Conversations with Strangers

You never know where a conversation with a stranger will take you.

Three years ago, I was on the ferry that runs from Peaks Island to Portland, Maine. I always go topside – Casco Bay is a jewel that shines no matter the weather or time of year.

Leaning against the rail was a guy wearing a computer backpack that looked really comfy. (Unlike my messenger bag that hangs off one shoulder and keeps my chiropractor in business.) During the ensuing conversation, we passed Bug Light Park. Located on land that during WW2 was a shipyard that built more than 236 liberty ships, Bug Light is home to a memorial to “ thousands of men and women who worked at the South Portland Shipyards; the seamen who faced the dangers of war on board the Liberty Ships; all of those who served in the war and their families; and the South Portland residents who shared their backyard with a booming shipyard.”

As we passed the memorial, I talked about the retrofitting of  liberty ships to transport livestock to Europe following the end of the war. They sailed from ports throughout the US – even from Portland. He was a professor of maritime history at the US Merchant Marine Academy and had never heard about the use of liberty ships as cattle boats.

The Quest:

In 2003, as we were once again preparing for war, I was searching for a topic for my MFA. My quest to find a personal response to the impending war coincided with my search for a thesis theme.

There are several peace  based churches in my town. I began attending the Pipe Creek Friends Meeting House. I met with the minister of the local Brethren Church.  During our conversations, we talked about conscientious objectors who volunteered for starvation experiments to support the war effort. He told me of men in his congregation who participated in LSD experiments. I learned that farmers received deferments from the draft. He then told me that following the end of WW2, more than 4000 cows passed through our town on their way to the port of Baltimore where they were loaded on liberty ships headed for Europe. Maybe I would be interested in interviewing the woman on whose farm these animals were cared for.

The Vision:

As WW2 came to an end, Olive and Roger Roop, Union Bridge, Maryland attended a sermon led by Daniel West. So horrified by the starvation of children following the end of the Spanish Civil War, the Brethren minister had a vision. He wanted to send livestock – heifers – to farmers in war torn Europe. Each calf born would then be passed on to another farm and so on.

Roger Roop was an inveterate farmer who (as Olive said in her interview) “when he saw something that needed to be done, he found a way to do it.” So he offered to care for the donated animals and prepare them for transport.  And he did. And Heifer Relief (now known as Heifer International) was born.

Olive was working in her garden when I arrived. We toured the now silent dairy barn. We examined the contents of file drawers and the boxes of newspaper clippings and other ephemera that documented the beginning of Heifer and the story of the seagoing cowboys.

Passing on the Gift:

While I was interviewing Olive, Peggy Reiff Miller, Indiana, was looking through files and boxes at the New Windsor Brethren Service Center. Her grandfather had been a seagoing cowboy. She had found his diary and wanted to write a series of young adult books about the effort.

Long story short: which as you can see, is hard to do when talking about synchronicity because there are many twists and turns before the actual moment of synchronicity takes place.  The completion of my thesis exhibition entitled Heifer Relief: Compass, Ark, Berth coincided with the 60th anniversary of the beginning of Heifer International. I approached the Brethren Service Center to host a seagoing cowboy reunion. We called it: Passing on the Gift. More than 30 cowboys attended and exhibited their memorabilia. We scanned their photos, copied films, and collected their oral histories.

Back to the Beginning:

The American Merchant Marine Museum is located on the campus of the US Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY overlooking the waters of the Long Island sound. The museum was once the private home of William Barstow, Thomas Edison’s partner and inventor of the electric meter. The AMMM is a national repository and exhibition center for artifacts, artworks, ship models and maritime ephemera.

Dr. Joshua Smith, Interim Director and my companion on the ferry, had invited me to tour the museum. His next major exhibit: Convoy! would highlight “the Allied effort to supply its forces and civilian populations.” As a companion to the Convoy exhibition, he invited me to install Heifer Relief.

Three years after first meeting Josh, my assistant and I drove a 15’ truck filled to the brim with supplies, sculpture, tools, and NOT my dress clothes across the George Washington bridge to the US Merchant Marine  Academy. We unloaded and began the process of installing the work.

After an arduous 5 day build out, including a visit from the Secretary of DOT, Ray Lehood, removal of VERY HEAVY exhibition cases and the need for a front end loader, Heifer Relief: Compass, Ark, Berth a multi media installation opened. Peggy Reiff Miller presented “The Seagoing Cowboys: Cattlemen of the U.S. Merchant Marine” based on her 10 years of research.

You just never know where a conversation will take you:

  •  To unearth memorabilia in a basement file drawer…
  • To interview a sea going cowboy…
  • To creating a vision for the future without forgetting the past; or

To Indiana to find a stone for a library sculpture. Stay tuned.

Reasons Not to Make Art

Ask any artist: What prevents you from making art? The most frequent response is: I don’t have enough time. Artist friends have at least 2 (often 3 jobs): a life job and an art job.

In their life job, they have families to care for, shopping lists to make, homes to repair, cars to maintain, taxes to finish, and 40+ hours of paid work to perform.

In their art job, they have shows to view, work to install, competitions to enter, financial books to keep, press releases to write, address data bases to maintain, supplies to purchase, and of course, art to create.

Leap Years come every 4 years. It’s a gift from the Universe. The Egyptians were the first to come up with the idea of adding a leap day once every four years to keep the calendar in sync with the solar year. Later, the Romans adopted this solution for their calendar, and they became the first to designate February 29 as the leap day.

So, on February 29, I had great plans to work on the design for the library sculpture. I hung up a sheet of blank paper, wedged some clay, and waited for inspiration.

Julia Cameron, author of the Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, believes you just need to make the time to make art.  It’s like exercise: just schedule it. But, creativity is harder to schedule. It doesn’t like to be pigeonholed into showing up at a particular time. After a while, you learn when the Muse has decided to take a day off. So there is nothing left to do except “prepare” for her return.

Sometimes it helps to read art books.

Sometimes it helps to look through your sketchbooks.

Sometimes it helps to write in your journal  (or blog.)

Sometimes it helps to just stack wood, sharpen tools, and retrieve your compressor.

When I completed my father’s memorial garden and granite bench, I left my compressor on the island in Maine. I bought it second hand from a guy in Lewiston Maine who had listed it for sale in an Uncle Henry’s sell or swap pamphlet. This classified ad magazine predates Craigslist by 40 years. Every week, Uncle Henry’s is packed with fresh classified ads. Mainers pick up an Uncle Henry’s, not because they are looking to buy a particular item, but to browse the classified ads for entertainment. You can sell or trade ANYTHING.

A friend offered to “store” the compressor while he worked on the roof of his cottage.  At some point, it just “stopped working.” There was no one the island to fix it, so it became a kind of lawn ornament. The summer ended. My friend closed up his cottage, loaded his truck with his tools and my compressor and headed to his upstate New York home.

I didn’t have plans to carve any stone, so there wasn’t any hurry to repair it – or so I thought. A month later  I was awarded the commission for the library. Now there was a sculpture to carve and a deadline to meet.

So, he dragged the compressor to various NY repair shops, doggedly determined to salvage it.  After many unsuccessful forays, he found just the right guy and after paying $1.79 for just the right part, the repair problem was solved.

Cameron also puts great faith in synchronicity and intention. “Synchronicity is like a tap on the shoulder by the universe. It tells us to pay attention, that we’re on the right path… The way will open if you are clear where you are going.”

It takes almost as long to drive to upstate NY as it does to Maine and with the increase in gas prices, it was clear where I WASN’T going, but I needed my compressor to come to me. SOON.

Julia Cameron was right.

I received an email from a friend looking for overnight accommodations on her way to a D.C . conference. She lives in Albany. She drives an SUV. Throughout our years of friendship, she has participated in the schlepping segment of my art life – more times than I can count. It seemed only fitting to offer her the opportunity to chauffer the compressor to Maryland. They lived within 5 miles of each other. He tucked the compressor and reel of 50 foot hose into the back of the Lexus and she was on her way.

I hope you got a few extra hours of sleep on February 29, because we lose an hour this weekend. It’s daylight savings time.

There are a million reasons why artists don’t make art – no money, no time, no heat, no inspiration. However, the most frequent reason for making art is a deadline and I have one.  I have a maquette to make for the Library Design Committee. I really need that Leap Year day now.