31 July 2012

A Place for Writers

Recently we've had a number of writers at Small Pond as part of our artist residency program. I like writers. I get writers; not surprising, seeing as how I've been one for the better part of my life.
Most of our artists in residence hail from cities, so it comes as no surprise that almost all of them comment on how quiet it is here. In such quiet you can hear the stories speaking gently inside of you without them struggling to be heard above the din of traffic or the neighbors' TV set. Quiet is good for writers.

Jennifer Morales and Tina Owen are a couple from Milwaukee who recently spent a week writing here. I was impressed by their focus and drive to realize their personal writing goals. Yet creativity is anything but a predictable process, and both of them found themselves sometimes writing things they hadn't necessarily intended. I love it when surprises bubble up from within us. Jennifer and Tina cooked some incredible meals for us while they were here, and suitably wrapped up their stay by participating in our art/food festival, Cornography.

Sharon Caldwell's arrival coincided with the first pizzas emerging from our new cob bake oven, a most joyous occasion. Sharon is a writer and photographer living in Peterborough who came to Small Pond for a creative getaway. She was drawn - as many have been before her - to spend an inordinate amount of time in our Salon du Silo. It's a magical outdoor space on the site of a former barn that is completely wrapped in nature. Sharon made herself a little nest of blankets and whiled away her days there reading, writing, communing with chipmunks and getting drunk on sunshine.

Chris and Erin Rouse are couple of teachers/artists from Grimsby who spent a few days here as wedding gift from a mutual friend. Erin painted and Chris worked on some writing, and we had great dinner table conversations about film and theatre. One night Milé took them on a creative field trip to the monthly Prince Edward County Comix Jam. Apparently, they rocked it.

Yes, Small Pond is a quiet place. In this quiet you can hear all sorts of things. Crickets, birds, the wind in the trees, bees buzzing by, and your own heart beating as you breathe deep and dare to think big thoughts.

This fall we are hosting our first 'official' writers' retreat, led by the downright lovely Chris Kay Fraser of Firefly Creative Writing. I am honored that Chris has chosen Small Pond as a place to inspire others to creativity. If you'd like to find out more about this workshop, called Spark Your Creative Fires for Fall, you can read about it here. In the words of one of her group participants, "Chris leaves everyone in her wake feeling amazing and healthy and radiant..." and who couldn't use some more of that?

24 July 2012

Cornography – The Second Popping

We’re still basking in the glow of the second annual Cornography, which took place this past Sunday at Small Pond Arts. Cornography is an art festival on the theme of “our twisted relationship with food” which the audience discovers as they are led from location to location around our farm.

The afternoon started off with a Punch & Judy show, performed by yours truly, wherein the devilish Punch throws his baby out the window while the missus is at the farmer’s market. ("What, you haven't seen a bit of good old-fashioned violence before?")

Milé, dressed as a chef, then led the audience back to the barn, where they were greeted by Reverend Rick Zimmerman, who welcomed the audience to the Funeral for Bad Food:

“I want each of you to ask yourself this question: If I could say goodbye forever to one grocery bag beast, one dinner table tragedy, or, as the kids today would say, one food fail – what would it be? For today we shall topple the burger king… we shall banish the Brussels sprouts, or burritos or bonbons. Yes, friends, this is a funeral. It is time to Pills….bury….your bad food choice.”

He held aloft a coffin-shaped piece of cardboard.

“You will each get a coffin just like this….write down that item, that food failure, that corrupt culinary concept that you wish to cast out. A brisket, a basket, just write it on your casket. Let me put it to you as plainly as I can - place on your sarcophagus that which sticks in your esophagus!”

When everyone had written down their idea of Bad Food, we had a funeral procession through our back field. When we reached the grave site, the Reverend was awaiting us. He tapped each person with a wooden spoon, and each spoke the name of their Bad Food and flung it into the grave – to which we all shouted “Expired!”

photo by Marnie Woodrow
photo by Marnie Woodrow
Hands down, it was the best funeral I’ve ever been to. Of course every funeral worth it’s salt has a reception afterwards, so we noshed on fabulous skull and bone cookies made by RuthGangbar, which a bunch of us had decorated the night before.

Next the inimitable Tamara Segal and Chris Byrne led the audience on a musical foraging walk, pointing out edible wild plants growing all around us which are not only nutritious, but tasty, too! 

Meanwhile some folks were in the barn, making a variety of potato people with our queen of craft, Cynthia Dinsdale. We also had food-themed art hanging in the barn, including work by Erin Johnston, Sarah Renaud Wilkinson, Brandy Gale, and of course, Milé Murtanovski.

Next the audience was led to the silo, where Christine Renaud performed some spoken word. She got the audience involved using the human microphone technique, and then got a bunch of volunteers to get into the silo to perform one of her poems, creating a human ‘silophone.’

Children’s entertainer extraordinaire Andrew Queen was up next, performing some great foodie folk songs from his album ‘Grow.’

Finally, the audience gathered around our new cob bake oven, where Jennifer Morales, a Small Pond resident artist from Milwaukee, read her poem Brought to Light. The poem speaks of fire: “Our kind want to burn…

Yes, we do. The day was coming to a fiery close; the oven had been lit two hours earlier, and I said a few words for our oven inauguration.

“...With the help of our friends and neighbors we built this oven with our hands. The clay that binds the oven together we dug from under foot; we mixed it with sand and hay and water, and stomped it with our feet. The rocks that make up the base were gathered from all over our property. It took a long time to make this oven, but it was worth it, because we weren't just making it for ourselves, we were making this oven to share with all of you. In the days, months and years to come, this oven will be used to create countless meals, meals made by hand, like the oven itself. Once the oven is fired it stays warm for many hours, and we hope to establish a regular baking schedule, so as a community we can share this warmth with each other. Let this oven serve as a symbol of the good things we can create when we work together.”

The afternoon culminated in a DIY Pizza Party, where folks made their own pizzas and had them fired in the oven by the unflappable Susan Larner.

Susanne masters the oven! Photo by Ruth Gangbar

People lingered long after the show was over, not just savouring the pizza, but reluctant to let go of such a sweet afternoon together.

A big huge thanks to the many artists, foodies, friends and neighbours who helped make this such a wonderful afternoon. We couldn't have done it without you.

05 July 2012

Building an Outdoor Cob Bake Oven

We've just completed building an outdoor cob bake oven at Small Pond Arts!

Why build an oven outside?  I don’t remember encountering an outdoor bake oven until 2006 when I started working with Clay & Paper Theatre in Toronto’s Dufferin Grove Park. Even then, I never put any real thought into bake ovens until I did an internship with Bread & Puppet Theater in 2008. 

On my first day at the magical Vermont farm, artistic director Peter Schumann gathered us around his outdoor bake oven.  He told us about the important role that bread and community ovens played in his childhood in Silesia. Peter, now 78, bakes bread in his oven every day, rising at dawn to mill the grain, and marking every loaf with his family’s bread mark – a sun.

Eating Peter’s bread for five weeks that summer planted something in me, and not just in my stomach.  The philosophies around the care that goes into baking bread, the act of sharing it with others, the warmth of the fire and the nourishment of the loaves…  an oven is more than just a utilitarian appliance. It is a symbol of life and community, a throwback to ancient times and a pebble on the path to a sustainable future. 

I wanted one.

I ordered the book Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer and read it cover to cover.  Three times. This would be our bible. 

We started digging the pit for the foundation in June 2011. Our soil has a lot of clay in it, so as we dug this foundation we saved the clay/soil in buckets. We then filled the hole with rocks. Having a stone foundation prevents groundwater from wicking up into the clay of the oven. Then we started building the first layer of the foundation by setting out a ring of large stones and cementing them together with a clay/sand mix.

Then we got busy, as tends to happen here in the summer, and the oven… well, the oven got put on the backburner.

As Spring 2012 arrived I was determined to get the oven finished, and I spent weeks gathering rocks from all over our property, chopping hay, and sitting in a large hole digging out buckets of clay. I adopted a new mantra. In the words of Gandhi: “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” Some things just take time, and building an oven with your bare hands is one of those things.  We live in an era where instant gratification is the norm; I found this reminder to let things unfold in their own time immensely reassuring.

So after weeks of preparation, we were ready to build. I put out a call for volunteers and had a number of people come out to help us over the course of three days. Everything is more fun with friends around!

On our first workshop day we built the base. We used larger rocks for the outer ring and filled it with small rocks and rubble. I got the idea of a wagon-wheel doorway from a Bread & Puppet book. We just so happened to have a couple of wagon wheel rims around (weird, I know) so we embedded one halfway up our base.

When the base was almost waist-high, we laid in a bunch of wine bottles on their sides as insulation. In a wheelbarrow I mixed watered-down clay with hamster bedding and chopped straw; this insulation mix was packed around and over the bottles.

On a big tarp we mixed clay and sand and stomped it with our feet. I cannot even tell you how much fun this was, feeling the primal satisfaction of mud squishing between toes with mothers and daughters, children and adults stomping around together. Pure joy!

We put a thin layer of this sand/clay mix over the bottles and insulation mix… and decided to call it a day.

On our second day we started out by leveling the oven floor with a thin layer of sand, and carefully laying two layers of firebricks to retain the heat.

We drew a chalk circle of the shape of our oven dome right onto the bricks. We built a giant sandcastle within this circle – taking up the space that would eventually be the cavity of the oven. We covered our sand-dome in wet newspaper, and then covered the whole thing in sand/clay mix… And then we called it a day! Thank goodness for my patience mantra, because everything took twice as long as I thought it would.

On our third day we made another muddy mix – this time it was clay and chopped-up hay. The consistency was very dense and easy to build with.

After waiting about a week for the oven clay to dry, we shoveled the sand out. We covered the whole thing with a tent and tarps to protect it from the rain, and we waited several weeks as the oven cured.

We were planning to build a roof structure over the oven, but decided that we would save that project for another time. But we did need to weather-proof the oven, so Milé mixed up a lime plaster and applied two coats to the whole oven and base, about a week apart.

I made a firing door out of an old piece of plywood and wooden knobs; the inside of the door is lined with a piece of scrap sheet metal.  The door has an opening at the bottom to let air in; as our style of oven has no chimney, this opening will help keep the fire going.

Thank you so much to our many helpers who pitched in with their hands, hearts and feet to make this dream a reality!

We’re going to start test-baking tomorrow, and I have a feeling that there's a whole other learning curve ahead of us! The oven will have its public inauguration at Cornography on July 22, 2012, 2-4 PM. Hope to see you there!