Cutting Off a Leg

I started writing a follow-up to the blog, All about Art, from two weeks ago in which I unintentionally wrote about six women artists and did not mention one man. I thought about the fact that this would never happen in an issue of ARTnews or Art Forum, despite the work of the Guerilla Girls, a nonprofit organization that since the early 1980s has been raising awareness of the lack of equal representation of women artists in major art museums and galleries. Then I proceeded to write about some of the male artists exhibiting at Old Frog Pond Farm this fall.

  Where I Get My Water , Ray Ciemny 

Where I Get My Water, Ray Ciemny 

Ray's piece is a commentary on the scarcity of clean water for many people on our planet. Made of scrap steel and rubble, the girders were salvaged from the old Fitch’s Bridge above the Nashua River in Groton, MA.

Then I changed my mind, because it is the opening of apple picking and I felt I should write about the beautiful diversity of apples ripening in the orchard.

Then I had a dream where I had to cut off the lower half of my leg.

Cutting off one’s leg is a major life altering event. In my dream, I wasn’t upset about it, but was calmly trying to decide when would be the right time to do it. I wasn’t considering the challenges or the healing or the rehabilitation—it was a dream after all, a symbol.

Losing a leg in a dream is fairly easy to analyze. Our legs are what we stand on, what supports us, and having two legs gives us balance. To dream that I was about to cut off a significant part of one leg seems to indicate that something in my life is out of balance. Or is it a way to take control of what is out of control? Or, maybe, I saw myself as split in two, two legs, and was trying to become one. I agree, there are other, better ways to make myself whole, but my unconscious did find the imagery to express itself and get my attention.

When I wake up with an image from a dream that is very clear, I like to contemplate and write about it. This cut off my leg dream was giving me a clear signal of the need for radical change, though what exactly it refers to remains opaque.

I could be anticipating the craziness of harvest time. Yellow, red, green, scarlet, and striped fruit orbs weigh down the flexible apple branches. There is an abundance of ripe fruit out in the orchard, but there is an angst that comes with it. Apple-picking time is when both my husband, Blase, and I feel like we have absolutely no control over any moment of our lives. We interact with hundreds and hundreds of people, through emails, phone calls, and complete strangers knocking at the back door. You might call it the downside of success, and sometimes it feels overwhelming.

It’s also possible that I was disturbed by Freedom Baird’s haunting sculptural installation, Graft. She has used the cavity from a once twin-trunked oak tree and created a prosthesis of sorts.  

  Graft , Freedom Baird       Photo:Robert Hesse

Graft, Freedom Baird       Photo:Robert Hesse

Freedom Baird writes,

Like so many I’m preoccupied with environmental stewardship (this preoccupation has ratcheted up to acidic alarm under a Trump administration). Recently I’ve been experimenting with ways to catalyze a reconsideration of humans’ relationship to the “natural” world. Specifically, I’ve been inventing objects that push against the construct that man and nature are separate. Projects have included synthesizing plastic utensils from food, grafting milled lumber onto a living tree, designing prosthetic limbs for amputated trees. . .

I’ve been horrified by recent government proposals to cut back the boundaries of protected land. Specifically, the acreage around the Bears Hill National Monument in Utah that President Obama protected honoring the request of tribal nations before he left office. It’s enough to make anyone who cares about our environment feel out of control.

But the truth is the next seven weeks are much too busy for me to spend time thinking about other places and possibilities. Dream or no dream, I need to focus on what is right in front of me. I need to have two feet firmly on the ground.

The Changing Landscape

Change is in the air. The studio that I moved into sixteen years ago with a truckload of metal, wood, and cloth is quiet. This studio that supported the work on projects such as the emotional fourteen panels of The Stations of the Heart, the outdoor sculpture exhibit A Circus Comes to Fruitlands, and the ten Zen Ox Herding sculptures, has no discernible pulse of life. It is now empty.

Before my arrival at the farm, the space had been used as an unheated garage for an old Model T.  I did the cheapest and quickest redo to turn the space into my studio. I added heat, posts to support a dropped ceiling, fluorescent lights, and windows. The floor remained; its old boards spattered with oil and grease had character. In recent years, the studio has been a carnival of activity, a crowded side show with circus barkers calling out from every direction, “Finish me! Work on me! Pick me up! Use me! ”

  Studio, March, 2011

Studio, March, 2011

I’ve made close to two hundred small sculptures with found objects, wood, stone, and bronze figures. Though many have sold, the studio feels cramped with surplus materials. I had hoped to extend the footprint with a construction project, but that plan was delayed and the permit lapsed. I didn’t have the heart to go back through the entire process of site plan review and other hearings. The studio is within the wetlands buffer and to enlarge it requires these approvals. But even without the enlargement, I still wanted to make a change.

With a couple of our farm workers, we carried out and stored the large items like my workbench and tables. We carried metal to one location and wood to another; the welder and tools went below the studio while paint supplies, tape and epoxy glues went to the house along with wax sculpture-making supplies. The studio emptied quickly and easily. Oddly, I was never bereft or hesitant about what was happening. I felt only a keen anticipation for the unknown ahead. If I try to think of a parallel situation, like emptying my closet and giving away most of my clothes except for the most useful items, it doesn’t feel at all related. This isn’t about clutter clearing; I gave away very few items. It has more to do with wanting to experience the blank canvas, the way a painter often prepares a fresh surface to begin a new painting. I want to experience an empty space before I begin to work again.

  Studio, August 30, 2017

Studio, August 30, 2017

I remember reading that Japanese farmers used to write haiku in winter when their farms were at rest. But today agricultural production has expanded with the use of hoop houses and greenhouses to produce food for more months of the year. Farmers no longer write poetry because there is no break in the seasons. They have no time to experience the quiet, the emptiness, that inspires an expression of intimacy. There is no fallow ground. Emptying my studio feels like purposely leaving a field unplanted.

I will be making some structural changes inside the space. The ceiling will be opened to the roof over two-thirds of the room, and a new loft with dormer windows will occupy the other third. The west wall will have no windows — I can't wait to have one large wall with nothing on it. The south side will have more windows for two large camellia plants, a lemon tree, and a bird of paradise plant that live inside the studio all winter.

The improvements will be wonderful, but I know that the real improvement has already happened. I'm getting rid of things – old stories and habits. I am committed to re-entering this space in a quiet way so that I can listen to what my innermost being truly wants to do. The empty studio is an open heart where all is waiting, beautiful, possible, and vulnerable.

Fall is a good time for renewal. It’s that delicious season when the fruit is ripe for picking, yet the trees have already begun to store sugars for winter. Here, at Old Frog Pond Farm, we are only one week away from opening the orchard for pick-your-own apples, a most splendid time, yet like the trees, I too, am preparing for winter.

All About Art

A friend of mine paints barns. That is, she makes paintings of the same barn over and over, in all seasons and at all times of day. The angle of her view may shift or the size of her canvas, the palette, or the medium, but the barn remains, a presence in the landscape. In fact, it feels inseparable from the earth, as if she was a painting a mountain or a great tree. Brenda Cirioni’s barns are rooted and alive.

But the real barn, the barn that she connects with through her painting, no longer exists:

When I was sixteen years old my family home burned to the ground. Memories of that experience – both visual and visceral – surfaced in 2012 and found expression in Barn Series.

It was years after the event that Brenda realized that she had never truly mourned that frightening loss. Painting is a way to heal our wounds, even the hidden, unarticulated ones.

  The first Barn Series Painting, 2011, Brenda Cirioni Photo:BC

The first Barn Series Painting, 2011, Brenda Cirioni Photo:BC

As artists, we are fortunate when we find a subject that captivates us. Like many people, I have an attraction to the natural world, to old objects and worn tools. Growing up with an anthropologist mother and traveling with her to Mexico and Guatemala, as well as to India and Papua New Guinea, I learned to respect material culture and appreciate how it reveals information about people and their worlds. I have a natural affinity for old objects and textiles because they connect me to my childhood and early adolescence. I use them in sculpture, often combining them with small figures. I play.

I think of art as a form of play that connects our inner and outer worlds. Children play naturally. Children like to arrange things, to build towers, to line up stones on a beach, or arrange a series of stuffed animals on a shelf. Artists, when painting a landscape or making a sculpture, also arrange objects. Brush strokes form buildings or trees, people or abstract shapes. If I want to paint grasses that are dark green at the bottom and become pale above, I stroke the canvas with color in a particular pattern and with an intensity and intentionality to recreate the density of green below and the lighter colored, thinner reeds above. It’s the way I imagine Brenda paints a barn, filling her brush with color and forming the angles, the light, the textures — all with intuitively complex decision making that no one else can replicate. It’s authentic playing — the playing of an experienced artist.

When we are self-conscious and trying too hard at this art making, it feels all wrong. It’s only when we find the sweet spot that has similarities to child’s play that discoveries happen. I have a friend who has recently become obsessed with mosaics. She has a tree stump on which she hammers stones to break them down into small mosaic pieces. She then fits them in patterns, setting the stone shards in cement. She loves this work — and can’t find enough time to spend at her mosaic table. She is tapping into her true self. As she breaks these rocks from the earth into small pieces and arranges them in a specific way with colors and shapes, I feel like she is breaking down difficult places in the world and creating peace — like she is breaking down the hard places inside of herself and turning them into art.

  Untilted, Shea Ikusei Settimi

Untilted, Shea Ikusei Settimi

Children play with stones, soil, sand, containers, the contents of the kitchen utensil drawer, anything that they can pick up. When we become an artist, we reconnect with that innocent and serious play. Many of the sculptors exhibiting this year at the farm’s annual sculpture exhibit play seriously in this way. Barbara Andrus strung curly willow twigs across the pond. Is this so different than lining up teddy bears? Of course it is – and there is much more work involved and commitment to her vision, but the essence is still there.

We’re fortunate when we find a medium that appeals to us and that we can work and develop. Alicia Dwyer’s Dyads are eyes that peer out from among the forest trees. They seem to be staring at us as we walk along the path; we have the uncomfortable feeling of being followed. Painted on aluminum flashing, the Dyads were made eight years ago, her first time working with aluminum. She has continued with this medium, creating armor women, and this year, a new piece in which beautiful butterflies suspended in captivity remind us of the refugee problems in many parts of the world.

My daughter, Ariel Matisse, has found that wire is her chosen medium of expression. For the sculpture exhibit, she’s making a willow tree growing out of a hollow tree stump. The willow trunk is a twisting shape made from a fistful of long wires, where one end forms the branches and the other the roots. She uses a ball peen hammer to flatten and make the branches reflect light. She grew up watching me drag tree trunks home from the woods or from a trip to Cape Cod. I can easily see my influence on my daughter and also how her own truth leads her in a new direction.

On Samantha Pasapane’s website she writes, “I love steel.” Samantha will be bringing a new sculpture in her Savaging Series to the farm.

 Savaging, Smantha Pasapane

Savaging, Smantha Pasapane

Lydia Musco has already installed her sculpture, Organizing Echoes with Ash, on the concrete pier in the middle of the lower pond. The title of her sculpture suggests ‘creating order.’ Lydia’s column is made of ceramic tiles that she combines and stacks. Her sculpture, though abstract, entices the viewer to linger with its physicality. I see a figure or even two figures together, and then when I look again, it seems to be echoing the play of light on the rippling water. 

  Organizing Echoes with Ash , Lydia Musco, installed at Old Frog Pond Farm, 2017 Photo:LH

Organizing Echoes with Ash, Lydia Musco, installed at Old Frog Pond Farm, 2017 Photo:LH

Art making connects us to something original inside us, to a truth about who we are and how we relate to our world as human beings from our very origin. Brenda Cirioni’s most recent paintings are what she calls Spirit Houses.

  Spirit House I, 2016, Brenda Cirioni Photo:BC

Spirit House I, 2016, Brenda Cirioni Photo:BC

They seem a natural progression from the Barn Series. In these paintings, the landscape with identifiable trees and grasses is gone, but the body of the barn remains without the old story. In the painting above, the white shape is floating as if on a sea. It’s haunting and surreal, yet familiar, a space we have all inhabited — one where we just don’t know. That’s when there’s nothing left to do but find a medium that resonates — words, paint, wire, clay, even fruits and vegetables — and get down to some serious play.

Old Frog Pond Farm's outdoor sculpture exhibit opens on Friday, September 8 and will be open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through Columbus Day. Hours are 11-5pm and admission is $7. Join us for an opening reception and meet the artists on Sunday, September 10 from 1-4pm. In the next few weeks I will be writing about more of the artists and fall activities. Join us at the farm!

My First Visit to the Farm

Fruit is ripening, farmers are planting, weeding and harvesting, and outdoor sculpture is being installed, but it wasn’t always this way. Sixteen years ago, I read the real estate listing for the property — five bedrooms, a detached garage/barn, apple orchard, and a chicken coop. I was a sculptor, not a farmer, and definitely not an orchardist, but the rentals I looked at were either too small or had no art studio space. That’s when my friend, Elizabeth, suggested I visit the farm; she had grown up here, and her parents had sold the property to its current owners.

It was mid-March, mud season in New England, when I turned off the highway, drove several miles, and rounded a bend on a narrow country road. I saw sad fences and a gray pond. The farmhouse needed paint and the outbuildings begged for repair. Winter’s old snow and patches of bare ground met my eye; nothing green hinted towards Persephone’s eventual rise from Hades.

I shook hands with the realtor and we entered the front door. A brick fireplace filled the living room where a few pieces of furniture had been placed. It didn’t feel like home, for every personal knickknack had been cleared away. I followed the realtor down three steps into the kitchen. Dark pine boards covered the walls and ceiling. There were no drawers or cabinets, only open shelves for plates, bowls, and glasses. Along one wall, heavy pots for making jam and stocks stood like sentinels guarding alien territory. Above a wood-burning cook stove hung a patchwork of blackened iron pans. This was a work kitchen.

We walked up the stairs and I peered into the small bedrooms with sloping walls and chimneys flues. Enough room for my three children. Simple and practical, the house was over 250 years old, and it had never been fixed up to be someone’s modern suburban dream. We entered the master bedroom, and for some reason I thought, If the house has hot water, everything will be fine. I turned on the hot water faucet in an avocado-colored sink, a popular sixties color, and warmth ran over my fingertips.

We walked outside again: I was drawn towards the pond. An American elm towered high above a small waterfall. Her thin hanging branches swayed in the breeze, and reflections rippled over the surface of the water. When so many elms had died all over America from Dutch Elm disease, this one was clearly thriving.

  The Elm, May, 2002

The Elm, May, 2002

“Can I see the chicken coop?”

Inside the ramshackle white clapboard shed, I teased away thick curtains of cobwebs. Every surface was covered with slimy white-green chicken shit in varying stages of drying. Some forty old hens squawked, panicked by my presence. I had never been near a chicken, and was as much disgusted as fascinated by their gnarly feet, overgrown toenails, and featherless backs — the feathers, I later learned, were worn away by the roosters’ endless mounting.

peck me kissme2.JPG

“What’s going to happen to all these birds?” I asked.
“Why? Would you want them?”
Why not, I thought to myself, not knowing anything about chickens.
 “Sure,” I said.
 “I’ll ask the owners for you,” the realtor responded.

The other side of the chicken coop housed a Kubota tractor. It came with the property. This orange machine was huge and I looked away. Alongside the shed, a rickety fence marked the wintered-over remains of a sizable kitchen garden. I loved tending a small garden and growing a few vegetables, but this was a garden that would feed a family all winter. Then, crossing the driveway, we walked into a brown, two-story unheated garage. Inside this empty space I could make a new studio. It would hold all the rusty metal, old tools, and machines I use to make sculpture.

The listing had mentioned an old orchard. “Where are the apples?” I asked. He casually gestured across the street. The road was lined with old apple trees. We walked across the street and followed an old cart road that bordered the orchard. I peered through rows of bare branches.

“What would you do with the apples?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I heard myself say. “I’d have to learn,”
“It’s hard to grow apples,” he cautioned.

I could feel a small delight rise. Pears, cherries, and peaches are all delicious, but apples figure in mythology, history, science, and even religion.  I wondered, could I grow apples?

The realtor and I walked to the back of the orchard to a small clearing near some wetlands. A giant bird flew overhead. “Great blue heron,” he said. I nodded, while peering into a weathered shed. Giant earth-encrusted tools silently stood in their stalls. Later I learned the names — manure spreader, back hoe, brush hog, but at the moment they were as otherworldly as the caw caw of the heron, that ancient pterodactyl.

I didn’t consider the reality of taking over a farm and an orchard. Yet something had happened as I walked the property. This place will keep me grounded, I thought to myself.

Now, sixteen years later,  the stately Elm is a decaying stump, and though a few new Elms have sprouted nearby, no other tree can replace that loss. Blase, my partner, and I are anticipating the opening of the new harvest season, admittedly with a mix of eagerness and trepidation. We love to greet old friends and welcome new people to the farm. We have a crop of apples this year, and the sculpture exhibit is going to be our largest and, we think, our best exhibit yet. But we don’t enjoy rushing to the phone at 10pm, and finding a customer wondering if we have Gala apples, their favorite.

I am more grounded than ever, but like the changing landscape we are beginning to think about what comes next. Change is what we can count on. We are getting older and beginning to feel different pulls. I want to do more art and Blase wants to work more with people. How will we grow and how will our journeys braid together and transform the landscape? Whatever field we cultivate, the heart will surely grow.

  The Almata Apple, just picked!

The Almata Apple, just picked!