Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Monday, August 31, 2009

My Poussin Painting Weekend

So glad we could introduce one of our favorite people--Rachel Liebling (center)--to one of our favorite places--the Goshen Pass. This shot is from the porch of James' parents' so-called cabin. It's more like a compound than a cabin.

It is difficult to imagine a more relaxing or wonderful weekend than the one I just spent in the Goshen Pass. Looking back on it in retrospect, I see that it was special for reasons far beyond the fun and interesting things we did. It was a time when Life really opened up for us in all her beauty, and with a quiet message to embrace it now.

Our friend Rachel was spending the week with us and she brought all kinds of enthusiasm, music, good ideas, helping out around the house and playing with Sebastian. After school on Friday, we all loaded up and drove alongside the Blue Ridge to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. We visited some studios, took a gorgeous swim (I can never help myself), and had a lovely dinner with the fellows. It was great to taste once again Chef Rhonda’s offerings but also to reconnect with the chef herself. She lives in Charlottesville, very close to us, and I hope to get together with her here in the near future.

After dinner, we drove into the sunset and through the fog of a high pass over the mountains and along the Maury River to the Cabin. We’ve been going to “the Cabin” for many years and it’s a major reason why we moved back to Virginia, so we could be closer and go there a few times a year rather than every few years.

Our friend James had a family place on the Goshen Pass, one of the most beautiful places east of the Mississippi. When his family’s lifetime lease on their cabin turned out to be considerably shorter than agreed, James landed on his feet by acquiring an even more beautiful piece of land with a cluster of Civil War era cabins, right across the river, just this side of where the pass closes in around the Maury and a narrow winding road. He and his friends have been renovating the cabins slowly and lovingly for the past ten years. Though the precise locale has changed somewhat, the atmosphere has been constant. So, the Cabin is more about the place, and a state of mind, than a single building. It's about the way we breathe there, and who we spend time with.

James and Marni on the steps of the under-construction cabin.
Photo: Sebastian. Note the waist-high perspective, which is always a dead give-away when he takes the camera.

In fact, we had thought that we would be sleeping in a tent this time, but since most of the cabin owners were away, we were able stay in possibly the most beautiful one. It was the best of both worlds: completely rustic but tightly constructed, beautiful and bug-proof, with a boys’ room that was paradise for our Sebastian.

Morning and afternoon, we skinnidipped in the Maury River, one of the cleanest rivers in Virginia and even from atop the tallest boulder, with which the valley is strewn, we could not see any signs of civilization. To the west, the Allegany Mountains came right down to the water, in an unfurling of ridges and laurel-filled pocket canyons. To the east, the Shenandoah Valley spread in Jeffersonian splendor. The water bounced through the rapids, clear and glistening in the last rays of August, the air so fresh and with a little hint of coolness. It was bliss to dip my head in the water and warm on the rocks.

After dark, we had a communal feast with James, his partner Marni, and our long-time friend-in-cabin-fun Nancy, who is renovating another of the cabins. We toasted Virginia with some champagne we had been saving, a house-warming and farewell gift from our friends Amelia and Mark. After dinner, a beautiful fire—another part of the cabin tradition. By the fireside, we reconnected with the man who lives on the adjoining farm, a bluegrass musician named Cochran and his artist wife and their artist friend who was visiting from (where else?) Greenpoint.

Other highlights included, in no particular order, bare feet in the dewy grass, morning sun on Castle Rock, a run through the silent and misty pass, chatting with old man mushroom hunters, a photo expedition with Sebastian, Lincoln Logs in a log cabin, a beer run that included getting lost (maybe the best part of the trip) and brunch at the Mill Creek Café, the kind of place that’s neither extraordinarily good, nor particularly cheap, but that must be visited.

You can rest easy: Virginia still has her share of freaks.

We drove home through the perfect summer afternoon, with dry air, blue sky, hills all around—Virginia was showing off her full splendor. We stopped by Springtree (the communal farm where Meredith grew up) just long enough for cookies and to show Rachel around the place. She had a bus to catch, so no time for a dip in the hardware, a garden tour, or peaches on the way back. We’ll save those for a later visit, which I sincerely hope will be soon.

After a sad farewell to Rachel back in Charlottesville, I felt a desolation much stronger than I have felt in some time. It is always sad to say farewell to a friend after a wonderful visit, and it’s always harder to be left than to leave. It was an amazing weekend and I was sad for it to be over, yet it is only as I am writing this that I understand the contours of that bittersweet feeling.

As I sat with my friends on the river that last afternoon, that slight chill in the air was important. It hid in the shadows and whispered in the breeze and it would be easy to miss it while baking on those rocks or swimming in the stream, which was still quite warm. But the message was there: Summer was beginning to take its leave, as it does this time every year and it is something that I always sense very acutely and it always leaves me a little melancholy.

Summer is my favorite season, it is when I feel most alive. Although I like the bustle of back-to-school and the brisk Fall air Summer’s passing always makes me a little sad, whether its about the changing of the Seasons or the Passage of Time. I am grateful for the winds’ whisperings because I hear in them an alert to be sure to embrace the Now, for it is fleeting. We still have plenty of time left, but we had better use it well, for it will not be around forever.

One final note: Thank you James. It's good to be back.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Patty Fab

Among the many cool and/or wacky things in this photo, note the sailboat whose bowsprit has punctured the lighthouse, fatally wounding it. The nameplate reads, "Brant Point, Nantucket."

During my periodic visits up to New York, my lodging consists of a cobbled together collection of couch surfing, spare bedrooms, house- and pet-sitting. There are some clear disadvantages to this approach but there are some great benefits, many quite unexpected.

For example, this current time, I wasn't sure where I would stay so I listed house-sitting availability on facebook. Right away my friend Patty said she needed a cat-sitter and the dates worked out pretty well.

It's fair to say that I knew Patty somewhat but not nearly as well as I would have liked. I was in for a very pleasant surprise when I first encountered her space.

From a realtor's perspective the place is very good but not amazing--big one bedroom in a nice building on a still-interesting block of the Upper West Side. But the way Patty inhabits the place is truly extraordinary, a real lesson for one such as me who is thinking about his own new space.

The apartment, with its many shelves and surfaces, is full of artifacts, talismans, books, mementos, and works of art by her hand and others', almost like a museum.

Here's a small example. Her shower curtain is made of clear plastic with many pockets, each with a postcard, from exotic places, with birthday wishes, vintage dime novel covers, or watercolor reproductions--a lot to look at and quite expressive. And that's just the shower curtain.

This is a place to spend some time looking around, a place that lifts me up simply by being there. In arranging to house sit and take care of patty's cats I was hoping to find a place to sleep between working, running, looking at art and all the many things to do in the City. I think that's how many New Yorkers view their dwellings.

Patty's place is about something more. It feels rewarding just to be there, to explore the many treasures she has collected and actually curated. It's a wealth that comes from within her, a very physical expression of the artist she is.

It's a gift she has generously shared with me and one I did not expect.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sun of the Beach

Like our President, Sebastian finds himself in a gigantic hole, not of his own making...

It has been ten years since I’ve been back to Chincoteague, where I had had been every summer as a youth and I was surprised how little had changed. There are a few more beachy-schlockity shops crammed along Beach Drive but hey, it’s a beach town, right? Everything seems to have a fresh coat of paint and it feels more, well, prosperous. Of course we’re all upset that our favorite seafood buffet is replaced by “that Mexican Place” (actual name of the joint) but everything changes.

I always felt like it was a sleepy and depressed fishing town overlooking a once-spectacular-but-played-out fishery that resented the beach combers bunking in their spare rooms. Embracing the new reality has made the place feel more fresh and vital, while providing a reason to preserve what makes the place so different.

The nearby beaches on Assateauge, on the other hand, have changed a lot. There were once an elaborate network of bath houses behind formidable dunes. The dunes have washed away leaving a wide beach and two rows of oyster shell roads with parking and temporary facilities for showering, dressing, and answering nature’s call. Seems a lot more sensible actually and the beaches are flat and wide.

There was also something visual going on that took me a while to appreciate. The umbrellas and bathing suits and even the ocean seem much more vivid than what I am accustomed to seeing on Long Island. Finally, I understood: the light is much more intense. Northern light is filtered by more atmosphere, which gives it a pale, fleeting quality, whereas further south the light is more direct and brighter.

I suppose John Singer Sargent would prefer Nantucket or Montauk but I’m pretty sure van Gogh would chose Assateague.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Proust in me gets loose

This lovely Beaux Arts building on the edge of a vast and wasted brownfield made me feel like I was inside a Hopper painting. I was feeling that Hopper loneliness on the inside as well...

Mere hours after writing that last bit about not feeling strange to be back in the old neighborhood, I lost it and started sobbing like a little girl. I was in the studio packing up Sebastian’s area and when my iPod served up “Coney Island Baby” by Tom Waits it hit me like a truck: the hours Sebastian and I spent at the Treehouse studio are gone forever. No more shark mask, scribbling on the chalkboard, “Play Tom Waits Daddy,” or bouncing on his tummy on the yoga ball. Nothing illuminates the relentless passage of time quite like a child growing up—except perhaps packing—and packing a child’s things can be downright deadly.

I quickly stuffed his past of the studio away as much to get it out of sight as the need to get it ready for transport to Virginia. Sebastian will probably never enter that studio again but I still need to keep working there through the autumn. I can’t be spilling tears on my drawings every time I notice his empty chair.

When I left the studio and went back to Mark & Amelia’s to go to sleep, I kept seeing the neighborhood in double-vision, always oscillating between was and what is. Walking down Bedford to the old apartment building, I couldn’t help thinking about the first morning Meredith and I woke up there. We were incredibly glad to be there and walked hand in hand down the avenue to Verb café for breakfast. Croissants in a sidewalk café felt like a little piece of Heaven to us.

We had high hopes for the neighborhood and for the life we would make there. I don’t mean to say that our hopes were betrayed or that our dreams did not come true; they did. More so, perhaps, than we had bargained for, as the single café multiplied faster than rats. I still prefer Verb and its contemporary Read/Rabbit Hole which were there when we moved in. Perhaps a good thing run amok, but Williamsburg is still fun and our life there was still good all the way up to the last day. And the time I spent there this past week was lovely. I don’t particularly begrudge the place what it has become. Everything changes.

Whether dreams live or die or come true or not, there’s something priceless about their wide-eyed early days when everything seems possible and we give Life the benefit of the doubt. The things about the neighborhood that came to drive us crazy were very present back then: noise, stink, bugs, crime, poverty but they were easy to overlook in favor of a more beautiful vision. So it’s not really about how the neighborhood was, as how we were.

Awareness of the passage of time can be a very troublesome thing, the source of many heartbreaks. I’m sure every parent sometimes wishes their children were young again and we occasionally wish something quite similar for ourselves as well. I think it’s sweet and it keeps us connected to something gentle and pure inside. Like any indulgence, nostalgia should be taken very sparingly but it can be a real treat from time to time.

Even when it hurts a little bit.