"Things get interesting when you pay attention" - Photographer David Vestal

Collegeville
I wrote in my earlier post about a passing comment from renowned photographer David Vestal. I tried, probably a little too hastily, to connect it to the front-yard veggie garden prosecution in Michigan, so I'll address the comment here without attaching it to the other story.

I am in Collegeville, Minnesota at a Collegeville Institute writer's workshop located on the campus of St. John's University, a Benedictine-led institution. It's a wonderfully creative environment as evidenced by the entrance to the Abbey Church pictured above. The community of Benedictine monks at the heart of the campus have woven their appreciation for the arts, their commitment to stability in a place, and their concern for environmental sustainability (all integral expressions of their faith) into a beautiful community of practice. The campus buildings have been constructed from locally sourced materials. For example, the wooden pews in the church come from trees harvested in the nearby forest which the monks aged, milled, and hand-crafted. The red bricks from the original buildings on the campus were made from local clay that was mixed, shaped, and fired by the monks.

The campus has a series of "houses" for different artisinal endeaveors including the Carpentry House appropriately covered and hand-hewn wood siding and the Pottery House, which I had the privilege of visiting yesterday. In the afternoon they give tours of the Pottery House and Richard Bresnahan, the artist in residence, hosts a traditional Japanese tea. On the tour I learned that the clay they use is made from local soil salvaged from a nearby freeway project. The glazes are made from locally sourced plant material which colors the ceramics based on the minerals the various plants draw from the soil. They get their fuel for the wood-fired kiln from deadfall trees in the local forests. The water used for processing the clay is gray water from campus operations.

Bresnahan describes their approach as follows:

The environment, the clay and the people involved are treated with the same reverence as the object; if they are not, then the final object falls short of true art.

In a modern culture of disconnected objects (people included), the Pottery House is a wonderfully subversive witness to a more connected, sustainable and reverent approach to art and life - where every step of the journey to creation is more than just a means to an end. Bresnahan is practicing in the world of art and pottery what I have been trying to say we need to seek after in the world of food and agriculture. 

The most delightful part of my brief sojourn in the Pottery House was an encounter with renowned New York photographer, David Vestal, who just happened to be passing through town and stopped by to join the daily ritual of afternoon tea. After a little tour I joined in the circle of artists and students who were gathered around a boiling pot of green tea. I happened to sit next to Mr. Vestal and when he was introduced as a "famous photographer" I felt the butterflies of a Justin Bieber groupie getting a backstage pass at the concert. I am an avid amateur photographer so I was eager to hear from one of the masters.

At one point in the conversation I asked him what he likes to take pictures of and he said, "Whatever happens to catch my attention." He went on to talk about the art of photography as paying attention and explained, "Things get interesting when you pay attention." 

In many ways his comment sums up what I am up to on this blog and in my book. When we pay attention to things, especially where our food comes from, things get interesting. There is fascinating stuff going on in our neighborhoods and communities and all it takes is a little paying attention to unearth them. The Pottery House is saying the same thing - pay attention to the whole process from soil to fire to tea cup, and things get interesting. If we only pay attention to the tea cup it's not so interesting.

My time in the Pottery House has got me wondering what it looks like to walk in our communities with artist's eyes that pay attention.