04/02/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
God bless answering machines. Without hers, folk-artist Seton McGlennon would have missed two life-changing calls in November of 1999. First: "A message from the social secretary of the White House—the White House!—inviting me to a special reception," says McGlennon, 50. "Right after that, a message from The Oprah Winfrey Show inviting me to Chicago. I almost died right there."
Not bad for a onetime real estate agent who got her folk-art start in 1985 making free Christmas ornaments for new homeowners. Nearly 15 years later, her ornaments were on display at the White House, and Winfrey was extolling McGlennon's memory trunks as "extraordinary gifts." "What I remember most is Oprah coming onstage and saying, 'Which one's Seton?' " says McGlennon, a divorced mother of two college students. "I could barely speak."
Fortunately, her artwork speaks volumes. With every hand-painted pine memory trunk—each selling for up to $3,500 and taking six weeks to complete (she's already taking orders for 2002)—McGlennon, who lives in Cary, N.C., tries to tell a family's life story. "It's an intuitive process," explains the artist, who interviews relatives and pores over family photos for inspiration. Janet Keating, a New York City homemaker who gave her parents a trunk for their 45th anniversary, marvels at the result. "Seton tied it all together—old nicknames, places they'd lived, all their children and grandchildren," she says. "It's a true treasure."