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, www.maggiegourlay.com

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.

Thursday, July 18, 2019


Gavin McCall

New Orleans, Louisiana
June- July 2019


     Last week, I left the Rensing Center. I’d been there almost a month, but left early to make
sure my house and wife and dog in New Orleans would be alright, as they were in the path of
then-tropical storm Barry. Barry left New Orleans pretty much alone, but when my wife
apologized for “making” me leave early, the first thing I thought about was how nature so rarely
takes our desires into account. A former professor of mine used to say that the most and least we
can expect from the natural world is apathy, and anyone who’s been made to feel small during a
natural disaster – even one that spares you – knows what that feels like. But even though I didn’t
leave South Carolina exactly when and how I’d planned, as with most things it all worked out
     This is part of what I was learning – relearning – at the Rensing Center: a life spent
planning is often a disappointed one, and often the best experiences are not the ones we plan for.
My plan a month ago was to lock myself up in the guest house and spend as much time as
humanly possible on my novel. I did some of that, but now that I’m home, I find that much of the
value, much of what I took away from my time in South Carolina, was the time spent not
focusing narrowly on my own work, but paying attention to the broader world that surrounds me.
There’s something about being so tangibly present on the border between worlds that
helps me remember to look beyond the narrow plans I make, to question not only what they are
but why I made them in the first place. Sitting out on the screened-in porch, close but not too
close to the treetops and birds and bugs, and exploring the surrounding trails and towns and
lakes, helped me to zoom in as well as all the way out. This past month, I’ve spent more time lost
in the worlds of my own work than I’ve spent all the rest of the year, but at the same time,
somehow, I’ve spent a lot of time aware of the broader world that sustains me.
     I mean this – sustaining – in the natural and physical senses. I sat under waterfalls and ate
peaches and blackberries exploding with the flavors of a southern summer sun, and I heard the
storms passing overhead and the cicadas growing bold again after they pass, and I spent shady
mornings pulling weeds and planting seedlings, then watching nature take over where I left off,
and in meeting and interacting with and learning from the other activists and artists and cooks
and farmers and open souls that are either naturally occurring there or else, like me, are drawn to
it. But I also mean it in a more spiritual sense, as the sustenance I get from being around all of
these influences does more than remind me of what I’m doing, but also why I do it. The Rensing
Center is a confluence, one of those places with more than its share of good things, like a spring
in dry land, like a cool, shady grove on a hot day – the place seems near to and completely
different from its surroundings, somehow more real because of it.
     Here’s an example: a neighbor down the road, Ron, told me a story about his
grandmother, who would wash her hair in the waterfall – the same one we had just hiked down
to the day before. He described her sitting on a rock and letting her waist-length hair down, hair
he as a child had never seen out of its tight bun, and how she seemed a different person, down
there. This story has become part of my understanding of the center – it’s a place people are
drawn to, but also one where truths can be more readily be seen. I sat under the waterfall before I
left, rinsed my much shorter hair in the refreshingly cold water, sitting, probably, on the very
same stone she had used way back when Ron, a child, realized his grandmother’s hair wasn’t
always up in a bun.

     There’s something about that place that helps me see what I’ve always been looking at,
but more clearly. Maybe it’s perspective, the physical difference that comes from doing the same
or similar work in a different location, but I think it’s more than that. The Rensing Center is one of those places where you can focus narrowly, looking only at your own work, whatever it might
be, but it’s also a good place for escaping that work, and I think this is sometime undervalued
among artists. Being able to spend an entire day cooped up in a breezy, shadowy porch while I
do almost nothing except immerse myself in the world of the novel I came to South Carolina to
work on, and then the very next day going to a flea market with Ellen and Merrie, eating a
delicious lunch of shrimp and freshly picked mushrooms from the woods, planting seeds in the
garden and finishing the day listening to a bluegrass jamming circle and drinking local craft
beer…there just aren’t too manly places that can offer such nurturing, varied fare, and as always,
I’m grateful for everything in which I managed to partake, this past month. Thank you to Ellen
and Merrie and John and Ron and everyone else who helped to shape this summer into one of the
most reinforcing periods I can remember.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Rensing: An Interpretation

Merrie Koester, Ph.D.

Charleston, South Carolina
July 2019

Rensing: An Interpretation

Rensing Elements by Merrie Koester

I am reading the blogs of the
visiting Rensing artists.
Each post is
a distillation of
Each interprets a personal knowing of
     the Thing That Is Happening.

There is a relativity of
perception, meaning, and feeling—
at once unified and complex—
     a special Rensing Sauce that you
know the moment it is on your tongue.

There is a collective thinking
through diverse and creative makings.
Here, at last—TIME and SPACE for
contemplative energies
     to emerge.

There is a healing in the trees…
A calling to be still as well as to flow all at once
inside this peaceful interface of land and water.

There can be evoked, as M.C Richards has observed,
     a “waking up to the preciousness of life”.

To IMAGINE Rensing is
     to translate a landscape.

To BE at Rensing is
     to find your wisdom through composting
as you make new soil with
your ideas, artifacts, and food scraps.

VISIONS can be articulated and
futures cultivated through
     a present-tense gardening of
community and the renewal of resources.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Emrys + Rensing = Permission

Jake Boyd 

Chicago, Illinois
June 2019

Emrys + Rensing = Permission

Emrys Scholarship Award Winner

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

Karen Ferguson
March 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!

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

Michael Winkler
Brunswick, Australia
March 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.