Whenever my father and I clash, he shrugs and says, “Artists and writers are difficult people. What can you do?” Being my father’s daughter, I just shrugged when I came upon the following question in the reference form for the MacDowell Colony, the prestigious residency program in New Hampshire.
“The community at The MacDowell Colony is built on mutual respect, cooperation and understanding,” it cautioned. “Do you know of any reason why this person may be a disruptive presence at The MacDowell Colony?”
In the end, my application was turned down. Maybe my references said that I would be a disaster?
I believe the truly inquisitive mind asks for trouble. One of my first memories entails my preference of animals over peers. I must have been no older than three when I lured our hunting dog Cox under the dining table with a piece of salami. I had just begun to experience the pleasure of picking my own nose and was determined to expand my research into new territory. Cox’s nose felt rubbery, cold and wet, very unlike mine. This was exciting! Unalarmed by the dog’s howling my little fingers began to burrow deep into the unknown.
From then on my mother kept a close watch on the dog – and I started focusing on snails, which I alternatively ate to test their consistency or forced to “mate” in the missionary position.
The goats, chickens and dogs mentioned on Artcroft’s website caught my attention. I was further encouraged when I found out that this residency involved only three (human) residents and no reference form that asked whether I was a nut.
Maybe I should have been alarmed by the website’s photo of an old man playing with hula hoops and large blue rubber balls. I myself don’t enjoy juggling, riding monocycles or face painting, but I thought that at Artcroft in Kentucky horse country I could relax and be myself. Besides, herding goats and digging for potatoes in a landscape I had thought existed only in Swiss chocolate commercials seemed like the perfect complement to writing my book about murderers.
When I arrived, my fellow resident Rebecca from San Francisco was presciently emerged in painting uncomfortable social scenes. Akirash, the third resident, announced that he would spend his time at Artcroft working on a totem pole. Optimistically, I invited Akirash out on a walk with me and the dogs after dinner. Having heard that I was from New York, he didn’t waste any time. A Nigerian artist from Ghana, Akirash asked whether I could put him in touch with someone – anyone, really – at the MoMA. He would like to see one of his totem poles in this famed museum. I told him that I could not be of any help and from then on he refused to talk to me.
Our cottage was decorated with paintings by previous residents with a penchant for countryside imagery and flower bouquets rendered in smudgy, careless brushstrokes. The lack of skill didn’t seem to bother Artcroft’s founders, Robert and Maureen, who believe CREATIVITY in itself is FABULOUS – and whatever this undefined quality might entail, they could somehow find it in the paintings. Maureen and Robert also seemed to believe that abundant praise and positive terms uttered in deafening capital letters have the power to circumvent conflicts among artists and writers.
I decided to stockpile MY creativity and pour it into my writing. Through a narrow slit between the towels I used as curtains in my bedroom-slash-office I watched Akirash’s totem pole develop. He gradually added headlights for eyes, fenders for lips and exhaust pipes and rims depicting musical instruments. While Robert suggested that the whole thing could “use some colors to tie the disparate elements together,” I thought burying the piece might help.
My residency took a further wrong turn when I told Robert that I would not be available to paint his barn ceilings at eight in the morning. He begrudgingly accommodated my needs by assigning me the required daily two hours of farm work in the late afternoon.
My first task consisted of cutting absurd amounts of chard, cleaning, microwaving and freezing it for the winter residents. I quickly enlisted another resident to help me: Whenever Picasso, the horny father goat, broke out of his enclosure, which happened pretty much every day around dawn, I quietly herded him towards the chard field. Voila! Less chard to cut!
Other than working with Picasso, I spent most of the time in my room. I was terrified that Robert might hunt me down with his pick-up truck (his only mode of transportation) or that the faces on Akirash’s totem pole would come to life and demand that I take them to the MoMA.
A couple of times, a friend of Robert burst in on us unannounced. When he asked me what I was writing about, I replied “murderers” and giggled. That earned me some quick privacy. At night I would emerge briefly to pick tomatoes and dig for potatoes, which I was instructed to prepare in the blandest way possible, as my hosts had delicate digestive systems. I would recuperate from my chores by taking plastic bottles and tampons to a smoldering pyre behind the house. (Not even sanitation dared to come close to Artcroft…) I would take a deep, calming breath of the dark smoke billowing in the evening breeze and then take the five farm dogs for a walk. I would return after dark and share a six-pack of Corona with the farmhands, Myrna and Sinar, two lovers from Mexico. Since our languages rarely connected we would make wild gestures in the warm summer night and then laugh about the misunderstandings caused by our clumsy hands and feet. One day Sinar found a baby raccoon and we spent the evening cooing over him and feeding him from a bottle.
One weekend, Artcroft director Robert wanted his three residents to mingle with Kentucky’s bucolic art scene. We were informed that an hour’s drive from the farm was a WONDERFUL art show at a gallery called Banana Tree Studios. Our trip began in high spirits. Akirash had painted his naked body with white symbols for a performance he intended to do at the gallery. He also wore a white turban and a white loincloth. The result somehow managed to marry Tarzan movies with the Heaven’s Gate cult.
“I guess we are not going to Starbucks,” Robert wheezed as Akirash climbed into the car. Akirash immediately got his white paint all over the seats, but this didn’t seem to bother Robert. After all, he had borrowed the van from his farmhands. Besides, he was more preoccupied by the oppressive heat and the van’s broken air conditioner. In the back, Akirash pressed fellow resident Rebecca for art world connections in San Francisco while in the front I clamped onto the dashboard, preparing for a head-on collision. Robert’s exaggerated panting and gasping inspired me to pray for the first time in my life: “Please God, don’t let him have a heart attack while I’m in the car with him. Let him have a heart attack in an hour or so. I’ll find my back home on my own. Amen.” More pragmatically, I strategized how to take over the wheel if he collapsed.
Maybe the prayers worked. After 30 minutes the car broke down. Akirash and I stayed put and waited for help while Robert and Rebecca took refuge in an air-conditioned supermarket nearby. To make conversation, I asked Akirash if the symbols on his body were part of his native culture. He barked back that it was a stupid question.
We continued to wait in the car uncomfortable silence as Akirash’s markings melted off. Finally an obese mother and daughter team came by, possibly drawn by the unexpected view. Akirash climbed out of the car. I hid behind my sunglasses.
“Are you from around here?” the mother asked Akirash without any perceptible irony. When Akirash said he was from Ghana, she called her father for help.
The father promptly arrived sporting the largest sideburns I have seen in my life. At first I thought they were gray twin ferrets on really short leashes. I was just about to jump out of the car to pet them when Dad handed the cables to Akirash. While Akirash jump started the car, people drove by slowly and lowered their windows to get a better look, just like in a safari. It’s interesting how many people in Kentucky decorate their rear-view mirrors with confederate flags. I slumped lower into my seat.
We finally made it to the art show, where yet another collection of flower bouquets, still lifes and landscapes awaited us. Akirash immediately set up his drum and divided the crowd into two parts. He instructed one half to yell “NAMAKA” and the other half to yell… I forget. The Kentuckians (and the lone New Yorker) proved a bit hard to motivate. In fact, I hid behind a large fellow sporting a cowboy hat and stayed there for the rest of the evening. On the way home I joked about cheating on my husband with Picasso, the horny goat, but didn’t manage to lighten the atmosphere. We rode home in embarrassed silence as the pink sun slowly disappeared behind lush rolling hills.
The following night I enjoyed this dinnertime dialogue about artists and their genetic predispositions:
“Where did you get all your creative energy from, Akirash? Are any of your family members artists?” asked Robert’s wife Maureen.
“My grandmother was an artist, but she died last year.” Akirash said.
“Oh, Akirash, God bless her, I’m sorry. How old was she?” Maureen asked.
Akirash paused and seemed to count silently.
“122! She was 122 years old.”
“AKI-RAAAASH! 122! THAT’S OOOOOLD!” Maureen screamed.
“Yeah, she went to the market in the morning and then she laid down and died,” Akirash said matter-of-factly.
This seems as good a time as any to point out that Akirash was sort of a Nigerian Munchhausen. At another meal he had told us about his “Black Roots Foundation” for street orphans in Ghana, for which he claimed to raise $250,000 a year. Maureen, very sweetly asked, “But who runs the charity while you are on one of your 17 residencies?”
“Oh, there is always people who are eager to be put into charge,” Akirash said. He went on to tell us how the whole village celebrates when he comes back from his travels and that he has to keep his return a secret because the local orphans crawl into his suitcase to look for food and presents.
I was unsure about the veracity of Akirash’s tales, but I enjoyed them more than I did his totem pole. Animals might be cute and fuzzy, but humans tell better stories. That’s why upon my return from Kentucky I decided to apply for another residency. Again I shrugged when I read Yaddo’s reference form. “Do you know of any reason why this person could not function well and live harmoniously in a working community of artists?”
This time I chose references who had proven themselves good storytellers – and I was invited.