Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Clothesline at the Rensing Center, May 2021

(Above:  The Clothesline Installation at the Rensing Center, May 2021, created by Susan Lenz.)

The Clothesline Installation started with a proposal sent to the Enos Park Art Residency Program with the Springfield Art Association in Illinois.  The proposal called for a "creative clothesline" made from vintage and found textiles that would draw attention to the benefits of line drying, the need for household energy conservation, and the beauty of doing things BY HAND!  I started cutting, fusing, and zigzag stitching hand prints in January 2020.  Little did I know at the time that COVID-19 was already spreading its way across the globe and about to change everything.

Shortly after returning home, the cancellations, indefinite postponements, and business shutdowns started.  Phrases like "social distancing" and "contact tracing" and "flattening the curve" became commonplace.  Mouse House, the limited custom picture framing business I have with my husband Steve, was deemed "non-essential" and forced to close.  This gave me time to continue making more and more items for The Clothesline. Basically, I made a lot of pieces for the "future installation", and my project even spoke to the pandemic ... as in ... "Wash your hands"!  By the end of the year it was clear:  I needed a place to experiment.  I needed a place to attempt putting up a temporary, non-invasive clothesline.  I needed a BIG patch of "green" and time to work!  I applied for another art residency at the Rensing Center and got it!

My action plan seemed simple enough.  I was going to use a sledgehammer to pound half-inch wide, ten-feet long, galvanized electrical conduit two or more feet into the ground.  I was going to zip-tie a large screw eye into a previously drilled hole in the top of each conduit.  I was going to string a clothesline through the screw eyes, safety pin the items to the line, and add clothespins "for a proper look".  Like many of my plans, this was hilariously flawed but good enough to make a start!

I learned many things.  I learned that at no point in my entire life (even when young and fit) could I ever wield a sledgehammer ... not with one hand while the other held the conduit ... not when on a six foot ladder attempting to hit a ten foot pole ... not if it meant the darn thing needed to be swung higher than my own waist.  What on earth was I thinking when I put the sledgehammer into my cargo van?  Thankfully, a regular hammer worked. 

I learned that one can't drive an electrical conduit into the ground deeper than top soil.  If one hits solid rock, that's it.  Solid rock at the Rensing Center is approximate twelve inches under the grass.  I learned that fire ants bite ... so look down often.  I learned that wind is a real factor and had to be addressed almost immediately.  I learned that keeping a straight line doesn't matter.  In fact, a meandering line looks even nicer.

Thankfully, I had a back-up plan (or a place that I knew that would rescue me!)  Bivens Hardware store is awesome!  Family owned since 1923, Bivens' staff really HELP people and they sure helped me.  I came with just five electrical conduits.  I planned on purchasing more at Bivens.  After precariously pounding my five electrical conduits into the ground, I learned that eight-foot lengths would be better.  I can't cut electrical conduit.  Bivens can and did.  Bivens also drilled the holes on the ones I purchased there.  What took me an hour, took them minutes.  They also had plenty of rope and tent pegs to stake the poles against the wind.  With this help and the "gift of time and space" provided by the Rensing Center, I learned how to install a temporary clothesline.  Next time (and hopefully I'll get a "next time"), it will be easier and quicker.

I had hoped to install ALL the pieces made for this installation and accurately measure the yardage.  That didn't happen but that's okay.  Bivens ran out of electrical conduit.  Only a little more than half the individual pieces made in onto the clothesline.  Yet, I can now claim "more than seventy yards" ... because that's what's hanging now!  I also learned that my Clothesline Installation can withstand strong winds when the poles are staked using tent pegs and rope.  I learned that my Clothesline Installation can withstand an entire night of rain!  It dried again in the sunshine ... just like any other clothesline!  I also learned that cows seem to enjoy art installations!  I am grateful for the time and space at the Rensing Center to figure all this out!  THANK YOU!

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Holding Space

Lynn Deanne Childress
Madison, Wisconsin
January-July 2020

Holding Space

For years I had been working and writing on the side--my dream was to be able to stop working and write full-time. The Rensing Center held space for me to realize this dream; or rather, it gave me a chance to find out if full-time writing was as essential as I believed: it is not. But learning to hold space for yourself is essential. My earliest lessons in holding space came from being at the Rensing Center. It freed me from the obligations and relationships of my ordinary life, which gave me time. It freed me from the strong ties of my possessions, which erased memories. It taught me the best lesson: the truest vocation is to be honest about your circumstances and your actual abilities.

The next lesson in holding space came in March 2020. I was scheduled to leave at the end of the month, but things began to crumble. The Rensing Center's Material Mindfulness/ Draw-Down event for March was cancelled because of COVID-19. Shortly, thereafter, we entered lockdown. The Sunday potlucks ceased. I began ordering food online and from the Clemson Area Food Exchange to avoid the grocery store. The first Sunday Garden Party on April 5 became a socially distanced funeral for Bob the cat. Evelyn's 100th Birthday Party was shifted to Zoom. The incoming artists were delayed until another time. COVID was now holding space for the Rensing Center.

By May, I had become something of a hermit at the guesthouse. I focused on what was immediately around me--the Viburnum bush, St Brigid's well, and the Cherokee Rose were all wearing crowns of honeysuckle, trailing fragrant streamers. I could feel who I was because everything else in the world had been deprived of its energy, dried up and blown away. All that was left in the space was a beautiful, pure, gentle, calm, joyful human being. This is the moment that I will hold as the gold standard for being, against which the other moments will be measured, when life becomes too crowded again.   --

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Middle of Nowhere

Abby Minor

Aaronsburg, Pennsylvania
August- September 2019

The Middle of Nowhere

Last week I sat on Ellen’s screen porch lit by tall candles, around the table with five others talking into the night. There was talk of indigo dying, talk of community organizing, talk of gardening, talk of physics. Having been in residence at Rensing early in 2016, having returned to these foothills three years later, I’m struck again by what a good place this is to think, to re-think, and to make art. It’s the informality and the lack of pretense that do it. It’s mingling with people who have so very many different realms of knowledge, interest, and skill.
Some people might take a look around here and say it’s the middle of nowhere. I wouldn’t exactly disagree. I myself grew up in the middle of nowhere, on a road called Miles Hollow in the ridges and valleys of central Pennsylvania. I like being in residence for a while now on a road called Mile Creek, decades and hundreds of miles distant from that kid I was biking up and down that road I grew up on, but sounding a bit the same.
My paternal grandmother grew up in West Virginia. When I tell the details of her childhood it sounds like I’m making a bid for president, aligning myself with the salt of the earth: Her mother worked at a glass-cutting factory; she walked three miles each way to school. For many years I thought of her life as occurring in an entirely different universe from that of my other grandmother’s life, my maternal grandmother who was born on the Lower East Side in Manhattan—her parents spoke Yiddish; she smoked cigarettes on stoops and went to lectures at the 92nd Street Y.
But both of my grandmothers, I think now, lived much of their lives in the middle of nowhere. Both socialized on porches or stoops, and lived nearly all of their lives in one or two zip codes. The world didn’t see either of them as “someone.” Both were reared in a kind of wilderness.
Perhaps because I am descended from these women, I feel most interested in people and places that feel unwatched, un-branded, informal, anarchic. Whether I’m in Appalachia or New York, I crave the beauty and the electricity of the unexpected, the un-branded encounter, rather than the bored familiarity of the suburbs or much of the moneyed art scene. If art is a way of being in communion in as many directions as possible—up, down, left, right, and directions we don’t even know about yet—then too much energy towards the fallacies of “someone” and “somewhere” can get in the way of those flows.
Walking up the hill from Ellen’s house, after dinner and conversation, walking beneath the stars, I thought: The truth is that everywhere is the middle of nowhere. I like places like Rensing that are honest about that; that relish that, mine that, plumb it, explore it, delight in it. It’s the only place we ever really are, and it’s a wonderful place to be.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Echoes of This Place

Maggie Gourlay

Rockville, MD
August 2019

The Echoes of this Place

During my three weeks at The Rensing Center I was transplanted into a new world, quiet with the chirp of birds in the morning, the quiet heat rising at midday in August, and the cool nights punctuated by thunderstorms that raged quickly and evaporated. I was transported into this little pocket of Appalachia, with the mountain trails, waterfalls, and wild turkeys, the Tuesday nights at the Ale House with the camaraderie of townsfolk coming together with their fiddles, guitars, harmonicas, mandolins and banjos, singing and playing together for hours. The Wednesday morning flea markets, the Bee Well Farm Festival, the Liberia Fish Fry, the Hagood Mill, all a rich backdrop to the residency itself. I had been transplanted into a new world of my porch studio, my little apartment, the Forge, near the library with books from floor to ceiling (where I encountered Wendell Berry who had me hooked after three pages).

This is a gift of space, of time freed from other obligations, free to focus or ruminate, a different vantage point, to do, make, test, try, fail, succeed, and then repeat.  Ellen’s gentle encouragement (as an artist she knows), her Sunday potluck dinners, her introductions to the folk of Pickens, the trips to places and corners that make this place special, and her practice devoted to ecology, and creative thinking to create community permeates the ethos of the Center. It was a pleasure and an education to sit with the indomitable Evelyn, who brought perspective and a strength of intellect to our conversations. The wonderful story of Evelyn’s shredded WW II letters stuck with me, and in my paper making experiments, I took the notes I had written in long-hand, tore them up and used them as pulp or compost in the paper that I was making that referenced the kudzu that is a more recent immigrant to the local landscape. Unearthed from under the Forge, I used the ancient rusted tools to cast paper. I love having the echoes of this place infused in the work.  I return home, a bit sadly for having to say good-bye to The Rensing Center, Pickens, and summer, but refreshed and more grounded in my practice than before.

Maggie Gourlay,

Natural Beauty

John Rowell
Baltimore, Maryland
July-August 2019

Natural Beauty

I felt very fortunate to spend two lovely weeks in late July and early August at The Rensing Center. At the Guest House, I felt enveloped by the natural beauty of the woods and the trees outside my beautiful back porch, where I spent much of my time writing, reading and reflecting. I worked almost exclusively on a new play, the subject of which involves a great deal of research into the world of the New York theater in the mid-1950s, and on my porch (far from the streets of Times Square about which I was reading!) I read, studied, took copious notes, drank a lot of coffee and iced tea, and the occasional gin and tonic, and gazed out at my little corner of Rensing for many long and pleasurable hours.

Ellen generously opened up her home for wonderful, memorable meals on Sunday evenings, and this was one of the most enjoyable aspects of my time there. Ellen's friends in Pickens and nearby towns are wonderful, interesting, creative people doing good work in that corner of the world. Everyone there, including the amazing Evelyn, is a wonderful storyteller and full of tales and lore about Pickens and the area. I loved listening to everyone talk!  

I also spent a great evening at the home and gardens of Jon Fritz, a gifted locale landscape gardener who is also associated with the center. It was amazing to see what Jon had growing and blooming, and to take his expertly guided tour of his property.

Later in the week, two new residents arrived, Eric and  Maggie, and Ellen's marvelous friend Ron Few took the three of us out for an evening in the hidden gem town of Greenville. We walked through the park, alongside the falls and downtown areas, exploring the main street and its terrific bookstore, Judson's, and having a lovely dinner in one of the many cool restaurants that proliferate on the street. 

The next day, the last of my residency, meant having to say goodbye to Rensing, but I hope that proves to be only a temporary goodbye. What a wonderful time I had there, I shall never forget the beauty of the landscape, and the genuine goodness and creativity of the people who inhabit it. 

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Finding Comfort

Eric Sasson

Brooklyn, New York
July 2019

Finding Comfort

I wasn’t at the Rensing Center for very long—my residency was interrupted by a death
in the family—but my time there was quite special.

For the first week, I got to live and work in the Guest House, which was spacious and
comfortable, with a terrific porthole bubble window, a large screened-in porch, and
fantastic, southern-style air conditioning. I was getting so much done that I was set to
finish the work on my novel early and would have time for another project.

That first Sunday night dinner at Ellen’s house really set the tone. Everyone was so
friendly. I discovered that Evelyn, Ellen’s 99 year old mother and a force of nature, grew
up just minutes from where I live in Brooklyn. Ron made excellent pimento cheese. We
chatted for hours, and I had the unusual and quite pleasant experience of not being the
only gay man at a residency- apparently Rensing attracts many local LGBT folk as well
as residents.

The next Saturday Ellen graciously took me to the Mill where there was a banjo festival
going on. Both the mill and the festival were so charming, Later that afternoon we went
to Mabel’s Fish Fry at the baptist church, home to one of Appalachia’s oldest African
American communities. While there, Roosevelt Aiken gave us a tour of the old cemetery. All of it was eye opening and such a treat – I was particularly excited to learn about the area's history.
And that southern hospitality and food- it can’t be beat.

I didn’t know that I would be coming back at all after my residency was interrupted, but
I decided that since I would be driving north from Miami anyway that I might as well go
back. I felt so comfortable there, and was eager to see everyone again. This time, I
stayed in the Forge—another great space behind the library.

The next six days flew by. We had another excellent Sunday night dinner. I found a
gorgeous copperhead snake (dead- I’m not crazy) on the road, and the next day I found a
box turtle at almost the same spot, who I took back to the apartment and tried to feed.
Once I realized he was having none of it, I released him back into the woods.

On the night before I left, Ron took us all to Greenville. Ellen insisted we go, and I was
glad she did. So charming! The waterfall and bridge are picture-perfect, the town is
adorable and green, and they have a great bookstore and many restaurants.

Rensing is terrific. I love it when I get to go t a residency where I can not only be
productive but also immerse myself in the local culture. And to have such a charming,
warm and caring host as Ellen is just the cream on top of the (peach) pie!

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

This Place Gives Me Hope

Betsy Andrews

Brooklyn, New York
May 2019

This Place Gives Me Hope

A sampling of people I have befriended and broken bread with while on residency at Rensing Center in Upstate South Carolina: Mabel, the garrulous founder of the Soapstone Baptist Church fish fry and the anchor and preservationist of New Liberia, the historic black community established in Pumpkintown after the Civil War; Mike, the anthropologist, who has helped Mabel tell her deeply American story; Evelyn, who at 100 years old, remains the feminist intellectual and artist she’s always been, designer of buildings and teacher of children, courageous driver of golf cart despite her legal blindness; Jon, the landscape architect who knows every plant in the forest and field, and who’s been out and proud since his teens; Joel, mushroom farmer and gentle soul, and his partner, Tasha, who makes gorgeous wall hangings and fabrics with natural plant dyes; Ron, the retired antiques dealer whose cornbread is the most delicious in the state, and who seems related to everyone in Pickens; Amanda, the spiritual and herbal healer, who leads plant walks in Rensing woods.

There are so many more: the moonshiner, the mathematician, the musicians who jam at the Appalachian Ale House; the brewer, the literary journal editor, the tattooed painter, the maker of shrubs, the food justice activist, the Clemson students who are digging at the plantation house on campus to uncover the lives of the black folks who were forced into slavery there. And, of course, there’s Ellen, maker of quilts of all kinds, including the crazy quilt that is the community that gathers for shared inspiration and solace—and potluck dinners—at Rensing Center, an oasis for humans on a country lane in Pickens. I mention them here because I have been so moved and educated by the artists and
progressives and visionaries I have met in Upstate South Carolina that my poetry has
flourished for the energy they have given me. In that corner of South Carolina where Pickens is,
people reside who welcome the crazy quilt of diversity and humanity that makes our nation, our
planet, a place worth being in and working on. As a political poet, an environmentalist poet, an activist poet, a poet of witness, I really couldn’t ask for more from a residency than to be reminded every day by the community that makes it, that with shared love and creativity, there is hope for us as a species on earth. This is what Rensing Center is to me. Lately some folks leading this country seem hell-bent
on hatred.. But there’s love enough to overwhelm them. I’m convinced of it. And I thank all the
Rensings everywhere for backing that assertion up.