The sound of the brass meditation singing bowl is the signal for 18 students and five staffers to gather for meditation at the morning’s writing circle at Airy Knoll Farm Art Class.
Elizabeth Ross is the creative behind the eight-day program, and she’s no newcomer: She’s been bringing students to her family farm for 20 years for an intensive study in literature, writing and art.
Ross was the first art instructor at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC). Now retired, she’s an adjunct visual arts instructor and plans to continue the summer program on the 520-acre property, in western Virginia.
“I have just a part of a family farm,” Ross said. “It’s been in the family since 1766. It’s very precious to us. It’s a very open space where you see the clouds, you see the sky, you see the sunset, you see the sunrise. You experience the rain and the sun. You experience being down-to-earth.”
Airy Knoll’s daily schedule is centered around a specific theme and includes yoga, writing, readings by a visiting poet, demonstrations by a visiting artist, studio time and an evening campfire. Students are expected to have a completed piece of artwork to exhibit in the fall or winter. Works from this summer’s theme, “Cross-Pollination,” will be featured Oct. 22 through Dec. 4 at CPCC’s Pease Gallery. It will be the gallery’s last exhibition before it’s demolished and replaced.
Students take interest for different reasons. Other faculty members refer talented CPCC students, who want to pursue a four-year degree, to Ross. Some students view the week as an opportunity to develop a portfolio for graduate school applications. Professionals working in the arts attend for enrichment and development – a way to build excitement and push them in their field.
Other participants are younger and unsure of their future. “They don’t know what their direction is,” Ross said. “They need to find it out by the experimentation of different media and different thoughts and living within a community that spurs them on.”
Developing a sense of self
Toby Shearer is a digital media specialist in the College of Art and Architecture at UNC Charlotte. He attended Airy Knoll in 2005 and 2006, and most recently in 2014 and 2015. During his first times there, Shearer, 37, was studying painting and art under Ross at CPCC. He was trying to find his voice within painting but was growing frustrated.
“The farm is an incredibly special place,” he said. “It seems really simple from the outside, but I can’t really overstate how important it can be to a developing artist to find a place of true peace and acceptance and encouragement.”
Going to Airy Knoll exposed him to other possibilities, such as woodworking, making prints, linocut and video and filmmaking.
Shearer realized he could apply the visual aesthetics of painting to making videos and films – it was just a different medium. He finished his associate degree in fine arts at CPCC, then attended UNC Greensboro for its media studies program, graduating in 2011. Until recently, he was a digital media producer at Charlotte Ballet.
“My time at the farm was several years ago, and then I was very much searching for my path and for my identity,” Shearer said. “I would pray for things like understanding who I was, or finding my place in the world, which ultimately has all come together.”
Equally important to developing art and literary skills, according to Ross, are the trusting relationships that form during the class. She observes it happening throughout the week – friendships develop, and group members begin to care about one another. Aleah Svancarek is a junior in the Department of Art + Design at N.C. State. Svancarek, 19, attended Airy Knoll in 2017 and 2018. The sense of belonging she developed in her time at the farm increased her confidence.
“Before Airy Knoll, I didn’t feel like I was being true to myself,” Svancarek said. “I was surrounded by people who didn’t engage me or inspire me or motivate me in that artistic set. Going to the farm, meeting all these incredible people, it was just shocking to think I could be in that group.”
As the summer progressed, Svancarek’s uncertainty turned to confidence and a sense of belonging. Most significant to her was the time spent with the women in the class, especially Ross. “Elizabeth is unstoppable,” Svancarek said. “She radiates motivation and excitement. It’s really inspiring and makes you want to get up and get started.”
Svancarek’s work for “Cross-Pollination” was inspired by Ross’s comment about a dead flower found in the barn: “What’s left of a wild rose.” That flower is embedded in the layered collage work Svancarek created at the farm.
For Shearer, it was sitting around the late night campfires, sharing stories. “Beyond the skills I learned from the visiting artists or the work that I created while I was there, that sense of endearing friendship and community is what I have brought back with me from the hills of Virginia and what I remember most fondly, especially when that artistic doubt creeps back in.”
Activities during the week, some with Quaker and Buddhist roots, have developed, organically, over time, Ross said. The writing circle is the first activity of the day – and sacrosanct in Ross’s eyes. “They must be ready to listen and write.”
Students write a response in their journals to a poem or passage read at morning circle. Although they can choose not to read it aloud to the group, most do.
Often, it’s a thought or feeling they’ve never expressed, , she said, and it can be an emotional experience for the individual as well as the group. Ross has seen how this help students learn to trust other people. “It’s understood that you don’t take it out of the circle,” Ross said. “It’s understood that what is here is ours. They become a supportive unit.”
After morning circle, students write a message to the universe. They toss it into The Universal Bowl, a worn wooden bread bowl, which sits in the middle of the morning’s writing circle. “The letters to the universe can really be anything, a prayer, a wish, a fear, a joke, an apology,” Svancarek said.
Each message is read aloud anonymously, then burned in the evening’s campfire.
“I always remember the bowl and the ‘ritual’ around the fire having the same solemnity that you find in church. It has a celebratory reverence. I think whenever you get a bunch of artists together, with all of our self-doubt and solitude and ambition and curiosity, you have to also find those release valves; someplace for all of those energies to escape into. The Universal Bowl is exactly that release.”
One morning, Svancarek wrote, “Stare into someone’s eyes, don’t laugh, try not to feel silly, just see,” and threw it into The Universe Bowl.
She and her best friend had been trying to stare at each other without laughing and, after failed attempts, succeeded.
“We didn’t intend for it be anything meaningful,” yet it turned into a “really beautiful moment of genuine connection,” she said.
“The farm has a way of turning ordinary things into something more.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.