I’m still unpacking from my recent trip to Deer Isle, Maine.
The clothes are long out of suitcases, and all that. Still, with newspaper deadlines and daily life rushing back in I haven’t yet made sense of the ideas newly swirling in my mind or unpacked the feelings that got stirred up inside me.
Deer Isle, a gorgeous island off the coast of Down East Maine where photos sometimes end up more like paintings (see above), is distinguished in obvious ways by its tidal coves and its luscious lobster and in less obvious ones by distinguished craftsmanship of all types and an open-minded fascination with the arts.
The latter two qualities owe in good measure to the presence, on the far end of Stinson Neck, of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. Haystack, which was founded in 1950, is a summer camp—if, that is, all the campers were ceramic and textile artists and glassblowers and woodworkers, and the campgrounds designed by a world-class architect (in this case, Edward Larrabee Barnes) to flow gently into the wooded cliff overlooking Jericho Bay, which feeds the Atlantic Ocean.
For more than decade, I’ve connected the musicians I’ve engaged for the Deer Isle Jazz Festival (another good story) with Haystack for two-week residencies. These residencies have brought memorable moments: pianist Arturo O’Farrill organizing artists on homemade instruments for an improvised Afro-Cuban opera; pipa player Min Xiao Fen leading a similar performance on traditional Chinese instruments; bassist William Parker, in concert at the Stonington Opera House, playing the glass bells a Haystack glassblower designed for him; guitarist Dave Tronzo, using the custom slides made at Haystack during another concert; poet and saxophonist Roy Nathanson mining local oral histories of lobstermen for lyrics, and leading Haystack students in an original song cycle.
Strangely beautiful stuff happens if you hang around Haystack long enough. Now it was my turn.
Earlier this month, I spent two weeks at Haystack as visiting writer/critic-in-residence, at the invitation of Haystack’s new executive director, Paul Sacaridiz. As a sculptor, Paul is a boldly distinctive presence; as an administrator, he has a light-handed and nurturing air.
I knew we’d hit it off when I read this in the “about” section of his website:
As a sculptor he is interested in the collision of abstraction, urban planning and utopian systems; and the seemingly impossible task of understanding something in its entirety.
I could have written those same words about my interests in jazz.
I’d visited Haystack many times, sometimes staying for an afternoon workshop led by a jazz festival musician. I’d shared an occasional meal in the lovely communal dining cabin overlooking the dramatic waterfront. I’d descended the 126 wooden stairs to get a better view of the bay, hiked a bit on the lovely trails within Haystack’s 40 acres, and even tried my hand in the glass workshop (I still have that indistinguishable blob).
Still, I’d never slept and awakened there, or worked among these artists. Elsewhere on Deer Isle, the rhythm of daily life is defined by the tides that rise and fall in those coves and the resulting playful shifts of color, by the fog that often rolls in and out, morning and evening, and the sound of the foghorn. All of that is present at Haystack, yet each day there forms largely around the sound of a bell—not a ringtone, but a tall iron sculptural bell with a rope that someone pulls: 8am, breakfast; noon, lunch; 6pm, dinner. In between, there’s the hum and buzz and thwack and patter of work getting done in the several cabins, each designated for a particular craft (ceramics, fiber, glass, graphics, wood and metals); and music, played loud, in the glasswork shed, which, along with its furnaces and other industrial hardware has a disco ball hanging from its ceiling. Mid-mornings, there are the soft but impassioned voices of lectures given in the wooden Gateway gathering hall on, say, Tung dynasty ceramics or the many ways to construct a collar and what each means; evenings, hearty applause after presentations, which they just call “slides.”
My own cabin was next door to the Fab Lab, home to a 3D printer and giant laser cutter, among other high-end gadgetry, and which was run by two women from Iceland who exhibited endless patience and who brought along an espresso maker. (Lest you think the high-tech equipment at odds with the hands-on craft ethos of Haystack, just spend an afternoon there watching what happens…)
I was struck by the diversity of the people drawn to Haystack (undergrads and grad students in MFA programs; artists working and teaching in a variety of media; retirees rediscovering old passions) and the range of their creative endeavors, but most of all by how hard everyone worked. Which is not to say that anyone was serious with the self-important drive you find in most offices and art galleries. They went about it joyfully, even humbly. People loved to talk about ideas at Haystack, sometimes even before the pleasantries of introduction were handed out. Yet before and after each conversation there’s physical work to get down to. People made stuff here. That was inspiring in a new way for me, a guy too often trapped in a world of ideas (my own and those of musicians I interview) and in days consumed with filling wordcounts and sending emails.
So stuff got made.
My gig included leading weekday 90-minute workshops at 4:30pm. I called my workshop “Jazz and the Abstract Truth” (with apologies to saxophonist and composer Oliver Nelson, who titled his landmark 1961 LP “The Blues and the Abstract Truth.” (Still, Nelson’s untitled liner note to that LP states an objective to “let the musical ideas determine the form and the shape of a musical composition,” which aligned well with my ideas—to demystify rigid notions of jazz, and to remain flexible in my approach to this whole workshop thing.) My goals were twofold. I wanted to simulate discussion about composition and improvisation, and about aesthetics and functional value, as these ideas apply to both music and visual art. Also, I wanted to get these artists to write for me.
On that second count, I didn’t want to come right out and say it.
So I started my evening presentation (each faculty member gave one) by playing the beginning of “Artists Ought to Be Writing,” from pianist Jason Moran’s “Artist in Residence” album, which begins with a looped version of the voice of visual artist Adrian Piper, drawn from one of her own videos, saying:
“Artists ought to be writing about what they do, and what kinds of procedures they go through to realize a work, what their presuppositions in making the work are, and related things. If artists’ intentions and ideas were more accessible to the general public, I think it might break down some of the barriers of misunderstanding between the art world and artists and the general public. I think it would become clear the extent to which artists are just a product of their society as anyone else in any other vocation.”
I’m not sure everyone at Haystack agreed with that sentiment. (In fact, one artist wrote for my workshop about his desire to not talk about his process.)
Once I got started, each weekday at 4:30, that big bell rang—not to signal a meal but rather my attempt to lure artists away from their primary projects and into the circle of chairs assembled on my deck.
I began by playing some music that I was pretty sure none of them knew. I read some excerpts from my work—about Arturo O’Farrill’s first trip to his father’s birthplace in Cuba; how trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s personal system of musical notation works; the ways in which trumpeter Terence Blanchard made musical sense of the result of the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I showed them some videos: “Reanimation,” Jason Moran’s collaboration with Joan Jonas; “Radhe, Radhe: Rites of Holi,” pianist Vijay Iyer’s collaboration with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava; and “Tootie’s Last Suit,” about Mardi Gras Indian chiefs Tootie and Darryl Montana.
Sometimes, I’d play a piece of music and, with just minimal guidance, invite the artists to write freely. When we were done, I’d give the backstory to the music and have one or two people read what they’d written.
Things started slowly, tentatively. But soon, we had a real writers group. There’s a certain buzz, a combination of deep intimacy and intellectual rigor, that occurs when people share fresh writing and comment on one another’s words. It’s hard to describe, but anyone who has ever engaged in such a thing knows it. With this group, things felt a bit flat when we talked about ideas—“art versus craft,” and such. But things took off when those themes slipped into the paragraphs of everyone’s writing. Stuff happened when we stopped talking around all that, and simply went there with our words.
At the end of each two-week Haystack session, the workshops open up for a studio walk-through. This display is dizzying and humbling—partly for the staggering volume of work produced during two weeks but mostly for the dazzling quality of it all.
Some of the pieces were assignments, as when Julia Galloway asked her ceramics students to find a historical form and recreate it, down to the specific details and gestures (which struck me as not dissimilar from how, say, a saxophonist might transcribe a recorded solo and then learn it, note for note, down to the phrasing and inflection.)
Some were practical.
Some were wearable flights of fancy that managed to say something about form and politics.
I decided to create a miniature reading library of several pieces written during my workshop.
And I wanted to be a part of all this on another level, to collaborate—to make something. The result was a tiny installation, “Spheres of Influence.”
I enlisted Sean Salstrom, the warm-hearted, easygoing and effortlessly authoritative glass instructor, who was based in Japan and who, early in my stay, had crafted a bowl-like object and then extended from its core a long string of glass with the help of helium-filled balloons, which literally lifted and stretched the glass in dramatic fashion. He demonstrated for me the essential art of creating a glass sphere. We went through the specific steps (we settled on nine in all), and we refined some explanatory language. Then, I excerpted some material from Robin Kelley’s biography of pianist Thelonious Monk—from pages 9 and 10, wherein Kelley explaining the derivation of Monk’s choice for his middle name, Sphere, in honor of his maternal grandfather. I recruited CornWagonThunder (a name she’d chosen, also to honor a grandparent) from the graphics workshop. She created a spherical handwritten book that interwove these two texts.
Sean wrapped his large glass sphere in rope, as Japanese fisherman do in order to create floats for their traps. I suspended the book on a string from a makeshift stand created from scraps in the woodshop. Next to it on a round table sat my MacBook Pro, cued to play Monk’s “Work,” which he recorded in 1954, on endless play. (Yes, I could have chosen Monk’s “Blue Sphere,” but that seemed obvious; besides, I wanted to subtly honor Haystack’s impressive work ethic.)
I left my cabin to tour the many works on display. When I’d returned, I found a few people standing around the installation, considering it. Over on the next table, half a dozen others were reading the workshop pieces. I snuck around, snapping pictures on my iPhone. Though occasionally, in my daily life, I happen upon someone reading my published work while on a subway or plane, writers don’t generally get this sort of real-time gratification or feeling of connection.
And that’s what happened most of all at Haystack. I felt connected, from breakfast until dinner. We were all working on projects of individual fascination and creation but we were working as a community. We had cabins clearly designated for separate functions and with very different tools, but we shared the woods and the bay and the moonlight and whatever ideas we threw out there.
Near the end of my stay, the nightly presentations turned to the work of the Haystack staff members. And that’s when it struck me. Everyone here—from executive director to assistant to facilities manager—was an artist with a body of work and a story connected to it. The place is by, for and of artists.
Whether that’s a clear statement of principle or just an organic development, it makes for what feels like an incredibly safe and comfortable and rare place to create. Or just to be.
Below is my own writing for the workshop. I’m not sure quite what it represents or whether it will grow into something longer and published.
I wish we could all sit in a circle and figure that out.
To Cut Is To Think
At Haystack, Summer 2016
By Larry Blumenfeld
1. At Haystack, I met all the fire hoses before I met all the artists.
Those hoses are tightly wound, boxed in all day, like most of the people I know in New York. They’re also available when you need them, which is not something I can say for those same people.
The artists here seem loose and relaxed. The only boxes they think about are the ones they design and build
2. It’s funny how amusement turns to abject terror when lost in the woods at night—those same woods that were warm and welcoming twelve hours earlier. Slightly less funny is how much, in dark of night, the natural markings on a tree trunk mimic painted trail markings. Trees can tease.
I love these woods for their meditative qualities. Look up at the stars. Meditate on the possible battery life of a $1.79 headlamp.
Answers come to the patient. Listen for sounds of lapping water. Think about the stuff of faith. Feel your way back, which is not all that different than the writing process.
3. I’m collecting phrases. They get tossed off here like so many scraps of wood and metal and clay. Yet they’re my main stuff.
A hot piece of color.
Dot your i’s with a tittle.
Everything has a function but not all things have utility.
There’s something so important about having a place to go.
A language that doesn’t exist.
When it cools, it hardens.
It hardens when it’s heated.
Knock that edge.
History is my collateral.
To cut is to think.
I stopped thinking in 1973.
I’ll be back when I’m dead.
4. In the wood shop everyone works with the patience that accompanies diligence. Yet the place hums with the intensity of lots of work getting done, of people doing things. On the table where Christopher is working on this and that—literally carving those two words from wood—sits sheet music for “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me.” Duke Ellington topped the R&B charts for eight weeks in 1944 with that tune, adapted from his earlier instrumental “Concerto for Cootie,” a showcase for his ace trumpeter, Cootie Williams. Now, in the woodshop, Duke’s composition forms the flipside—the B-side, were this an old 45—for a Xerox of “Functional Description of Domino DF500 Tenon Joiner,” which, I learn, “is used to cut mortises in wood for floating tenon joinery.” Next to that is the sheet music for “Chronic Blues,” which tenor saxophonist John Coltrane wrote for his 1957 Prestige Records debut as a bandleader, and perhaps titled in reference to the drug habit that lost him his gig with Miles Davis. The woodshop A-side for that one? “Setting the Fence Height.” In both cases, apparently, Christopher is to woodwork in the key of Bb.
No one knows how or when these items—practical manuals for joining wood to wood, and musical manuals for joining blues and improvisation—got so conjoined in the copy machine; not Christopher, or Tommy, who runs the shop, or the guy who’s busy crafting an electric guitar and seems the likely candidate.
They’re just there.
5. Look closely and those tall pine trees gently sway, dancing with one another and their own shadows. Look thoughtlessly and they’re just standing around.
I can’t tell if I’m really working or just swaying in the breeze.
6. He wonders if he’s really an artist; if he can call himself that, be that. She says she lives a double life: work and art.
When does function become form? Where does composition end and improvisation begin? When and how does ritual turn into performance? Why this need to be one thing and not the other?
Once, an acupuncturist told me that I had not one but many pulses. I felt instantly better.
7. Julia thinks that everything has content—each cup, saucer, pot, bowl, vase and especially each cream and sugar set. To say otherwise is, to her, fighting words.
Ah, content—a word that in Julia’s world connotes meaning but that in mine has sadly and quickly come to demean. Journalism and criticism were crafts and trades and, if not arts, at least artful. You got published and edited by professionals who, even in their most crass moments, thought about an audience of readers. To them, my words were copy. There was good copy and bad copy, strong copy and weak copy, but always copy.
Online, the marketers who now traffic in words as commerce seek not living, breathing readers but disembodied eyeballs. They never call it copy. When they use that word—content—to describe my words it sounds like a slight, and it is. I am no longer a writer; I am a content provider. Call me that, and you can pay me double because I know you’re not in the same game as me.
I like Julia’s version—the art world’s version, I guess—of content better. Whatever its pretense, it signifies something beyond data collection, something we might dig into with our minds and hearts or at least argue over with conviction. It conveys a fullness of ideas, not the emptiness of, well, eyeballs.
8. To cut is to think.
Annet transformed her art by slicing dead fish. Or, more accurately, by getting the scientists who worked alongside her in the basement of the Smithsonian Institution to do it for her. They even let her take those fish slices home.
For Annet, these slices of fish hold secrets and deep truths—about interior architecture, exterior form, and ways in which we achieve one single form. They whisper promises that any scientist or artist or seeker of any sort can hear without too much strain. It is the act of slicing that is both the process (the thought) behind real work as well as the prayer that begets revelation of one sort or another.
Annet, in her passion and her practical application of findings, reminds me of the guy at the Nova counter at Zabar’s, who wrings value and dispenses joy as he painstakingly cuts up a dead smoked salmon; of the radiologists whose finely sliced scans held the keys to how my stepfather would leave the hospital; of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker and a generation of musicians who took pop tunes of their day and cut them up to find vertical slices of harmonic and improvisational possibility in those gently swimming fishes of melody.
To cut is to think.
9. My father-in-law has played trumpet for 75 years, in symphony orchestras and in polka bands. When he was coming up, he says, there was jazz and there was “legit music.”
Twenty years ago, I told an editor of mine, a great editor, the best I’ve ever had, that I didn’t like categories. “I love categories,” he said. He liked to fight, on and off the page.
I decided I like categories, too. I just don’t want to live in them.
10. Where do you begin? How do you know when a piece of work is done? Wait for the trees to stop swaying, and you could be there a very long time.
Photos by Larry Blumenfeld