Saturday, July 29, 2017

Rest and Rekindling

Vanessa Blakeslee
Winter Park, Florida
July 2017

Rest and Rekindling

On my first day weeding in the tomato beds, I made sure to be on constant lookout for snakes. I dislike snakes and always have, and South Carolina, is, after all, rattlesnake and copperhead country. But, turns out what struck and caused my hand to swell for five days was my upsetting a wasps’ nest—two sharply painful stings. Moral of the story is: don’t get too fixated on a suspected threat, because you might just overlook what is right in front of you. This was my first residency where I’d signed on for work exchange, and I have wanted to get more hands-on experience with gardening for a long time. What was the experience of taking on tasks in new surroundings, plus accomplishing my own writing, going to be like?  

While I took Benadryl and iced my hand, I wasn’t in optimal shape to write, especially to rethink the novel project I’d come here with or to revise the stories for my forthcoming collection. Was something telling me to first rest and reflect? Let go and roll with the punches, I told myself, and set off to explore. First the library, where I stumbled across several books that I’d been curious about for a while. I felt an urgent need to reconnect more deeply with myself, to grieve and finally accept the state of our planet as climate chaos and mass extinction unfolds, and I found the space to do that in my studio at Rensing.
Several times I brought along a book, hiked the path to the waterfall, and enjoyed the cooler temperatures at trail’s end. What better place to read The Hidden Life of Trees? Walking back, I looked at the mosses, fungi, and stumps anew, my view of the interconnected ecosystem transformed.  

The swelling in my hand subsided, and I carried on tending to “The Secret Garden,” as I dubbed the well-laid but overgrown upper garden. The scent of ripening tomatoes mixed with earth refreshed my senses, and soon enough, after a few mornings of gardening, I returned to my studio, washed up, and felt the creative urge reawaken. Sometimes I worked at my desk, but more often, and when the temperatures cooled off enough, I wrote on my back porch. And kept reading: The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner, Gratitude by Oliver Sacks, Morningstar by Ann Hood. One day a fairly large creature crushed branches below; I crept over to the screen. A deer picked her way through the underbrush, eating leaves. I look up from my laptop and the cardinal and his mate fly from tree to tree. Late afternoon and into the night, the bullfrogs groan. We may not resemble one another, but we are all cousins—trees, birds, insects. Our DNA is more related than not; we emerged from stardust.
Here I revisited an older story of mine that I very much liked, drafted a new dystopian fiction and expanded another piece started earlier this year. Upon these pages you’ll find images of Rensing, from the Foxfire book on my shelf to the goats in the pasture. I have been struggling for much of this year with how to make art in a world that appears every day more ugly and insane—writing takes time to shape, even longer to publish and find its audience. Is there even a point? A visit to the nearby petroglyphs reminded me that humans have been making art for as long as we have been gathered around a fire in the wilderness, surrounded by many different threats, and will continue to do so. We make art because we are terrified and enthralled by the grand cosmic mystery, and because out of our lives we must make beauty, justice, and meaning. All we ever have is this moment.

There will be green beans, tomatoes, and figs to be gathered this week, and more weeds to be pulled, wasps to look out for, and snakes. There will be thunderstorms, rousing breezes. There will be conversation, cherry cobbler, and laughter. From my porch the sunlight strikes the leaves, bright green, and a blue butterfly dances. What else might make its imprint on my fiction, now, and after I leave? I’m ever grateful to the Rensing Center for the solitude, contemplation, and reconnection I’ve found here.   

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Portholes, Porches, Waterfall

Thomas Heise
Brooklyn, New York
July 2017

Portholes, Porches, Waterfalls

Three weeks ago, I arrived from Brooklyn, NY to the Rensing Center in rural Pickens, SC with the goal of finishing a draft of my novel, tentatively titled The Beautiful Ones. In a little less than two days, I’ll head back north with a completed draft of the manuscript and a thousand memories of the wonders that unfolded and revealed themselves to me while I was here.

Each morning for the first week, I looked out through the porthole window at my desk in the Guest House at the trees and climbing vines as if I were writing in a bathysphere lowered into the depths of the ocean. When it rained and water sluiced around the sides and down the concave window, I easily could imagine, as well, that I was sailing on a boat through the forest.

Eventually, I traded in the perspective of the window for the screened-in back porch. Since part of the Guest House is perched on a hillside, the porch is literally up in the trees. I could look up from my laptop at cardinals and butterflies lighting on the branches in front of me. This place is full of life and full of birds. In late June and early July, the days here are beautifully warm. Every few days a thunderstorm would roll in and the rain would fall so hard over the porch in a curtain that it was like writing from behind a waterfall. These “scenes of writing,” inspired by Rensing, have made their way into my book: they make a cameo in the novel.

The waterfalls were not just off my back porch. I discovered that the area is home to Twin Falls, a seventy-foot cataract (actually two of them) that is a short distance by car, but hidden away at the end of some winding mountain roads. Turn on your GPS, because there aren’t any signs. After getting lost for a bit, I eventually found the entrance to the trail up to the falls. A quick and easy hike and twenty minutes later, I was eating lunch near the rushing water and reading Werner Herzog’s Walking in Ice, his gripping and hallucinatory account of his trek on foot from Munich to Paris in early winter. Twin Falls seemed the perfect place to get swept up in Herzog’s thunderous prose.

I could go on about the magic of the place – from the simple pleasures of eating vegetables harvested that morning from Rensing’s garden, to the discoveries to be found at Pickens’s sprawling and completely amazing flea market, to the world’s two best goats whom I fed animal crackers daily, to the chanterelles that I foraged in the nearby woods, and – most especially – to the many enriching conversations I’ve had with the people who in their various ways are tirelessly contributing to Rensing’s ongoing experiment in art, culture, environmental consciousness, and fellowship. The South has always been a complex and fascinating part of the country that defies easy characterization. Coming here confirmed that for me again and again.

I found the Rensing Center, specifically, to be a place I could go into myself to do my work I came here to do and come back out of myself to reengage with the culture, nature, and people around me. I found it revitalizing to turn off the noise, the clatter and clamor of the rest of the world, for a time and sit outside and listen to the crickets electrify the air and watch the bright stars drift overhead.

Thomas Heise

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


Artemis Herber
Washington, DC
June 2017


Slowing down is the key to the pace of working at the Rensing Center. In this secluded and picturesque countryside in South Carolina one can find space and time to focus on the arts.  

A week ago I moved into a spacious former pottery studio that provides an ideal live-and-work space tucked away from busy cities and highways. Waking up in the morning, I’m drawn to my work desk with my first cup of coffee. When wired to my work, there is so much more time for experiments, explorations and process, without any time pressure. 

This is a place to connect with the natural environment through hikes to nearby creeks and state parks. Currently I'm exploring themes related to geology and deep time, and their entanglement with geopolitical issues. My research goes in two directions, on one side exploring actual sites, where deep time is revealed through washed out creeks, waterfalls and monumental rock formations, and on the other side digging into new publications and conversations about the Anthropocene. The Rensing Center is a perfect environment for my artistic searches and discoveries in both forms of exploration.

The organic farm on site allows residents to work in the garden and cook homegrown vegetables fresh from scratch. There’s never a starving artist here! The Rensing Center is a wholesome place to stay, to process, to explore and produce. 

Moving in day 1

Setting up my workplace day 2

After dumpster diving

Working on small scale experiments day 3

Exploration day 3

Exploration day 4

First selection of small scale work arranged as a Cabinet of curiosity in my studio space day 5

Experiments on a larger scale in front of the pottery barn workspace day 6

Experiments on a larger scale in front of the pottery barn workspace day 7

Assisting dog Odie:-) 
Experiments on a larger scale in front of the pottery barn workspace day 7

Continuous work on a super hot day 8 

-Artemis Herber

Friday, June 9, 2017

Getting Lost In Pickens, SC

Chelsea Whitton
Ridgewood, NY
June 2017

Getting Lost in Pickens, SC

“ be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender...” - Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Ellen greets me first thing in front of the EKO House
Today is the second-to-last day of my stay at The Rensing Center. It is about 9 am. It is early June. The air is clean and cool. The sky is the same shade of blue it has been nearly every morning—unfussy but completely luminous. Occasionally there are shapely white clouds.

There is a rhythm to the weather here. As the day goes on, the sun will likely warm this little kingdom until we are all fanning ourselves. The air will grow thick. The blue sky will slowly pack itself with juicy rainclouds and, at the densest point, at the center of the afternoon, a hard rain will fall and it will feel like a great and powerful exhalation. I will sit in the guest house that has been my home for a month, with both doors open, and listen to it move across the land. It will smell wonderfully.

Chuck & Izzy are attentive guests at
 "Healing Conversations: Remember"
Early in my stay, I had a conversation with Ellen about the necessity for both order and chaos in anything worth having or doing. It’s a dichotomy we’ve each spent some time thinking about, and have dealt with in our respective projects. Order is useful. It can even be liberating. When things go as planned, predictable and satisfying as the ticks of a second hand, we begin to feel safe. We say to ourselves, now we can let things run themselves a little while we ruminate and dream. But this is, of course, an illusion. We know it is, even as we’re thinking it. Disruptions happen. We roll with the punches. We adapt, and in adapting to the unpredictable, we arrive at new levels of understanding. A little chaos, too, is useful. What about a lot of chaos, though?

The six months leading up to my time at The Rensing Center resembled an elaborate obstacle course for some kind of hardcore chaos boot camp. I had thought that this residency would be an escape. I could leave the mess where it was and come to this tranquil hideaway to create and enjoy some peace and quiet. The thing about solitude, though, is that it isn’t always peaceful. And the thing about creation—it requires you to confront the mess, not hide from it.

The World-Class Pickens Flea Market  
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to put my finger on just what makes The Rensing Center so special. It is difficult clearly define, and still more difficult to put into words. Solitude here is served all-you-can-take. It is by turns exactly what you need, and completely overwhelming. When the latter happens, you can walk down the hill and join Ellen, Deb, or a fellow resident in conversation or activity. There is always something to do with your hands if you, like me, need physical activity to center your mind. And the aforementioned rhythm of the days serves as a comfort and an exfoliant. Every day you shed a little more of what is dead, useless, excessive, in favor of what is living and nourishing to your spirit and process. You relearn how to be fully where you are. You notice everything. You heal.

Who can resist a good old-fashioned Meat & Three?
There is a time to write and there is a time to feed the mystery inside you that make writing possible. In the same way that gardening is not simply about harvesting pretty green lettuces, ready to eat—you pull weeds, you hoe rows, you turn compost, you plant seeds, you try to gently keep the pests away, and you wait—writing is not as simple as sitting down at a desk and harvesting pretty green poems. If I’m stressed, if I haven’t slept or eaten properly, if I haven’t been reading enough, how can I expect my writing to flourish?
Over the past month I have been solitary in places that challenge me and make me feel wonder. I have spent time with strangers, whose stories awaken my imagination and empathy, whose differences are a reminder that the world is wide and that people are basically good.

When I leave here in two days, I will return to that chaos boot camp. Major changes are afoot in my life, and in the lives of those close to me. Some are exciting changes; some are tragic; some are just mysterious; all will cast me into unknown depths. Thankfully, I am balanced and ready. I will take Rensing with me.

-Chelsea Whitton

Saturday, June 3, 2017


Catherine Cross Tsintzos
Celebration, Florida
June 2017

Contemporary Aesthetic and Nature

The grounds and interiors of The Rensing Center display a collection of works by some of America's most collected and well-known American Fine Craft Artists.  When walking the grounds and spending time within the houses and educational buildings at Rensing, the aesthetic is right.

Works displayed share examples of contemporary fine craftsmanship in a multitude of mediums.  Rensing buildings and grounds prominently feature ceramic works, including a variety of clays, glazes and firing techniques (both wheel and hand-built), fiber and textile pieces, paintings, photography, prints, social justice pieces, mixed media, sculpture, blacksmith iron and metal work.


All share an earthly aesthetic that connects to Rensing’s emphasis on nature, whether one is working in or viewing the gardens and pastures, or simply enjoying them as backdrops to joyful get-togethers with progressive discussions about art and the environment.

The preeminent Artist Residency in South Carolina, on 27 acres, serving up to three Residents at a time, along with community programs.  When the aesthetic is right, magic can happen.  The works displayed at Rensing are ever-changing, but the core of the contemporary craft collection includes pieces dating back to artists working at the beginning of the American Craft Movement, nearing the end of the Black Mountain College reign.


Director Ellen Kochansky's work was included in 1993's "The Year of American Craft" by then President Bill Clinton, and was featured with the first White House Collection of American Crafts in 1995. This heritage of American artistry is a constant inspiration due to the contemporary aesthetic and nature. 

The Rensing Center's history is rooted in arts and education.  Artists of all disciplines, writers, musicians and environmentalists from all over the world come here and can immerse themselves in an art history that is visually placed in nature, all in perfect alignment with Rensing's mission and desire to elevate a harmonious experience.

- Catherine Cross Tsintzos, Interdisplinary Artist

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Monday, May 15, 2017

On Warmth

Sarah Stickney
Baltimore, Maryland
May 2017

On Warmth

When thinking about the ideal state in which to write, I often remember something

 Andy Goldsworthy says in the documentary about his work, Rivers and Tides: he

 is talking about making ice sculpture and says, "when the work is going well, I'm

 warm." Though my own work is in words, not rocks and ice, I feel similarly. When

 I'm writing well my body feels loose, lively. My perpetually chilly toes warm up. My

 mind turns from cold solid to warm liquid, and my thoughts begin to resemble the

 young calves I can see in Rensing's pasture, lolloping happily across the new

 spring grass.

The usual demands of daily life tend to freeze the poetry body-and- mind. I assume it

 is a survival tactic; the imagination goes into hibernation so as not to be harmed by

 the grind, by those who don't or won't believe in it. But a mere ten days here have

 been enough to warm and wake mine.

One of the immediate effects I noticed about being at Rensing was that I began to

 indulge in future dreams and plans. I began thinking of other ways that I could

 make time for writing, other places I might go, possible projects and new directions.

 Experiencing the blossoming excitement that came with these dreams made me

 realize how I had accidentally, imperceptibly ceased to dream in the past months

 of traffic-bills- work- worry. I know my best work has been done in those times

 and places in which the broadest possibilities felt tangibly present, and Rensing

 has helped me find that place again.

Just as some kinds of dailiness can wear, others support and inspire. With every

 passing day here my mind is more intact, clearer, quieter. It is readier to receive

 and be a vessel. I am so grateful.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Passing Through

As I wind down my time here at Rensing, I have been thinking about the value of putting down roots. South Carolina appears to be the sort of place where people have not only formed a deep connection to the land but are proud to have done so. People here even like to talk about genealogy, so, in the hopes of passing, I will give it a go.

I come from a long line of wanderers. On my father's side, we have in less than a hundred years made home in Moldova, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Baltimore, Berkeley, Albuquerque—I could go on, but I won't. Let it suffice to say that I am expanding on the tradition.

That I can do so is the realization of a long-held dream. Since the age of twenty or so, what I most wanted was to travel and write. Not separately, mind you, but at the same time. In this dream, I might park myself in a pension for a couple of weeks, writing furiously until it felt time to leave again. That I now manage to live this way and support myself feels like a minor miracle.

So why do I travel? The popular answers are wrong or shallowly right. The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page—so Saint Augustine tells us, but this is only true in the sense that people in one country have a big meal with wheat at midday and in the next country a big meal with rice at sunset. More importantly true is that the patient observer can learn everything there is to know about the world in each tiny village on the planet. You do not need to travel to know the world.

Twain writes, Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness...broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime. This is nonsense. Donald Trump is an extraordinarily well-traveled man, and his prejudices are in robust health.

No, one travels not because it is virtuous or useful but because one likes it. Traveling is fun—for some, that is. Some would rather stay at home. And I think this gets to the heart of why I travel: it is on the road that I feel most myself. It's simply how I'm wired: I travel because I was born a traveler.

But to everything a cost: The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about, G.K. Chesterton writes. Fertile things are somewhat heavier, like the heavy fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile. This is the cost of traveling. Living on the road, one has no time to let things settle and to let slow things happen. One becomes—and one starts to see—a world of speed and surface. Traveling isn't reading the book of the world—traveling is skimming.

Which puts me in a bind. I know that if I really want to see this world, I must pick a place and stay put until the land around me becomes a place of dreams, of scars, of birth, of tedium. But I know that I would not like it. To live that way would shut down a part of who I am. That does not mean I won't someday give it a try anyway, but I believe it does mean, regardless of how hard I try to put down roots, that I will eventually follow family tradition again and pull up stakes.

Friday, February 10, 2017

a local story

Though the Rensing Center does an admirable job of fostering community, it is not yet the true community center of Pickens County. That role is still filled by the flea market just down the road, a weekly morning of commerce in a wide muddy field.

Without corporate America there to mediate the buying and selling, one can appreciate the vastness of South Carolina's wants. Some vendors, for instance, have strewn their tables with nothing but rusty bits and bobs of metal--a truck hitch, say, and the business end of an old mattock. Before actually seeing two men haggle over rusted iron, I would have been dead certain you'd have to pay the landfill to take it.

Take a few more steps for the chance to buy a caged rooster and a stars-and-bars bandana from the same woman. Or, if not interested in ethically questionable poultry, why not buy a controller for a video game console that hasn't been manufactured in this century? Come on. You know you want it.

Which of course just goes to show what we already knew: there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. As we all do when we travel, I arrived with my own notions about what things belonged in the category called "valuable" and what things belonged in the category called "trash."

The categories we put the world into become a story we tell, a declaration of what we believe to be important, and I have appreciated the chance at the flea market to get acquainted with the story those in upcountry South Carolina are telling.

That story seems to have two centers. The first is Jesus, whom I run into again and again. His face is on the art I see for sale and his name is all over the books I thumb through, including the one I actually bought: Becoming a Woman of Excellence, a bible study extolling the womanly virtues of obedience, demure dress, and silence. The vendor suggested I give it to my wife—once I have one, that is. That I am to be put in the category called "Christian," I have come to understand, is simply assumed at this market.

The story's second center is race, which is entwined of course with Jesus. That he, a Semite born in the Middle East, is invariably presented as white at the flea market says it all. But race rears its head everywhere and even in the most surprising ways. For instance, the lonely man selling adult DVDs separates his grand collection into three categories: "White," "Latin & Asian," and "Black." Race, apparently, is also sexual taste.

All of which troubles me, but is perhaps not quite so different from much of America. What makes me feel most foreign in Pickens County is something wonderful: everyone seems to put me in the category called "important."

When I was fifty cents short on something I wanted, another shopper simply gave me money. People ask me where I'm from and how I like it here. Many seem excited to meet an actual writer. The produce man at the supermarket seemed happy to drop what he was doing to help me. Even the postal workers here seem concerned with whether or not I am having a good day.

Having spent my adult life in places where the polite way to show you respect a stranger is to leave them in peace and let them do their thing, I am consistently caught flat-footed by the local friendliness. I have no idea what to say when someone wants to make small chat with me, but it has at least shown me how, elsewhere I've lived, letting someone be often becomes just an excuse for not giving a damn.

I like this part of the Pickens County story, where the welfare of strangers is in the category called "everyone's concern." The trick, I suppose, is learning to voice care while also leaving people space do their thing. It will be my goal, when I leave the Rensing Center, to learn to do just that.