March 2017

by Erica Ciccarone

Erica Ciccarone is an independent writer. She holds an M.F.A. from the New School in Creative Writing. She blogs about art at nycnash.com.

Russel Mobley, Soft Time, 2011, on the bank of the road outside the Arts Center of Cannon County, Woodbury, TN; Photograph by Russel Mobley

Where do artists and writers thrive? While there’s something to be said for the cultural immersion of a pulsing metropolis, there’s no denying the appeal of seclusion, of sanctuary, and of the artist’s communion with nature as an igniting force. Just an hour southeast of Nashville in Woodbury, Tennessee, Yellow Bird Art Farm provides such a place.

Part sculpture park, part artist residence, part nature sanctuary, Yellow Bird is 175 acres of rolling hills, steep vistas, and hiking trails. There’s also a tea pagoda, cedar sauna, a cob meditation center, and a lake beloved by frogs and turtles. And art.

It is placed throughout the land, like the ten-foot red panels that hang suspended in the woods along a trail. Cedar planks engraved with random words dot the landscape, and visitors are invited to engage their spontaneity and move them around. Steel wire orbs by artist Lily Erb mimic geological formations, and a new project, a series of ten geometrical sculptures, will guide travelers up a hill to the meditation center. Called Passing TransFigures, the forms could be commemorations of people who have passed, and their ghost-like presence might symbolize the passing from one world to the next. Hiking any one of Yellow Bird’s trails will reveal such surprises.

“I remember when I first saw this land,” Wood says. “I drove around the corner and there it was––this hanging valley. It felt like an outstretched hand, like a gift or an offering.”

David Wood, FireFlash, Ten scarlet wooden ribbons waving in the trees; Photograph by Leopard Zeppard

The land’s keeper and curator, David Wood, is an intellectual and staunch optimist––a rare breed indeed. He moved to Tennessee from Warwick, England, in 1994 to teach philosophy at Vanderbilt. He was inspired by places like the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Grizedale, playgrounds for landscape artists and sculptors. He had long dreamed of creating a place where artists could have a benign, creative relationship with the natural world. In 2002, he started looking at land in Tennessee.

“I remember when I first saw this land,” Wood says. “I drove around the corner and there it was––this hanging valley. It felt like an outstretched hand, like a gift or an offering.”

He has hosted visual artists, writers, filmmakers, dancers, musicians, and composers of all stripes to stay in the rooms of the Lodge, the Writer’s Cabin, the Stables Cottage, or the vintage Airstream––or to camp in the pasture or under the roof of a big red barn. Blair School of Music’s orchestra makes an annual summer retreat, and due to Wood’s tenure as a professor at Vanderbilt––22 years running––students of art, literature, philosophy, and theology have engaged the bucolic landscape.

David Wood, Awakening, Reinstalled Spring 2017, large heliotrope earth-art installation inscribed with a poem exhorting us all to wake up before the planet fails; Photograph by David Wood

The Yellow Bird Artist’s Residency includes a secluded place to work, materials, a workshop, and accommodations. Many create something that will stay on the property as a mark left behind. Last year, artists Silvan Laan and Emily C. Thomas lived in the cottage for three months with their newborn daughter. Together, they learned the contours of the land.

The couple’s installation, Virgo Rising, is about re-establishing our natural connection with the environment by way of the stars. During the fall equinox, they stretched a 1300-foot line of solar lights across the undulating landscape, connecting the points of sunrise and sunset. During the equinox, day and night are equal in length; according to the artists, it’s a balancing point in nature and consciousness.

Laan and Thomas made the seasonal transition concrete on a chunk of limestone between the barn and the lake. They etched the same east-west line along with the specific star formations that existed on the night of the 2016 equinox, inlaying the stars with copper. Someone who comes across the rock many years from now could, with a bit of astronomy knowledge, know exactly when it was carved. The technique––etching in stone––looks to the past, but Laan and Thomas think about the future as well, of taking their little girl back in ten years to show her the rock and see how it has changed.

A winter vista at Yellow Bird Art Farm; Photograph by David Wood

It’s this meditation on time that fascinates Wood as well. On one of my trips to Yellow Bird, we rode out on his 4-wheeler so he could show me the site of the Old Home. Hanging on for dear life as dusk began, we cut through one of the many winding trails that weave over and around the land. At the edge of a bamboo grove, a chimney rises no more than four feet high, stones collapsing around it. Just around a corner, a spring gurgles. It reminds us that there was a time––not all that long ago––when we built our homes and lives around the whims of the natural world, rather than bending nature to our own.

“Here we are,” Wood says, “floating on top of this layer of history, this layer of evolution, this layer of geology . . . I’m trying to inhabit it, to understand what this place is in terms of what’s here and what used to be here and how the way it is now is a product of the ancient past.”

Yellow Bird reminds us city dwellers that we have a deep connectedness to the natural world, including the sky and solar system. I have spent many days now writing at Yellow Bird during an ongoing residency. Among the goats, the dogs, the barn cat Kali, and the artists who move quietly around the land engaging their own practice, I feel aligned with the natural world, and everything just flows.

Yellow Bird Art Farm is hosting an Open Day in celebration of the Spring Equinox on Sunday, March 19, at 2 p.m., with a bonfire at 6 p.m. For more information on the Spring Equinox celebration and Writer’s Residency, please visit www.yellowbirdartscape.org.

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