The Creative Life

When I was growing up, in Huntersville, North Carolina, the kids in the neighborhood all claimed one treehouse. It was actually maybe three boards, nailed across a forked Sycamore branch hanging parallel to the ground. The host tree was immense and beautiful with its outsized leaves and white skin. We would collect there, suspended over the creek that threaded through our neighborhood,  known as “the Pasture” because that was what it had been.

Back then I was transfixed by the movie Swiss Family Robinson — mostly because of the house they fashioned in a tree. I loved the family’s ingenuity and creativity in the face of adversity. Not only did they construct a home out of scrap, but it was better than a normal house!  There was a life lesson in that movie that I embraced right then and there, and never let go.

In 1988  on a sunny Sunday afternoon, David built a treehouse for our little boys to play in. He used scrap lumber of every description– some painted, some not. Some treated, some not. He conceived, in a flash, an eccentric structure to support the little platform up in a hundred year old pecan tree. It was strong enough to hold an adult, so we all went up there occasionally. I took to making lunch and pulling it up in an egg basket on a pulley after preschool many days.

When the boys grew up and started driving and dating, and bemoaned their lack of funds I suggested they invite  girls for dinner in the treehouse. Each boy, in his turn, learned to cook and serve dinner on high, complete with candlelight. I occasionally took friends up there for dessert  after dinner on ground level.  Grown people always got a kick out of being invited to climb a ladder for their dessert. Once up there, they usually wanted to stay. I like, too, to have very young friends up  for tea parties. It’s fun to wonder what I might have thought when I was 5, had an old lady had invited me to tea in her tree…

Lately the much-loved treehouse has been showing its age. Due to its creation at the hands of a  construction pro, it lasted way longer than its parts would have predicted, but, after 25 years it had reached  an existential juncture.  As the universe around me seems to operate, I discovered just the composite flooring I wanted for the treehouse, damaged and reduced to almost nothing at the lumber yard, so I bought it and set about planning the resurrection. Stewart, my youngest son,  had some time off, so I asked him if he’d be on board for the treehouse project. He was completely enthusiastic,  because he too has the gene for wanting to make things.

By the time he arrived I had done some of the obvious demolition in normal power-through mode, but Stewart stepped in, and as naturally as drawing breath,took over most of the strategy and the three dimensional thinking. I did the cutting, he did the structural repairs, holding me to very strict standards. Climbing up one of the 40 times I ascended yesterday, I flashed back to earlier days, and having  sandwiches in the treehouse when he was little. I rejoiced to be re-experiencing just such a summer afternoon but with  grown Stewart. Increasingly  he  was excited about the job he was able to do,  and about the fun of problem-solving, as was I. He told me his older brother may have redone the barn but that the treehouse remodel was going to be his.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about our little farm is and always has been its collection of derelict buildings.  They call out to our creativity and invite us to reimagine what they might be, how they might look, and how they might serve us. They school us.  We have all learned amazing lessons in creative  thinking, self sufficiency, the use of tools and follow-through from  tackling our various projects.  Had we lived in a modern house I doubt we would have explored some of the things that now bring us so much pleasure.

I  used to be terrified of  circular saws.   My beau at the time, was helping me by  repairing my  rotten kitchen floor.  Saturday came to a close, and we had a disagreement.   I found he’d left his saw behind.  My ferocious self-sufficiency kicked in to keep my anger company.  I became determined  in that moment to prove to myself (and him) that I didn’t need a man to run that saw for me–that girls can handle their own problems.     Not long after I became the proud owner of  my own circular saw, purchased at a garage sale for $5 from a lawyer who had sawed through its electrical cord.  I  repaired the cord, and we — my saw and I–have become very good friends, spending many hours locked in common cause.  If I’d had a normal kitchen floor I’d have one more fear to haul through life!

Marked as a child, the first time I saw Swiss Family Robinson, I can’t imagine any home more apt for me and my offspring than the “island” of our little farm where we landed and  had to figure things out.

 

 

 

 

Into the Swamp


I have been measuring time, for the last couple of days by how long it’s been since I was in the swamp. I tell myself this morning–two days ago I was waking up in the swamp– to attempt to connect this life to that one. The swamp was so dreamlike it takes some effort to believe I was there.

This week I was a lucky participant in a canoe trip up the Roanoke River Estuary with biologists from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and a representative from the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program. Our destination was a site deep in the swamp where we camped on platforms, ate hearty, looked around in amazement, and studied the ecosystem.

Surrounded by dark water and trees with conical trunks, I was mesmerized by the way pollen landed on the water’s surface and created marbled patterns.
At night, so far from civilization, the stars were brilliant but in competition for viewing with the leaves on the trees. It seemed like there were stars visible all the way down to the horizon. The Milky Way was apparent in tiny snatches between clusters of leaves.

Sitting on a platform after a great dinner, dusk falling, we identified birds by sound. The cover of leaves prevented our seeing the birds, but we learned to isolate one call at a time. Our wonderful guides, Melissa and Mike, pulled out their ipod which was full of bird calls instead of music and played some for us. They pointed out an interesting behavior of the barred owl. The barred owl has an easily recognizable call, but for reasons unknown to scientists, occasionally several barred owls will get together and indulge in a group song of raucous random noises. I likened it to the soundtrack of an out-of-control frat party. There is no pattern to it. It is wild, loud, aggressive and unpredictable. In the dead silence of the night while we slept, their street fight broke loose just over our tents.

I learned the difference in a brown water river and a black water river. I studied a bottomland forest. I learned that the Roanoke is called the Amazon of North Carolina and carries more water than any other North Carolina river.

I saw my first Prothonotary Warbler, watched a water moccasin sun himself, saw dozens of turtles dive off logs. I saw the tiniest crayfish. It looked like a half inch long lobster. I watched reflected light travel up tree trunks like stripes on a barber’s pole. The background music was the rustling of leaves and the splashing of fishes. The precussionists were woodpeckers.

And in the night, even my dreams opened out to me. My mind relaxed in its place on earth, both there, and on the two nights since I slept there, my dreams have been open books, as vivid as my waking life, and a good deal less otherworldly than the swamp.

ID:entity Self: Perception and Reality


I stepped out of my comfort zone and into the future when I visited CAM Raleigh last weekend for the opening of ID:Entity at the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh. The exhibition features interactive work by artists and faculty associated with the NC State University Departments of Art+ Design, and with the Ph.D. program in Communication, Rhetoric and Digital Media. I was there, particularly, to see a piece by my oldest son, David Millsaps. David is a digital media consultant and interface designer and over the past several years has created several large scale digital works of art either alone or collaboratively.

His wall piece, Routine, mimics a version of Raleigh, gridded with streets, which, when touched by the viewer, morphs into more developed, or less developed– with more trees or less, and more buildings or fewer. The viewer makes decisions about the way the city should look. A cluster of fireflies working from a flocking algorithm becomes an icon representing humankind and its interaction with the built environment. He imagines the fireflies as having a “hive mentality” like mankind connected by technology.

A week later I had a chance to sit down with David and talk late into the night about his experience making this work. It was interesting to compare traditional media to the way artists in digital media work. The news release about the show refers to the artists as “pioneers in new media arts”. In talking to David it was clear to me that indeed he is exploring a new continent. What I do in my studio is a variation of the same processes that artists have used for thousands of years. What David does is, by comparison, to step out into a kind of wild jungle of unexplored, unmapped territory.

He talked to me about the difficulties he found in creating this work. He related how the properties of a software application are able to be replicated. But they change based on the tools they are running on. He talked about how it is new science and how it is thus impossible to estimate the time it will take to achieve a goal. David lamented that he can set a goal and he may or may not get there. In the case of Routine, he created the work on a computer that was more powerful than the equipment used to transmit it, and ended up having to ratchet down the parameters of the piece to fit the presentation tools available.

David also expressed surprise in observing the way people interacted with the piece. The piece has a sign inviting the viewer to touch the screen. He found people reaching out to touch the sign instead of the piece. This illustrates, for me, a bit of the disconnect between people like David who are at home– I mean AT HOME, in a digital world, and the rest of us who live in a world more like the previous thousand years.

When I stepped into this ephemeral exhibition, loaded with wall projections, constantly moving and morphing, I found myself longing for the fatness of paint, the grain of wood, the traditional visceral, sensual materials of the past. People like David, so accustomed to the digital vocabulary don’t have that sense of loss.

McArthur Freeman seemed to me to bridge the divide with his series of small heads. A brilliant draftsman and painter, McArthur has, of late, been exploring the union of his traditional images and technology. In ID:entity the characters he has created have been generated by technology that renders a three dimensional object from a drawing. The heads are laminates of many planes assembled to create the final image. The heads have a voluptuousness and presence that loops back to traditional art.

I started to make a case, in my late night talk with David, that this technological art was somewhat removed from human emotion. I wanted to spin a line of reasoning that it was cold and detached, born as it is from a machine, without evidence of the human hand. But I only got a couple of sentences out before remembering that I had found the exhibition, as a whole, to be very senusous, in its own way. Much of it projected onto a screen or wall, bearing a stronger resemblance to a movie or television program than to a painting, it had a kind of subtle sensuality, arriving from some mental place instead of from the sense of touch. It bore the mark, as does any good work, of thought and intensive labor, of energy concentrated in a vehicle set out for our contemplation. Only in this interactive exhibition, over and over, the viewer was invited to enter into the work and become a part of it.

Art Home

Chicken Coop Series #3

Last night I had three dreams about houses.  This is not uncommon.  I often dream about structures and cubic spaces and the things that go on in them.  One of my dreams was oppressive.  In another my mother appeared and I asked her for advice.  The last one delighted me so much that I was still flashing back to it over breakfast.  In it  I was standing in a room, looking through a big square window at the glint off the water and the trees outside, when the view began to move, and I realized it was a floating house,  floating away.  It left me with a great sense of freedom and adventure.

Lots of my time is occupied with buildings and rooms.  For much of my adult life I’ve been rehabbing my farmhouse. Lately I’ve been deconstructing my chicken coop and smokehouse, both of which had begun to droop and sag like giant organic forms.  Rather than have them knocked down by a bulldozer I, my sons, and our helper have been taking them apart board by board.   En route to the dump I began to recognize beauty in bits and pieces of the scrap.  I found little archeological fragments in the dirt of the foundations—bits of my grandmother’s everyday china, early pottery shards, toys my children dropped, hardware from jobs their father had tackled. This so intrigued me that I set up a screen for sifting the soil in order to capture what might be hiding there.

Concurrently I was teaching my Intro to Sculpture students about the trash collages of Kurt Schwitters in the years between the wars.  I recalled for them my first live exposure to one of his pieces.  I described for them how, at the Tate Modern,  I was surrounded by Rothkos and huge Pollocks.  A Water Lily hung there, and many other great iconic works, but what riveted me were the tiny playing card sized collages of Schwitters.  They were indescribably elegant.  Their composition locked together with complete certainty.   I still recall the surface texture and subtle coloration of those pieces. It finally occurred to me that I should allow myself to be inspired by Schwitter’s example and create some assemblages using my bits and pieces, charged as they were with their layers of meaning and history.  Thus was born the Chicken Coop Series.

For me, the sculpting experience is a bit like standing in a room that one suddenly realizes is moving—shifting from the 2-D work I’m so accustomed to, and into this formal exploration of three dimensionality.  It’s loaded with adventure.  I labored for days over the arrangement of the first piece, then more quickly put together the second and third and fourth.  When I set them up to study them, the weakest was that first tentative effort.  As I go forward they become more aggressive with space, and I hope, lock together in relationships that seem meant to be.

Best of all I like that some fragment of the past utility and dailiness of those two old structures is brought forward into the utility and dailiness of the life of the farm today.  The farm is no longer a place where hams are smoked and chickens are laying.  Instead, it is a place where art hovers always a bit above our heads, or lurks buried in the soil, or shows up in time for talk around the dinner table, or stands with us as a comfort  in times of confusion and loss.  When Stewart was about five he made a drawing for me.  It was of a boat, rocking on the ocean.  High up on its mast it flew a flag that said “Art Home”.

In memory of a best friend

This was published a year ago under the title “Beth”.  It recounted a wonderful friendship.  Yesterday Beth began her journey into the great mystery, from complications of a 15 year battle with breast cancer.  Her place in my heart is secure.  She travels now, inside me, and many others.

beth

Beth is one of my friends from college days.  She’s been there with me through a lot of interesting experiences.  She was a bridesmaid in my wedding.  She is godmother to my middle son.  She and I have stood before thousands of paintings and talked about what we saw.  We have looked at the ocean together for hours with or without conversation.  Not since Chapel Hill days have we lived near one another, but that hasn’t kept us from staying connected.  Some of my favorite Beth memories are from the times she lived in Maryland near DC.  We would sometimes stay at her house, and sometimes in the city, abandoning our children to other people’s care so we could go to museums all day, seek out adventure-dining and funky thrift shops.  I’ve forgotten more days than most people have lived, but it seems like I remember all the times I ever spent with Beth.

This entry is in tribute to Beth’s influence on me.  One of my earliest memories with Beth is one afternoon in our early twenties when we took a blanket and some snacks out to the reservoir in Chapel Hill. We found a remote spot beside the water and sat there enjoying the fall day, the lake and  sky.  Beth produced a notebook in which she started writing.  In my memory it was a book about ideas, goals and inspiration.   I was so moved by her purposefulness.  She was the first young person I’d ever known who even at twenty-something was living an examined life.  That’s probably where my adult notebook-keeping habit came from.  Now many years later I have several well-worn volumes I use to give myself organization and direction.

Beth and I have just returned from a weekend at the beach.  It was a perfect beginning of November experience.  It was sunny and warm enough that we sat beside the ocean for two days– almost all day long.  The cooler weather had inspired the wildlife and so our entertainment was schools of porpoises cutting through the water.  At times hundreds of birds converged on shallow areas in the surf . There was a dead octopus on the beach we could examine at our leisure.   We were small and the vista was large.  We were quiet and it was loud. We kept the doors open so we could hear the surf all night.   I picked up blue crabs at the fish market because I will pay to watch Beth eat a blue crab.  After years of living in Maryland she is semi-professional.  If I think about it for more than a minute, I can be back there with Beth, examining our lives under the big blue dome of the sky.

lost shelter

The grandfather oak
The grandfather oak

Driving by my house on the way from school to an appointment I was shocked to see that the oldest tree in my yard had come down in Wednesday’s hard winds.  The trunk still stands, but the yard is filled with the top,  limbs larger than most mature trees.

This oak had been struck by lightning 40 years ago, and hit squarely by a truck in the late 70’s, in a brutal accident that killed the driver.   It had survived Hurricane Hugo eighteen years ago, losing a giant limb, but it stood otherwise intact.  Its six ancient  companion oaks had all toppled over the years, unexpectedly, striking blows  like earthquakes .

Under this tree we had built snowmen.  My sons remember shooting their bows at a target balanced against its trunk.  We had thrown a big party beneath it to celebrate my brother’s marriage.  I had stood in its shade in my own wedding gown, as had my aunt before me.

I had come to watch its canopy obsessively, looking for signs of sickness, and dreaded the day I knew would come.  Its canopy had been lush this past year, and it cast so many acorns on the lawn it’s impossible to walk there.  It had even taken to sending limbs down toward the ground– as if to attempt communication with its human family.

Its trunk still stands  25 feet tall or so, with the lowest limbs  intact, but its sheltering limbs are gone.  I found myself feeling exposed,  my shelter  gone.  It reminded me of the emotions I experienced when my father died in my 20’s.  I no longer felt protected.     The man I imagined to be the strongest person on earth was gone.  The tree that would take four men’s arms to encircle is gone.  The sky is empty where there was  complex tracery.  Empty.

My brother reminded me of my good fortune to make me feel better.  He’s right, of course.  “If this is the worst thing that happened to you today, you are okay”.  But on the phone later, calling each member of the family to announce the death, I realized we all grieve the loss of beauty.  Born before the American Revolution, witness to the life of my family for six generations, and to another family before that, this tree will have no replacement in my lifetime.

Beth

bethBeth is one of my friends from college days.  She’s been there with me through a lot of interesting experiences.  She was a bridesmaid in my wedding.  She is godmother to my middle son.  She and I have stood before thousands of paintings and talked about what we saw.  We have looked at the ocean together for hours with or without conversation.  Not since Chapel Hill days have we lived near one another, but that hasn’t kept us from staying connected.  Some of my favorite Beth memories are from the times she lived in Maryland near DC.  We would sometimes stay at her house, and sometimes in the city, abandoning our children to other people’s care so we could go to museums all day, seek out adventure-dining and funky thrift shops.  I’ve forgotten more days than most people have lived, but it seems like I remember all the times I ever spent with Beth.

This entry is in tribute to Beth’s influence on me.  One of my earliest memories with Beth is one afternoon in our early twenties when we took a blanket and some snacks out to the reservoir in Chapel Hill.    We found a remote spot beside the water and sat there enjoying the fall day, the lake and  sky.  Beth produced a notebook in which she started writing.  In my memory it was a book about ideas, goals and inspiration.   I was so moved by her purposefulness.  She was the first young person I’d ever known who even at twenty-something was living an examined life.  That’s probably where my adult notebook-keeping habit came from.  Now many years later I have several well-worn volumes I use to give myself organization and direction.  

Beth and I have just returned from a weekend at the beach.  It was a perfect beginning of November experience.  It was sunny and warm enough that we sat beside the ocean for two days– almost all day long.  The cooler weather had inspired the wildlife and so our entertainment was schools of porpoises cutting through the water.  At times hundreds of birds converged on shallow areas in the surf . There was a dead octapus on the beach we could examine at our leisure.   We were small and the vista was large.  We were quiet and it was loud. We kept the doors open so we could hear the surf all night.   I picked up blue crabs at the fish market because I will pay to watch Beth eat a blue crab.  After years of living in Maryland she is semi-professional.  If I think about it for more than a minute, I can be back there with Beth, examining our lives under the big blue dome of the sky.