I was “born on a mountain top in Tennessee.” On the day I was born, Thanksgiving Day came to the mountain on the Cumberland Plateau in Sewanee. The trees were barren, an ever-present winter fog shrouded the limestone hospital building near Morgan’s Steep, which became the place of my birth. I would remain firmly rooted in the soil of Sewanee, until marriage at seventeen and graduation from high school in Winchester, Tennessee, took me far afield from the plateau and Franklin County, the valley. Once in Georgia, as a mother of two, I went into Kmart barefooted and didn’t think a thing about it until a neighbor pointed out that such things weren’t done. I was shocked and embarrassed. The sad truth I learned in Kmart that day is that you can take a girl off the mountain but she must wear shoes.
The soil between my toes acquired roaming the pristine woods, swimming in the lake, gradually shook loose somewhere between Chattanooga, south through Atlanta, then further south into Macon, Georgia. Leaving behind the red clay of Georgia, I wiggled my toes in the sandy beach of Jacksonville, Florida, the most exotic location of the places I have called home.
Catapulted north to Ohio, after marrying my second husband in St. Augustine, Florida, the Fountain of Youth city, I longed for the undulating land of Tennessee. When did the earth turn red and slimy and sidewalks ceased to exist I asked myself in Georgia. Pine trees just don’t cut it. Give me the towering, thick-breasted oaks on the mountain of my birth. …believe me …beyond here lies dragons. Trust me, it’s flat in Ohio.
My father operated Arthur Long’s General Store, an institution in Sewanee, which is now the Lemon Fair, a gift shop. Until my mother joined my father in the store, after his eyesight began failing him, she was an elementary school teacher. Unlike my brother, Art, Jr., who worked in the store with our father, and was taught to follow Arthur Long’s instructions to the letter, I was given freedom. Under my mother’s tutelage, I roamed Sewanee Mountain and enjoyed all that the natural world afforded me. My playground was the university campus with its European ambiance. The domain was kept free from advertising and other references to 20th Century American lifestyles of the nineteen fifties and sixties--- my formative years. In essence I grew up in a place where time stood still and seemed to reference former bygone days.
Our family lived in a white shingled house with a red tin roof beside highway 41A in downtown Sewanee. I was around ten years old when I stooped down beside the highway to pat out another mud patty to add to my stack. I had convinced a friend to join me in hurling mud cakes at passing cars thinking it amusing. Reluctantly she joined me in my escapades. It was great fun until one of the cars who was pelted with a mud projectile stopped. My friend and I split up. She headed to her home, I bolted through the door of our house and hid under my bed awaiting the consequences of my antics.
When seeking a pivotal moment when I knew that I was an artist, I could think of none, but the environment of my home the place of my birth, the natural beauty, and the intellectual climate of the university with its campus. They gave me the soul of an artist that took a lifetime of learning to finally come to fruition. I realize that it is both natural and manmade objects that inspired me. The world around me affords enough materials for my art work. I do not formulate ideas in my mind using equations or design using formal means. Bricolage is an apt way to describe my art making process.
I formulated an aesthetic assimilated from what was familiar to me that I attribute to small-town life in an isolated college community. The trees I drew in Georgia and Florida were of Sewanee Mountain, large-limbed, and reaching toward extending boundaries. I left my home land and found home again in the halls of higher education. Throughout my life the pursuit of learning has been constant. I began attending college at Wesleyan in Macon, Georgia in 1975, and completed a Bachelors of Fine Art degree at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga in 2005. Thirty years traversing the halls of four institutions in different states taught me that anything is possible. I have struggled through courses with younger persons, and we all shared the same objectives; age differences don’t exist. Do the work, make the grade, and savor the rewards equally according to one’s effort. I have never confined myself to a phase of life, and the mind’s capacity for extended boundaries is limitless.
“And now joy came at last to the gallant, long-suffering Odysseus, king of Ithaca”… (And the hero of Homer’s epic tale)… “So happy did the sight of his own land make him that he kissed the generous soil.” The first art teacher I studied under in Macon told me that when he returned to Georgia from New York City, he hugged the trees around his home. My return to Tennessee after the odyssey of my life up and down the east coast raising children after two husbands were long gone, afforded me, as in the words of Wordsworth, comfort in what remained behind. I can see a sliver of the mountain if I lean far to the left from the back terrace of my duplex home in Winchester where I finally arrived after my journeys. There is satisfaction in what remains behind, and there is also hope in what is before me.
Life stretches out like a Persian carpet waiting for me to ride. I have a studio up two flights of stairs in Cowan, Tennessee where I spin gold from bits of this and that. I make assembled art work from whatever arrests my attention. Natural wood I find around the lake, rusty machine parts, manmade objects, anything can inspire and flesh out an idea. I have a knack for arranging things, and a life-time of art education brings forth quirky things. The art I make is poetry made from tangible objects that become changelings when morphed through my hands.
However, there is a moment of conception and realization of an idea that became pivotal in what has become the performance aspect of my art production. The theme of a local art exhibition was, Birds. “I don’t do birds; I have decent photographs of birds I could exhibit, but that doesn’t represent who I have come to know myself to be as an artist,” I thought. Then the familiar voice of inspiration spoke: “BECOME A BIRD, AND FLY THE COOP!” “I get it; I get it! First comes the reality of a metaphor, then the message.” I worked diligently within the meager means my budget afforded me to make a bird effigy that I could wear to the exhibition. In essence I became a bird. I showed up the night of the artist’s reception as Bird Woman and I spent the evening making the best bird squawk that I could. The reviews were mixed. Some attendants loved it, others weren’t as understanding of what was being presented to them. Flying the coop simply means: Think outside the box, and don’t let fear of rejection keep you from trying new ideas. Since Bird Woman other personas have come into being: Vending Machine Woman and BraNanza, which brought awareness to the prevention and cure of breast cancer and was presented on the square in Winchester during a Wriggle in September of 2005. The Mad Hatter from Winchester is another character I created.
I traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi to the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum to give an Art Encounter to visitors to their museum. The Mad Potter from Biloxi, inspired the creation of The Mad Hatter from Winchester. It was quite the coo to be allowed freedom to walk about the museum’s grounds as a representative of Winchester in costume offering Art Encounters to visitors. What a moment that was for me. The little girl willing to hurl mud cakes at passing cars had the courage to become a character who brings art to persons outside the typical sites of presenting art. I am drawn to Performance Art because of its direct connection to the audience outside the usual art presentation venues.
I have received a welcoming embrace by the community of Winchester where I now live. I am grateful to the city employees who have encouraged me in my art. Another venue offered a place for my work, in Winchester--- the Franklin County Library. When the library recently reopened after renovations, Vending Machine Woman made an appearance. She highlighted an exhibition of mail art and sculpture of my art work and the work of others that I curated.
I find solace in what remains behind and often am found sinking my toes into the intellectual soil of my home turf in Sewanee. There are many opportunities for cultural events that are free and open to the public on the campus. I am a grateful artist for the origins of my birth, the humbleness of those who were my parents, and for the isolation the region afforded me to develop in my own particular soil. I did come home again. To the same place? Yes and no. But, I am glad to be here and am grateful for the opportunities Franklin County, Tennessee has always offered me. The soul of Sewanee and the Cumberland Plateau that comes through me will forever live in my art.