County fairs and summer go together. Lemonade and funnel cakes. Cotton candy and roller coasters. Here are some photos of our visit to the Sunshine Fair in Schoharie County in New York.
A 1976 Marlette mobile home, compact and apartment like, it sits on 20 acres of piney woods and meadow.
The previous owners brought the trailer in and used it as a hunting cabin. They tinkered with it and added things like the front porch, which is built of pieces of scrap wood, metal and cinderblock. The porch is wide enough to feel like a New York City stoop. All similarity ends there because the porch is draped with leafy Sweet Autumn Clematis vines and we have a visiting porcupine that likes to gnaw on the steps. The beds of Hosta that ring the trailer are in bloom now and buzzing with bees and hummingbirds. The tiny hummingbirds stick their heads inside the lilac colored flowers so deep that half their bodies disappear.
We have no running water so we pump from a well that is outfitted with an old-fashioned hand pump. The water bucket system flushes the toilet that is connected to a primitive septic system. The sinks and bathtub are connected to a grey water system where the water is flushed out to the back meadow. Only biodegradable soaps are used. Pumping water for the buckets is really good for your core and your triceps.
I’ve become really good at dishwashing without running water. Everyone, even guests are trained to remember which is their water glass and to be conservative about creating dishwashing volume. We grill a lot and make one-skillet meals. I use sturdy Bagasse dinner plates that are made from sugarcane waste and go straight into the compost bin. Marinating meats takes place inside zip lock bags.
The back meadow has a nice view of the woods. In June I like to sit on a lipstick red Adirondack chair and watch the light show that is fireflies. In August, we are lulled to sleep by the song of black crickets. Moss grows like a carpet in the shady parts of the back meadow and red squirrels chitter like monkeys in the pine trees.
We have been here for six weeks. This is the first time we are spending all summer here. I’m getting spoiled by the smell of the mountain air and the feel of grass under my feet. The dogs run free without collars on and chew meaty bones on the grass, their heads greasy with marrow. For the first time, I have seen the cornfields growing up from little green tufts in rows of dirt to what I see now where the stalks are over my head and topped with a cornflower.
We bought the piece of land nine years ago as refuge from our urban lives. A green and wild world in the Catskill Mountains of New York. We got it for a good price because we are off the grid. No electrical poles for a half-mile in either direction. We have a mobile home the size of an average New York City apartment so we feel comfortable within its confines.
We installed a solar system last summer and then we yearned for more connections. Namely, phone and internet. We don’t get a strong enough signal to use our cellphones. Year by year, the signal inched tantalizingly closer to us. The first year, we could sometimes make a call if we stood next to a chicken coop about a half mile up the road. It depended on the weather. Now the signal is just a quarter of a mile away. Our next door neighbor has two bars on an elevated spot on her land so we tried climbing ladders in different spots in our meadow and even went into the forest and climbed to the top an abandoned deer stand. Nada.
We are friends with a couple who live nearby and are also off the grid. They are fully connected with a landline and DSL. They became our advisors. They’d asked the phone company to put a box on the nearest pole and ran cable for a half mile to their solar powered cabin. And it worked.
In our town the phone company is independent and has been in existence since the late 1800’s. They understand rural folk, unorthodox situations and the desire for connectivity. The planner came and walked with me to the closest pole. That pole is on the land of our neighbor to the north about a quarter of a mile away from our mobile home. “Yes, we can put the box here”, he said, “but the cable is your responsibility in every way”. Our neighbor said “Yes, we will help you and you can connect using our pole, but we don’t want to see the cable, make sure you tap it down through the forest”. It is important to be neighborly in the backwoods. One hand washes the other. And people like to help.
Our neighbors Martha and Richard, the architects of this thing gave us their left over cable along with instructions about how to connect the pieces. The cable was like a ball of yarn to be unraveled along the road and then we had to splice the pieces together and house the connections in a waterproof casing. We were instructed to go to the electrical store in the next biggest town to find the waterproof housing. It was just me and Oona since our resident male (Frank) was out of town. Electrical store + do it yourselfers + females = Offensive Macho Bullshit. I started by being polite and humble – more flies with honey and all that. Oona, from her experience with male shopkeepers in feed stores, said “Ma, they don’t respect humble, you have to be assertive”. So I countered with “I’m the customer and I’m explaining to you what I need”. It worked. The grumpy guy went to the back and emerged with the pieces of plastic that would serve as the waterproof enclosures for our spliced cables.
On a brilliantly sunny afternoon we began the work of unspooling the roll of cable along the roadside so that we could connect the pieces and run it through the woods from our mobile home to our neighbor’s telephone pole. David and Lily, our upstairs neighbors in the Loisaida homestead and our 15 minutes away neighbor in upstate New York, stopped by and volunteered to help. Thankfully David took some photos because I was yelled at twice for stopping work to take photos for the blog.
I was nervous. I’d been working from home at the town library for the wireless. I had the schedule of hours of the libraries in three neighboring towns and had a folding lawn chair in the trunk after sitting for half a morning working on the stone steps of a closed library with my laptop using the wireless leaking from the building’s interior. It was stressful to duplicate the connectivity that one has in an office in New York City while being off the gird in the backwoods of New York State.
The nice guy from the independent phone company that is over one hundred years old arrived promptly to hook us up. I kept waiting for him to tell me what we were doing was not possible. But he waded calmly with me through waist high blackberry brambles to reach my neighbor’s telephone pole on a bright morning after a night of violent thunderstorms. When we reached our mobile home and he asked me where I would like the phone jack, my heart soared. I watched as he expertly drilled and connected and pulled a modem out of a box. I handed him the plain black phone I’d bought that requires no electricity. And then it rang.
Let’s reinvent the office. I don’t like going there. I’ve always preferred to work from home and have seized every opportunity to do so such as uncomfortable late pregnancies and when my children were babies. I don’t like the office with its distracting chatter and politics, fattening snacks and energy draining structure. When I’m at the office tethered to my desk from nine to six (because it is no longer nine to five), I procrastinate whenever time permits. I surf the net. I read Gawker and the Huffington Post. I play around on Pinterest during conference calls. I ache to be gone from there. My focus flits from one thing to the next with each comment or question from an office mate shouted from across the bullpen that is the open plan room.
When I work from home I am at peace with my work and I enjoy it. I wake at seven and instead of spending an hour and a half getting ready and getting to work, I am at work by 7:30 propped up in my comfortable bed with my laptop and a nice cup of coffee on the nightstand. I have a full hour and a half to concentrate without having to respond to incoming emails, IM’s or the phone. When I work from home, my breaks brighten my home life, my real life. I might get up from the desk, stretch and go to the kitchen to stir a pot of beans. I take a break by putting in a load of laundry or taking the dogs down to pee. On lunch break at the office I stand on line with strangers to pick up food and wait for the elevator with other strangers so that I can return to my desk and eat. At home, I can ride my bike to the market or walk over to the bank and run into a friend on the way and enjoy a nice chat or hear some neighborhood gossip.
I’ve been given the opportunity to work from home this summer. Which means a hiatus from Loisaida NYC and a retreat to an off the grid mobile home in the Catskill Mountains, my rural homestead. We come here on weekends and for vacation in August. The locals call us “seasonal folk”. Frank installed a solar system last summer for our electricity, but there is no running water and our refrigerator is a cooler. I will be here for a solid two months working from home. Yes, I am home from work.
I met Kristin in 1985 when we were working on a documentary film about Nicaraguan poetry (Azul) directed by another friend and neighborhood resident Roland Legiardi-Laura. Shortly thereafter I began to see Kristin in the neighborhood splattered with paint, hanging out on scaffolding with her murals blooming in the devasted landscape that was Loisaida at the time.
What inspired you to create large-scale paintings on walls?
I graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with an MFA in painting and had a studio in my loft. Although I was involved in several artist activist groups, I started feeling isolated. I had a friend from Paraguay who was very politically active with Latin American causes and our anti-intervention politics of the US in Central America coincided. One day I was griping to him about the lonely existence of the artist when he pointed out to me that only Americans and Europeans viewed the life of the artist this way. He opened me up to making art for and with the community in Latin America. So I started looking around for arts groups in NYC who were doing community work. I was reading a copy of a Spanish community magazine called “Ajá” and saw an open call for muralists. My friend, Robin Michals and I decided to contact the group “Artmakers” who was organizing the project and write up a proposal for “La Lucha Continua in Latin America, South Africa and The Lower East Side”. Artmakers is an artist-run, politically oriented community mural organization established in 1983.
What inspired you to make community art and what drew you to Loisaida?
The “La Lucha” project was to put multiple individual murals on this theme and one large group-produced mural in a large area where buildings had tumbled or been demolished between East 8th and East 9th Streets and between Avenue B and Avenue C. A park had been constructed by community residents there but it was a mess—full of weeds, used hypodermic needles and garbage. It was hard to keep the junkies out. Artmakers accepted our proposal and we collaborated with the group of involved artists to clean out the garbage and weeds, prime the walls of the canyon of surrounding buildings and get to work creating a riot of color on the walls. The bleak lot was transformed into a playground, outdoor performance space and a clean, safe place for the community to hang.
I spent the summer of 1985 making a public work which involved community members and was very popular in the neighborhood. Our wall was called “The Last Judgement” and depicted a jury of twelve overlooking a scene of grizzly looking white businessmen with missile toys at their feet in an abstract color field. For the jury we selected six leaders from Central America and South Africa: Daniel Ortega, Ruth First, Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchú, Archbishop Oscar Romero and Winnie Mandela. And six community members who were recommended by the people who lived in the area. They ranged from the street mechanic who worked right next to the wall, a homeless man who inhabited the block, an elderly woman who had single-handedly started a thriving community garden around the corner and three other colorful and well-liked neighborhood people.
Our mural generated much publicity and interest. Our piece was written about in “In These Times” by art critic Lucy Lippard and I was interviewed by Jimmy Breslin for the New York Post. The highlight was when Rigoberta Menchú from Guatemala came to New York to give a speech at the United Nations. One day there she was smiling in front of our mural. Word had gotten to her somehow and she came down to see it and meet us in full Quiché dress.
The following summer Robin and I raised the funds for another much larger mural on East 4th Street and Avenue D. We used the same concept to get the community involved and chose a site where a lot between two buildings had been made into a park by the priest from the church next door. He created a brightly colored gazebo, brick pathways, put in a swing set and planted a garden for children from the community to play in. Unfortunately the drug trade had reclaimed the lot and not many children played there. We invited people to recommend neighborhood children to portray and then selected eleven kids. We spent the summer of 1986 practically living on a scaffold on East 4th Street. At first there was suspicion that two white girls were cleaning up the neighborhood to make it nice for a gentrification that would push them out. But our friends and allies from 8th Street let everyone know that we were cool. The drug dealers caused a dilemma when one of them insisted that his son and his toy gun be painted on the wall. After meeting with community members we decided to comply in order to keep us and others safe during the project. Then one day our friends told us not to come around for a few days. The word was that several busts had occurred in the yard and the “big” off-site drug guy was sure we were narcs planted there and that there would be a reprisal. So we laid low until we got the word to come back. There had been a negotiation on our behalf by community members to clear the way. Another day when we rode our bikes to the site and locked them on a parking sign, turning our backs on them as we frequently did while working—they disappeared. But the word went out among our friends and the bikes mysteriously returned the next day. We had the feeling that a force field of community support surrounded us.
After the mural had been completed for a few months we received a call that someone had tagged the mural with spray paint. We spent a day researching how to remove Krylon from oil paint and hurried down to remedy the situation. A tag can be the kiss of death. It’s an invitation for others to do the same—one tag being the catalyst for a free-for-all. But when we arrived ready to remove it—it was gone. Someone from the neighborhood was faster then we were. By doing this kind of work, I made many friends in the community and with other artists that I cherish to this day.
What was the neighborhood like then?
When I arrived at the site for Artmakers La Lucha project it was the summer of 1985 and it was a blighted no-man’s-land. There were many abandoned buildings, empty lots where buildings had tumbled down. Drug selling frenzies were commonplace. Someone would walk out on the street with aluminum packages in his hands and the addicts would swarm with money held high in their fists. Cops just didn’t seem to care. There were blocks where the landscape was fallen brick, debris, graffiti and boarded-up buildings.
But it was an exciting time and many interesting community gardens and casitas were created. It was an invigorating nexus of politics, art and music.
What do murals do for a community?
The creation of a public work of art generates pride. Most people want to live in a nice place but can be overwhelmed by the degradation of things falling apart. When someone starts the ball rolling it is contagious. Colorful paintings that are relevant to the people who live there give a sense of hope and pride. But to make the magic happen it helps to involve the community, be open to their input and ask for and accept their help in the way they want to give it.
What inspired you to became an artist?
My father was an artist, as was his mother and he had me painting by the time I was four. At age six he enrolled me in art classes at the Museum of Modern Art. I thought I would be taught how to draw and paint the world around me. But it was the late 50s and Abstract Expressionism was in its heyday. The teacher had us make mini Jackson Pollacks by squirting paint from plastic ketchup bottles. I was thouroughly disappointed.
What are you currently working on?
In 2005 I became certified as a Reiki Master/Teacher and began doing energy healing work (www.HealingReikiBrooklyn.com). After this, my work changed drastically and I began making abstract work with geometric shapes and lines. I have a studio at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park Brooklyn through chashama.org and am currently showing twelve new paintings in “The Gallery At First” which is in the First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street in the Village. The work will be there until the end of June and can be seen during the week and on Sundays at 12 West 12th Street.
I continue to work on projects with Artmakers. In 2005 I worked on “When Women Pursue Justice” with Artmakers in Bedstuy, Brooklyn. It’s a 3,300 sq. ft. mural that can be seen at 498 Greene Ave. at the corner of Nostrand directed by Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weisman. It depicts 90 women activists, both historical and contemporary. My contribution was a 6-ft. portrait of Fanny Lou Hamer.
In 2008 I ran into you on East 3rd Street while helping to restore an R.I.P. mural created in 2002 for Eva Cockcroft, founder of Artmakers. You and I had met originally while I was working on the Enchanted Garden mural on your block in 1986.
In June I expect to be working on a mural with Artmakers led by Camille Perrotet at PS 94 in Sunset Park Brooklyn.
This is Kristin’s website: www.kristinreed.com
I love Millie more than any other dog I’ve ever had. I feel a little guilty saying that because I have another beloved dog, Lolo, a gentle geezer who has eyes only for me. I love Millie more because of her disability. She lost her sight and developed glaucoma two years ago, and we made the decision to have her eyes removed to relieve the pain.
Love grew because she needs a little extra help. She won’t go down stairs, so I have to carry her down when I take them for a walk. She settles in the crook of my arm as relaxed as if she were lying on the couch. It feels like she is a queen being transported in her litter. Love also grew because she doesn’t let her blindness get in the way. She doesn’t feel blind. Millie lives to play fetch and is as good a catcher as when she had sight. She likes to hunt although she was never any good at it – being too spastic and wild. Stealth was never part of her strategy. She hunts pigeons on the sidewalks of New York by smell and the sound of their feathers. I let her lunge at them on her leash and when they scatter she looks up at me, delighted with herself for a job well done. She helps Lolo hunt squirrels and dig for moles when we are at our rural homestead, which is her favorite place in the world. We made this short video of Millie on a recent walk in the woods.
Frank says we love her so much because she still looks and acts like a puppy. That is true. Happy 5th Birthday Millie.
This is the second of an on-going series of Iphone photos of doorways in Loisaida. Elaborate wooden doorways. Metal doorways become street canvases. Loisaida Doorways I is here.