I arrived early to nab a good seat for the workshop titled "Discovering Your Story: The Joy of Mindful Writing." On the hour, the instructor, Peter Gibb, walked to the podium. Around the room, people stashed their cell phones, arranged their pens, opened laptops and notebooks.
Gibb looked out at the audience, looked down at the podium. Did not speak. He moved his cell phone a fraction of an inch, shuffled some other things in front of him. Remained silent.
People shifted in their chairs, rearranged their pens, shot each other quizzical glances. My mind pinged: Has he forgotten what he wants to say? Is this part of the workshop? It is, after all, about mindful writing. Am I supposed to relax and try to be mindful? What the heck is he waiting for?
Finally, our speaker spoke: "We have now been in session for one minute."
One minute. Huh. One minute of unfilled time felt like an eternity.
That was the first lesson in a class that offered a fresh and inspiring take on writing. Immediately following that interminable minute, Gibb challenged us to spend a few more minutes writing about what happened during that miniscule span of time. "It might seem like nothing happened, but actually a lot was going on," he said.
That there was, judging from the writing people shared after the exercise One person wrote about a fly walking across the table where she sat; another writer detailed his observations of Gibb and the room. From those and other examples, Gibb launched into a discussion of the three typical components of stories, especially memoir: the external story (facts), the internal story (thoughts and feelings), and the personal meaning (what you make of the experience).
The richest personal stories, he maintains, include all three levels, and all three can benefit from a mindful approach.
"Most of us think what we need to learn is craft, and that's important, but mindful writing has less to do with craft than with awareness and curiosity," Gibb said. "Being aware and curious opens you up to a world that is truly mind-boggling."
My mind was boggled, all right, and not only by Gibb's presentation, one of eight sessions I attended at the annual Pacific Northwest Writers' Association (PNWA) conference in Seattle last month. The content ranged from practical advice on the business of writing ("Legal Issues for Writers" and "Build a Writer Platform in 12 Months"), to the finer points of craft ("The Art of the Personal Essay" and "How to Create an Unforgettable Character").
There were panel discussions in which agents and editors gave overviews of the kinds of projects they're acquiring and how best to pitch a project to them. And there were pitch panels (AKA pitch slams)—sort of like speed dating for aspiring authors. At these sessions, a writer has four minutes in which to pitch and connect with an agent or editor. Then a bell rings and the writer must give up his or her seat to the next person waiting in line, and head off to pitch to someone else. All in a noisy, open space. Sounds crazy, but once you get the hang of it, it's kind of fun. Well, a stressful kind of fun.
Another noteworthy session was a four-hour master class with Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer's Journey. Vogler's approach to storytelling draws from psychology, mythology, physiology, and other sources not typically associated with writing.
His talk wrapped up with a discussion of chakras, focal points within the body used in a number of ancient meditation practices. Chakras are thought to respond to sound, colors, and vibrations, and can also serve as a guide in writing, Vogler asserts. "Think about what chakras you're trying to awaken in readers," he advised. "Also, what chakra is your main character working from?"
I don't know about my readers and characters, but I sensed my chakras were all awake and humming throughout the conference, where there was as much going on outside of the sessions as within them, and PNWA board members, staffers, and volunteers went out of their way to show their support for writers.
Having never attended that conference before and having moved away from the Pacific Northwest more than forty years ago, I showed up at the SeaTac Doubletree knowing no other attendees. The folks at the registration table made me feel like part of the gang—even a special part of the gang, by congratulating me on being a finalist in the literary awards contest and making sure I attached my green-and-gold FINALIST ribbon to my name badge. All weekend long, in fact, finalists and winners got VIP treatment, with reserved tables at the awards banquet for all finalists and an after party with agents and editors for the first, second and third-place winners in each category (not to mention the elegant certificates and substantial cash awards).
I was thrilled to win first place in the memoir/nonfiction category, but honestly, it seemed to me everyone was a winner at this conference, thanks to PNWA's thoughtful touches.
At one station in the registration area, attendees could decorate their badges with colorful stickers corresponding to their writing specialties: a heart for romance, for instance, a pen nib for poetry, a sleuth's magnifying glass for mystery. These visual cues helped writers identify others in their genre and were great conversation starters ("Oh, I see you write historical fiction. What period do you write about, and what kind of historical figures intrigue you?)
At a noontime gathering on the first day for first-time conference attendees, PNWA folks offered tips on choosing workshops and panels to attend, connecting with fellow writers, and developing and delivering a pitch. And throughout the weekend, speakers, agents, editors, and PNWA representatives mingled with writers in the hallways and café, willing to chat informally and answer questions.
I came away from PNWA with plenty to think about and process. As I looked back at notes from the conference after our return home, I started thinking about all the other writers' conferences, workshops, and retreats I've attended over the years. Curious, I tallied them up and came up with nearly thirty, stretched out over roughly same number of years, from a science writers' workshop on molecular medicine at the University of Michigan to a multimedia storytelling conference at Harvard, to a cozy memoir-writing workshop held in the instructor's living room with blazing fireplace and breaks for tea and homemade muffins.
As I looked over the list of writing events, some stood out as exceptional learning experiences, others were notable for the new writing friends I made, the new places I explored, and the insights and inspiration I came away with. There were multi-day conferences with hundreds of attendees jamming the halls and intimate retreats with a handful of writers gathered in someone's home. Some offered opportunities to read my work to an audience or share it in a workshop and have it critiqued. Others were more about sitting back and absorbing information.
Not one seemed like a waste of time and money.
I have wondered if there ever comes a time in a writer's life when conferences and workshops no longer seem worthwhile. I think I found the answer to that question in the woman who sat next to me at the PNWA editor and agent forums. I'd noticed her earlier, buzzing around the room, greeting old friends and garnering hugs. As we visited before the program began, she told me she had been a finalist a few years earlier and now planned to pitch her memoir, in hopes of securing an agent or publisher.
And oh, by the way, she was 97.
If you ever find yourself traveling through North Dakota on I-94, wishing for relief from the tedium of driving and the monotony of the plains, just take Exit 72 for a delightful detour through one man's imagination.
Known as the Enchanted Highway, the 32-mile stretch of two-lane county road from Gladstone to Regent showcases a collection of colossal creations by metal sculptor and retired teacher Gary Greff. Gargantuan grasshoppers, humongous fish, gigantic pheasants, the world's largest tin family—you'll find all of these and more if you venture off the interstate.
Greff dreamed up the Enchanted Highway nearly three decades ago in an attempt to revitalize his hometown of Regent, then a town of around 200 people. He'd never studied art and didn't know how to weld, but that didn't stop him. Using scrap metal, cast-off oil drums and recycled pipes, Greff just figured things out as he went along, sculpture by sculpture.
"He envisioned ten mega-sculptures, each with parking lot, picnic area and playground equipment, spaced every few miles along the road. So far, he has completed six on the Gladstone-to-Regent road, plus an additional sculpture, "Geese in Flight," on a ridge overlooking I-94 at the Gladstone exit.
Simply funneling travelers into Regent wasn't enough for Greff, though. He wanted to keep them there long enough to eat, drink, sleep, shop, and hang out a while. So he opened a gift shop, and when the town's school—which Greff had attended as a kid—closed, he and his brother converted the building into a hotel.
But not just an ordinary hotel. No, the brothers Greff wanted a hostelry in keeping with the enchantment theme. So, once again with more inspiration than experience, they turned the school into the Enchanted Castle, a 23-room hotel with waterfall walls, suits of armor, and other medieval touches. The inn even has a bar and a restaurant fittingly named Excalibur Steakhouse.
Though the hotel, bar, and restaurants have garnered glowing reviews, they haven't yet turned things around for Regent. The population has dwindled to around 170. Yet Greff is undaunted. Ever the optimist, he's working on two new sculptures to grace the hotel grounds and attract more visitors, he told the Dickinson (North Dakota) Press: a 35-foot-tall, sword-wielding knight and a 40-foot tall dragon that will breathe fire every hour.
Regular readers of HeartWood know I can never pass up roadside oddities, especially the oversized variety. My patient husband and traveling companion, Ray, knows it, too, and never objects my quests for the quirky. So when I read about the Enchanted Highway in a North Dakota tourism magazine and realized it was right on the route of our recent road trip to Seattle, I declared it a must-see. On the way out to Seattle, we had only enough time to stop at "Geese in Flight," which is currently closed to visitors, but can be viewed from the highway exit. On the way back, however, we spent an entire morning visiting the rest of the sculptures.
I was— of course—enchanted! The sculptures were even more immense and intricate than they appear in photos. It was clear, though, that some could benefit from an infusion of cash to maintain or restore them to their original conditions.
Greff's project is largely self-funded, and he does all the upkeep, including cutting the grass. He'd hoped gift shop proceeds would cover costs, but so far they haven't, he told the Dickinson Press. Neither, apparently, have the donation stations at the sculpture sites.
I only hope some kind of magic materializes to provide Greff with the means to continue and care for his work. It's a testament to the vision and perseverance of one big-time dreamer and an inspiration to all who dare to aim high.
As Greff summed it up in an article on a North Dakota tourism website, "You've got a dream. Live that dream. Don't hesitate. If I can do it, a person who didn't know how to weld and didn't have an art class, if I can go out and build 110-foot metal sculptures, I think you can do whatever you put your mind to."
My bucket list's got a hole in it. Things that once seemed vitally important to see or do before I die have dribbled away—some replaced by new must-dos, others simply discarded because my interests and circumstances changed.
I came to this realization after unearthing some of my old lists. It was enlightening to see which things on those lists I had ended up doing, which things I'd lost interest in along the way, which things just didn't happen and probably never will, and which ones still call to me.
My "101 Things I Want to Do Before I Die" list, dated October 20, 2002, includes item number 75: "Have a pet donkey (maybe)."
A few years earlier, I had become fascinated with donkeys during a long motorcycle trip down south, on which we saw scads of donkeys—miniature and full-sized—in fields and farmyards. I dreamed of having a donkey farm, then scaled that dream back to just one donkey (or two—I'd heard they need companions). By the time I made the 2002 list, though, the parenthetical "maybe" suggests I already harbored doubts about my commitment to caring for a large animal.
By the time I revised my list in March 2006, donkeys had disappeared, replaced by a number of items related to writing, publishing, and attending various writers' conferences.
One gotta-do item that did carry over onto the 2006 list was "Learn to play steel guitar," a burning desire since my grad school days in Kansas, when I worked off stress by dancing to western swing tunes and came to love the twang of pedal steel.
But that long-held aspiration had sloshed out of the bucket by 2009, when I again revised and pared down my list. By then, we had bought our Newaygo house and were making plans to move. While the idea of learning a new musical instrument still appealed to me, I wanted to devote more time to outdoor activities, travel, and getting to know our new neighbors and surroundings. I already had one time-consuming, indoor pursuit: writing. That felt like enough.
Then there's the category of things that just didn’t happen and probably never will. Ever since my youth, when I never missed an episode of "Then Came Bronson," starring Michael Parks as a disillusioned former journalist wandering the West on his Harley-Davidson Sportster, I'd dreamed of riding those same roads on my own motorcycle. I got the motorcycle (several, in fact, over the years), learned to ride, and made shorter trips on my own bike and longer ones on the back of Ray's, navigating so he could focus on the challenges of the road.
But my own westward odyssey never happened, and at some point it became clear to me that it never would. While it's true that ever since I turned fifty, my motto has been, "It's never too late," I've recently come to realize that for some things, it kinda is. The prime time for me to have made such a journey was ten or twenty years ago, when my riding skills, reflexes, and stamina were at their peak (and other drivers on the road were not as distracted as they are these days). I could still do it now, but I wouldn't enjoy it as much as I once would have.
I'm a little sad that it didn't happen, but when I remind myself of other experiences that did happen (including several meandering trips out West in vehicles other than motorcycles), the sadness dissipates.
That brings me to the mind-shift about bucket lists that happened not long after I drew up my last one in 2010. I realized that focusing on things still undone made me feel restless and disheartened at the prospect of time running out before I accomplished them all. So I sat down and made a list of all the things I had done over the years—both things that had been on my bucket list (writing a book, making collages, learning to kayak, hiking sections of the North Country Trail) and things that arose out of unexpected opportunities or spur-of-the-moment whims (joining in a 60-mile fundraising walk, taking a motorhome trip to Alaska, moving to Newaygo).
That list went on for pages, and as I looked it over, I could see that everything I'd listed there had brought me some kind of satisfaction, whether or not it had been on my official bucket list.
So I scrapped the bucket list and decided to take a different tack. I looked back at the various iterations of the list and tried to identify threads that ran through them. The result was a different kind of list that I titled "The Themes of My Dreams." Among the entries on that list were:
Now, instead of trying to tick off accomplishments, I just try to align activities with those overarching themes, and I feel far more content as a result.
I was surprised to find a similar approach advocated in—of all places--MotorHome magazine. In an article titled Trimming Your Bucket List in the magazine's September 2018 issue, author Mary Zalmanek ends with these suggestions (condensed and paraphrased here):
Finally, Zalmanek closes with this sage advice: "Today, do what will make you feel like you've lived a full and worthwhile life. That way your bucket will never seem empty."
In the two-and-a-half years since I started this blog, I've written about dozens of creative people, some here in Newaygo County, others as far away as the U.K. But it struck me recently that I've never written about my favorite creative individual, one who's right here at home: my husband, Ray Pokerwinski.
Since Ray has a birthday coming up next week, what better time to celebrate his talents?
One of the first things I appreciated about Ray (after his green eyes and engaging personality) was his imagination and ability to apply it to all sorts of projects. When we first met, twenty-six years ago, he was remodeling a house, transforming a cobbled-together lakeside cottage into a stunning, open-floorplan, contemporary home, complete with boat house and tiered decks. He envisioned the whole thing, then set about gutting the place and putting it back together in an entirely different conformation. (That house, by the way, was the fifth house he had remodeled, all with self-taught skills.)
As time went on, I discovered he was equally adept at re-imagining all sorts of things, including two of my motorcycles. With my input, his skills and artistry, and a little help from a custom painter, Ray turned stock bikes into head-turners.
Now he's turned his attention to a hot rod, the design of which has been incubating in his brain for a few years. Finally he's found time to start chipping away at the project as time permits.
Ray's genius for innovation applies to more than making things; he's a whiz at coming up with out-of-the box solutions to all sorts of problems. I can't tell you how many times I've been stuck, unable to figure out how to deal with a complicated schedule or some other seemingly intractable situation (like keeping squirrels out of the bird feeder). When I outline the problem to Ray, he instantly sees a simple fix that I was too mired in details to discern. (So far, he's winning the squirrel battle.)
So yeah, his ingenuity makes everyday life more efficient, but it also makes life a whole lot more fun. I never know when I might find a funny face on my lunch plate. Or fashioned out of folded laundry.
When we bought an adjacent piece of property with a weathered shed, Ray amused the whole neighborhood by decorating the shed for holidays with mostly Ray-made adornments.
For my birthday a couple of years ago, he gave me a gift card to a local camera store, but instead of just sticking it in a greeting card, he presented it in a camera-shaped, wooden box that he had made.
And one Valentine's Day morning, I stumbled into the kitchen to find a wooden heart Ray had fashioned from a piece of the towering oak we'd had to cut down. That's the heart you see in my HeartWood logo. Another year, I found a bouquet of wooden tulips he had made in his workshop.
It's been a pleasure, too, to collaborate with him on creative projects, like fairy houses for Camp Newaygo's annual Enchanted Forest event. Ray dreams up the creations; I just help with a few finishing touches. And it's Ray who makes up the fairy stories to accompany each house; then we work together on the wording.
Seeing how Ray makes creativity a priority emboldens me to do the same. What's more, he actively encourages and celebrates all my creative undertakings, from my memoir to this blog to photography projects and other artistic dabblings.
It's inspiring, as well, to see that he's still trying new things, with youthful enthusiasm that belies the number of candles on his cake (or pie, as that was his request for the upcoming birthday). His latest venture: hand-turning wooden pens and mechanical pencils for friends, relatives and fundraisers.
I could go on and on singing Ray's praises, but I've gotta go now—I have a pie to make.
Ever since I switched from weekly posts to a twice-a-month posting schedule, I've been depriving you, dear readers, of the end-of-month collections of wisdom that many of you have told me you enjoy. When I noticed that this month has an extra Wednesday, I thought I'd throw in a bonus post with tidbits I've been collecting over the summer.
Be tender to each other, teach a kid to read, laugh, be more tender than yesterday, repeat, ad infinitum.
-- Brian Doyle
It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.
-- Ursula K. Le Guin
Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me.
-- Carlos Fuentes
Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It's what everything else isn't.
-- Theodore Roethke
In a way, nobody sees a flower, really; it is so small. We haven't time, and to see takes time—like to have a friend takes time.
-- Georgia O'Keeffe
Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.
-- David Orr
The quest for knowledge can be never-ending, because when you find out one thing, you want to know more. It's the joy of being a human: we're curiosity with arms and legs.
-- Sylvia Earle, The Sun magazine, July 2018
Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.
-- Truman Capote
My theory is that everyone, at one time or another, has been at the fringe of society in some way: an outcast in high school, a stranger in a foreign country, the best at something, the worst at something, the one who's different. Being an outsider is the one thing we all have in common.
-- Alice Hoffman
The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.
The most solid advice . . . for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.
-- William Saroyan
Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry.
-- Muriel Rukeyser
The heart pounds away, day after day, so synced up to our every movement we don't even notice. Yet it sustains us. Soft and vulnerable beneath our breast, it's no wonder this big, red muscle is the universal symbol for loving and feeling. To live is to feel. To love is to survive together. Our tender hearts connect our inner worlds with the lives all around us.
-- Claire Ciel Zimmerman, Mindful magazine, June 2017
[The waves] move across a faint horizon, the rush of love and the surge of grief, the respite of peace and then fear again, the heart that beats and then lies still, the rise and fall and rise and fall of all of it, the incoming and the outgoing, the infinite procession of life. And the ocean wraps the earth, a reminder. The mysteries come forward in waves.
-- Susan Casey
By the way, I'll be continuing the twice-a-month posting schedule rather than weekly posts, for a bit longer, posting on the first and third Wednesdays of the month.
Here are the dates for the next few months' posts:
Quick as a darting dragonfly, summer flits past us. Those leisurely days we fantasize about all winter long soon fill up with visitors, summertime projects, and a mad, whirling mix of busy-ness and play. Before we know it, it's the middle of August, and we're trying to cram even more into what's left of the season.
Before rushing off to another activity, though, let's just pause to savor some scenes from this lovely time of year. Sunny fields and shady forests, festivals and fairs, recreation and relaxation, blossoms and berries, creatures great and small -- all the things that make summer special.
Skies were dreary and heaped with slate-colored clouds, but all was bright in Sandy VandenBerg's garden, near Fremont, Michigan, when I stopped by for a tour last week.
The 75- by 80-foot flower plot, criss-crossed with paths and accented with garden ornaments, is the result of a decade-long labor of love, Sandy told me. The plot started out as a vegetable garden, edged with a border of flowers. Somehow, over the years, the vegetables disappeared, and the flowers took over. Even the flower mix evolved over time, as Sandy added more and more native plants—about 50 in all—and those plants thrived alongside the 100 or so non-natives she acquired from friends and family members who helped her get the garden started.
"The natives, they just flourish, they go crazy," Sandy says. "I let them be where they want to be."
As a native plant gardener, Sandy is part of a (pardon the pun) growing trend. Many green-thumbed growers are adding native plants to their landscapes, for a variety of reasons.
Once established, native plants generally don't need to be fussed over. Because they're adapted to local conditions, they typically require less water—a big plus for gardeners accustomed to lugging around a hose or watering can.
The gardens attract some lovely visitors, too. Native bees, butterflies, moths, bats, hummingbirds, and other pollinators flock to the flowers. The seeds, nuts, and fruits of the plants offer an enticing buffet for wildlife, and the whole plants provide shelter—all important for critters whose habitats have been fragmented or destroyed by urbanization and other factors.
As natural gardening pioneer Ken Druse writes in The Natural Habitat Garden (Potter, 1994), "a habitat-style garden of native plants welcomes the whole food chain—not just flowers, birds, and butterflies, but also a magnificent decaying tree stump teeming with life, ringed by otherworldly fluted layers of fungi."
In contrast, many of the flowers and ornamental shrubs and trees sold in nurseries are exotics from other parts of the world. While wildlife may utilize some of these plants, they aren't the plants these animals evolved to use. What's more, some exotic plants become invasive, outcompeting native species and degrading remaining habitat, the Audubon Society maintains.
Sandy's interest in native plants began when her children were small. "On walks through the woods with the kids, I started noticing wildflowers, and I wanted to learn their names." As her love of local plants grew, she thought she'd like to have some in her own garden. She started shopping at the Newaygo Conservation District's annual native plant sale and attending the workshops offered during the sale each year.
Now, she not only tends her own burgeoning garden, she also shares seeds and plants with friends. It's not unusual for her to show up at our Monday morning yoga class with a carload of coneflowers, wood poppies, and other treasures.
On our recent walk through her garden, we admired wild petunias, rattlesnake master, pink coneflowers, yellow coneflowers, false sunflowers, bee balm, queen of the prairie, boneset, wild ginger, native phlox, and maidenhair ferns, as well as a few non-native perennials.
Especially impressive: a towering cluster of cup plants. The basin formed by their large leaves catches rainwater that birds, insects, and small mammals imbibe.
The garden refreshes Sandy, too, and aligns with her yoga practice.
"I practice a yoga nidra called, interesting enough, “Moving into the garden of your heart,” by Betsy Downing, one of my yoga instructor heroes," she says. "I attended Betsy's workshops for several years in Grand Rapids. On the practice tape, she asks you to visualize moving through a garden. She refers to it as the garden of your heart, and it is there to return to anytime you need peace and tranquility. When I open the gates of my actual garden, all worries are left at the gates. Sometimes the time spent there is hard physical work, and other times I'm just spending time appreciating all the beauty of nature. I always walk back out the gates a more grounded and peaceful being."
As we wrapped up our garden tour, I asked Sandy for tips to share with gardeners who'd like to give natives a try. Matching plants to soil and site type is essential, she said. Prairie plants won't prosper in a boggy area, and woodland plants will wither in a sandy, dry site.
Druse concurs. "Never have the words don't fight the site held so much meaning," he writes. "It is the habitat gardener's guiding principle."
Another thing to keep in mind: while native plants don't need a lot of pampering, they're not exactly maintenance-free. They can grow very tall and sprawly and may need to be staked or moved to roomier sites. And while they don't need fertilizer, adding compost can give a boost to plants that like rich soil. Sandy keeps four compost piles working and adds composted material periodically.
Also important: where you get your native plants. Plants that are propagated by a nearby native plant nursery or sold by a native-plant society or legitimate plant-rescue operation are all fair game. Digging up wild plants on your own is a no-no.
As a gardener who abandoned exotic perennials in favor of native plants when we moved to our woodsy setting six years ago, I can tell you that the joys of going natural far outweigh the challenges. Since I began planting and encouraging native plants, I've been delighted to see trillium, wild geranium, columbine, lupine, butterfly weed, black-eyed susans, cinquefoil, evening primrose, bee balm, horsemint, coneflowers, blazing star, prairie smoke, wild petunia, marsh marigold, blue-eyed grass, mayapple, spiderwort, and many more make themselves at home on our property. And along with them, a colorful assortment of butterflies, bees, birds, bats, and other creatures with whom I'm happy to share our space.
For more information on native plant gardening:
Wild Ones native plant organization
Michigan Native Plant Producers Association
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Landscaping with Native Plants of Michigan, by Lynn M. Steiner
Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas W. Tallamy
The Natural Habitat Garden, by Ken Druse with Margaret Roach
All photos by Nan Pokerwinski
In a blog post earlier this year, I claimed not to be much of a souvenir shopper. While it's true that I don't cart home a lot of tchotchkes from our travels, I must confess to a weakness for one particular kind of memento.
I'm a sucker for embroidered patches from state and national parks.
My patch-collecting habit began back in my motorcycling days. Bikers love to load up their leather vests with pins and patches—some documenting attendance at rallies, others bearing pithy slogans, and still others memorializing fallen comrades. I was no exception: my vest became so loaded with loot, I could hardly remain vertical when I put it on.
Still, I collected. When Ray and I traveled by motorcycle and stopped at parks, preserves, and other points of interest, patches were the perfect keepsakes: lightweight and easily stowed in a saddlebag. As I look through my collection, I see patches from Toltec Mounds in Arkansas, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, and Land Between the Lakes on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, all collected on one especially memorable motorcycle trip to and from a class reunion in Oklahoma.
Once I got started, I couldn't stop, even when we traveled by car or motorhome and had more room for stuff. I could easily pass up shot glasses and key chains in gift shops, but patches? Never! So the collection grew, with additions from Niagara Falls, Pictured Rocks, Pompey's Pillar, Denali National Park, Grand Canyon, and another couple dozen or more locations.
Soon, I realized my travel patches needed their own home. Not only was my motorcycle vest loaded up, but a patch from Walden Pond just didn't look right next to one declaring "Die Yuppie Scum!" (Okay, I didn't actually wear that one on my vest.)
As I was poking through my closet one day, it dawned on me that I already owned the ideal travel patch display garment: a safari-style vest I had bought for a trip to Australia in 1986 and had little occasion to wear since then. I dug it out and started decorating it with some of my favorite patches. One of the first: Sleeping Bear Dunes—our annual fall color tour destination—followed by Tahquamenon Falls, Acadia National Park, and Yellowstone.
My patch-laden vest became a thing of beauty. From time to time, I'd slip it off its hanger and admire it. I'd lay out all the patches I hadn't yet attached and figure out which ones to add next and where to put them. But the one thing I never did was actually wear the thing. Because, well, it may be a thing of beauty, but it's a very dorky thing of beauty.
I took to calling it my Junior Ranger vest and treating it like a joke. Still, I kept collecting patches, vowing that someday I'd get up my nerve and wear the vest somewhere.
When I joined the Wander Women, a local women's hiking club, I thought the perfect opportunity had arrived. The Wander Women are an accepting, encouraging group. They dress for comfort and protection, even if that means wearing funny-looking hats and tucking pant legs into sock tops.
The Wander Women wouldn't make fun of my vest. Would they?
When I returned from our latest trip to the Southwest with a whole new stash of patches, I added them to my vest, determined to debut it on the next Wander Women hike. But that day it was too cold for just a vest over my shirt. So was the next hiking day. Then the weather turned warm, and—oops, too warm for anything more than a tank top.
So as of yet, no "big reveal" for the vest. But the next patch I hope to add is going to be so special, I doubt I'll be able to keep it under wraps.
Here's why: The Wander Women have set a goal of hiking--segment by segment--all 65 miles of the portion of North Country Trail that runs through Newaygo County (or at least the 50 off-road miles, as the trail follows roads in a few sections). And it happens that the North Country Trail Association has a Hike 50 campaign underway, encouraging people to hike 50 miles of the trail over the course of the year. (There's a Hike 100 campaign, too, but first things first.)
Anyone who completes the whole 50 miles gets—you guessed it—a patch.
I've been logging my miles on the North Country Trail since March, and I'm up to 23 miles now (plus more miles on other trails, but those don't count toward the patch). With the Wander Women's target to motivate me, I've got that patch in my sights. Once I get it, you can be sure I'll wear my vest with pride.
Really. I will. Unless it's too hot. Or too cold. Or too . . . you know, whatever.
Dreams, determination and a life's artistic work—that's what transformed a nondescript vacant lot in Detroit into an urban sculpture park.
City Sculpture is the creation of Robert "Bob" Sestok, who has been making art in Detroit since the 1960s. I met Bob in the early '80s, when the neighborhood now called Midtown was in its grittier incarnation as the Cass Corridor. Bob was already a fixture in that community, as one of the founders of Willis Gallery and part of the Cass Corridor Movement, a group of artists whose unconventional methods and materials reflected the crumbling, post-industrial environment of the time and were influenced by the abstract expressionists of the 1950s. Some of those artists, including Bob, were featured in a 1980 Detroit Institute of Arts retrospective exhibition, "Kick Out the Jams: Detroit's Cass Corridor, 1963-1977." (The title was a nod to the debut album of the rock band MC5, which played at the opening of an art show Bob organized in 1972.)
I've always been amazed at Bob's ability to segue seamlessly from drawing to painting to printmaking to creating massive metal sculptures. Many of those sculptures are displayed in public spaces in Detroit, its suburbs, and other locations around Michigan and beyond. Other pieces accumulated over the years in the alley behind Bob's studio.
But Bob had a bigger vision for those works: a public space to display the sculptures right in the neighborhood where they were produced. He didn't have to look far to find a good spot. A block away from his home and studio was a city-owned vacant lot that fronted the John C. Lodge Service Drive. A conscientious neighbor and his kids had been mowing the lot and keeping it trash-free, and when that neighbor died, Bob took over the job.
"I was cutting the grass and thinking, 'Why don't I own this?'" Bob recalls. So he bought the property from the city and then spent about a year cleaning it up, repairing the sidewalks, installing a fence and pouring concrete slabs for the sculptures. Once that work was done, he spent another week or so moving and positioning the sculptures.
"As soon as I did that, all of a sudden the news media got wind of it, and I was on all the television channels and in the newspaper," says Bob. "It was quite a big bang."
And quite a change for an artist who has always been more comfortable just doing his work than being in the public eye.
"I kind of shy away from stuff like that," says Bob, "but I was willing to do interviews and tell people about the work in the park. So I'm a little more public today than I have been in the past, but that's the nature of having a space like that. And it's a fun thing to have. People go there from all over the place."
Like Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project and Olayami Dabls's MBAD African Bead Museum, City Sculpture has become a destination landmark, as well as a showcase for an individual artist's life work.
"Tour buses pull up, school buses pull up, kids get out, all kinds of people," says Bob. "We give tours. People contact me if they want to have the artist's viewpoint of the park. I do a little talk. We've had thirty or forty people at a time."
He also throws a party in the park every summer. "It's kind of a big thing for me to put together," he says, "but I get local musicians and it's a lot of fun." This year's event, scheduled for Saturday, August 25, features Ethan Daniel Davidson, The Drinkard Sisters, Danny Kroha, Denise Davis and the Motor City Sensations, and Botanical Fortress.
I'd been hearing about the park since it opened in 2015, but hadn't had a chance to visit it until a few weeks ago, when Ray and I drove down to Detroit to have lunch with another old Cass Corridor friend who was back in town for a couple of days. We arrived a little early, and since the restaurant where we were to meet our friend was only a few blocks from City Sculpture, we made a side trip to the park to check out Bob's creations.
Seeing so much of Bob's work in one place was truly impressive. Thirty-two sculptures of welded steel, crushed aluminum, car parts, and garden implements are artfully arranged around the well-maintained site. A bench beneath a tree offers a place to sit and reflect. Even with traffic whizzing along on the Lodge Freeway, City Sculpture feels like a haven.
The works on display reflect Bob's eclectic approach to making art, a style he has described as the absolute lack of a single, cohesive style.
"When people ask who made all these, I tell them, 'Well, they could've been made by a lot of different people, because nothing looks the same.' There's a lot of diversity in my work. I think that keeps me moving forward."
A graduate of the College for Creative Studies (then known as the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts), Bob is known not only for his sculptures, but also for his paintings, including both permitted and unauthorized public art pieces. Among the first were murals commissioned in the early 1970s for the Edward W. Duffy Company, a pipe and tubing supply business. More recently, Bob created a mural for musician Jack White's Third Man Pressing, a vinyl record manufacturing plant in the Cass Corridor.
White remembered seeing the Duffy Company murals when he was in high school, and once he became a successful musician with his own factory, he got in touch with Bob to commission a mural for the record-pressing facility.
As for unsanctioned street art, Bob says he's pretty much "retired" from that line of work. "All the buildings I painted on were rehabbed or torn down. I said, I don't want to have my art destroyed completely."
The desire to preserve his art also has him thinking about the future of City Sculpture. "Now I'm becoming more of a businessman and trying to get corporate sponsorships," he says. "I created a nonprofit, which I'm thinking to turn into a foundation to manage the park." He plans to turn over management of the foundation to his daughter Erika, who grew up in the neighborhood and has experience in park management.
Meanwhile, Bob keeps making art and displaying his work in different venues. He recently delivered five sculptures to Michigan Legacy Art Park at Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville, and he's currently in a show at Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum in Saginaw.
"I'm a lucky guy," he says. "I've got a job for my life. I can't stop—I just keep doing my thing. I like to discover things and challenge myself. If you don't challenge yourself, you're not learning anything. You have to push yourself and reach outside of your comfort zone in order to be prolific."
With nearly one hundred sculptures, more than five thousand drawings, and some one thousand paintings completed to date, he should know.
City Sculpture is located at 955 West Alexandrine in Detroit.
To help support City Sculpture, visit https://www.citysculpture.org/donate/
Bob Sestok has exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), Cranbrook Museum of Art, and Marianne Boesky Gallery (New York City), among others, and had work in ArtPrize 2009. His work is held in numerous collections, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Cranbrook Museum of Art,and Wayne State University. He has received grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and The Kresge Foundation.
Do you ever have those back-in-school dreams? Like the one where you realize you're late for the final exam in a class you've somehow forgotten to attend for the whole semester? Or the one where you have to make a presentation that you haven't prepared for? And you're inappropriately dressed. Or not dressed at all.
Distressing, aren't they? Fortunately, I don't have those dreams so often any more, but I've had them often enough over the years. Between those nightmarish episodes and all the waking-life years I spent in actual classrooms, I have no interest furthering my formal education.
So it's kind of funny that one of the things I most looked forward to when I retired was having time to take classes. Not the kind that involve brain-busting study and deadlines, but the fun and enriching kind.
Recently I took just such a class, and it turned out to be so enjoyable, I may never have another school-days nightmare. The class was a six-week Intermediate Photography course at Artworks in Big Rapids, taught by local photographer Dave Johnson. Dave has been a shutterbug since high school, but got serious about honing his skills over the past ten years. Now he focuses mainly on event, lifestyle, and landscape photography. A proponent of life-long learning, he not only strives to keep improving his skills, but also shares his passion and knowledge with others through classes, photo walks and individual lessons.
I was a little nervous about taking the class. For one thing, I wasn't sure how "intermediate" it would be. Though not an absolute beginner, I consider myself a novice. Would I be out of my depth?
For another thing, I'd been looking for a hands-on class, where we'd spend at least part of the class period actually shooting and getting feedback on our work. But once I found this class, I was anxious about that very aspect of it. I know how I can feel suddenly brainless and blocked in writing workshops where we have to write on the spot. Would I turn photo-blind when it came time to shoot in class?
I needn't have worried. Dave's an easygoing instructor who makes the course relaxed and fun, encouraging experimentation and allowing plenty of time for questions. He also shares his approach to photography: trying to look at the world in unique ways, focusing on both the details and the larger scenes they come together to create. When he photographs people, he looks for ways to capture something of their life stories and sources of inspiration.
A few more examples of Dave's work:
For our first out-of-class assignments, Dave encouraged us to photograph everyday objects we could find around the house. I found eggs . . .
and the candle I light every night at dinner time . . .
and a still life of kitchen utensils.
In class, Dave showed lots of photos to illustrate points he was making. But rather than simply showcasing his best work (and possibly intimidating us in the process), he also showed us some of his less successful photos and engaged us in discussions of what would've made them better. It was a good reminder that learning any skill takes lots and lots of practice and that even accomplished artists have to work at getting everything right.
Each class session mixed lecture and discussion on the finer points of exposure, composition, lighting, and specific types of photography—such as landscape, macro photography, and night photography—with breaks to try out techniques we'd just discussed. When the weather cooperated, we took our breaks outdoors.
When the weather didn't cooperate, we found things to photograph indoors—either the Artworks exhibits or items Dave brought in: tiny toys for close-up practice, prisms for special effects, and a variety of dollar store light-up doo-dads for a session on playing with light.
That one, with the light-up gadgets, was probably my favorite in-class exercise. We experimented with shooting long exposures of ourselves and Dave moving around with glow sticks and strings of lights. It felt like pure play, but we ended up with some pretty cool abstract images.
In spite of my early fears, I didn't freeze up when it came time to practice our skills together. I did find group shooting a different experience from roaming around on my own, but it was fun to see what other people were shooting.
To promote even more of that kind of exchange, Dave maintains a Facebook group where current and former class members can post photos and comment on photos that other group members post. Busy schedules kept some class members from taking full advantage of this resource, but I appreciated having a place to share work and get feedback.
At the end of each class period, Dave issued a challenge for the coming week, such as photographing a fast-moving subject at different shutter speeds, or taking photos at different distances from a given subject.
For once, I loved having homework! When I spent an afternoon wandering around with my camera, I wasn't just goofing off, I was working on an assignment.
I came away from the class with a fresh set of tips and techniques, but perhaps more important, the inspiration to keep stretching my skills, trying new things, and seeing the world in different ways.
Have you taken an enjoyable or challenging class recently? What have you learned?
Enjoy a few more of Dave Johnson's photos:
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.