Field Note: Eternal Spring

May 5th, 2013

It started with the lilac trees. Klea first noticed the big, showy clusters of purple flowers when we arrived in Santa Barbara and was surprised they had already bloomed in mid-April. Since the beginning of the trip we had been paying attention to the development of spring as we headed north: the changes in weather, the duration of light, the eruptions of flowers, and the almost fluorescent-green of new growth leaves. As we continued north on our journey up along the coast we looked for the lilacs, noticed what stage they were at, and realized the rate at which we were traveling seemed to coincide with these spring blooms. The lilacs became our gauge. By the time we hit Sonoma County where we visited artists Kai Samuels-Davis and Esther Traugot and spent some time at Chalk Hill Artist Residency, it was clear that our trip was enabling us to experience springtime in a drawn-out, exaggerated manner—essentially, an “endless” spring.

We were invited by artist and Program Director Alice Warnecke to spend the night at Chalk Hill Artist Residency. This small and relatively new residency is near Healdsburg on the Warnecke Ranch and Vineyards, an impressive stretch of land that includes Russian River frontage, a lake, grassy meadows, and an 80-acre vineyard. Artists are selected to come one at a time to live in the 1920’s farmhouse and are given a studio space in a repurposed barn and are encouraged to explore the rambling property. Chalk Hill Residency also collaborates with local organizations to integrate artists with developmental disabilities and mental health challenges. This is an important and personal aspect to the residency, started in honor of Alice’s uncle Roger Warnecke who has been living and painting with schizophrenia since he was 20. Before starting the residency Alice had been living in San Francisco but after graduating from CCA she decided to move to her family’s ranch and help out with the vineyards. The inspiration for Chalk Hill Residency was based on her grandfather’s vision (John Carl Warnecke), a renowned architect who had dreamed that the land would someday be a resource for architects and artists.

Alice’s move to the ranch was conditional on being able to pick up where her grandfather left off. On the evening we arrived, over a home-cooked meal that Alice had prepared for us, we sat at her kitchen table along with Linda Rosso, the resident artist, and chatted. Alice said she knew taking on a more rural lifestyle might be challenging for her art practice and she was initially worried about being far away from a larger community of artists but she thinks of the residency as a lifeboat, telling us that “Seeing people make work on a day-to-day basis is inspiring and motivating.” She also said that for her and her family the residency is a way to share Warnecke Ranch’s beauty.

The topic of nature, community, and “getting back to the land” continued to come up… In Ukiah we spent the day with curator Larry Rinder, and friends David Wilson and Hannah Barr-DiChiara on Larry’s big sweep of land. Tucked away in the hillsides it encompasses far-reaching meadows, tangles of manzanita, and sturdy oak. We spent time walking and talking, lying in the sun, swaying back-and-forth from the rope swing, and eating together. Klea and I noted that the lilacs were in full bloom in the garden. Larry told us the story of how finding this land inspired him to jump ship from a high-powered job in New York to move to the West Coast. In his voice I could hear how much he loved the land, how lucky he felt to have found it. It also seemed pretty obvious that it is important to him to share it.

That day seemed like a hazy childhood memory to me— full of sun flares, slow-moving hours, and wonder… and I couldn’t help but think about the powerful pull of the land, and the many ways we have tried getting back to it… I thought about the Transcendentalists, and the Romantics, and all the more recent utopian movements that came out of the decades belonging to the ‘60s and ‘70s. All that Californian dreaming, all those flower children, all the groupings of people that have come together to try to live closer to themselves, each other, and nature.

Having been raised by parents of the ‘60s generation who chased after unconventional dreams only to have things fall apart, I’ve always been skeptical of overly earnest attempts at transcendence and finding utopia, and the inclination to sentimentalize our relationship to nature. And yet simultaneously I understand those impulses, recognize them in myself, and still I haven’t quite figured out what to do with them. On our way to Arcata, Klea and I picked up a young hitchhiker on his way to Black Bear Ranch, a commune out in Siskiyou County. Our rule with hitchhikers was if the two of us decided we could easily “take ‘em” then we’d offer a lift. Immediately, I rattled off about a million questions at the kid, wanting to know anything and everything about his perspective and experience with communal living. Like so many young people who seek out that way of life, he had grown up in East Coast upper-middle class suburbia. He responded with sincerity and generosity, and didn’t seem bothered by the interrogation. If anything, I think he liked sharing his worldview, and was proud to have unwavering answers to my questions. But I still have so many more questions.

Traveling through Northern California and into Oregon, Klea and I kept on obsessing over each flowering plant and shrub. We stopped along roadsides to gawk at the low-branched dogwood trees covered in bright pink, let ourselves ramble on about the endless color possibilities of azaleas, the richness of rhododendrons, and of course… the sweet, heavy smell of the lilacs. The verb spring originates from the Old English springan which means to burst forth or leap. The noun for the season, fittingly, derives from that term. In a way that idea of bursting forth or leaping applies to a lot of the people and artists we have encountered— it speaks to their choices, the continued instances of pushing forward. I’ve seen so many leaps of faith on this trip. I didn’t necessarily anticipate that would be a major theme on this road trip, but it has. It’s been something else to witness the world in this way… a world awash in both soft and electric colors, and to have conversation after conversation with people who are just really doing it… like really fucking going for it… whether that means foraging for food at a commune in the woods, starting a residency, creating a single day of utopia, or making art the thing that matters most even when everyone’s telling you to get a plan B. It’s not that I think it always works, but at least a leap was taken.