16 November

Bishop Gibbons Parents Open House Wednesday Night: “See All The Good Things That Came Today. I Couldn’t Do This Without You.”

by Jon Katz

Tonight is parent’s open house night at Bishop Gibbons High School, and part of the exhibits for them to see are the donations that arrived today and some of the art that has already been made. This includes paintings and sketches, jewelry and Dream Catchers, paint and brushes and canvases and desktop easels, art books and old metal objects, dresses and skirts, foil drawings, toy figures and pillows, wind chimes, and too many other things to list.

Sue Silverstein and the students appreciate the art supplies, stuffing, patterns, and old jewelry that flow into the school almost daily. On the table were today’s gifts and some of the art already made by them.

“Thank you,” said Sue Silverstein, “we couldn’t do any of this without you.”

Sue is re-imaging art education, and the students at Bishop Gibbons are responding. Creativity is sizzling in the art room.

Right now, she’s seeking white stuffing, burlap, and Christmas fabric. If you have any to send, the address is Sue Silverstein, Bishop Gibbons High School,  2600 Albany Street, Schenectady, N.Y., 12304. I thank you, and the children of Bishop Gibbons thank you. Sue is a miracle worker.

9 October

The Last Picture Show, The Last Open House

by Jon Katz
The Last Picture Show

I was startled to see Maria’s blog post today in which she announced that this weekend’s Open House, our 8th, would be the last Open House, at least the last one on its current form.

I knew she was moving in that direction after this weekend, but I was away most of the day, and I didn’t know how certain she was about it.

I agree completely with her reasoning, although I do feel sad about it.

Each year, the attendance has declined, even as the audiences reading our blogs and buying her art has steadily increased.

Maria wants to take  her ideas about art and creativity online, where so many people are now.

This is the conundrum of our time. It changes.

We are not the kind of people to sit on our hands. We changed every single thing in our lives to move forward, and we are committed to keep moving forward. Nostalgia is a trap for the backward-looking.

And wow, have times changed.

I believe almost everything involving any kind of commerce or connections with people seem to be moving online, including books, and including us. I read all the time that people are spending  more and more time online, and less and less going to see other people.

The irony is that my blog is soaring with traffic and has never been more widely read. That is also true of Maria’s blog.

But the number of people who want to come here to see us and meet us and see our animals and and buy the art of rural artists is diminishing every year. Part of this is about me, I think, I haven’t published a book in a couple of  years and my books drew many people here to see us.

And also, there are our blogs. People can get plenty of us without stepping out of their homes.

The books and my work was never the point of the Open Houses, they were meant to be a celebration of Maria’s art and creativity and encouragement, and the rich art in rural life,  to the end, they were faithful to that.

We are both so grateful to the good people who came to see us, sometimes from  great distances.

So many people found inspiration and encouragement here, we were so touched by their visits and testimonies.

But from this side, it was hard to witness the toll it was taking on Maria.

She had to dismantle her studio weeks ahead of the Open Houses, and it took weeks to put it back together again. In all that time, she couldn’t work and didn’t have the time to make enough art to sell.

It was easier for me, my job was helping prepare and taking the dogs out to herd sheep and hosting donkey visits.

It was financially as well as physically difficult, and we had to spend hundreds of dollars on banners, posters, help and repairs. The Open Houses were not ever really profitable.

Talking yesterday with me, Maria she said had had enough,  she wanted to think of new creative ways to celebrate her work and the art of rural life, ways that didn’t involve exhausting her and shutting down her work. She already met with some of the artists to plan something  different for next year, something smaller.

We don’t wish to measure our lives or art by the numbers of people who come to see us. The small crowd stirred us up, we both felt the idea and time of an event like the Open House had passed.

In my work and Maria’s, we have been on the cutting edge, forward looking and in our minds, quite successful. So Maria has decided- and I agree –  that this Open House was the last of its kind, we will no longer expect or seek to draw large numbers of people here.

I suppose anything that seems familiar can seem humdrum, but I will never forget the faces and stories of people who traveled so far to thank us or meet us or just see us. They are etched in my memory.

And I will miss the sheepherding talks and demos, they were the most fun for me.

We will come up with something that fits into the scale of our lives, and especially Maria’s art, and also of the community of artists she cares so much about. Something that takes better advantage of the many people who follow us every day but who can’t come to our Open Houses.

Perhaps something online.

I enjoyed this Open House, ironically, as much or more than any other. The small crowd worked for me.

Because so few people came, I could actually talk to them. And I loved that.

Change is at the heart of creativity, and if you can’t change, the creative spark goes out. Believe me, we will come up with something new and interesting.

“It’s just time to move on,” Maria said, “it’s not a big deal. We will think of something different to do.”

It is time.

I told Maria Sunday that something felt wrong to me. More than 99 per cent of the people who follow her art couldn’t come, didn’t come and wouldn’t come. The same is true of my blog and book readers.

That doesn’t make sense.

Next year, online or off, we need to build a better and bigger tent, one that doesn’t involve so much disruption in our daily lives, and that lets more people come in and see.

7 October

Open House: The Sisters Of The Shawl

by Jon Katz
Sisters Of The Shawl

Day two of our eighth annual Open House began with cold, rain and strong winds. At first, we thought we would have to call off day two, but the  rains stopped and  the Sisters Of The Shawl, Maria’s belly dancing class, braved the rain to dance, an  eager daughter in tow.

Maria is not ready to dance in public yet, perhaps soon. It was a lovely day in many ways, a small but steady stream of wonderful people, and I found to my pleasant surprise, that I had time to talk to them and listen to them.

I am always surprised how far people come to meet me and Maria and see the dogs. I’ll put up some portraits. today and tomorrow.

Red, Fate and Bud were big hits with the sheep. Somebody opened the farmhouse door and let Fate led Bud out without our knowing it. Fate runs to the sheep whenever she gets out, poor Bud panicked and  ran towards the highway, one of the dancers  saw him and stopped him and held him until I got out with a leash.

It was too close a call for me, he’s always in a crate when we go out but I just came out to sign a book for someone. I think Bud was  overwhelmed by all the people and attention, and just lost his bearings, he never goes anywhere near the road.

More lessons about vigilance, I had no idea Fate had slipped out and that Bud had followed her.

I loved the conversations I had  today – Linda, who drove five hours from Rochester to meet me, she has been reading my books and the blog since I  started it in  2007, she knows the whole story, poor thing. She was great.

And Heidi and Ashley showed up to talk photography with me and go and meet the donkeys. I did four sheepherding demos, and although the crowd wasn’t large, it was steady and filled with wonderful people.

Maria and I are talking about how to make the Open House better, even simpler, and more inclusive of our readers online who can’t be here. We have some exciting ideas to kick around, we’ll share them soon.

Stay tuned. I love this Open House, it was affirmative, warm and inspiring for me. So many stories of good people seeking to make their way in the world. Maria is exhausted, tomorrow she will sort through the receipts so she can pay the artists quickly. Despite the small crowds and bad weather,  she sold a fair amount of art.

Tomorrow, we have a lot of work to do getting the farm back in some kind of order.

7 October

Video: Come And See: The Art Of The Open House

by Jon Katz


As always, we are thinking about our many readers, friends and followers who can’t get to our farm. Most of our blog readers don’t live nearby, and many have asked to see the art being sold and perhaps have a chance to buy some.

It’s a fair request, and Maria is happy to sell her art and the work of the gifted artists who bring their work here every year.

As you can see from the video, there is some amazing work here in this outpost of rural America, creativity grows and thrives everywhere. So here’s a tour of the Schoolhouse Studio done this morning.

Beautiful shawls, paintings, mugs and bowls, batik, scarves, notecards and drawings, potholders and pillows. (Maria has four of her Vulva potholders left, she is nothing if not determined.)

It’s raining and misty here, don’t know how the weather will evolve, so if you see anything you like, it probably will be here for a while. Check it out and thanks for your interest.

If there is any art you would like to see, you can e-mail Maria: [email protected].




7 October

Rachel Barlow: The Essence Of The Open House

by Jon Katz
The Essence Of Open House

When I thought about what the Open House meant to me yesterday – gloomy day, rain,  small crowds and all – what came to mind is Rachel Barlow.

Rachel is a Vermont artist, mother and spouse, she also a legendary multi-tasker (here, she is painting, talking to her sister on the phone, talking to me.

She is also a very valued friend.

She can actually multi-tasks more things that, during my writing workshop I’ve seen her talk about sentence structure, politics and also do tech support (her day job) at the same time.

Rachel suffers from bi-polar disorder and depression, she has also become an increasingly popular and well-known artist, she sketches, paints lovely water colors, and lately, has started doing oils.

She also writes children’s stores and has a blog where people can buy her art and read her funny, poignant and insightful writings about family and life. I like to say her family writing is the hip version of Erma Bombeck.

Rachel and I have known each other through the good and bad times, but we don’t ever quit on each other. Rachel’s challenge is that she has no idea how talented she is, she thinks everyone in the world is smarter and more creative than she is.

it has been the joy of a lifetime to see her develop and grow as an artist, something she seems to do every day.

Even though everything about her life calls into question that neuroses, it is a nut I have not yet been able to crack. I will keep on trying. She hasn’t run away from me yet.

Rachel is one of the most gifted artists and writers I have ever known, and I am proud to say she has been a student in every one of the Writing Workshops I have offered, we are heading into our sixth year of working together.

She and Maria have also become friends, and I think Maria has become a valuable inspiration to her, and she has become an inspiration to Maria.

No matter what is happening in  Rachel’s life – and many difficult things have happened in Rachel’s life – she never stops writing, painting, sketching, creating.

I love Rachel very much, we are close enough that we rarely need to speak to each other.  Rachel is forever struggling to balance her family – she has two sons, her work, and her art, a struggle that will almost surely never end.

For Rachel, as for many of us, the creative life is complicated, it always pits security and money and comfort against creativity, freedom and  and meaning. Bit by bit, day by day, Rachel is winning.

it is never easy.

This year Maria invited Rachel to come and paint during the Open House, and Rachel agreed.

When she got here, she realized she had forgotten her canvas. Not to worry, she said, have you got a piece of wood or bark? Of course, Maria did, and Rachel said she would be happy to paint on that.

So she set the wood on her easel and went to work.

Whenever I saw Rachel during the day, she was surrounded by people watching her paint. How sweet that image, Rachel in her element (she is soon to become an art teacher in Southern Vermont) painting at our Open House.

I was busy and lost track of her.

Later that afternoon, long after the Open House had ended and everyone left, the dogs barked and Maria looked out the window. Sometimes people come later, sometimes they stay late.

“It’s Rachel,” said Maria. “She’s out there painting.” And it was Rachel, she had come back after tending to some work, she wanted to finish the painting,  do some more work on it, she had been standing out in the mist and chill by herself, touching up her wood landscape.

She never told us she was there, or bothered us. I went out to see her.

“I’d like to buy that from you,” I said. “No,” said Rachel, “but I’ll trade you for payment for the class. (I actually don’t charge for the class, but there was no point in wrecking this opportunity).

Deal, I said. Rachel will finish up the painting at home and bring it to me next week.

Rachel has a great spirit. She has faced many difficult things, and continues to face many difficult things. Bi-polar disorder and depression are both things that cannot be cured, they can only be managed.

I think Rachel’s creativity has grounded and steadied her, it is now as large as the depression, and I have seen it take a larger and more important role in her life every time she sketches, writes or paints.

And she does all of those things brilliantly. How many people can say that? She will make a wonderful teacher, she understands are and the need for encouragement. I hope you never stop writing and painting, I said.

“Are you kidding?,” she answered. “That’s how I earn my teaching credits!”

I’m so glad we stuck it out with one another. She would never see it this way, but she has changed me as much or more as I have changed her. And she has taught me as much or more as I have taught her.

Bedlam Farm