Mosquitoes, Cornfields, and Creative Journeys: Art Farm 2015

 As some (most?) of you know, I’ve spent the last two weeks living in rural Nebraska attending Art Farm, an artist residency. The experience has been one of the most intense I’ve under gone in my creative adult life. It was equal parts rattling and affirming; it was a stillness I desperately needed and yet still managed to shake me out of anything I once considered my comfort zone. Below is an account of my experience.

I flew into Omaha on August 16th. Omaha, though I only spent one evening there, is a somewhat desolate, occasionally charming little city that I hope to return to if only to go to the sole vegan restaurant in the city (in the state?!) which was, to my great dismay, closed when I arrived. People were friendly in a way I am not used to, and a few times I caught myself muttering a rushed “Hello” after I realized a stranger was saying “Hi” to my staring-straight-ahead-do-not-make-eye-contact face. A public transit driver stopped the bus and patiently waited until it was safe for me to cross a four lane road while I frantically waved it down from the other side, realizing only too late my mistake. I listened to a saxophone player play Al Green at my request in a downtown market. I bought hand-made bobby pins embossed with two tiny bicycles. I talked changing weather patters with new friends over fried food. (I had lovely AirBNB hosts.) I sat in a sad bus station on a drizzly Monday morning, CNN playing in the corner, the hosts discussing race relations. The woman at the ticket counter grew up in Philadelphia, at 17th and Federal.  

 There was no time to ask how she found herself in Omaha. The man behind me on the bus squished his face between two seats to point at the Rolling Stone magazine article I was reading, that of an interview with Dre and Ice Cube for the upcoming NWA movie, and was genuinely shocked when he asked “Are you really reading that?” When I affirmed that yes, I am really reading that, he said, “Wow, didn’t think you’d be reading something like that.” I suppose he thought I should be reading a Taylor Swift interview. 

We stopped in Lincoln and I watched as a family of four young children and a man said goodbye to their mother and wife. All of them cried when she climbed onto the bus, harder when the bus pulled away.

 I was picked up at a small bus station in Grand Island, which is a misnomer for trailer parks, fast food restaurants, Wal-Marts, and general rural sprawl. I bought two weeks’ worth of groceries at Wal-Mart that filled about 30 plastic bags, the same I squeeze into two Trader Joe’s bags for my usual shopping. I passed miles of cornfields, then miles of soy fields, back and forth for about thirty minutes, interjected only by small markets, gas stations, and expansive industrial GMO plants, which look like prisons. Occasionally there are non-GMO, organic fields, characterized by their un-uniformed rows (versus the scarily perfect rows of the regular stuff), but they’re so close in proximity to the other fields that one has to wonder how it could be possible for them to maintain their organicness.

 I arrived at Art Farm, a four mile-radius expanse of land with three barns, one farmhouse, and a few smatterings of structures left by past residents. I would spend my next two weeks living in the largest house, Victoria, with six other artists. I was offered the largest room, which, though it was unfinished, was the only room with a double bed. There are no finished ceilings on the third floor of Victoria, so the rooms are not very enclosed and outside creatures (mostly flies and mosquitoes) easily find their way into the space. This was even more the case in the room I stayed my first night, because the walls were also unfinished, and long panes of plastic served as a type of protection from the exterior wall surface. I had trouble getting to sleep that first night because I was so used to certain sounds—and there were sounds, mind you, just different sounds; creatures, insects, etc.—but I did finally fall asleep, only to wake up sometime around 3:00 a.m. to the sound of flapping; a bat was caught between the plastic and the wall. It then found its way out and swooped around my room while I ducked under my covers. I don’t do well with bats. I moved to a smaller, more enclosed room, with no bats. (Only birds in the ceiling, but that’s another thing.) 

It took two days for me to adjust to living on Art Farm, in this odd, rural, communal-living bubble. But then by mid-week, all at once, there was a feeling of meditative calm. It was the most stillness I’ve experienced in my adult life.

I worked hard, each day, waking early and working until I had to do my three hours of farm work (in exchange for living at Art Farm, residents put in twelve hours of farm work each week), and then working into the night, stopping only for meals and yoga. It was intensive work, and on the day I finished revising the final section of my novel, I reread the beginning and realized it wasn’t right at all. Enlisting the help of a trusted writer friend, I furiously worked through it, reading and re-reading the section in different rooms, on different mediums, until it felt right. My last few days were comprised of re-reading the entire novel and sharing aloud a part of it with the other residents.

 

A note on the other residents: I can’t emphasize enough how lucky I am to have met the people I did through this experience. I haven’t done communal living since college, and as anyone who has done it knows, it’s never easy. But the people I lived with over the last two weeks were some of the most generous, kind, fascinating, intelligent, self-assured artists and humans I’ve met. I learned from them in the short time I spent in their presence, and I can only hope I was able to contribute something to them as well. They helped me to affirm my place as a writer and as a creative person. For the first time in a long time, I never once felt like I had to explain myself to them. Their reasons for being there were the same as mine, because the need to create is ever-present. It never goes away.

 On one of our lasts nights together, we listened to each other share our work, our drive, our processes; each reciprocally curious about the others’ work. One resident wrote poetry with speed and execution that was hard to imagine, and combined her words with visuals to create a fascinating juxtaposition. A designer was curious about the body and the spirit and belief, and translated the poems she wrote in private to visual representations through wood and metal structures. A couple lived their art, caring for their bodies with natural foods and remedies and using all things found in nature to create textile dyes and other visual art pieces. An architect was fascinated with ruins, and sought to create structures that would eventually break down, becoming ruins themselves. Another artist used watercolor paints and choreography to express ideas of age.

 

 I ate greens right from the garden only a few feet away from the house. I wrote my sentences on the walls. I avoided makeup for two weeks. I saw the Milky Way for the first time in a sky flooded with stars. I attended the Nebraska State Fair. I flew home under a full moon. 

I miss Philadelphia, and Michael, and the sounds of the city and clean floors and a clean kitchen and clean bathroom and no mosquitoes and no flies and my bed, but come Monday, when I’m back at work and slipping easily back into my routine, I will certainly also miss Art Farm and the feeling of slipping into a space where one can create uninhibitedly. I am so very thankful, and will not forget this experience anytime soon. 

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