Saturday, September 24, 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

Benevolence

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.