Update from Maine: what I learned from the Design People
In June 2016 I spent a full week on Vinalhaven, a relatively large, year-round island in the mid-coastal region of Maine. This was under the auspices of DesignInquiry, an organization for artists, mostly graphic designers, who come together each year to work on projects and enjoy the community of other artists. My husband Anthony and I submitted a collaborative application and we were accepted to spend time on the island, sans children and wifi. The conference/residency was entitled “Productive Counter-production” which certainly peaked our interest.
We stayed at Poor Farm on Poor Farm Road, which used to be a literal “poor farm,” supported by the town of Vinalhaven for indigent farmers, factory workers and stone carvers who were not employed for 12 months of the year. (For more on the Poor Farm, go here.) There were 11 artists staying at the Poor Farm the week we went, with shifting residents towards the end of the week.
11 reflections from the Poor Farm, in no particular order:
1. Island driving salute. Everyone, I mean everyone, waves to other drivers. This can be an entire hand wave or a one-or-two-flnger gesture while the hand is still on the steering wheel. I first thought the coolness of the person functioned in relationship to how small the motion was (i.e. one finger indicates the most disaffectation), but I think it’s only about exhaustion, given how many times one signals. And really, one HAS to. Even when passing five cars in a row, each person gets at least a tiny indication of acknowledgment.
2. Interdisciplinary conversation. I don’t hang out with a lot of graphic designers specifically, but I do spend a fair amount of time with creative people who are not musicians. The DesignInquiry people are some of the kindest, most thoughtful and knowledgeable people I have met, and they are not only fascinated by all art production, they also welcome all people. I was not treated as an outsider because I’m a musician, but as just another artist with unique ideas and contributions. I shared studio space in a barn with a wonderful visual artist who was quite accommodating of my many hours of violin practicing. At times we would talk about our process; I learned a lot.
3. These people can COOK. I am guessing that not all graphic designers are master chefs, but each person at this residency turned out to be a pretty unbelievable cook. Every night we sat around and decided what we were going to make for the next day and who wanted to make it, sometime individuals and sometimes in teams. And it wasn’t an effortful or over-controlled process, it was lovely, the way people sprang into action, suddenly pulling together French toast and rhubarb compote for breakfast, or an epically-good black bean chili with hot oatmeal bread. Which brings me to the next item..
4. Bread. A Design Inquiry artist listed “bread making” as one of his activities for the week on Vinalhaven, but this was a serious understatement. I would call it “yeast ritualization realization” or something that more accurately describes the labor-intensive and beautiful artistic work he performed about every other day. One of my favorite moments of the week was punching down the enormous bread dome that had spent hours rising, getting ready for further kneeding. New experiences--all manner of productive and counter-productive--bring new levels of wonder.
5. Various and sundry productive and counterproductive lists. Based on discussions at meals or as a result of readings, people would pin up impromptu lists around the farm. An especially helpful one was a Books to Read list right next to the downstairs toilet. Or the list that went up as a result of the question “what does peripatetic mean?” Or “what’s another way to explain ‘shits and giggles’”? Or “what can you tell me”? (which garnered a favorite response: the wind is soft and feels like freedom)
6. I forgot how much I love practicing. Or just sitting. I made my schedules, I organized my time and my work flow. Even though my husband and I had our own collaborative schedule, there was so much flexibility that I could practice for 4 or 5 or 6 hours if I wanted to. And instead of having to monitor every minute of my solo practicing because I am always fighting the clock at home, I could take that extra 5 or 45 minutes to explore multiple fingering or coloristic options. Or sit and look at the grass or the water.
7. I am a better parent when I have space and time to do my own stuff. My mother always encouraged me to continue doing my artistic work even through the most challenging times as a parent. I consistently follow her advice, even though it means that I am sometimes apart from my children. The time we spend together as a family is much more meaningful as a result, however, and my children get to see me doing what I love. This week in Maine was harder than usual on our kids because both parents were gone, but they also had new adventures in our absence.
8. Even professionals doodle. At all times at the Poor Farm there were surfaces covered with drawings. This felt oddly familiar, given my family’s daily drawing activities. But even the main dining table, covered with rotating large pieces of paper, welcomed doodles. And these weren’t commonplace doodles, these were clever, fun and intentional drawings of logo’s or just thoughts that transpired during conversations at or between meals. The visual IQ of this small group of people is staggering.
9. Community is up to us to create and maintain, and the more we contribute, the more we receive. When I was younger and going to summer camp or other out-of-school experiences, I always went somewhere desiring something specific out of an environment (i.e. Aspen Music Festival for the violin teacher). While I still participate in summer experiences, this is mostly in the role of educator, someone who helps to make a summer fabulous for students. How rare it is to be in an environment where we are all working together in an equal capacity to sustain a place. At this kind of residency, everyone shares a mindset of gratitude for the time and the space, and as a result, thrilling things happen.
10. The sun and moon rule us all. If we needed to skip part of a meal to shoot a video in specific light, or venture to the beach to walk over a land bridge only passable during low tide, then that’s what we did. And when the sun wakes up between 4:30 and 5 a.m., you can fight the brilliant light, or you can embrace the day and get going. A good reminder about what really matters.
11. Am I a designer? Towards the end of the week, one of the artists at the Poor Farm asked me some thought-provoking questions about creativity and interpretation, challenging my ideas about what labels mean. I told him I had become empowered to write my blog entries while thinking of myself as an artist rather than “just” a musician. Somehow the word “artist” encompassed a larger perspective. Well then, he said, after this experience at DesignInquiry, could you come to think of yourself as a “designer”? He’s going to check back with me in a few years.