Crusade For Art interview with Ken Abbott

David Rosenberg, the editor of Slate Magazine's Behold photo blog posted my responses to questions about the making of my book, "Useful Work: Photographs of Hickory Nut Gap Farm", on the Crusade For Art's blog.

Hickory Nut Gap Farm: A Legacy of Beauty

I remember the first time I went to the Big House to photograph. I’d chaperoned my daughter’s preschool class visit to the farm a couple of weeks earlier and was enchanted by the old inn, surrounded by hundred year old gardens and rows of august boxwoods, near the top of the winding road up Hickory Nut Gap. The place had a time capsule quality, suited to its early history and well-preserved architectural detailing and style, but it was clearly no museum––there were signs of a busy contemporary life, with a story of its own to tell. Our host, Annie Ager, introduced us to some of this history, telling of her family, the McClures and Clarkes; the Farmers Federation they started back in the early 1900s; and the beginnings of the old inn’s contemporary life as her family’s home. It was a stunning setting, rich in lore, and I looked forward to coming back with my camera.

So on a fall morning, camera and tripod on my shoulder, I walked up onto the porch of the grand old house and knocked on the hand-hewn door. The door was ajar, as the antique hardware didn’t seem to be working too well, and I could hear voices inside. No one responded to my knock so I tried again, a little louder, and then again. Finally, I heard someone clomping toward the door, and a moment later a big, bearded fellow swung the door open and said in an exasperated but not unfriendly way, “Why are you knocking? Just come in!” I hadn’t met John Ager, Annie’s husband, before, but he invited me to make myself at home, and then apparently undistracted by me, went back to his work while I wandered around photographing for several hours, till all the film I’d brought was gone. Over the next four years I visited many times, being careful not to knock of course, and photographed the fine portraits on the walls, the library’s old books and memorabilia, Elizabeth McClure’s fabulous murals, and even the unmade beds and a kitchen sink full of dishes––exhibiting a degree of nosiness that did not endear me to Grace, Annie’s housekeeper at the time. I photographed the springhouse and other outbuildings, the view from the porch, Elizabeth’s gardens, and the boxwoods.

Over the years, I learned more of the history, and my imagination was captured by the sweep of this family’s heritage in the great old house: from the Mayflower and the Waldorf Astoria, to barn dances and Farmer’s Federation picnics, including stories of travelers along the old road, welcomed and made at home over the years by this generous family. As Rob Neufeld relates in his accompanying text, it’s a great story. The characters are lively, engaging, and colorful; the setting is lovely; and the story, with its ties to the important contemporary issues of agriculture, land preservation, and community, is inspiring and relevant. Like a good photograph, all the pieces fit together and suggest the shape and order of a larger truth.

 

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In 2004, the year I began photographing at Hickory Nut Gap Farm, I suffered a serious illness that shook me up considerably. Added to that, the war in Iraq was being launched, and while driving from my house to the farm I would listen to reports about it on the radio, which left me feeling hopeless and low about the world. So I came to the farm needing to recuperate, as Jim McClure had, almost ninety years before. I was looking for a place to work that was restorative and would allow me to focus and create something. I suppose it’s a truism that during trying times we seek connection––connection with community and place, and to something larger than ourselves––some sort of spiritual connection. Though Jim and Elizabeth McClure had a strong Christian faith and tradition, a faith that remains a foundation for the family at Hickory Nut Gap Farm today, what I responded to at the Big House was its embodiment of Elizabeth’s faith in beauty.

Elizabeth once wrote in a letter to Jim, “Everybody wants beauty––it seems always to quicken your sense of being alive and that means happiness and peace and a blessed conviction that you are really necessary in the scheme of things.” As Neufeld notes in his essay, Elizabeth’s faith led her to create a house that would express, “through itself, law and order and proportion and repose and aliveness….” In this way, Elizabeth was reaching out to claim what every artist, it seems to me, hopes in some way for their work – that it be true and complete enough that, “through itself” it opens people’s eyes and creates the connection we seek. It’s a lot to ask of a material work, and a lot to claim for the artist, but it is a hope and a goal I identified with in Elizabeth, as I worked to interpret her life’s work as filtered through ninety years of busy family life.

 

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A picture sometimes arrives like a gift, recognized in a glance––a kind of locus of possibilities. I was teaching a photography class at Western Carolina University in 2006, and one day I brought my students to Hickory Nut Gap Farm. We were photographing in the house and as I walked through the kitchen, I noticed a silver pitcher sitting next to the sink. Initially it reminded me of a pitcher that was part of the silver service my family had owned––an item that in our house sat mostly unused on a sideboard in the dining room, but that I understood nonetheless was of value and ceremonial importance. I also remembered it as being the object of one of my favorite chores, the pre-dinner party polishing that showed me the simple optical beauty of my surroundings reflected in silver. Seeing the pitcher that day in the kitchen brought those things back to me. Plus, I liked the shape of the handle, which for me linked the object aesthetically to the family matriarch, Elizabeth McClure. So, I stopped to take a look with the camera.

I noticed that the pitcher was dinged up and bent so that it sat just a bit skewed on the counter, and instead of sitting gracefully on a silver platter, as ours had, this one sat amid a jelly jar of salad dressing and dirty dishes. I loved the color of the worn blue countertop, and the burnish of the aluminum trim tacked to the counter, and how those things worked with the still beautiful luster of the old silver. I also noted the way the other vessels on the counter, in their varieties of clarity and translucence, paid homage to the subtleties of the reflected light from the silver.

As I made the picture that day, I recognized that these formal qualities were gifts in themselves, but the larger gift came later, when I learned that this pitcher, despite its daily utility, was also an important part of the family’s heritage. After showing Annie the picture I’d made, she told me that they used the pitcher to bring water from the springhouse for the table, and that that was all they ever used it for, every day. And so the silver pitcher had served for ninety years as an aesthetic connection for the family to Elizabeth, but also as a connection to the place and the spring water she had cherished.

For me, one of the great lessons of the Big House and family is that we should honor beauty, and our past, and reach toward intimacy with our given place. Like a camera lens the pitcher focuses the family story. Yet, despite its qualities, the picture remains also a simple reminder that there are dishes to wash, and work to do. As I mentioned earlier, Grace, Annie’s housekeeper, didn’t have much use for me and my pictures. Both she and her son Clarence never hesitated to ask me if there wasn’t some aspect of actual work I might like to help them with around the house or farm––if I was willing to put the camera down for a bit. In this way they, too, took part in tradition. Elizabeth’s daughter Elspeth liked to say, “If I don’t share this beautiful place with others, God might think it wise for someone else to have it,” but she also was notorious for putting idle family members and even casual visitors to work, imploring them to, “Be Useful.” Though credit for this impulse may lie partly with nervousness about idle hands and the devil’s work, it seems to me that the bulk of the inspiration came from her conviction, like her mother’s, that people want to be part of something larger, and that by participating in the useful work of such a place and community, people are inspired and uplifted. Elizabeth Banson, Elspeth’s granddaughter, sharing what she’d learned from her grandmother, wrote, “... it is through work that we come to love a place. Work gives us the opportunity to participate in a place, to make our life part of its life. Work is an expression of love.” It’s been a great honor and pleasure to work in this place, amid this family and community.