Making, Outside (the Box)

Aaron and I had the complete joy of being invited to participate in the second annual Blue Ridge Swim Club Sculpture Competition earlier this month.

The rules were simple:

1. Artists have two days: Saturday and Sunday, to create a sculpture on the Blue Ridge Swim Club property.

2. All materials used must be found on the property.

3. No power tools (not even battery-operated ones).

4. Artists may work in teams of up to four people.

Blue Ridge Swim Club is an inspiring place. It is a true oasis in this modern age of motion and bustle. This spring-fed, man-made pool stretches for 100 yards and deepens from 3 feet to 10 feet. Nestled in the shade of surrounding trees and a bamboo grove, it is an all-natural salve to the soul. This year, the Swim Club turns 100 years old (but doesn’t look a day over 60).

0000Image courtesy of the Blue Ridge Swim Club

In mid-summer tadpoles we were joined in the greenish water by tiny, newly-legged tadpoles. Cicadas provided the soundtrack until someone began strumming a guitar by water’s edge. Lovely, breathable, a summer vacation available any day of the week.

So, we jumped at the chance to spend a few days exploring our new-found love for the Swim Club and our creative fervor. Aaron bravely teamed up with our two sons (Pierce, 5 and Judah, 4) and I eagerly ran off, solo.

The 3 boys chose a location by and in the creek. The collected rocks, leaves and clay. In the end, their piece told a story, a fantastical narrative about a family of moss slugs and stick snakes. They were gathering and journeying and adventuring.

I found a curvy path where vines hung from young trees. I began exploring the tension that I could create. I pulled and buried the ends of the rope-y vines, which in turn, arced the supple trees. Where the vines went down into the dirt, I mounded the earth up. Now it was unclear: Were the vines growing up from these mounds? Were they pulling the trees or sprouting from them?

I decided to take a break mid-day. Ross, the organizer of the event, brought everyone sandwiches. We ate. We swam. We got back to work.

And work it was. I was amazed, although not surprised, at the hard labor that was happening around me. Artists were shoveling and sawing and hammering and carting load upon load of mud and rocks- all for the sake of art. Absolutely all artists are ‘starving’ but that’s because they work so bloody hard! Folks were soaked with sweat and covered in grime and it was beautiful.

IMG_7148Fellow artist at work

I didn’t return back to my vine mound obstacle course right away. Instead, I turned my attention to a tree that had caught my eye early on. It had a buldge near the base that wrapped around the trunk just so. It seemed to be the start of something. Using the burl as my inspiration and anchor, I created a line of collected moss, spiraling around and up the tree. Using mud and raspberry thorns, I stuck the moss to the trunk. A lifeguard from the pool, offered a ladder and so I was able to continue up, up until I found natural conclusion to the line. And then I moved on…


Next, I happened upon the fire pit, still smoking but with piles of black coals and white ash inside the ring of rocks. I picked up a handful of warm, black chunks and found another tree. High up, suspended from the branches hung a cucumber-thick, severed vine. The vine rested against the trunk- separate but affiliated. I started with the vine and drew a thick, expanding spiral around and down to the roots of the tree. Using my hands and hunks of burnt wood, I filled in the line, rubbing it into the smooth bark of the tree. Shadow of a shadow remained. And then I moved on…



I went back to the mounds where I finished the first day.

The boys had arranged their rocks and gathered moss. Aaron had successfully redirected the flow of creek water through a collection of bamboo ‘pipes’. He was pretty confident that the piece was done, the story was complete.

The next morning, we headed back to the Swim Club. The boys played in the water and wandered around, looking for the other sculptors and their works. Despite some rain, the pieces were left intact, as we hoped. Aaron put the finishing touches on his and went off to make a bow and arrow out of bamboo, string and a feather that I had found the day prior.


I, on the other hand, hauled sod and growing things to cover the mounds. At one point I turned the bend in the sun-dappled path to greet a black snake, about 4 feet in length, winding through the new, manipulated terrain. I went around to the other side of him and worked on that end until he had wandered off (I saw him a few more times throughout the day). Finally, my piece was completed. I felt excited about offering an experience to the people who would visit later for the evening judging and tour. Visitors would need to stoop, duck, side-step and wait. There would be no danger and no fear (unless the snake returned, perhaps). It would be an unexpected but pleasant meander through a piece of land that was familiar and odd all at once. Tension would be evident both physically and psychologically but not in an unsettling way, in a playful and absurd way. And true to my hopes, it was a joy to see the smiles on the faces of the children and adults alike as they navigated the brief piece in the afternoon light.


The last piece that I made was in the ladies’ bathhouse. A simple block building, it seems the same as it may have been in the 1940’s. High up on one long wall there are 16 tiny alcoves, spaces for who-knows-what. It was in these alcoves I placed 16 tiny birds’ nests. Each nest had ‘treasures’ woven into it- bits of shiny foil, string, insect wings, orange fungus and so on. Perhaps one day the birds will find these simulacrums and will pull them apart, using the bits and pieces for their own purposes. Until then, I hope they serve as a subtle reminder that shelter is shared and making a home is a simple joy.

IMG_7193IMG_7197This piece was not made for pictures…

When it came time for the final judging, my son was confident. He had placed a final touch that he knew would win over the judge, a professor at the University of Virginia. “People will think it is funny. Because poop is funny.” Giggling, he had fashioned a little mud pile behind one of the mossy creatures, thus adding his signature to the sculpture in a way that only a 6 year-old boy (and perhaps conceptual artist, Manzoni) is able.

Sure enough, the boys came away with the official win: First Place!

As our gracious judge pointed out, “There is no best. Who can judge?” She proceeded to give out various “awards” and recognitions, including the Bamboo Award and to me, the Moss Award, and so on. I hope to compile some more photographs of works from the event. There were 6 additional pieces by very accomplished artists…

What a wonderful way to spend a weekend: making art, in community, in a tranquil setting. Glorious!

Super Creatures!

The past two Saturdays there have been heaps of community-wide, artistically-minded and strange events happening in Charlottesville. In fact, the entire weekend of April 11-14th was overflowing with creative energy. The Tom Tom Founders Festival brought hundreds of musical performances and innovative thinkers to local microphones and parks. We spent a good portion of Friday hanging out at the McGuffey Art Center for the, now annual, block party. Kids were going nuts (think: dancing, big foam cubes, snow cones, climb-able sculptures…) while the adults felt a sort-of hipsterbia, indie art camaraderie. The next day of the TomTom, there was a big family-friendly picnic celebration at Lee Park but we decided to stay home and just be.

Ever since our dating, college days, Aaron and I have kept a day set apart from the rigors of the other six. Call it a Sabbath or day of rest or just Wednesday- it has been an anchor for our relationship and a respite from the pressures of maintaining a certain pace of living. Over the years our day of rest has changed from week-end to mid-week and back. Currently, Saturdays are our “family day”. We don’t commit to activities (even really, really fun ones), as a rule. Instead, we go with the flow as the day unfolds. So, on TomTom Saturday we stayed home and played games, made food, and I painted everyone’s faces like the Avengers. See if you can guess who is who…

dylan avengerpierce avengerjudah avengerboys avengersdaddy avengermama avenger

This weekend, Aaron was really pumped about going to the Stan Winston Arts Festival of the Moving Creature at UVa (uh, who wouldn’t be pumped?!). A friend, who is one of the instructors in the course on creature making, invited us to participate in the parade. We didn’t commit but an hour before the parade was to begin, we decided it was a go. I scuttled up into our attic/crawl space and dragged out bits and pieces from the stuffed animal costumes that I made in college. The boys put on slippers and wigs and masks and tails, in addition to the stuffed animal accessories. Then we all squeezed into the car and headed over to The University (as it’s called in these parts).

Later, Aaron and I talked about how amazing the experience was; how this town offers so much wonder for our kids. They were right there when a giant alien ant-thing battled a huge, blobby, leopard octopus and then went on to attack the Alderman Library.

551274_592899150722239_1924240954_nPhoto by Scholars’ Lab DIY Aerial Photography

From beyond that mayhem, a mechanical elephant approached, luring the children closer to its whirring gears with bubbles (and apparently by pooping candy). Hundreds of people blocked traffic, taking to the streets, surrounded by creatures overhead and amongst the crowd. There were balloons. There were lion-dancers. And that silly ant even attacked a Prius on its way to the field of moving trees. Awesome.

sw elephantsw treessw blobsw aaron

Everyone went to bed early that night- I’m sure the dreams were intense.

The next day we biked a few miles from our home to Charlottesville Mennonite Church. Afterwards, we stayed for an impromptu potluck lunch and then we pedaled off to the Annual Children’s Bike Rodeo sponsored by Community Bikes. (Check out our cameo on the news.) Judah’s preschool teacher, Shelly Stern, was one of the organizers of this fun and informative event. Shell asked me to help with the design of the flyer and t-shirts this year- so fun!

bike rodeo flyer4The boys had a blast and we all learned some great things about biking in this town: the boys learned how to signal when turning and I learned how to properly load a bike onto a city bus. Exhausted, we cycled on home.

Such a rich and full few days of adventure!

I can’t wait to see what pops up next weekend…

Super Choice Champion Chart

Since the end of winter break, it’s been a ragged transition into the heave and ho of routine. My five-year-old is especially having a rough go of it…

There have been several freak-outs and not a few fights.

Tired tears are flowing soaking many late, late nights.

I’ve had it with the shouting, the whining and the like.

And if I see those eyes roll once more,

I swear I’ll wreck your bike.

I’ve got something for you, you snotty, hissing child,

(Especially my first-born, who is neither meek nor mild)

Shut up. Sit down. (And here comes the kicker…)

“I love you, sweet boy. Have another sticker.”

So, under the wise and loving guidance of my step-mom, I made each of the boys a behavior *star* chart. First night: great success!

I’ll keep you posted…

judah super choice chartpierce super chartIf you want one for your sweet, obedient child, I am taking orders for custom charts :).  They are 8.5″ x 11″, laminated for use with dry-erase markers and so stickers can be removed/reused.


According to Merriam- Webster’s online dictionary, vacation has a few meanings.

My favorites are:

-a period spent away from home or business in travel or recreation

-an act or an instance of vacating

Let’s follow that…

Vacate, according to the same source, is defined as:

-to deprive of an incumbent or occupant

Ha! So, when we talk about Christmas/Holiday Vacation we’re basically just talking about being absent from where we are generally expected to be. Keeping that in mind might make a huge difference in how we judge the resulting experience of our “vacation”. So what if the kids forgot to pack their manners? Who cares if the husband/wife/uncle/dog is anti-social during prescribed family time? Four hours of sleep a night? Eh, you’ll get over it. The point is we are vacating. No one said anything about naps, foot massages and deep, uninterrupted conversation and/or reading sessions. That’s something else. We are just depriving our occupancy- as a family.

That said, we had a stellar family vacation this Christmas. And I would like to take the opportunity to offer you, dear reader, some insight into why and how one can experience a true family respite, not just time away from the grind.

– Loosen your expectation.

Rigid demands, especially emotional ones, will restrict living in the moment and limit the unexpected delights of relational opportunity. If you expect that you will be able to sleep til noon every day of vacation, you will be disappointed, and if you’re like me, pissed when the kids come in and 6 AM to “snuggle”. But, if you allow for flexibility in your expectation, all of a sudden snuggle time becomes the highlight of your week. Along the same lines, if you expect your spouse to have the “just be happy- we’re on vacation” attitude, you could miss out on some really productive, possibly messy, relationship work. Expect surprises.

aaron and p legobed

– Voice your priorities and choose some common goals.

“I can’t read your mind,” my dad once told teenage-me. So true. Sometimes I can’t read my own mind…

My ideal vision of marriage, or community for that matter, is: moving together toward a common goal. Determining which goal is the challenge and it requires conversation.

Leading up to our recent vacay, I told Aaron that my main priority was to be with him, to clock some serious presence hours. I also stated my desire for frequent jaunts to the beach and limited screen time, but those were secondary to just being around each other. It worked out well. Aaron and I had plenty of time together and everything else sort of swirled around in a holy mess of family living. We came home heart-full.

-You don’t have to spend heaps of money to feel satisfied. (But you should be willing to spend a bit.)

Basically, you don’t want money to become the focus either by scooping it out to every shopkeeper and restauranteur that you run over or by holding it so tightly it becomes another family member.

Florida has some seriously great thrift second-hand shops, so I packed some cash just for thrifting. That way, I didn’t feel like I had to spontaneously have internal debates over the financial impact of certain frivolous purchases. We also decided, as a family, to eat at home as much as possible. There was one dinner out and one night of Chinese take-out (of course), but the rest of the meals we spent cooking for and serving one another. It allowed my normally critical sons to slather on praises for their Lolli’s food. “This is the best dinner ever, Lolli! I love this stuff! Can I have some more, please?”

-Take risks.

Start an off-key sing-a-long. Wrestle on the living room floor. Put your mother-in-law’s dishes away, even if you don’t know where they actually go. Best risk that I took on our vacation: jumping into the ocean solo on a very cold, blustery day. Also, eating homemade almond crescents every day… Safe is boring.

wrestle time

– Disconnect.

I’m talking about phones, internet (especially the wastebook), video games, etc. You might only see these people once a year, look at them. I’ve also seen how screen time, especially video games, set a attitudinal tone that is hard to interrupt. I don’t know if it’s a brain wave thing or what, but my boys jellify and hype-up simulataneously after they hit the three minute mark- all of my boys, if you catch my drift. Everything in moderation, people.

-Flat-line your schedule.

Kill it dead. There is nothing like the vultures of appointments, meetings or expected emails/phone calls/faxes/telegrams to dominate your time away. (Remember the definition of vacation?) That said, our expectations are pretty loose, so we’ll take what we can get!

-Give yourself some transition time.

Especially on the return. Back in the real world familiar things are moving: cogs and gears and whatnot. Allow yourself space and time to fit back in. Also, make sure you’ve cleaned the house (and fridge) before you leave on vacation! There is nothing more demoralizing than coming home from a lovely time away to a cold, stinky, dirty-ass house. Oh, and make sure there are clean sheets on your bed, too.

boys home asleepFirst day back home…

– Share your joy with others.

As a culture we are pretty good at sharing in each others’ sorrow and suffering but not so great at sharing joy. Often jealousy weasels her pretty face in there and blocks the glory of full-life shared. Practice joy-dumping and happy-carrying: it deprives the soul of the occupant of fear. And that’s the best vacation of all.

fam beach

Dia De Los Muertos en Charlottesville

Beyond the mischief and innocent mayhem involved in the goings-on of this time of year, there is a significance of remembrance as well.

My dear friend, Estela, invited me and many others to a Dia De Los Muertos celebration at her and her husband’s music studio downtown. Estela and Dave are incredible musicians and have a true passion for their cultural ancestry.

Often as a white American, I find myself hesitant to participate fully in many unfamiliar cultural traditions. I don’t want to make others feel that I am commandeering what rightfully belongs to them or worse, that I am disrespecting the practice of faith, history, sorrow and joy with my ignorant engagement.

With Estela’s invitation came permission to be a part of a joyful community. Dia De Los Muertos is a celebration of life, a celebration of the futility of death’s grasp and a time set apart for sharing memory, music and food.

I painted my face, I pinned a flower in my hair and danced and danced in a circle of children! And for that and the lives of my ancestors, I am thankful.

Unexpected Form

From the deep ebony stain of years, of seasons, the dry crack gives way to the creep of unexpected color.

Bouncing funnels, yellow and fresh, make their way to the surface.

Clouds gather, convene and disperse. The stalks become brittle and shrink under the sun’s still breath.

But the water descends again and the dew awakens the dawn from within.

Snap of form, comfort of color again return with flush anew.