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, February 28, 2011

A Clank and a Howl of Laughter

A "Clank!" followed by a howl of laughter can only herald one thing.

I was working in my garden when I heard a sure harbinger of Spring: my neighbor Chloe's musical laughter ringing through the warm, moist Virginia air.

I went up the short hill to say hello and found her enjoying a game of bocce and a glass of Vinho verdi with her friend Kate. I told them about my project and asked if I could photograph them and they said "Of course."

Afterward, they offered me a glass of wine and a round of boules and I said, "Yes and yes." I summoned my best inner-old-frenchman and enjoyed a perfect and very spontaneous aperitif.

This is why my neighborhood--and Monticello Road--is so great.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Hummus Revolution

This picture doesn't match the subject matter exactly but it's new and I like it. Maybe it's more about how nature pulls things down instead of pushing them up, but it's really all part of the same story isn't it?

Springtime comes as a a shock every year--suddenly backyard and garden are in full riot--but it shouldn't. The vivacious life we see all over the place in April is always there but it's hidden under the leaves and in the soil. The real action is at the bacterial level, weeks and months of plotting and planning in a fully decentralized way. By the time shoots break the surface, it's just a few days until full flowering and winter's dreary cloak shoved aside without possibility of reversal.

Where does it come from? Broadly speaking the answer is "the soil," the unorganized hummus left over from what came before. The ground we walk on is alive and the source of all things.

I'm really interested to see how humans manifest the same pattern. Who organized the current upheaval in the Middle East? The answer is dispersed, quite different from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century revolutions with their parties and manifestos. It came from the People. In a world where information is widely shared and communications dispersed, there is a new process for developing ideas. It's less like a brain and more like a gut, which is how the garden works and its power is unmistakable--and difficult or impossible to control.

The creative spirit works the same way. The artist channels unnameable energies from unknown sources toward an unknowable end and this is why poets and musicians always show up on the barricades. In a time of great uncertainty, the artist is in his element. We're well accustomed to getting all muddy and we have work to do.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Why am I doing this?

The Auto Body shop has a pretty clear purpose within the life of the neighborhood. What about the artist?

What is the artist’s role in the day-to-day life of the community?

That is a difficult question, a heresy in some circles. The butcher and the baker know, why not artists? Don’t we owe our neighbors something better than “to differentiate humanity from savagery” and other such vague evasions? That stuff’s not good enough for me anymore. Even if an artist’s contributions are not as direct as, say, the postman's I firmly believe that the artist is an essential part of the civic organism. But how?

Someone told me the other day that the arts define what we, as a people, are. So the artist’s role is two-fold: investigative researcher and maker of symbols around which a community may rally. The best art defines a time and a place so strongly it lasts into posterity but it can also serve a purpose right here and now.

As I walk along Monticello Road, I’m getting to know the community in which I live and as I talk to the people I meet, I’m learning about them and they about me. We’re sharing and learning and I’m keeping track with my notebook and my camera. When the exhibition takes place, they will see my impressions but the works will also be touchstones to provoke conversation, which is the glue that cements a community together.

I hope that my explorations will help me understand the place where I live and knit me more intricately into the web of human relationships there. By sharing my investigations and giving them physical form, I hope to strengthen bonds within an already tightly-knit community and to endow this fascinating community with a sense of place that is larger than the individual people and places it comprises.

This is a broad task and it seems a tad philosophical or abstract but it is also very concrete. It is the sum of day-to-day encounters and conversations with the people and places I see every day. It’s as real and essential as the other activities happening around the neighborhood every day.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

a little crazy

There’s nothing good about an inch of ice on the sidewalk, but there’s nothing not to like about a gigantic snowman with a farm-fresh carrot nose—that’s apparently been stolen.

During my last visit to New York, one of my Road Runners friends asked a question that touches the core of this blog. “When you’re here do you ever think we’re crazy for the way we live?”

Well, yes.

It was especially bad this time amid talk of laying off 20,000 (!) teachers—basically anyone hired in the last five years. Streets had not been plowed because (a) the Sani workers wanted to send a message or (b) there had just been big cuts or (c) incompetent leadership.

Responses to the above varied according to union affiliation and/or attraction to conspiracy theories. Trash piled in man-sized mounds and everyone was grateful that the sub-freezing temps kept the smell and vermin at bay. A novel solution: instead of picking up trash, place it in deep freeze, kind of like left-over turkey parts from Thanksgiving. Wait a minute: those are leftovers from Thanksgiving!

These dark thoughts swam in my head as I ice-skated down the un-shoveled sidewalk to a final brunch date before catching the train back to Virginia. After five minutes in a great cafĂ© with my friend Amelia, I couldn’t care less about the street conditions. The people are what keep me coming back and they’re still amazing, inspiring, and full of surprises.

After brunch, she took me on a tour of her new gallery and my mind was repeatedly blown away by the things I saw. She showed me a video of a dance performance from Brazil that was gorgeous in its simplicity. The other works on display explore some of the issues that are front and center in my own practice and they do what art does best: reminds us that we are not alone in our emotions. I felt invigorated and ready to jump back into life, somehow restored.

Then it was time for me to rush off to the train station after a quick hug and a last smile. I’ll be glad to return to warmer and greener climes but I’m easily reminded how great it is in New York and why we went there in the first place. It’s all very exceptional and a little bit crazy.