Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Emrys + Rensing = Permission

Since arriving at the Rensing Center two weeks ago, I have been of two minds. I’ve felt
that there is not enough time in life to do, learn, or excel at what I want. Then I’ve felt assured
that there is ample time, and that I don’t have to do, learn, or excel at anything. So, I sat here
immobilized by contradiction for two weeks. I’m kidding. But if I had, there would hardly be a
better place to suffer. The porch room in the Guest House is a lushly decorated, diverse world
unto itself. And there’s almost nothing in it.

In truth, I found myself trying out some new approaches, creativity-wise, taking up some
old ways, and continuing current projects. I won’t say I’ve been “inspired”—it’s too soon for
that (I am sitting in the porch room as we speak. Let’s not jinx it.) I will say “allowed.” I have
been granted a permission. I’ve continued to write and revise poems—the medium that landed
me in this gorgeous place (thank you to Emrys Press and to Rensing for the collaboration). I’ve
also worked on a personal essay, a genre I’m drawn to but haven’t indulged in for a long time.
And—this is the weird one—I made some visual art. Maybe beauty, or a way of looking at the
world that feels beautiful, is contagious. “Beautiful” is not the word for what I made, but it
accurately describes how it felt to make it.

I had a stack of photographs along with me that I’d rather not have had. My father died
this past March, three months ago. I live in Chicago. He lived in Knoxville. His wife, my sister,
and I decided that I would get the car. So, when it came time to visit Rensing, I flew to Knoxville
and drove his car—listening to his cds—with a stack of his photos, his old badges (he was a
lifelong police officer), and his copies of my childhood writings, packed in the backseat.
In the evenings here, I started going through the photos, setting them next to each other in
odd combinations. I liked how, if I placed one over another, it was like installing windows into a
portrait. Bombed out, vacated windows. The two photos in the frame that are not my sister and I
are photos my father took in Bosnia in the mid-nineties. He was there for about a year, working
as a peacekeeper for the United Nations. Their purpose was to mitigate the violence between
warring ethnic groups, as well as to conduct investigations—including the excavation of mass
graves—into the ongoing genocide. His departure for Bosnia had come on the heels of my
parents’ separation. First he left home, then Michigan—our home state, then the country.

We had a good relationship, though. He was a dedicated father, even from a distance.
Plus, he did all of his leaving respectfully. It’s this final leave-taking that feels like a bombed-out

The other elements in the frame, for me—for a few reasons—bring levity. Nature has
held my attention since arriving at Rensing. The mosses and lichens here instill a cozy sense of
the well-worn. A hike in these woods can look—in color—like the statue gardens of Europe:
green verdigris, beech bark like marble or cement, and the darker, furrowed browns of trellises. I
found these strips of speckled bark—perfectly flexible due to three days of rain—laying by the
side of a trail, at the foot of a white pine (Michigan’s state tree). The blossom and leaves are cut
from the gardenia in front of the Guest House. I’d never looked at a gardenia and known that’s
what I was looking at before. And yet, the street we lived on, for the first nine years of my
sister’s life and the first five of mine, was Gardenia. That family room filled with light in the
morning. I can remember basking in it while watching cartoons with an enormous, orange,
corduroy pillow. We were happy there.

I suppose that if we feel like there is not enough time in the day, it’s partly because we
have—at some point in the past—realized the rich potential of that time. Like a child too thrilled
with summer to go willingly to bed, I’ve been staying up late here. It’s well-past dark now and
something—a porcupine, a raccoon, a deer, Godzilla—is tromping around in the leaves below.
The bullfrogs, too, refuse to give in.

We have the photo, but the picture is changing. As I knew it would, the bark is drying up
and curling away from the frame. The white blossom has already yellowed and withered. The
leaves hang on a while longer. Does that sound maudlin? Not everything is a metaphor! I’m
aiming at description. I wanted to make something ephemeral, something temporary. It just felt

Thank you, Ellen, Evelyn, Ron, & Jon for the allowance.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Spring at Rensing

In my time here at Rensing, I have been totally immersed in a serene landscape of marvelous variety and subtle detail.

I have never so closely observed the magical and captivating arrival of spring. This is partly because I haven’t taken time to notice, and partly because I live in an area of Australia where the seasonal changes are less clear. If I didn’t paint and draw my response to this delicate transition I would be forced to write bad poetry about it! Seeing the bare branches sprouting tiny leaf clusters, blossoms arrive and depart, bumble bees and other insect life has been deeply inspiring.

A tree which has captivated me is the American Beech, with its pale, dry, winter leaves trembling in the spring breezes. In my work, I have explored the elegant structure of its veins through pattern and geometric design. Similarly, the five petals of the pear blossom have lead to pentagonal designs. I have received invaluable advice from Ellen about colour value, and taken direct inspiration from the quilting heritage of the Carolinas, and of Rensing itself. Close attention to contrasts in shape and tone, as well as using repetition to create movement and unity, have been my formal focus for the past month.

My sincere thanks to everyone at Rensing for their support and generous spirits. To Evelyn, for intelligent conversation and a glass of wine at sundown; to Ron for peach cobbler and magical waterfall visits; to John for expert plant knowledge; and to Hubert for making us feel so welcome here. And lastly, of course, to Ellen, for so many things – but mostly for keeping the wonderful Rensing show on the road!

- Karen Ferguson

Below are ink and watercolour studies of American Beech leaves and blossoms inspired by the plants I have seen at Rensing.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

An Ellen Encomium

This Rensing blog is so varied, so rich, with so many strong and valuable voices: if you have not taken half an hour to read through it, do not delay. Scroll down!

It is difficult to find an angle on Rensing that has not already been beautifully blogged, but there is one topic that has not received enough attention: Executive Director Ellen Kochansky.

Ellen was a quilt maker par excellence. She says that she has not made quilts in recent years – and this is, strictly speaking true. But what is a quilt? It is a source of warmth. Of comfort. Shelter and safety. Quilt design combines disparate elements in effective, perhaps surprising, elegant and pleasing ways.

Ellen continues to quilt every day through her leadership of Rensing Center. It is mesmerising to watch someone with such dexterity in bringing together contrasting and complementary individuals, teaming them in such a way that something harmonious and beautiful is created. She has shaped Rensing as a sanctuary, a place of psychic safety, where individual differences are respected and commonalities are celebrated.

Quilting takes hours of labour. Ellen is a leader who cleans toilets, who scours the flea market for items that will make resident accommodation more comfortable, who links with international sustainability thinkers and separates recyclables at the Pickens dump. My hunch is that one of her gifts as a quilter was openness to new materials and their potential; similarly she greets each new Rensing arrival or enquiry with excitement for what it might bring to the mix.

I loved many things about Rensing, all of which you can find described in the posts of previous bloggers. The walk to the waterfall. Living in the guest house amongst tall trees, with squirrels leaping from branch to branch like circus stars, and birds carolling at dawn and dusk. The incomparable scope and scale of the offerings at the Flea Market. The lofty shelves of the library, a bibliophile’s dream. Driving around the back roads with Board Member and local encyclopaedia Ron Few.

I think my favourite thing, however (and again it has been blogged about with great verve) was the pot luck dinners. These Sunday night events (and yes, sometimes Sunday was a Tuesday or a Thursday) are Ellen at her apotheosis. I think it is significant that these events take place not in a common area but at Ellen’s house. Sitting around her table, local luminaries and visitors from other climes, we are swatches of fine fabric sewn into a new Ellen quilt, just for one night. Warm, safe, beautiful.

(Ellen told me that she thinks she has completely exhausted the possibilities of quilting as metaphor. That’s okay; it’s new to me!)

While I was at Rensing she urged me to read a book, Wild Card Quilt by Janisse Ray. It includes this passage:

Wholeness doesn’t have a beginning or an end, but is a process, a long service to honor our humanity, our own and each other’s. It’s like making a quilt. We start with pieces of a good, well-functioning life, and all our lives long we try to put them together until we finally have something beautiful that functions, that is whole, that makes us happy. Even then it will need mending, but that is the work of humanity.

That sounds about right. Thank you Ellen, and thank you to the wider Rensing Center community. It is a precious place, and I was honoured to be allowed to spend time in its embrace.

 - Michael Winkler

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

South Meets East

Rose M Barron
Multi-media artist from Atlanta, Georgia
July 2018

My 4th  consecutive summer residency at The Rensing center followed after returning from 5.5 weeks teaching art in China. I didn’t quite know how my time in China would influence my work but excitedly, I packed up the usual camera equipment along with 2 rolls of beautiful rice paper, orange ink brushes I had purchased in China and natural pigments I had been experimenting with.

Inspired by the lines and colors in nature near me at the pottery Studio such as the Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly, the Box turtle, the Kiwi vines, the waterfalls, various flowers and collected limbs and rocks my was full of flowing lines and earthy tones with splashes of bolder colors.

   Some Detail Shots

My usual work of Prop Making for Photo Shots


        Last but not least collaborative photo tests with Wanrudee Buranakorn 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Old World and New World Butterflies

From Laurence O’Dwyer, Rensing Resident
September and October, 2018

This morning it is good to end my stay with the ritual of the last two months – writing about a butterfly, my last butterfly; Dard Ros. I began my residency with Reina de la Ruda – an Old World Swallowtail.

I will miss the creatures here – humans included. I will miss the reading too. The birds listened. The squirrels didn’t. They keep climbing . One has his flight path by the tree nearest to my porch. He comes crashing through by late morning. He doesn’t seem to care for the noise he makes. With that kind of speed and agility he can do what he likes. I will miss him. Just as I will miss the quiet spider in the top corner of the porch. A house spider who doesn’t seem to do much work. I presume he works at some point but I don’t mind if he doesn’t.

And the port-hole window in the studio – I will miss the most, with the branch that almost touches the window where a green bird once alighted, just a metre from my eye. I didn’t dare to move, not even my writing hand. I was amazed he knew physics so well – his weight; that little branch – certainty – it held. I would not have made that calculation. That port-hole window may as well be my eyeball, magnified. We should have more windows like that!

But as I wrote to Ellen after I completed a chapter of an ongoing work that I finished here at the Rensing Center – windows and studios are just structures – it’s who makes them and opens them up to this kind of work that’s important.

I don’t know the butterflies here – except the Tiger Swallowtail; a New World butterfly. It’s iridescent sheen and wash of blue. If we were told that the Tiger Swallowtail was the rarest species in the world – we would believe it – for it is beautiful. But it is one of the most common species in the south; common as muck as I joked with a friend who has recently retired from the Environmental Protection Agency. And so the Tiger Swallowtail passed on to an everyday sight. Like so much here. The morning writing; the rising heat. Time to open the sliding doors to catch a cross breeze. It has been a monastic life here. I have rarely been more productive.

Laurence O’Dwyer

Dr. O'Dwyer reading his poetry at Chicora Alley, Greenville SC

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Thunder and Peaches and Birds

Betsy Andrews here. I'm a poet from Brooklyn, and I've been here at Rensing Center for three weeks, working on my new book-length poem, Crowded. It's the third in what will be a quartet of books based on the elements. New Jersey was the earth book, an anti-war meditation on the New Jersey Turnpike. The Bottom, an elegy for the ocean, was the water book. And this one, Crowded, is the air book because, well, it's crowded up there: drones and planes and particulate matter crowding out birds and bees and butterflies.

It's been gorgeous writing here on Pickens County, with its thunder and peaches and birds. Here's a visual diary of my time here, a hint at the beauty of Rensing Center, the community Ellen has built around it, and the deep, deep green of Upstate South Carolina.

I write about food for a living, and one of the journalistic tasks nagging at me when I got here was a big knife skills package I had to deliver to an editor in the midst of poetry-izing (luckily, I had done so much legwork ahead of time, it was just a matter of polish to get it out the door), so Ellen's beautiful knife here impressed me. I believe she picked it up at the Pickens Flea Market, a sprawling phenomenological happening on Wednesday mornings on the road into town.

There's an exemplary bratwurst to be had at that flea market, by the by, deeply flavorful. Who cares if bratwurst isn't exactly Southern? Get it with the works.

Even more impressive are the enormous head-on shrimp that get driven five hours from the coast in the wee light of dawn. Here's what I did with them. It was only days later, when Ellen rummaged in her greenhouse, that we found a little kettle grill, so for these guys, I got a bucket and a grate and grilled and ate them shell, head, and all.

But I was not here to eat. I was here to write, and write I did, in this sublime spot, in the middle of the weather, me and a zillion fascinating flying bugs. I kept a tupperware and a magazine to catch any that leaked in and show them back outside where I figure they're happier.

Hiking brings me material, since what I'm writing is ecopoetic, steeped in our relationship to the natural environment, and witnessing to its genius and our troubled dealings with it. So I hiked a lot. Here's a water hole I dipped into at Keowee-Toxaway State Park on a lovely, muggy day.

Once a month, they grind grains on the water-powered historic Hagood Mill. There's bluegrass and crafts, and this beautiful collection of old millstones in the millstone graveyard.

We went right from the mill to the Soapstone Baptist Church, which was holding its monthly fish fry, a fundraiser for the upkeep of the historic freed black cemetery and the future restoration of South Carolina's first African-American schoolhouse, right next to the church. Church deacon Mabel Owens Clarke has used her prodigious culinary talents in a mission to preserve the history and culture of her ancestral Little Liberia, a freed black community established here after the Civil War.

Evening comes to Rensing Center in munching cows, mockingbirds, and pigment-colored skies.

Gifts from the garden appeared on my porch: potatoes and onions here, along with a big juicy melon and a pile of peaches of flavorful profundity from the Pickens Flea Market.

It is hard to over-estimate the impact of peaches to Pickens in summer. Ellen and neighbor Ron got wind of a low-cost 100-pound haul they could pick up from Clemson University's experimental orchards, and they were processing peaches (yes, a gift of peach slices ended up on my porch, too) for days.

One of the natural marvels nearby: Twin Falls. If you're not a real hiker, it's an easy walk in, and there's a massive water hole right before the cascades. You'll find the parking area on Google Maps.

My 55th year came around on July 24th while I was here at Rensing, so I did what I always do on my birthday: I cooked for friends. A Greek feast this year, with grilled lamb (Ron used pine cones for fire starter), hortopita, tzatziki, taramasalata, Greek salad, thyme-roasted potatoes, dolmades.

Shopping for that birthday meal, I stopped in at a place that Ellen had told me about: The Pita House, in Greenville. It's an excellent Lebanese shop and restaurant, take it from someone who writes about these things for a living. Also great: Swamp Rabbit, on the way into Greenville from Pickens. Best natural, organic, biodynamic wine selection in these parts, for sure, and great local farm produce. Not cheap, but worth it.

Medicinal plant workshop at Rensing Center, with genius herbalist healer Amanda Dilday. "What's the pain telling you?" she asks. "The plant might have an effect on the way you move through the world, so if you're not ready to heal in your whole life, maybe don't take it." Good, holistic advice, but I feel ready to heal in my whole life!

Another super-duper easy place to walk (and bike, if you have a bike) is the Doodle Trail, an 8-mile path along the former railroad route between Pickens and Easley. The route bisects all sorts of different landscapes, from creekbeds to suburbs to farms and modern-day ruins, as shown. A young red-tailed hawk swooped low, screaming at me, nearby.

One bonus of the Doodle Trail: About a mile in from the Pickens parking lot is Aunty's Anne's a meat-and-three with superb fried chicken: steamy, tender inside and crunchy, salty out. Same goes for the fried okra. 

A more-serious hike: Eastatoe Gorge Trail. It's 6 miles round trip from the parking area inside Jim Timmerman Natural Resources Area at Jocassee Gorges, down a little-traveled, but expertly designed trail (mild grade, stairs at curves of switchbacks) to the creek, where I dunked in this luscious water hole.

Music night at the Appalachian Ale House! Kind of floored at the talent in these parts. People are plant experts or artists or amazing cooks or musicians. A whole bunch of guest players jumped in, including that guy with the bald head in front of me! He plays a mean upright bass. 

But my favorite was this gal, the one woman, and youngest player, of the night. 

The evening was a tribute to Mr. Robert Perry, longtime local moonshiner (he ran the still at Hagood Mill), bucket bass player, and host of a weekly pickin' and grinnin' at his Perryville, a town he built on his property for the purpose. I was lucky to meet him and his insanely cute dog just before he left this world at 78 on July 26.

Can't come to South Carolina and not eat BBQ. Happened to be a Wednesday, and choices of smokehouses are limited mid-week. Most joints are Thursday to Saturday. But I found the smoked babybacks delicious at The Pompous Pig in Anderson, and the sides were tasty too. Best cornbread I've had here, for sure.

It may seem like I didn't write a lot here, but I did. I just don't take selfies. So there's no shot of me crinkling my brow and composing some ferocious lines. I will leave you, though, with this poetic image of the Blue Ridge fading into the bumpy, blue distance, as seen from the top of Sassafras Mountain. 

Saturday, July 7, 2018

It Was a Busy Sabbatical

From Ellen Kochansky, Executive Director

(Above:  Ellen Kochansky with her artwork at Clemson University's Lee Gallery.  This invitational exhibition was called Upstate 8: SC Fellowship Women and was part of the South Carolina Arts Commission's 50th anniversary.)

After five years of non-stop Rensing Center residency administration work, I was anointed by the board with a sabbatical.  Countless others have found their serene place here at Rensing, reframing their outlook and their work by watching the goats and the waterfall. I did too.  Since September 2017, the critical priorities have presented and arranged themselves into a new and clearer form, with my mother's needs, the opportunity to make new art, and some traveling to visit my friends and family taking center stage. Perspective, the reason we chose to look at life from the small village of Borseda in Italy, has appeared in Pickens. As those priorities became clearer, I remembered how artwork falls into place when we squint.  I call this VALUE JUDGMENT, and I've given this lecture often.  Here was my chance, in the nine month gestation period, to give the note to self!  

At a Penland funeral for the icon Paulus Berenson, old friends came through with just what I needed.  Bobby Kadis asked me, "How's that Rensing thing going?"  I said, "After five years and 84 residents from nine countries, I'm exhausted. I need a week at the beach!"  He said, "I can do that for you."  Nol Putnam, my mother, and I had a glorious rest.


The undercurrent is that Rensing's best and most compatible alumni and friends stayed in touch, and my choice to anoint a group of Rensing Fellows turned out to have been a good one.  These fellows were given first dibs on the single, summer session for 2018, and they all said "Yes!"

Many other wonderful things have happened including the return of Catherine Cross Tsintzos.  During Catherine's May 2017 residency, she planted indigo on the Rensing farm.  She returned for a harvest and dyeing celebration on Saturday, October 28th, teaching a sold-out workshop on growing South Carolina indigo, bundling, folding, clamping and exploring the vats of blue dye.There was an exhibit of examples, reading/study materials in the Rensing Library and a festive spread in the gallery space with celebratory snacks and glorious florals by board member Ron Few.

Participants worked hard all afternoon creating fabulous fabric!

Catherine returned to the Rensing Center on January 28th and 29th to teach "The Art of the Page", another wonderful workshop where so much creativity was unleashed.

Participants for these two workshops came from all over the country.  They contributed to the life and mission of the Rensing Center but also made their economic impression on the local community.  Many hope to return and bring friends, spouses, and other artistic types.  These were the most profitable workshops held at the Rensing Center and promised a new potential for us.

As the new summer session began in May, the Rensing Center partnered with EMRYS, a Greenville literary society, to host the winner of their chapbook award for the second year in a row.  Dr. Mary Moore, Professor Emerita in the English Department of Marshall University, was this year's winner.

On Monday, June 4th the Rensing Center unveiled Timshel/Thou Mayest, a new sculpture by Rensing Fellow Dr. Keith L. Andrews.

Dr. Keith L. Andrews says of his sculpture, "Human have always been uncertain of the relationship between our free will and the great forces that impinge on us.  In Genesis 4:5, Cain was told that he must meet sin (or was it disobedience or ignorance?) Depending on the translation of the Hebrew word timsel, Cain was either being commanded to overcome the challenge or was being reassured that he would confront it successfully.  In East of Eden by John Steinbeck, the translation from Hebrew is "Thou Mayest".