Day 2 – Sunday 17 July 2016

Sleep, Napoleon, kava, poetry and Summertime

Napoleon rock to the right

I had a huge sleep last night: solid and straight the way through. I woke up at about 7.30 and wanted to go back to sleep. I got up instead. It’s brunch here at 10am and dinner at 5pm, but I had organized last night to go into the Oak Creek township to do a little shopping with Carol at 8.30.

It’s pretty laid back place this Sedona Summer Colony. That works for me. There's artists working in studios, making music, painting, ceramics, glass, and there's a paper making facility behind the dining hall. I think there are about 50-60 artists around the place doing their thing. The school is surrounded on every side by magnificent red rock mountains. They are igneous and sedimentary with strikingly visible layers, or lines of sedimentation, that are almost perfectly horizontal. It is a magic location. Remote-ish, self-contained, with an organic garden where most of the food is grown for the school.

Red dirt and feet The Verde Valley School in the middle there, from Napoleon The peak of Napoleon looking over, well I'm not sure... Layers of sedimentary rock

Oak Creek is small, we went to the supermarket with two other new arrivals – a painter and her horticulturist/ceramist partner. She lives in New York and he is from New Orleans, I think. Sadly, whilst shopping, I could find no chili sauce of any fierce fiery note but they did have wallaby yogurt of all things. (Wallaby was just the name: it wasn’t wallaby flavored yogurt.) We were back on campus an hour later just in time, pretty much, for brunch. The food so far has been incredible. I sat with a few different artists than last night’s dinner, a playwright, a poet, a fiction writer who is here working on her memoir, and another couple who had just arrived.


After brunch I took a walk up to a big rock overlooking the school known as Napoleon. I was armed with a map drawn by one of the school’s students. The Verde Valley School is a baccalaureate school for grades 9-12 but all of the students are away on summer vacation, hence the reason for the school turning into a residency for artists for a few months over the US summer. Anyway, so I took off up the hill, I had been told that I could find the right track if continue on past the chapel, under a wire fence, head straight up and there should be the path. And it was as easy as that. The path, mostly of very fine red sand, lead upwards and wound its way to the foot of Napoleon. I was warned to look out for scorpions and rattle snakes, but alas I didn’t come across any. It was a pretty easy 20-30 minute climb with one slightly hazardous incline towards the highest section. But it was well worth it. The views out over the school and in the all other direction were quiet something - vast, rocky, mountainous and very red. I spent about an hour up there taking photographs, sketching, sitting and looking. At about 1.30pm I made the climb back down again, slowly observing the small and large details.

I had a 15-minute respite before meeting the bus/van out the front of the dinning room. It just so happened that there were 2 kids out front also selling homemade lemonade for $1, with ice and fresh mint, and of course I couldn’t resist. Anyway, after chugging down my drink, a group of about 10 of us were off to West Sedona to listen to Laura, an employee of the school, perform at the Oak Creek Brewery. It was about a 30-minute drive through the most spectacular red rock mountainous countryside that I’ve ever seen. Some of the paper makers, a painter Thomas Crouch, I think his name is who I met on the first day, and Julie Hill a New Zealand playwright/journalist, as well as a few others were also on the bus. The performance itself was in a small brewery and was good, I thought to myself I wonder if sweet music helps to make better beer, anyway, the chocolate cherry porter that I had was pretty awesome. An hour and half later we are back on the bus heading back to the school through the astounding mountainous landscapes of Sedona.

As we arrived back at the school there was a group gathered out on the quadrangle lawn. A Hawaiian artist, Keoni, who also makes kava in the traditional way, was finishing off a kava ceremony for about 25 people. I arrived just in time to drink a bowl of the stuff. I had never tasted it before. It has quite an earthy taste and made parts of my mouth go numb.

From Napoleon Down into the valley below Red rock of Sedona/Oak Creek The incredible rich red dirt and rock

It was a little after 5 and this being a Sunday meant that it was pot-luck dinner night, but tonight they had a top local chef preparing much of the food, so as you could imagine it was definitely quite something. The pot-luck dinners are an opportunity for the locals to bring food, meet the artists, spend time following dinner wandering around any open studios (of which there was about 6 or 7 or maybe more) and generally have a good time – in very relaxed atmosphere. Over dinner I sat with Ian Frazier, a musician who was scheduled to perform about 10-11 songs later in the evening outside (as the sunset) and inside of the chapel up on the hill. Eric, my host, came over for a little while too and there were one or two other artists also at the table. The room was full and there was quite a hubbub. Following dinner, and outside the dining hall I bumped into one of the interns and she said that she was off to listen to Christopher Johnson perform some poetry in Brady Hall, which was excellent I thought to myself because he performed last night for a few people however I was just too tired to get there. I had met him upon arrival a couple of times yesterday and felt a bit bad this morning that I hadn’t taken advantage of listening to him perform yesterday, so I was in luck. We soon found him in a side room off Brady hall setting up with a guitarist accompanist (both of whom had never collaborated together before). Christopher was planning three performances tonight (his version of the open studio), of the same work, for groups of guests coming around but he was rehearsing for us – a small crowd of four. He was incredible to say the least. Sharp, strong on wit and satire, bitingly political, humorous, clever, sweet, philosophical and brutally honest. He gave us four poems, the first about jesus, the next about words that his daughter had used as a child for a period, one about poop and being but being an arsehole, and finally a poem for all in the world to take stock of – basically an inspirational poem directed at humanity. And I am totally doing him an injustice by summing it up the way I just did. Each poem had layers of complexity, interchanging rhythms, and much honesty and sincerity. It was a beautiful and a deeply inspiring half an hour, and a very lovely man. It made me feel incredibly privileged to be here. It inspired me to make art.

The quadrangle at Verde Valley School

Following the performance I wandered around in a half daze, floating at the thought of the words that I had just consumed. I moved in and out of a few studios of other artists work. In particular I was taken by the work of Melissa Wyman and her collaborative combative drawing. Her performative work deals with the body in the process of defense. The marks were beautiful as was the video she had showing various performances she had undertaken.

The extraordinary poet Christopher Johnson in action Ceramics kilns, great outlook The beautiful paper makers in action Ian Frazier performing out front of the chapel

The sun was setting about now so I walked over and said hello to the paper making people. They were busy making paper out of a different fiber from that of last night – it was black, they showed me some paper made a few days ago made out of horse manure fibers with an image of Donald Trump, an apt metaphor they were explaining to me. They have a pretty cool set up and are working at it all day and most of the night. One of them had bought in a press, a bespoke hydraulic press, which is extraordinary in its set up. My next stop was up to the chapel for Ian’s performance. As I neared I could hear the sound of saxophone, which got louder and louder upon approach. He was playing on the stairs and the serene sounds drifted across the valley. There was about a dozen or so people listening. After a few tracks, in a light but punchy jazzy vein, he moved into the chapel and started to play the tracks that he’d been working on since being at the colony. The resonance of sound in the chapel was magical. Deep and rich and Ian played a variety of instruments. I stayed for about 3-4 songs before wandering off back down to the main part of the campus, just to see what else was going on. I went into Julie the kiwi artists’ studio but she had just finished a presentation. So I walked up to the dining room, had a cup of tea, bumped into Carol who then golf-carted me back up to the chapel where we caught the final moments of Ian’s performance.

Looking up towards the chapel

It was dark by now and Ian was finishing off his performance. Since he arrived on residency he has completed demoing 11 songs for his new album and this was probably the first performance of most of the songs. Following Ian another artist Courtney was scheduled to show some work in progress, but because it was so hot the projector that she was planning to use kept switching off. Someone grabbed a fan and the filter was taken out and cleaned and about 45 minutes later we were back in the chapel looking and listening to her 3D artwork – yes she gave us all 3D glasses as we entered. After 10-15 minutes she stopped and another artist, Anqwenique, got up and played us a new song that she had recorded whilst being on residency. She’s trained in classical voice and the three-minute recorded piece was a layering of harmonies that was intensely peaceful and so very very beautiful to listen to. After the track she explained that she had never recorded like this before and that it had felt incredibly strange for her to work in this way. Then, she belted out a classical version of Summertime that quite simply took my head right off. In seemed to me that the chapel was purpose made for her as the sound resonating was majestic. Her powerful voice singing one of the all time great tracks was something special to behold. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck were upright.

And the sun goes down over the Verde Valley School

By now it was about 11pm, I made the walk back to my dorm room in the dark, thinking through the scope of the day. This was an action packed full-on day 1. If I felt a little anxious this morning upon waking up in a foreign part of the world, well right now at this very moment before rolling up into a ball and going to bed I felt incredibly inspired, I felt touched by the work shared from so many great artists. I felt ready to start thinking through what I need to do and get started here on developing my own work in the ways that I’m seeking to but also to take some risk.

The magnificent Napoleon rock from the Verde Valley School