How I Spent my Summer Vacation

After traveling for nearly a month, this homebody is glad to be back to my little haven of domesticity. This time I visited Washington State with a side trip to British Columbia.

If you follow the blog, you know a little bit about my adventures, but here are some more highlights.

In Bellingham I learned about Sustainable Connections’ Think Local First campaign. This ingenious program rewards local businesses for earth-friendly business practices by raising their profile in the community.

We decided to experience this local biz thing for ourselves.

Checking out goat cheese options (that's our old friend Laurie in the foreground.)

Checking out goat cheese options at the Bellingham Farmers Market (that’s our old friend Laurie in the foreground.)

Craft beer, ice cream made from local berries, a killer bookstore, and a festive Saturday farmers market showed us a bit of the region’s specialties.

Biggest raspberry evah

Biggest raspberry evah

From Bellingham we ventured north to Denman Island in British Columbia for the Mudgirls workshop.

My new friend Millie, tamping slip straw at the Mudgirls workshop.

My new friend Millie, tamping slip straw at the Mudgirls workshop.

Then it was back to the U.S. for a two-week writing residency at Hypatia-in-the-Woods in Shelton, WA. This experience was a bit different from previous residencies which I shared with other artist types: I was the sole resident of a lovely cottage nested deep in the cedar forest.

The labyrinth on the grounds, a magical place

The labyrinth on the grounds, a magical place to commune with deer, birds, trees, and insects

The solitude gave me lots of focused time to write. I also learned how much I value having someone within hollering distance, as I had a few challenging moments in the intense isolation. I was thankful for the board, who kindly made sure I had some conviviality to balance out the quiet.

Other people's dogs, such as the director's Sheltie, Ceela, helped me deal with the lonesomeness of not having my dog with me.

Other people’s dogs, such as the director’s Sheltie, Ceela, helped me deal with the lonesomeness of not having my dog with me.

A high point: connecting with Olympia Mycelial Network, a group I’ve admired from afar. I helped them with an installation of bioluminescent mushroom mycelium, which was a thrill.

We gathered by the cob oven on the Commons at Fertile Ground. After a quick tutorial, we created a path from wood chips inoculated with panellis (bitter oyster) mycelium. The hope is that this path will glow in the dark as the mycelium gets established.

Peter McCoy, who blogged here about starting the Radical Mycology project, walked us newbies through the process for growing mycelium.

Peter showing me grain spawn and mycelium sugar that he propagated at home. Now I want to try it!

Peter showing me grain spawn and mycelium sugar that he propagated at home. Now I want to try it!

After that inspiring evening, I had to visit Olympia Food Coop, where the group earlier helped install mycelium that consumes petrochemicals.

I feel so lucky to have had the chance to learn from such innovative people and projects. I’m glad to be back to my laundry-hanging, solar-cooking, dog-walking routine though. I have several fun writing assignments coming up that I’ll tell you about later.

Note: Speaking of solar cooking: We’re offering a workshop this Sunday from 2-3pm at Pogue’s Run Grocer on that very topic. RSVP here if you can make it!

Possible

Two quotes from Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy are on my mind tonight. First the disturbing.

“Either way, change will come. It could be bloody, or it could be beautiful. It depends on us.”

I don’t even have to look to the horrifying news out of the Middle East to find us awash in blood. Here in my town, last week two men pulled out guns to shoot each other for the unpardonable crime of bumping each other on the sidewalk.

It seems that people are less and less respectful of life, while the means to do harm are more and more lethal, efficient, and accessible. Where will it end?

And yet.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Yes, I hear her too. This is why I make a point, every day, to dwell in quiet.

Walking the Labyrinth on World Labyrinth Day in May.

Walking the Labyrinth on World Labyrinth Day in May.

Today I walked the Rivoli Park Labyrinth. I said an invocation before stepping in, and as I wound my way to the center, I imagined transformation happening. The breeze rearranging molecules, my porous body, which is really made of space and light and whirling particles.

I reached the stone at the center, and just as I sat down the sun broke through the clouds. I felt it warm my back.

I listened.

I said, thank you. And: may it be so.

On the Solstice, Contemplating Home

On the longest day of the year, one week after leaving Playa, I’ve been thinking about all that “home” means to me. I loved Oregon’s pristine natural beauty. But I couldn’t wait to come home and walk the tree-lined streets of my neighborhood. Taking my dog Marley for a walk was high on my list on my first morning back.

It’s not perfect here. There’s litter, unlike in Lake County, OR, and sadly many of the neighborhood ash trees are not treated for emerald ash borer, so they are dying—a distressing sight. Poison ivy is rampant in untended corners. Plus it’s really damned humid. But I still walk along with my heart singing “home,” loving the big sycamores and tulip poplars, enjoying all those daylilies and clematis vines, sampling a mulberry here and there.

And getting the latest scoop. Down the street, my big softie neighbor still has the pit bull who wandered into his yard—the one he swore he wouldn’t keep. Farther on, the retiree who always complimented me on my dog (Lord, how that poodle can prance) tells me he and his wife are moving to a condo after 47 years here, but a young family up the street will be moving in. I learn about another neighbor’s dog’s bout with pneumonia. And so on.

Walking is one of the ways I savor my neighborhood, but it’s not the only way. About the second thing I did that day was ride my bike with Judy to the kickoff of the Irvington Folk Festival, a weeklong extravaganza that opened with an outdoor bluegrass concert. I’m no bluegrass aficionado, though I love a good Rocky Top as much as the next person. What I went for, and got, was the people.

In the crowd were Rosemary, and also Laura, two women who helped me found the Irvington Green Initiative years ago. Also our neighbor Pat, who told us of a possible grant for a native plant/foraging project we’ve been scheming.

We sat with Heidi and Mike, longtime gardening buddies who happened to bike up at the same time as we did, midconcert. Behind us were Jerome and his family. That was fortuitous, because I could update him on our sweetgum tree. (Arborist Jerome has a business called Tree-Centric, which I’ve blogged about before. A few weeks ago he assessed our ailing sweetgum, taking soil samples and cutting away girdling roots. The cost of his professional expertise? A loaf of homebaked bread.)

Jerome offered both his strawberry patch and serviceberry grove for picking. Though the strawberries were done, here's the lovely haul of serviceberries my friends and I made that morning.

Jerome offered both his strawberry patch and serviceberry grove for picking. Though the strawberries were done, here’s the lovely haul of serviceberries my friends and I made that morning.

Somehow, over the years, my roots have grown deep in this place. I grieve with friends who lost their 13-year-old German Shepherd, one of a gang of Marley met in the park as a pup. I pick mulberries and serviceberries (some from Jerome’s yard) while chatting with good friends. My yoga buddies welcome me back vociferously. I barter for Thai massage from a neighbor.

All that, plus (last night) hearing local musicians rock out, after eating at the new deli that sources everything it can locally.

How did I get so lucky? I don’t know, but I’ll contemplate the answer while biking to the park for the folk festival’s finale (and, bonus: alternative gift fair).

To Belong

Winter aconites blooming in March 2013

Winter aconites blooming in March 2013

“As the globalized, placeless world spreads,
and as progress is increasingly defined as the ability to look out of a hotel window in any city and see the same corporate logos lit up in familiar neon,
it could be that the most radical thing to do
is to belong.”

Paul Kingsnorth, Real England

“We Must Care About our Public Spaces”

As promised, here is a followup to last week’s post on the value of public art.

At Foundation East’s artist meet-and-greet I met Irvington resident Holly Combs. She’s half of the husband-and-wife duo who painted several traffic signal boxes around Irvington. While I was talking with her, a neighbor stopped to say that she honked and waved whenever she passed the couple working out in the cold on their boxes.

Holly thanked her, saying, “Do you know what it meant to us when people honked and waved? Yeah, it was cold but we didn’t feel it. When you’re joyful in what you do, you’re not even cold.” Then she handed us each a “You are beautiful” sticker.

That seems to sum up Holly, whose passion is obvious when she speaks of her various projects. For example, Street Styles. It’s a youth program she started that uses street art and graffiti as the foundation for exploring art fundamentals.

With her husband Dave, she also founded the Department of Public Words. DPW’s mission is to put uplifting messages in surprising places, all to tell people “they’re awesome, beautiful, worthy, and wonderful,” as Holly puts it.

They first tried it a few years back when the economy tanked and the Combs’ gallery and art magazine were hard hit.

Photo courtesy of Department of Public Words.

Photo courtesy of Department of Public Words

“When you lose everything, you’re fearless, thinking ‘I can do anything,’” Holly told me. She painted You Are Beautiful in block letters high on a prominent building in the Fountain Square neighborhood because it was a message she herself needed.

Since then they’ve put the same message on a building on East Tenth Street. I pass it often and it never fails to make me smile.

Photo courtesy of Department of Public Words

Photo courtesy of Department of Public Words

Sometimes I’ve walked my dog past the Combs’ house in summer (though I didn’t know it was theirs) to find You Are Beautiful scrawled in chalk on the sidewalk.

The You Are Beautiful campaign is part of a global initiative started by Matthew Hoffman (those stickers were the first manifestation). Right now the couple are raising money to continue inspiring people with positive words all over town.

With Street Styles, Holly works with youth in the juvenile justice system, many of whom have illegally painted graffiti. “I tell my juvenile offenders, ‘You go to jail for doing that and I get paid $100 an hour: who’s the boss?’” She brings the disenfranchised youth into the process of creating street art in hopes of channeling their desire for self-expression.

I asked Holly how she felt about the vandalized signal boxes, since one of theirs was targeted. “Yes, our box got paint poured on it. Just out of meanness. Sad. But I see public art as a conversation with the public,” she told me in a Facebook chat.

One of the Combs' traffic signal boxes. Photo by Vishant Shah.

One of the Combs’ traffic signal boxes. Photo by Vishant Shah.

The offenders in her program say that if a community doesn’t seem to care about a neighborhood, it’s seen as an invitation.

“(We) must care about our public spaces to help encourage others to care about them too. I always say, “Blank walls want me.’”

In fact, my neighborhood started the signal box project after a police officer spoke to our Crimewatch group about Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Officer Shane Foley talked about CPTED’s landscaping and lighting design principles—and how modifying the built environment can deter criminals.

The group already had a history of litter cleanups and beautification efforts, and CPTED theory made a lot of sense. The traffic signal box art seemed a natural progression.

Another of the Combs' boxes. Photo by Vishant Shah.

Another of the Combs’ boxes. Photo by Vishant Shah.

These boxes belong to the whole community, and no setback is going to slow the public art movement now. With the help of a fundraising campaign, Vishant and cofounder Aaron Story plan to have all the boxes protected with a coat of clear coat by May.

Local artists, funders, and dreamers are invited to contact Foundation East about partnering on future eastside Indy public art projects.

Public Art Unites the Community

Public art is one of those things that’s more than the sum of its parts. Here in my neighborhood, the humble traffic signal box—a four-foot-tall aluminum cabinet that had never before registered on my radar—seems to be the start of something big.

In 2012 I was one of the volunteers painting Irvington’s first seven signal boxes as part of the Great Indy Cleanup.

These Colts cheerleaders helped us get the job done.

These Colts cheerleaders helped us get the job done. Photo by Heidi Unger.

Each design had been submitted by artists like Morgan Hauth, shown here putting finishing touches on one of her pieces.

Touching up

Morgan Hauth touching up. Photo by Heidi Unger.

By 2013, Foundation East, the brainchild of Vishant Shah and Aaron Story, had formed with a goal of transforming eastside Indy neighborhoods through public art. Building on the success of the traffic signal box project, the duo enlisted six artists to paint another round.

Oil painter Rita Spalding at work on one of her signal boxes.

Oil painter Rita Spalding at work on one of her signal boxes. Photo by Charmaine Edwards.

A total of 19 boxes now brighten the main thoroughfares of my community.

Sadly, some disrespectful souls targeted a couple of these landmarks. Two boxes were vandalized early Dec. 31, prompting outrage among neighbors. A third more recently had a bucket of paint splashed on it.

It’s infuriating, but I take my cue from Rita, who has more reason than anyone to be outraged—her luminous painting was among those defaced. She told the Indianapolis Star that morning, “I’m not angry. It just really makes me think about what’s going on in that kid’s life.”

Later that day she wiped off the graffiti. Several neighbors met her at the box to help out if needed, but it turned out to be easier than she expected, because she’d applied a layer of clear coat finish.

Foundation East founders Aaron and Vishant say the outcry shows how important these boxes have become. They invited the community to meet the artists and show their support this week.

I went to the gathering, finding it packed to the gills with neighbors eager to thank the artists and scribble their ideas on a white board. (Paint the water tower, build a vertical garden structure on the library lawn, install a sculpture on my street!)

Many also chipped in for a “clear coat fund” to give all the boxes the same treatment as Rita’s.

Homage to car culture

Homage to car culture, by Andrew Severns. Follow this artist at @severnscanon. Photo by Vishant Shah.

I talked to several residents there who mentioned Irvington’s history as a hub of creative and intellectual stimulation, with Butler University’s campus located here until 1928. In the 1920s and 30s, a group of acclaimed painters known simply as the Irvington Group drew national attention.

Apparently our neighborhood’s reputation as a quirky haven for eccentrics also dates back 100 years—Irvington is described in an October 1903 Indianapolis Star article as “the classic suburb which has an interesting way of turning up all kinds of freaks and strange things generally.”  (This was before the city grew to swallow up the suburb, but we retain our unique character.)

Signal box in Arctic Vortex aftermath

Erin Kelsch’s Signal box in Arctic Vortex aftermath. Photo by Vishant Shah.

Kathleen Angelone, owner of Bookmamas, says that’s exactly the kind of neighborhood she wants—and the art definitely adds to the vibe. “I think public art is vital to any community because it makes it beautiful. It denominates where the community is and gives it character.”

“And it is civilized. I want to live in a civilized community where people are interested in art and music and learning, not just their day to day jobs.”

Tribute to farm heritage

Dave and Holly Combs’ tribute to farm heritage. Photo by Vishant Shah.

Russian-born Svetlana, an oil painter, told me that public art played a role in her childhood desire to paint. “There are statues everywhere in Russia; you’re just surrounded by art,” she said. “That gave me a lot of creativity and imagination.”

Two years ago she moved to Irvington, where color is starting to pop in unexpected places. “I think it’s wonderful that there is art for people to view without going to a museum.”

Aaron and Vishant invite local artists, funders, and dreamers to contact them about partnering on future eastside Indy public art projects.

My next blog post will have more about the role of public art in placemaking, youth engagement, and crime prevention.

Placemaking in the City

It’s hard to imagine right now, with a spring storm threatening to deposit up to 10 inches of snow on us, but in a few weeks my neighborhood will come together for an annual spring cleanup. Volunteers will fan out to pick up a winter’s worth of litter, with the support of Keep Indianapolis Beautiful.

I love my neighborhood for many reasons–one of which is the dedicated cadre of people who work tirelessly to pull us together for the greater good. It’s amazing what this group can pull off: tree plantings, rain gardens, murals, pocket parks, public art projects, greenspaces galore.

A local artist paints a traffic signal box as part of a public art project. Photo by Heidi Unger.

A local artist paints a traffic signal box as part of a public art project.

Working together on projects has meant lots of neighbor-to-neighbor bonding time. When you’re trying to see past your poncho hood to pull soggy candy wrappers from a ditch, the person standing in the rain with you to hold a trash bag open becomes a good pal.

There’s a sense of solidarity and shared ownership, and civic pride out the wazoo. That leads to more ambitious community endeavors, like painting local artists’ designs on all the major intersections’ traffic signal boxes.

Similarly, in my book research I’ve learned of a group called City Repair, out of Portland, OR. This group works to reclaim urban spaces through placemaking. Rather than waiting for someone in charge to come along and “fix” a neighborhood, City Repair takes a DIY approach (or really DIWO – do it with others!).

Placemaking is all about creating gathering spots, or areas that support other community functions–composting, bike parking, safety, resource sharing, etc.  Examples in Portland:

  • public squares
  • meeting houses
  • community kiosks/benches
  • “solar-powered and artistic innovations”

With its emphasis on ecological and artistic transformations, City Repair is an inspiration. Their site offers placemaking resources. Check them out, and let me know what kinds of community endeavors are happening in your neck of the woods.

Postscript: Just as I was finishing this post, I found this great story of transforming a vacant lot into a public space – simply by adding seating.