Like a Gift From the Air

In Thornyhold, one of Mary Stewart’s later novels, the heroine says that a message came to her “like a gift from the air.” 

That phrase perfectly describes how I feel about the beautiful ceramic vessel in the photo above, the work of Jim Kempes, husband of my friend Lesley Poling-Kempes. Lesley and Jim stayed with me last night on their way home from the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association show in Denver, where Lesley’s newest book, Ladies of the Canyons, won the Reading the West Award

When Lesley and Jim arrived, Lesley handed me a gift bag decorated with a sky-blue ribbon holding a sprig of juniper and chamisa from their place outside Abiquiu, New Mexico. In the bag was a copy of Black River, a novel which also won the Reading the West Award, and, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, Jim’s vessel. 

I took the ceramic piece out and cradled it in my hands, feeling the glassy smooth glaze, the lines of bumps like the knobby layers of sandstone in northern New Mexico cliffs, and the four sides with their rounded corners reminding me of the four directions of the earth. The lid was taped shut, and I didn’t peel back the tape and open it then because I was eager to show Lesley and Jim around Salida. 

We walked down the trail that runs across the creek from my house, explored the Steamplant, the historic steam generating plant that is now our town theatre and convention center. I took them through the Sculpture Park and showed them “Matriculation,” Richard’s sculpture there. Lesley ran her hands over the chisled rhyolite top stone with its 128 embedded marbles; Jim admired the big steel gate hinges that join the lower two rocks, opened like an opportunity beckoning. 


We walked along the river and I told them about the transformation of the Arkansas from a drainage that periodically ran orange with toxic mining waste to Colorado’s newest and longest stretch of Gold Medal trout water. We strolled F Street and admired the historic brick buildings, and visited Cultureclash, one of my favorite Salida galleries (the other is Gallery 150).  

When we got hungry, we headed to The Fritz, my favorite downtown restaurant. It was hopping and there wasn’t a table, so we sat outside on the patio with our drinks and talked about art and writing and life. Then we went inside into the busy warmth and ate delicious food while talking more. 

By the time we walked the few blocks home, Lesley and Jim were tired from their long day, so I made sure they were comfortable in the studio. And then, back in the house, I remembered I hadn’t opened Jim’s vessel. I carefully peeled away the tape securing the lid, lifted it, and gasped.

The inside is glazed in a deep midnight blue with lighter speckles that shimmer like the stars in the night sky. Carefully holding the ceramic in my hands, I turned it round and round, watching the light illuminate that starry interior.

“It’s like holding the universe in my hands,” I said this morning when Lesley and Jim came over for breakfast. “Thank you.” 

Jim smiled his warm smile, “I call that glaze Milky Way Blue.”  

“That’s exactly right,” I said.

Before they hit the road for Abiquiu, we took a silly selfie of the three of us below. Then they packed up and headed south. 

As I settled on the couch later to finish the slides for the WILLA Awards banquet at the Women Writing the West Conference in Santa Fe this week (where I’ll see Lesley again, since Ladies of the Canyon also won a WILLA), I remembered the phrase from Mary Stewart’s novel. 

“A gift from the air” describes both Lesley and Jim’s visit, and Jim’s beautiful ceramic art. Before they arrived, I had been feeling harassed and overwhelmed by all I have to do before I leave on Tuesday; by the time they left, I just felt good–my spirits refueled by our conversation and their company. 

I also felt a wave of grief that Richard, who left this life too soon, never got to meet Jim and Lesley. They would have enjoyed each other, and Richard would have especially treasured talking art with Jim. Their work is in a similar vein, abstract and rooted in a love for this earth. 

Richard outside his studio with Matriculation suspended by the crane he built for moving sculptures. 

Richard appeared in my life 34 years ago with his then three-year-old daughter Molly. They were another gift from the air. I’m fortunate to still have Molly, I know. But that doesn’t keep me from wishing her daddy–the great love of my life–was with us too. 

Richard 'n Susan

This One Does Not Equal Half of Two

Richard 'n Susan Richard ‘n Susan

For almost 29 years, I was half of two, the Susan in “Richard-‘n-Susan.” We fell in love at first sight at the birthday dinner of a mutual friend, after which my housemates invited him over to grill him (they didn’t trust my instincts).

They approved. We went on a date, an all-day affair involving a long drive in the snow and a leisurely soak in a steaming hot springs. After that, as I wrote in Walking Nature Home,

We were an item. We held hands wherever we walked. We talked about the future in terms of “we” instead of “I.”

We didn’t know each other well enough to make that kind of commitment, but our hearts didn’t care. We were crazy in love, and lucky too: that love grew and lasted longer than anyone would have guessed–Richard and me included.

Richard, Susan, Molly and Hypotenuse the cat (really!) Richard, Susan, Molly and Hypotenuse the cat

The chemistry of love carried us through some pretty blinking difficult times, many of those of our own making. Learning to parent together to raise Molly, bouncing around the country for his career, dealing with family tragedies–the usual challenges of life, any of which could have peeled us apart.

My inner redhead was never shy. When I get mad, I am MAD. I don’t stay mad very long though. And when it’s over, it’s over.

Richard considered himself even-tempered, which I learned meant he didn’t let his anger show easily. But when he did, he didn’t get over it–I know because I got pretty good at finding that boiling point. He sulked, he stewed, he brooded. For weeks.

"Paula's Find," a one-ton granite and steel firepit Richard sculpted. “Paula’s Find,” a one-ton granite and steel firepit

Richard was brilliant, both left-brain and right. He was the deepest thinker and best analyst I have ever known. He spoke mathematics like a language.

His ability to understand stone, steel and wood and what they have to say to us was extraordinary. His sculptures and basins still elicit that in-drawn breath that says, “Wow!” People reach for his work, wanting to touch, to connect with that surprising and beautiful other.

After so many years together, Richard and I finished each others’ sentences and thoughts. We seemed indelibly paired. We certainly thought we were.

Until, thanks to brain cancer we weren’t.

We always held hands.... We always held hands….

Now, two years after his death, I’m coming to realize just how much one by itself does not equal half of two.

I am not the person I was as part of a couple. I don’t want to be. There is no Richard anymore (except in my heart, in memories and stories, and through his art). I have to figure out my life on my own.

Turns out I like the “on my own” part much more than I would have ever imagined. I am not social and I no longer have the patience to compromise.

I like having quiet if I want quiet, or playing Emily Lou Harris loud if I don’t.

I like deciding what I want to eat when I want to eat it (or not eating at all if I don’t feel like it). I like writing in bed before dawn, working straight through when I’m on a roll, and making my own choices every part of every day.

Creek house living room Creek house living room

I like–no, I love–having my own space, designed just for me, and arranging it exactly the way I want it.

I loved living with Richard. He was the heart of my heart, my other soul, and all that mushy stuff. Sometimes he annoyed me, sometimes he made me mad, but we really belonged together. We were each others’ other half.

Then how can I love living alone? I don’t know.

But I am discovering just how much this me does, the me who is one by herself–no longer half of two. I didn’t know I still had so much to learn about being me. I didn’t even know there was a me who could be so happy as one–solo, solitary, alone. That’s me now.

The first page of the sale flyer for my house/cottage/historic studio.

For Sale: Salida “Creative Complex”

The first page of the sale flyer for my house/cottage/historic studio. The first page of the sale flyer for my house/cottage/historic studio. (Click the “sale flyer” link in the blog text to the left to download the actual flyer.)

I’ve done it. After more than a week of agonizing over just the right words and photos, I finished the sale flyer for my house, its attached guest cottage and Richard’s historic studio.

I printed out the first copies and distributed them around town. I gave them to friends who will pass the word around, and posted them on bulletin boards in key places. Next comes the email campaign. I’ll send them to out to my extensive list, starting here in the Upper Arkansas River Valley and rippling out across the country, spreading the word.

Why would I sell this beautiful house/guest cottage/historic studio complex on an unusually large city parcel–nearly three-quarters of an acre, a place with a spectacular view of the mountains, a place that’s walking distance from the Arkansas River and Salida’s lively historic downtown? A place I’ve put sweat, time and a good bit of cash into finishing (and I’m close to being done)?

Richard and I imagined this once-neglected property as our “last home.” He lovingly restored the crumbling old studio and then helped design and build the house and guest cottage, applying his gorgeous terraphilic sensibility to bringing the earth inside with sinks carved from local rocks, sandstone shelves sprouting like outcrops from the walls, and many other custom details. It was perfect for us.

This decidedly junky and blighted property before we adopted it. (Or it adopted us. I've never been sure.) This decidedly junky property before we adopted it. (Or it adopted us. I’ve never been sure.)

Until “us” ended with his death from brain cancer in November of 2011. Now it’s just me. I don’t need the 4,100+ square feet of finished space that comprises this creative complex. And while I’ve loved the challenge of reviving what once was a rundown industrial half-block anchored by a neglected brick millwork building, the property shines now. It’s time to let it inspire someone else.

As I said in my email transmitting the sale flyer:

As part of right-sizing to fit my new solo life, I am putting this whole “creative complex” up for sale, including my beautiful custom-designed and built house with its attached guest cottage, and Richard’s renovated studio. (I’m not moving far–I’m building a tiny house at the other end of the block.) I’m eager to find just the right someone(s) who will love and be nurtured by this extraordinary property with its incredible views and inspiring spaces!

June wildflowers in the front yard "unlawn." June wildflowers in the front yard “unlawn.”

So please help me spread the word: Feel free to re-post this and send the link for the sale flyer to anyone you think might be interested.

I’ve even planted the organic kitchen garden. Whoever buys the place will get eight varieties of heritage tomatoes, ready to pick, plus strawberries, asparagus, sugar-snap peas, scarlet runner beans, mesclun lettuces and herbs and more…. Yum!

I’m ready to move on. This beautiful place, bursting with wildflowers in summer and love and light year-round is ready to embrace its new people. Thanks for helping me find them, whoever they may be.

Pouring the slab, the floor of my tiny-house-to-be this morning.

Progress report: the Red Queen and Rainbows

Pouring the slab, the floor of my tiny-house-to-be this morning. Pouring the slab, the floor of my tiny-house-to-be. (The blue walls in front are the foundation.)

I feel like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: running and running just to stay in place. As she explains to Alice,

…It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!

I am running as fast as I can, but life is still speeding past me. Perhaps because I’m trying to do too much? Huh. I’m going to consider that. Later.

Construction on my tiny house is one thing speeding along, despite a spate of bad weather in late April. The house is  coming “out of the ground,” thanks to my excavator, Tommy Meyers, my concrete guys, A-1 Construction, and my contractor, Dan Thomas of Natural Habitats.

Hand-troweling what will be my finished floor and also the heat-sink to store winter sunshine. Hand-troweling what will be my finished floor.

Today the cement truck beeped its ponderous way backwards up the ramp leading to the top of my foundation (which rises 5.5 feet above the lowest point of the lot) and splurted wet cement onto the rigid foam insulation beneath what will be the floor of my house.

Jimmy and the A-1 crew began spreading, screeding and finally, troweling it into a floor. (The bathroom will be in the left-hand corner of the photo, and the right two-thirds of the slab will be my open living/dining/kitchen area.)

The master bedroom in my architect-designed, sculptor-built house, with interior trim and doors by me, with a lot of help from patient friends. The master bedroom in this architect-designed, sculptor-built house, with interior trim and doors by me and friends.

Finish work on this house isn’t speeding along, mostly because I’m squeezing it between spiffing up the yard, writing a new memoir, masterminding the launch of a landscaping-for-wildlife project for Audubon Rockies, hosting this year’s first Terraphilia artist resident, Jill Powers, reviving the social media efforts of Women Writing the West,  for which I somehow became Vice-President of Marketing, and sundry other projects.

(I guess that illustrates “trying to do too much.”)

Tony, teaching me how to cut a window-opening in a sheet of galvanized steel that's about to morph into paneling for a tub-shower surround. Tony, teaching me how to cut a window-opening in a sheet of galvanized steel for a tub-shower surround.

Still, I have made progress, thanks to the help of patient and generous friends, especially Tony and Maggie Niemann, multi-talented creatives to whom I owe most of my carpentry and finishing knowledge. (Bob Spencer taught me doors.)

Almost all of the door and window trim is up, almost all of the baseboard is in and I’ve trimmed out a steel counter in the guest bath that Richard built for one of his beautiful basin sinks but never got around to finishing, and also trimmed the backsplashes for the kitchen counters about which ditto. What remains is the master bath, a complicated and challenging project both in terms of time and creativity. (See photo above.)

Guest bathroom counter with its new galvanized edging and the beautiful Richard-carved basin. Guest bathroom counter with its new galvanized edging and the glorious Richard-carved basin.

The memoir, which I call Bless the Birds, is also coming along. I think I’ve only got four more chapters to write. Of course, those four cover Richard’s third and fourth brain surgeries (both in  March of 2011), his 61st birthday summer, our Big Trip, and coming home to those last two transcendent months of his life.

To write compelling and lyrical memoir, I have to relive that time. I read through my journal, blog posts, letters and emails and Richard’s snippets of writing, and look at his art, the books he was reading and the photos I took. It’s sweet, poignant, illuminating, humbling, painful and freaking hard. Some days I have to procrastinate a lot before I sit down and write. Once I get going though, the story sucks me in. It’s hard to stop. When I do, I’m wrung out.

And I have other things to accomplish. Hence the feeling of running as fast as I can and not quite managing to stay in place.

A rainbow arcs over my neighborhood. A rainbow arcs over my neighborhood.

My work days begin before dawn and run until nine or ten at night. Still, they bring me gifts. Like today at lunch, when I snatched half an hour to watch the floor of my new house take shape. Or this evening, when a spring shower yielded the grace of a rainbow.

I take my blessings where I can. Which is, come to think of it, a good way to live.

Books: True Nature & Resilience

Two extraordinary hand-made books have landed on my desk recently, one printed conventionally but written in the author’s fluid calligraphy and illustrated from her field-journals, and the other entirely hand-made, even the paper.

Barbara Bash’s revised book, True Nature

The first, a revised edition of Barbara Bash’s beloved True Nature: An Illustrated Journal of Four Seasons in Solitude, chronicles a spiritual journey and an artistic one, as Bash makes clear up front:

This is the story of four solitary retreats spent in a cabin in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. During these times I practiced sitting meditation and nature journaling. Both activities are contemplative, developing awareness and attentiveness to the world. I wanted to see how they might weave together when mixed with the simplicity and starkness of solitude.

True Nature is simply beautiful, and as adventurous as the author finds herself to be. Sometimes the words become BIG, sometimes they dance around on the page, sometimes they stand out in bright colors.

Bash is candid about the difficulties of her solitary retreats, the fears that rush in uninvited, including a debilitating fear of the dark discovered years before in her only previous solitary retreat.

She is tests that fear, but the darkness defeats her each time. Finally, on her final session, she realizes she can “enter [the woods] at twilight and let the darkness gather around me.” She climbs onto a flat rock and waits,

my heart … beating fast, my breath high in my chest. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of what I can’t see. … Relax the brow. Relax the mind. Sitting, watching, listening.

The pages of the book itself trace the gathering dusk, shifting from ivory to a purplish watercolor wash, to deepest gray and then black with tiny stars and white writing. Bash stays through her fears until she “feels her way” off the rock in complete darkness:

Just as I step out of the woods, a bat banks and turns right in front of my face; its soft wings beat the air against my cheek. It feels like a salute.

(Read the full review on Story Circle Book Reviews.)

Resilience, Aimee Lee’s handmade book, with its handmade wrappings and a key to the paper, along with a note from the artist.

Resilience, the other book, came like a gift out of the air, a small package in my post box wrapped in pink handmade paper, from an unfamiliar address. I carried it home and opened it carefully, making sure to not damage the wrappings. Inside was a book and this note:

Dear Susan, I have been wanting to give this to you since I made it. Please accept it as a token of thanks for sharing all you have been living through. After having my first book published this fall, I admire your work even more! with love, Aimee

I held the book tenderly and read it through, even the hand-lettered colophon. Then I went to Aimee’s website and looked through her work. (Watch this video of her building a traditional Korean papermaking studio and teaching how to make the paper. Fiber-folk, check out her knitted books!)

A two-page spread from Resilience, illustrating the careful word-placement on the rough-textured paper.

A free-form poem written in pencil on just nine two-page spreads, Resilience is brief. But wise. And beautiful.

Here is the entire text, with apologies that I cannot achieve Aimee’s gorgeous word-placement on the page:

There are the famous words about
your one wild and precious life* (footnote: *Mary Oliver)

and those about how life is like getting into a boat that’s just
about to sail out to sea and sink* (footnote: *Suzuki)

There are words,
so many words.
So many words in the world.

when you are lying in bed
deciding if it is best for the hot tears to run into your ears or
onto the pillow,

more than words course through your body.


Then you pick up the pencil


and return to words.

I read the key Aimee had included detailing what fibers each paper was made from and where it was made. And lay on the couch thinking that the world is full of such love and beauty and that sometimes we humans rise and embrace those qualities. Breaking our hearts open–intentionally or not–invites that goodness in, changing us in ways we cannot imagine.

Thank you, Barbara and Aimee, for opening my heart in new ways. And thanks to you all for journeying with me.

Catching Up: Keynote & Comic

Rhymes With Orange, Copyright Hilary B. Price

The comic first: I was cleaning out another one of Richard’s file cabinets the other day. (He had eight four-drawer file cabinets full of teaching files, academic publications, expert witness work, and three decades of Fine Woodworking, Fine Homebuilding, and assorted sculpture magazines; plus office supplies–the man loved binder clips.)

At the bottom of one drawer, I found a yellowed bit of newspaper, slightly crumpled. I extracted it carefully, smoothed it out, and burst out laughing. (Click on the the comic to enlarge it.)

That particular strip could have been written specifically for my late love. Richard was a mathematician who “spoke” in complex equations, casually spinning out strings of numbers and variables to model some phenomenon, and also an artist who never, ever could successfully estimate how long it would take him to finish any creative project.

Once, after watching him struggle to get a handle on how long a project would take, I suggested he take his best estimate and triple or quadruple it. He was shocked–he couldn’t imagine it would take so long to complete anything, even when, over and over again, it actually did.

“Prosthesis,” basalt and steel, by Richard Cabe. He found this “orphaned” chunk of basalt column on the side of a rural highway and decided to reconnect it to the earth with a steel prosthesis that continues the shape of the original column.

I finally figured out why it was so hard for him: he estimated from experience, and he could only remember the amount of time his hands were actually on the tools. He forgot the thinking time that preceded and wove through the hands-on work, the time our friend Jerry Scavezze, goldsmith extraordinaire, calls R&D time (research and development). The R&D time is often much longer than the hands-on time (sometimes by years), hence the wild inaccuracy of Richard’s project-time estimates.

I learned to not have expectations about when he would finish a particular piece,  to just enjoy what emerged, like “Prosthesis,” which sits where I can admire it every day, running a hand across its polished top and remembering my love and the extraordinary creativity that wove through every aspect of his life.


Now, that keynote. I promised that I would post the video of “Writing With Heart,” my keynote at the October Women Writing the West Conference. And here it is, thanks to the video shooting and editing talents of Laureen Pepersack of REV Productions in Santa Fe.

The video is 34 minutes long, so in order make the download manageable, it comes in two parts. I called the talk “Writing With Heart” because I was speaking to an audience of writers; it’s not, however, specific to writing. It’s about how to bring our authentic selves to any creative endeavor–including everyday life itself. You could substitute “art” or “science” or “living” for writing and the point would be essentially the same.

Take a look, let me know what you think, and feel free to pass the links on to others. And, as I say in the video, thank you for being part of my community.

Leaving Home

The house from outside, looking across my native bunchgrass/wildflower front yard.

I live in a house heated by the sun in winter, and cooled by the down-valley breezes in summer, a house designed to look unassuming from the outside as if it’s always been there, with an interior that elicits “Wow!”s.

Inside, the house is light and airy and colorful. Its many south-facing windows let in the winter sun, allowing that solar energy to heat the slab, providing warm floors and a cozy house. The windows also embrace a spectacular panorama of rocky peaks and forested ridges rising over the roofs of my small town. The walls are painted in colors that temper the abundant light, reflecting it back warmed or cooled, depending on the time of day and season.

The living room with light pouring in the south-facing windows, illuminating the polished concrete floor.

The east walls are painted warm terracota, lending the morning light a cozy feel; south walls are a rich buttery yellow, which keeps the light pouring into the house from becoming too harsh and glaring. West walls are a soft sage green to cool the hot late afternoon light on summer evenings, and north walls are a dark midnight blue, the color of the night sky just before it goes dark.

Those rich colors, plus the polished concrete floor tinted in mottled earthy shades by the stains of construction, dappled here and there with impressions of leaves that blew in when the slab was poured, give the house a natural feel. It is full of art from friends in Salida’s artist community; my late love’s “ambassadors of the earth,” the rocks he loved so, form sinks, shelves, and free-standing sculptures on tables and floors.

The restored native bunchgrass/wildflower grassland in summer

Outside, brilliant wildflowers dot the half-block of yard, a restored native bunchgrass grassland, architectural in its winter spareness and traffic-stopping in summer. An expansive kitchen garden flourishes in seating-height beds out the kitchen door; off the master bedroom is a flagstone patio Richard taught me how to build before he died.

The house, 2,400 square feet including attached guest cottage, plus Richard’s historic 1,700 square-foot sculpture studio/shop are powered by the sun too, thanks to an array of photovoltaic panels on the roof. The whole makes a beautiful and sustainable home with a strong connection to place and history. A home to inspire and be inspired by, truly “home” in all the senses of that complex word.

A home Richard and I imagined living in for the rest of our lives. Until brain cancer ended his life last November. Now that it’s me alone, the place is too big. So once I finish some of the interior projects that my brilliant but deliberate love didn’t–interior trim, master bath, and a few other details–I’m putting our home up for sale. (Interested in a sustainable and beautiful live-work space walking distance from the Arkansas River and downtown Salida? Let me know.)

My junky vacant lot at sunset. The boulders in the foreground are Richard’s “spare” sculpture materials; the chimney in the background is his historic studio.

And I’m beginning a whole new adventure: building my own tiny house on the piece of what we half-jokingly called our “decaying industrial empire” that Richard and I didn’t get around to restoring, an odd-shaped vacant lot just down the creek from the main house and studio complex.

I’ve been working with designer Tom Pokorny of Natural Habitats on my new space, and I’m excited about the resultant 725 square-foot passive solar house with a detached 380 square-foot second-story studio over the garage. Assuming the City of Salida okays the plans, I’ll be getting bids from builders after the holidays. While I’m teaching myself how to be a trim carpenter and finishing this house. And writing a memoir.

The tiny house-to-be with its small garage with studio above. Like the big house, it’s also passive solar and will be powered by a (much smaller) photovoltaic array.

It’s a lot to take on, but I think I’m ready. Richard’s brain cancer took us on a journey we never imagined walking, one we wouldn’t have chosen. Still, it was the journey life gave us, so we did our best to walk it well.

Now my path involves building a thoughtful, mindful, and sustainable new life for myself. (Sustainable in the environmental footprint sense, but also in terms of my finances and energy.) That means learning skills I never envisioned, like house design and trim carpentry.

I bought myself a canvas tool bag yesterday. Here I go…

Road Report: Miami and home again

Biscayne Bay and the Venetian Causeway from my hotel room balcony (that’s Miami Beach in the distance).

Last week I was in Miami, staying in a hotel on the shore of Biscayne Bay. All I saw of South Florida was the view of the bay from my 28th-floor balcony, and the choppy water itself on the five-minute walk between the hotel and the Young Arts campus.

That twice-daily walk was a welcome break before and after the hours in a conference room reading and evaluating 140+ writing submissions in four days with my fellow writing panel members, poet David Lee and novelist Dianne Oberhansley and our coordinator, Mary Lee Adler. Each panelist read every submission, an average of 35 manuscripts read, digested, and scored each day. No wonder my brain still feels numb!

Former Utah poet laureate David Lee engrossed in reading a digital manuscript for Young Arts

Our task was made much easier by the preliminary panel, which met the week before to read and score nearly 1,200 submissions from talented young writers across the country, whittling that enormous virtual pile down. (“Virtual pile” because this year for the first time we read digital manuscripts on individual iPads instead of literal piles of paper stored in files in stacks of banker’s boxes. Even the Luddite among us declared the iPad “pretty useful” by the end of the week. And many trees were saved.)

Our task was also made much easier by the work of the Young Arts staff, especially Letty Bassart, Joe NeSmith, Ty Taylor, and Neidra Ward in Programs, and the IT folks.

Young Arts’ new home in the Bacardi Tower, an iconic example of Cuban Modernist architecture..

These creative and resourceful people managed the transition to Young Arts’ new digital submissions system at the same time as they moved the organization into its new campus, the iconic Bacardi Complex, just days before the panelists in nine artistic disciplines arrived from as far away as Los Angeles to begin screening submissions.

While the Young Arts staff was doing the moving and adjusting to the new computer systems, they also planned a gala Open House for the new complex, including bringing in Young Arts alums to read and perform their work on a balmy Miami evening, plus fabulous food and drink (including, yes, Bacardi rum, donated by the corporation whose buildings Young Arts now owns), films of the program projected onto the tower, cinema folks filming the performances, and a glittering crowd enjoying all of the above. Y’all have my admiration!

This new-to Young Arts campus, built for the Bacardi Company as their US headquarters in the 1960s, is located between two of Miami’s arts districts, and includes enough land for the organization to build a performing arts center, which will be designed by architect Frank Gehry, and a park landscaped to provide outdoor spaces for young artists to work.

The Jewel Box building, lit up for the Young Arts Open House last week.

A smaller building behind the iconic tower, The Jewel Box, named for the stained glass walls that are positively luminous from the inside during the day and at night with the lights on, will be renovated into indoor studio and workshop spaces. The complex offers incredible opportunities for Young Arts to grow its year-round programming, and I’m honored to be part of that.

And of course, there are the young writers, whose work was the focus of our week. As we sat around the conference table reading from our iPads, the quiet was punctuated with “uh huhs!,” chuckles, and the occasional phrase or sentence read aloud, just for the delight of hearing the right words in the right order. We read “blind,” which means we didn’t know anything about each young writer–except their words. And sometimes those words really sing.

The Jewel Box and the famous Bacardi bat from the top floor of the Bacardi Tower, with the blue and white tiles that define the tower in the foreground.

Discovering young writers whose words sing is what carried me though a week of very long days, and then the 12 hours of cab, airport, plane, and driving over the mountains in a snowy night on my journey from sub-tropical Miami home to Colorado.

Yesterday, Veteran’s Day, I woke groggy in the pre-dawn darkness to the sight of the thinnest possible sliver of the waning moon rising next to Saturn over the night-black Arkansas Hills.

“That’s the moon we share,” I murmured out loud, thinking of my love. This time last year he was still with me, entering into that ending that is also a beginning, as Ralph Waldo Emerson writes:

Our lives are an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn. That there is no end in nature but every end is a beginning.

That’s why I do this work. The right words not only sing, they shine, illuminating the truth at the heart of our lives.

Books: World Enough & Time

World Enough & Time, by Christian McEwen

The subtitle of this intriguing book, “On Creativity and Slowing Down,” makes it clear what the title alludes to: the cost of our culture’s “hurry sickness” on our creative energy, the very spirit that makes life rewarding, worth living. As poet and teacher Christian McEwen writes:

My own interest in slowing down came from a very different place [than that of the slow food/slow living movements]: less practical and product-oriented altogether. From the beginning, I was concerned with how slowness might intersect with happiness, and then again with creativity. I wanted to explore the space in which small, almost invisible habits might have the chance to flourish, seeing them as nourishment both in terms of “making,” and as an antidote to our usual frantic rush. Like the English composer Brian Eno, I wanted to find a way of living in “a Big Here and a Long Now.” It was obvious from the start that this would not be easy.

McEwen hooked me from that paragraph, first for that space she envisions where small habits that would nourish our inner creative selves can flourish. As one who continually wrestles with finding a sustainable rhythm for my life, I love that she’s not promising anything big or dramatic or instant, instead focusing on the “almost invisible,” the learnings we might overlook. Second, I love the dry humor in that last line. Oh, yes. Finding the space to slow down and live in a “Big Here” and a “Long Now” is definitely not easy in our culture, dominated as it is by instant gratification, and “hurry sickness.”

She lays out a path for finding world enough and time to nurture one’s authentic inner life in chapters that weave insights from creatives past and present, people as diverse as Adrienne Rich and Walt Whitman, and Alice Walker and the Sixth century Welsh poet Taliesin, as well as McEwen’s friends and contemporaries–some well-known, some not, along with memoir vignettes from McEwen’s quietly remarkable life.

Reading the chapter titles in the table of contents made me want to dive right in, and gulp the book down:

Hurry Sickness
The Infinitely Healing Conversation
Child Time
In Praise of Walking
The Art of Looking
The Intensest Rendezvous
A Feast of Words
The Space Between
Learning to Pause
Across the Bridge of Dreams
A Universe of Stories
A Day So Happy

But I couldn’t. There is too much in each to savor and consider, to let sit and “compost” in the back of the mind. So I slowed down and gave the book the time it deserved.

In the manner of a workshop, McEwen ends each chapter with “Tactics,” suggestions for ways to practice the lessons learned within, followed by two quotations for rumination during that practice. My favorite of these quotes comes at the end of my favorite chapter, “A Universe of Stories:”

‘Remember only this one thing,’ said Badger. ‘The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.’ (Barry Lopez)

This is a book to sip, to savor, to digest slowly. I’d recommend spreading each chapter over a month for a year-long “course” in learning your own rhythm and finding the space you need to nurture your own “world enough and time.” As McEwen writes:

As we follow in these artists’ footsteps, reading, writing, dreaming, telling stories, it should gradually become apparent that through the door of the ordinary, when treated with curiosity and respect, the extraordinary can appear: a song, a tale, a painting, a new poem. [emphasis in original]

“Through the door of the ordinary… the extraordinary can appear.” Only if we take it slowly. Which of course is the whole point.

I’m working on that. You?

Terraphilia Residency news

Phillip Mann installing the sculptural sign he designed and fabricated for the residency program

Before Richard died last fall, we talked to Grant Pound, Executive Director of Colorado Art Ranch, about establishing an artist/writer residency program in Richard’s honor. A little over seven months later, thanks to contributions from supporters near and far, and to Grant’s dedication, we’ve already hosted the first four residents: printmaker/painter Barry Sparkman, poet Miriam Sagan, painter and social commentator Lee Lee, and sculptor/designer Phillip Mann.

We’ve got a full slate of residents lined up for the rest of the year, and we’re looking ahead to next year. The program represents the closing of a circle of sorts for me: Richard and I were headed to a remote cabin in the mountains of Southwest Colorado for our own joint artist-writer residency when he began seeing birds, harbingers of his brain cancer. We ended up going home instead. Offering that kind of “time-out” for other artists and writers to nurture their creativity was the best way I could imagine to honor Richard’s life and work.

Richard’s historic studio the winter after we bought it, before we began fixing it up and built our house next door.

While Grant got the program up and going, I began coordinating completion of the renovations that Richard began to restore his beautiful but once-very-neglected studio building, preparing it to serve as work and workshop space for the visiting artists and writers. The building has a long history: it began life as a millwork shop for a lumber company 110 years ago when its machinery was powered by a steam engine, and a mainline railroad ran just across the creek.

Bob Spencer patching a hole in the roof of the historic studio building

Renovating a building with so many decades of experience requires care, thought, and flexibility; each step reveals something unexpected. Big thanks to Grant Pound for organizing volunteer work days, and to Bob Spencer, who dusted off his building contractor skills to as volunteer project manager.

On the first work-day, nearly two dozen people, many of them Richard’s fellow artists, turned out to clean up, clear out, and organize a building that had become a mite, well, cluttered, in Richard’s last year with brain cancer. By the end of the day, the space clean and welcoming, the gutter on the alley side was restored, and the back gate was fixed. I love this town!

That cleared the stage for renovation, including expanding the original cold-water bathroom (which meant cutting a trench in the decades-old concrete floor), relocating a wall built 80 years before with original rough-cut lumber, and some rewiring. That work was done by talented tradespeople who appreciate old buildings, including Bill Adams and his crew at A-1 Construction, Dave Hartman and sons from Alpha Plumbing, drywaller Mark Shupp, and electrician George Hardgrave.

Wrestling the enormous sheets of ceiling membrane into place (Ed Berg and Grant Pound on scaffolding, Sue Mills welding the support broom, and Bob Spencer supervising).

Then came the second volunteer push with the aim of installing a new membrane ceiling and painting the new bathroom and office walls. Over this past hot weekend, the ceiling crew—Bob Spencer, Grand Pound, Ed Berg, and John Graham—wrestled ten-foot-wide, hundred-foot-long rolls of white membrane into place, which involved moving workbenches, woodworking machines, chop-saw tables and all manner of other obstructions, and erecting and climbing a variety of ladders and scaffolding to reach the sweltering peak of the ceiling, and then nailing membrane overhead. (Thanks to Dave Nelson of Ploughboy Local Market for scaffolding and tall step-ladders, and to helicopter pilot and webmaster Bill LeRoy for caulking that leaking skylight.)

The painting crew, including Roberta Smith (who also donated paint), Bev Gray, and Sue Mills transformed the newly plastered walls. (I was painting too, so I didn’t get any photos.)

What a difference a ceiling and the newly painted walls make.

The studio is now a brighter, lighter and cooler place with the new ceiling membrane securely fastened to the old roof beams, and the office and bathroom ready for fixtures and final wiring. Whew!

This is an uncertain time for arts programs, for the world as a whole, and for many of us personally. It is not clear how long we’ll be able to continue the Terraphilia Residency program. But we’ve got something important going, and we’re riding that momentum.

I am honored and humbled by all of you who have invested time and skills and resources in this project. Thank you for your support and love. Blessings!