Friday, December 2, 2016

The Rensing Center - a Blog

Nol Putnam
Flint Hill, Virginia
Fall 2016

The Rensing Center - a Blog

    My residency in the late fall of 2016, is not my first visit to Rensing. It was, however, the first visit with purpose. I am a smith and a writer … in that order. I left the smithing at home, although I confess to bringing my favorite forging hammer, just in case the writing proved too hard or the itch became too severe. G.C. Waldrup, poet and guardian of the residency program agreed with  Ellen Kochansky, the creator and director of Rensing, agreed that I should be allowed to attend  as a ”‘craft elder,’ to do whatever he wants.” What a gift!

                                                                 The Guest House

       The year to date had been long, hard. Too much work, an impossible schedule, dogs to be walked, the cares of a very rural home, wood for the winter, the hawking of wares and filling commissions. I had planned hours hunched over the computer in the morning, teasing a memoir to paper; long walks in the woods after lunch; photos of landscape, beast and sky; evenings lost in the words of others from the Rensing Library or from Evelyn’s (Ellen’s ever interesting and knowledgeable mother) personal shelves.


       There was some of all of this. However, I realized I was dead tired from my year; exhausted in a way I had not felt since teaching in a private school some forty-five years ago. I gave myself permission to float in the gift of time. I did write (some four more versions of the current chapter); afternoon walks more often became naps restoring the synapses of body and brain; and reading often became conversations with Ellen and Evelyn or Ron or Pam or Chad, or Jon about where we as a nation of immigrants, as a people of good will, must head or lead from here.

"More Crackers, please!"
Evelyn, Ellen & American Beech

      I came to work within the rural time frame; with the pace of life dictated by seasons and sun; to slow myself down enough to think, to consider, to talk slowly and carefully. To converse with the goats while parceling out animal crackers. To watch the sun set through the big oak behind Evelyn’s house. To watch Ellen deftly shift from Director to Chef extraordinaire, with shrimp bought that morning at the Flea Market, or chicken, or a medley of vegetables too good to leave behind. Candles lit, a gentle presence, careful words, considered thoughts, truths we know in our bones and then rush on by … and, as I write this today, all lulled or washed by a gentle and long over due rain for Upcountry, South Carolina, stilling the beast of fire, while feeding the land before the big freezes. I accomplished little tasks for my “work time.” Repaired leaky hoses; a railing  for Evelyn across from the Guest House; a new latch on the Well House. Restorative chores intermixed with a deeply restorative sojourn amongst people of depth, of thoughtfulness, dedicated to the land and its healing and to people doing the same.


The hand, fingers up, a universal sign of welcome, 
equals Rensing.

  Art, land, healing, equals Rensing.


           Thank you,

Nol Putnam
Blacksmith and sometime Writer
Flint Hill, Virginia 22627





Tuesday, November 29, 2016

At Home With Paradox

My first days and weeks back from my Rensing residency could probably be described as one long ascent out of a waking dream. From the distance of 3,000 miles, I've come to understand why: the residency "bubble" enabled by time away from home in a new environment; the cataclysm that was the 2016 Presidential election in a state that couldn't be any more different from my native Washington. I've made new friends I plan to keep for lifetime, written a number of poems I still feel good about, and have had my perspective shaken through encounters with people who hold beliefs and perspectives very different from my own. And reflecting on that time, I realize it's possible to emerge from such a dream and be changed forever. 

Autumn light in Six Mile.
A running theme during my two and a half months writing in the Guest House was the idea of paradoxes. I tend to go by the Merriam-Webster definition of the word paradox as a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true. The operative words: perhaps true. And common sense would long ago have had me living single track according to a comforting set of dictates that are emotionally satisfying but hardly the entire story. When I arrived in South Carolina for my residency, my Dorothy-out-of-Kansas dislocation had already primed me for that story. And as it unraveled, and I was shaken from my old narratives about people and the world and myself as a player in that world, an odd thing happened: where I had once been closed, I fell open. The hardened parts of me softened up. And the blacks and whites of my life slowly muddled together to become a lovely, if deeply unsettling, shade of gray. 

It's perhaps no coincidence then that gray is The Rensing Center's signature color. Ellen, Rensing's tireless executive director and an artist herself, is a self-confessed "queen of neutrals", and all this strikes me now as appropriate because it was during my residency that I realized that life's gray areas had always been one of my foremost impulses in my work as a poet. I recently spoke with a friend on the phone about this. I'd come to Rensing, met and dined with and befriended some wonderful people in this rural, Trump-supporting community -- and when election night rolled around, still lay fetal in my bed into the small hours, refreshing my phone and watching the poll numbers creep steadily towards disaster. How could this be? My friend's reply offered little comfort, but still rang with a truth I could feel inside my body: that it's fully possible to wear lipstick and protest the patriarchy; to celebrate Thanksgiving and live embedded in our deeply oppressive system of fossil fuels and still be outraged at what is happening to our indigenous friends at Standing Rock; to be a liberal who voted for Stein and still hold peaceable but probing conversations with deer hunters who voted for our new President. That holding of tensions is not to condone those who are destroying peace and equity on our planet, but rather to demonstrate the possibility that one can cleave passionately to a set of ideals and, with receptivity and curiousness, still be capable of peering through other lenses onto a world that belongs to all of us.  

Sunset on the screened porch in the Guest House.
The grim morning after the election, I went down to Ellen's house to carpool to the Wednesday flea market. We were pulling out of her driveway when we failed to notice the basket of gardening supplies left from the previous day's work party and ran right over it. The basket, though crumpled, still retained its shape. And there sat its contents -- baggies of seeds, a mason jar, a pair of gloves -- roughed up but somehow utterly undestroyed. 

The metaphor in this was hardly lost on me. 

A week or so later, Ellen invited me to participate in an exercise in her studio with some Rensing neighbors, writing out in calligraphy old stories we wanted to let go. Once they were down on paper, we read them out loud to each other and then we shredded them. And on my last day, I was given the fun experience of joining Ellen in her studio again to turn those strips of paper into collages over translucent silk. Beginning early on in my residency, a certain someone I eventually became very fond of had brought me roses, magnolias, pampas grass, tea olive, turkey feather, oak. Because I couldn't take all his gifts with me, I harvested pieces of each of them, then added them in with the strips of shredded paper. The specimens had been hanging from the wire in the Guest House over the weeks. Because I hadn't bothered to press them, the leaves had curled while drying and cracked as I glued them down. 

The collage, including strips of shredded stories.

I imagine looking at this piece years from now -- if it even lasts that long -- and remembering the beauty and presence that can be found in disintegration. 

I suppose no write-up of a Rensing residency should leave out the muse and founding inspiration of the place: Evelyn Rensing, with whom I didn't spend nearly enough time. But at 96 years old, and blind, and still delivering mail to me in her golf cart and walking the grounds daily on her own, she quietly showed me the meaning of two things: letting go of assumptions and never giving up. She was present for my collage exercise, and as goodbyes go I couldn't have asked for much more than that. 

Never stop moving: Evelyn.

I depart from my new family at Rensing with a lot of sadness, and with the promise to return in the future. I've been honored by the gift of a residency and the chance to step far enough back from my ordinary life to see my work and the world with new eyes. In this new season, amid a lot of fear and loss of hope in our country and communities, I am blessed to find myself rededicating my art to helping solve the many crises we now face.  

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Into Autumn at Rensing: Abundance

Hannah Lee Jones 
September- October 2016

Into Autumn at Rensing: Abundance 

The pasture at sunset

Always in life there are places you visit and remember with fondness – but also there are those places you visit that become part of you, such that you: a) put down stakes and opt never to leave, or b) bury a hunk of your indebted heart in the ground as collateral to ensure that at some point you make it back. The latter is already very much the case with my two-month stay as a resident here at The Rensing Center, the former a yearning strong enough to warrant a fair amount of no-jokes reflection (following a trip this morning to the Greenville Farmers Market with Rensing neighbor Ron Few, I texted my aero-engineer husband in Seattle asking, where was Boeing’s South Carolina plant again?)

Here in Pickens, SC, the soil is deep red (iron oxide-rich as in western Kenya, another country I love), and the air hot and muggy (in the 90s today, in what I’m told is one of the very last warm days we’ll be having before the state’s weather decides it’s actually autumn), the katydids are humming, and the sun is setting over a land that enjoys the warmth of the subtropics almost year-round. But for the skies' distinctive “pink of the evening” serving as my reminder that the candle is quickly burning on my time here, I'd ease into the dream state of a child who was going to live inside of summer forever.

Bell jar, mason jar, and cuttings in the library

Driveway/path to the Pottery from the Guest House

Jon Fritz

At the halfway mark of my residency the memories are carouseling into a bit of a blur, but the important things are easy enough to report. New billy goats arrived in the upper pasture on my first day here (see Rensing’s wonderful Facebook page). Weekly dinners at director Ellen Kochansky’s place have kept residents social and connected to the place and to each other, and for me they've been greatly needed respite from the frequently head-bonking work of writing new poems and stories. Jon Fritz, a local landscape designer/farmer and past Rensing Borseda resident, has been a supportive and generous presence to me and the other residents, giving us tours of the farms along Six Mile Road. Aijung Kim, a poet and visual artist who left us this week to return home to Richmond, Virginia, gave me my first lesson in how to sew together a chapbook, and inspired me during our walks together to see our surrounding nature with new eyes. To wake mornings in the Guest House to the calls of birds I don’t recognize, to walk in woods and not know the names of most of the trees –  these have all been invitations for opening and wonder, along with guided trips to the Pickens flea market and to historic Hagood Mill, or to the monthly fish fry at Soapstone Baptist Church where we visited the community’s Liberia cemetery of freed slaves.

And that's not even to mention the over-the-top kindness and chivalry/gentility of some of the good southern men I’ve met during my time here (the husband at home has been supportive); this Pacific Northwest gardener’s joy at finding eggplants thriving in the garden (plus peppers? God exists); the spontaneous gifts of bananas and oranges from Evelyn Kochansky (96 years old and the place’s incredible muse and founding spirit) – but when you’re a young poet cranking on new drafts with a 70% failure rate and have shelves of Eliot, Stevens, Camus, Rimbaud, and Kafka staring you down and daring you to see if you can top that, you’re going to take all the support you can get. And I am grateful to the Rensing Board and to poet GC Waldrep for opening the door to my stay here throughout this season.   

I’ll post more in a couple weeks with further reports on my excursions in writing, and in Pickens, and further abroad, out of this eco-haven and liberal-progressive bastion in the center of Trump territory (photos forthcoming of the Texas Longhorn cattle who are our neighbors –  if I can manage some snaps of the reclusive beasts when they’re not hiding from me).

With warmest greetings until next, 

- Hannah Lee Jones 
Resident, Poetry/Fiction September - October 2016

Friendly goats
Aijung Kim, showing me how to sew together a chapbook

Reading at the kitchen table in the Guest House on a cooler day

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Aijung Kim
Richmond, Virginia
September 2016


The view from my patio at the Rensing Apartment.

Today is my last full day at the Rensing Center. I leave tomorrow morning for Richmond, Virginia - an eight-hour drive to the city for a slow driver like me. For the last few days, I've been moving through the hours slowly, my mind already in the future, my heart trying to let go of this place so I can be ready to move on. My heart is sad.

Within a few hours of arriving at Rensing in early September, I knew this was a good and right place for me. I felt comfortable enough to allow myself to wander through the first week – taking naps, playing the piano in the library, painting the shed for my work-study hours, and working intermittently, while my energy started to gather. I napped a lot throughout the first week and a half, and realized that my body and spirit needed the rest after a busy summer. Ellen was supportive of this, encouraging me to feel less fretful about my lack of productivity.

Me, after I painted the shed! Photograph courtesy of Hannah Lee Jones.

Even though my ego wanted me to produce, I knew that something deeper was forming within me. Originally for this residency, I meant to work on carving linocuts to accompany some fairy tales and fables I had written over the past several years. I had planned to edit and polish the writing before I arrived so I could work on the artwork while I was here. But after taking a couple of writing classes earlier in the year, I realized that my writing still needs a lot of work and practice. I was not going to polish the stories before coming to Rensing.

Gathered gifts.

Instead, I came to this nearly three-week residency with a number of projects in mind: I wanted to finish the lengthy zine I'd started in June at my previous and first-ever artist residency, called ArtLab, at Mountain Lake Biological Station, take an online class to work on a picture book manuscript, start some short comics, and spend a little time on certain aspects of my art business – prepping digital files, photographing and listing products in my online shop, and carving some linocuts to sell at upcoming craft shows. And perhaps create a zine about Rensing as well. I was overwhelmed before I arrived at the residency.

Adorable young goats at Chad and Jon's farm.

Affectionate mamas.

I ended up working on a little bit of everything, except for making comics and carving linocuts. In fact, I mostly wrote during this residency, something I felt a bit self-conscious about because I have much less experience with words than with images. I outlined and wrote a draft of my experiences at my previous ArtLab residency, worked on a picture book manuscript, and took notes on daily happenings at Rensing. I learned what it feels like to write everyday, to write as a practice. And without planning to, I wrote poems in my notebook. Poems about what I saw and felt and dreamt: the goats, the wild persimmons, the piano, the dead rabbit that Bob the cat left for me in the bathroom on my first night here, the strangely similar dreams Hannah and I shared on the same night.

Some unfinished spreads from my forthcoming Rensing zine. 

As I realized that the writing and illustrations for my ArtLab zine required more time than the Rensing residency would allow, I switched gears and focused on making a zine about Rensing instead - a zine of the moment, one that I could finish in time for the Richmond Zine Fest where I am tabling next weekend. I told myself I'd keep it simple. Use the words I had already begun to write. So I did. It's going more slowly than I had hoped, as everything does, but I've decided I will finish it by next week no matter what, even if that means leaving out a few pages I had previously planned. I want this zine to be spontaneous and impressionistic. And I want it to be finished. One thing the two residencies from this year have taught me: in the ebb and flow of the creative life, it's best to catch the comet and not let go until it burns out. I work by obsession, and if I don't have proper time to indulge in the obsession, it's hard to put myself back into the mindset I had before. With my horrible memory, past experiences turn into a milky haze of pure feeling, with no detail or knowledge of where things begin or end. That's why the zines are so important to me. They help me to capture a place on the page. They anchor me to the ephemeral and prompt me to look deeper. 

Hannah and her horse-love, Rocky, from down the road.

Rocky eats an apple while I laugh.

During these final days at Rensing, I find myself counting out each of the last things I'll do here: this is the last time I'll visit the horse down the road, the last time I'll wash this cutting board and oil it, the last time I'll scrub the cast iron skillet. I can't let myself forget to bring home the sheet music from my high school piano lessons that my dad mailed to me from Rochester, NY. I don't have a piano in Richmond. Tonight will probably be the last time I play on it and sing, sing as loud as I want with no one hearing me. I need to make sure I feed the goats persimmons one last time before I leave.

From left to right: Ellen, Hannah, Ron, and Evelyn. 
Ron made the delicious Meyer Lemon Meringue pie they're all eating!

I will miss this place and I will miss the people: Evelyn, with her pure white hair and clear voice, coming by on her golf cart to feed Bob, Ellen with her ruler-straight posture, warm eyes, and wise words, Hannah Lee Jones, my fellow resident, with her eloquent poetry, diligent work ethic, and healing conversations, who has been a kindred spirit through our time here and will be lucky enough to stay through October to watch the foliage brighten. Neighbors Ron, Jon, Chad, Eric, and everyone else who stopped by the property to talk or work or share dinner with us. The goats, the cows, the swallowtails on the patio, Bob the cat. I have deeply felt the role of community during my stay here: why it's good and necessary to share knowledge, resources, talents, friendship.

Full Moon night.

Though I have a few things to show from my stay here, and more to come when I finish my zine, what I mostly benefited from here was the magic, the poetry of this place. Not magic in a vacuum apart from worldly problems and concerns. But magic that reminds you there is more than what we can see in the physical world. There is waiting and right timing, connection, acceptance, the ebb and flow of energies, coincidence. And benevolence: that's what true artists impart to each other. The benevolence of respecting and giving (to ourselves and to each other) the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual space we each need to function as creative individuals, as humans.

I know I needn't feel so sad. This place feels like home to me, and home is a place that will always welcome you back.

Aijung Kim, resident artist in September 2016

Bob, the best company to have while you're working.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Two Months at the Rensing Center: Towards a Radical Orientation (part 1)

Matthew Moore
Sudbury, Massachusetts
June- August 2016

Two months at the Rensing Center

A poet in the wind-up stages of manuscript revision can find, striving to bind the sheaf of poems under final orders, that what finally lets the binding set is a move or set of moves which move(s) against the grain of whatever thematic pattern or rhyme the manuscript pursues. Often such a move against the grain of one’s own work finds purchase in a tradition or A Tradition; preceding holds of value given shape and space by poets whose work in the past lends one’s own present work the ballast to jump-start the manuscript into the future of Poetry. The oratory and rhetorical hand-to-hand argument embedded at the level of the line in the inter-disciplinary poetry of the Black Arts movement has built, decade by decade, a wide foundational ballast for a range of contemporary poets working both in discrete lyric poetry that bears out the personality of a particular poet’s voice, as well as in experimental, voice-dissociative texts that benefit Poetry. That is one example of ballast that lets a manuscript book. 

I have worked on a manuscript-in-revision for the past seven years, and although parts of the revision process have found ballast in a tradition (historical vernacular) it wishes to shake up, and in A Tradition it seeks both the enmity and audience of (modernist New Criticism), my manuscript has long sewn division against itself to a fault. A contrarian’s contrarian. The past two months have changed this years-long stalemate. I was lucky, in April, in the middle of a personal geographical free-fall, to find myself landed by and at the Rensing Center, an ecologically-driven, aesthetically-directed, happily anti-bureaucratic, artist residency in the northwest nook of South Carolina, in the town of Pickens. Pried loose.

Pickens is upcountry, as local parlance has it, a half-hour south of North Carolina, an hour east of Georgia. While that cartography is readily available knowledge, the cartography that has brought my work order and bearing is that of the Rensing Center itself, whose single road—on which the guest house I am honored to be a guest is set—is paved under the direct and clear-of-trees path of the sun and moon. So the day and night have both hurdle and hurtle for the work of poetry. So each day and night shows readily its obstinacy against difficult work as well as its dog’s pant that says keep running, keep your blood up, poetry. Alignment, orientation, not matters I thought would have a hand in the revision of my work. Nor did I think I would find myself as alert a reviser as I have been under the blatant sign and rhyme of celestial bodies and alongside the Rensing Center's animal and vegetable hierarchies. For example, the vine, wisteria, is the upcountry’s Lear, every green thing at its hand’s disposal, and it tarries about, furious with forgetting and waking, a blinding migraine for its human subjects. Or the belly-groans and bells of the goats that go off every four hours. The thunder is on clockwork, too, in the summer months. This manuscript is still making a mockery of my efforts, in many places. But not in this place. At the Rensing Center, the role I've been given the space to take on the stage of my toy I keep toying with is a name I can read clearly for the first time. You must change your orientation.

- Matthew Moore 
  07 August 2016

Friday, August 5, 2016


Wanrudee Buranakorn
Eau Claire, WI
July- August 2016


Last month (June), I was an artist in residence at the Rensing Center again. For 3 weeks there, I took
photo shoots pretty much everyday (some days as many as 4 shootings).

This pic was a test shot as I prep to shoot myself dying my hair in the garden (an awesome garden built by the awesome residency's director Ellen Kochansky).

From a photo shot in the garden. Kiwi vines above what I call Shelby's gazebo shade strong afternoon sun and shine soft, even light to the subject.

Morning Light in the Garden

Rhododendron on Alder Creek (the waterfall trail). I walked this trail everyday to bathe in the waterfall.

I could find beauty everywhere. Here's an image from shooting right outside my studio-- the pottery.

Feed the goats, my neighbors.

My shooting territory extended beyond the Rensing Center art residency's property line. Here's at Jon Fritz's property. Thank you, Jon.

Magical landscape at the pond in the garden

Another area of the magical garden, right by the Pottery studio

Last but certainly not least, the Solstice Full Moon.

My residency began on the new moon. So I get to be there to absorb the energy of this special moon in its entirety. It is such a powerful thing.

With my deepest gratitude,
Wanrudee Buranakorn

For additional images and stories from my Rensing residency, you may visit my facebook page,

Monday, July 25, 2016


Franz Nicolai
Tivoli, New York
July 2016


You know that feeling, of the project that has been on your stovetop for a long time, but never quite made it to the front burner? PEOPSSONGS was that for me. Begun in 2011 and then tabled through almost five years of touring and then starting a family, it began to seem as if I would never get around to it, and that if I finish it soon it would never get done. Enter the Rensing Center. Tipped off by a friend and previous Rensing resident, I applied and was accepted for a summer residency. For three weeks, I could indulge the fantasy that I had no responsibilities, family, or life outside the library (AC helped) and focus on the blank slate and the blank page.

Workspace in the library

The artist Fly is one of the most prominent graphic artists to come out of the '80s/'90s Lower East Side squatter scene, documenting punk bands, the Tompkins Square riots, and the drifters, visionaries, and charlatans passing through that world. Her longest-running project is a series called "PEOPS": single-page, head-and-shoulders portraits of the characters and scenesters she's met, surrounded by transcriptions of her conversations with them during the sitting. A few are well known – Lydia Lunch, Art Spiegelman, John Zorn (who says "Her visions should be read every morning instead of your daily newspaper") – but most are anonymous members of what used to be known as the underground.

I went through Fly's archive, selected thirty of her portraits, and edited their words to provide a text for a song cycle. In keeping with the radical populist communitarianism of the artist and her subjects, the cycle was to be for a capella groups of any size, choral & polyphonic in the style of Eastern European village song or southern Sacred Harp singing.

I pretty quickly settled into a routine - a long early-morning run on the Doodle Trail in downtown Pickens (only possible before the heat really sets in), an hour or so of piano exercises (I'm also trying to get my hands back in shape for some upcoming shows in the fall), and then down to work, either on the spinet or the library pump organ. The pump organ, because of the sustain, was particularly handy for writing choral parts. When I hit a wall I'd enter the pencil scratch into Sibelius (a computer notation program) in the hopes that hearing even a tinny MIDI version would nudge me toward the next section. Failing that, lunch.

Two weeks' work on the floor...

Around dinner, I'd put in a few hours of garden work: trimming hedges and kiwi trees, weed-whacking, and, mostly, battling wisteria. I think I'm going to have a kind of PTSD about wisteria. 

The other residents and I didn't get out much, but I can recommend a couple things: for swimming, Devils Fork State Park (about 20 minutes away); for 75-cent pool and cheap beer, Smitty's on Moorefield outside of Pickens. There's a fancy new Goodwill in Easley. Definitely check out the old-time and bluegrass music on the third Saturday of each month at the Hagood Mill. And for random junk and lots of used guns, the Wednesday flea market (I picked up a silver-dollar belt buckle and a new used Swiss Army knife). 

In theory, I've told myself repeatedly this month, there's no reason I shouldn't be able to get this kind of work done at home. But in practice, of course, a substantial creative project sometimes requires time bracketed off and set aside with no distractions or excuses (procrastination, of course, still worms its way in). Many thanks to Ellen and the Rensing Center for providing that time.

- Franz

Friday, July 15, 2016

As promised, Cheese Day! (actually called Nurture and Culture)

Here is the story of our goat cheese-making adventure, told mostly through photos (I am a photographer, after all). Special thanks to Ellen for hosting, Pam, John and Chad for all the detailed information and the rest of the attendees for being so open and present. It was quite a day!

Learning how to milk a goat.

It's harder than it seems!

Thanks, guys. #squadgoals

Bob gives a good side-eye.

Can you tell I love this cat?

Tasting the goat milk. 
Practicing calligraphy and meditating on ideas of nurture.

Pam shows us how to make Paneer.

John demonstrates his salting technique.

Pouring off the whey - gently!


We each got to drain and take home our own fresh goat cheese!

DIY cheese draining.

Reflections on nurture using pieces of 100 year old wood from the Forge (a residence on the property)

John the dog whisperer.

How we all felt at the end of a long productive day!