorked at one point when requested by Paul Kaufmann, a friend of Chernoff’s.
“If you want to see Anastasia, come look at her mother’s face and her daughter’s face and look into each other’s faces,” he said. “Because that’s where Anastasia still is and always will be.”