The Tradition of Collecting: American Fairies

Essay and photographs by Elizabeth Kirwin

[Jonathan]Williams continues to find the “high” hidden in the “low.” Testimony to his brilliance, wit, and ability to appreciate is this from a memorial to a Highlands friend Virginia Randall Wilcox (known as “Ted” to her friends): “Even a few weeks ago, with hardly any voice left and sadly confined to a wheelchair, Ted looked exactly like Queen Elizabeth the First of England, ready to read the riot act at one and all: NO FOOLISHNESS! Get on with the business of leading your life. George Bernard Shaw defined a lady or a gentleman as someone who treated everyone the same. I’ve known miles of snobs and people convinced they are better than you and me, but I have met few ladies and gentlemen. Ted was one of the first.”

Jeffery Beam, Oyster Boy Review 14

photo: Jonathan Williams and CAConrad

I will always remember my first trip to Asheville, North Carolina, where I presently live and work. It was August of 2000 when I swung through this sleepy little southern town at the crossroads between the Appalachian and Smokey Mountains. My longtime friend and fellow poet, CAConrad, was with me, and we were on our way to the Highlands to visit his publisher, Jonathan Williams. CAConrad is the author of Deviant Propulsion, a book of in-your-face counter establishment rants that make my hair stand on end. Deviant Propulsion was just published this year, by Soft Skull Press. We were visiting Jonathan Williams, founder of The Jargon Society, the eclectic and highly respected press which published Robert Creeley and Mina Loy, among a long list of others. Conrad needed to speak to Jonathan about his other book of poems: Frank.

photo: An original piece by Georgia Blizzard.

Conrad and I were given separate sleeping accommodations in Jonathan’s basement. The basement was a studio space where Jonathan’s partner, Tom Meyer worked. In the basement was housed one of the most incredible collections of American folk art I’ve ever seen outside of a museum setting. Jonathan had early original paintings by Howard Finster. He had some swamp wood art he acquired from a back woods artist, some original pottery by Georgia Blizzard, and a whole family of ‘devils’ carved from wood and delicately painted.

photo: The ‘devil family’ by Carl McKenzie (1905-1998) Nada, KY

The devil family kept me up long into the wee hours of the morning. They were sitting on a circular mirror on the bedside table while it was light. As soon as the lights went out, I swear they were keening. Conrad was as terrified as I was to put out the light. In the morning I woke wondering how in the world Jonathan ever acquired this unique collection of American treasures.

Scaly Mountain is the home of now deceased Jonathan Williams. His longtime partner, Tom Meyer, resides at Scaly Mountain and keeps the Black Mountain College artistic movement aflame.

Over a hardy and excellent breakfast, which Tom cooked for all of us, I received the answer to my unspoken question. Jonathan told us his book, Blackbird Dust, was about to be published by Turtle Point Press. He explained that the book documented some of his “collecting trips” in the South, with other artist friends. Basically, three or four of them would pile into a car and ride some dusty roads into nowhere to locate an artist — who was producing incredible work.

photo: Swamp wood people by Ralph Griffin (1925-1992) Girard, GA

In some cases, there was no indoor plumbing, or just a wood stove for heat. Oftentimes the artist would be barely making it. So when Jonathan arrived and made an offer, he was able to acquire the art at a fair price, but inexpensively by today’s terms.

Jonathan Williams helped the artists survive by paying them for their work. He became a collector of outsider art, now coveted by museums, long before the term was coined, and long before the word was fashionable.

photo: CAConrad sits in front of a painting by Howard Finster, who was once a Southern minister, now a celebrated ‘outsider artist.’

I had attended a show of “Outsider Art” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art several years previously. I remember being thoroughly annoyed with the term itself, which is meant to distinguish art school trained from self-taught artists. This distinction is divisive, and really centers around the issue of class. Many artists, especially in the South, have learned their craft from family members who have taught the skill to them and others over the generations. Some are naturally gifted artists who chose to develop themselves over time, outside the frey of artistic and academic convention. I will always object to the term outsider art because it divides artists. It does not unite them.

My introduction to the idea of collecting came to me in a very real, tangible way, through an artist I greatly admire now. Jonathan Williams’ fine art photographs of Black Mountain artists were recently displayed in Asheville. Even in the 1950s, Jonathan was collecting – artists and their work – with the camera, one of his many passions. His photographic portraits document an important time in artistic movements in the twentieth century in the United States. While the Beat movement was underway and folk music was gaining in popularity, the Black Mountain School helped to define a different paradigm for all of the arts. This artistic aesthetic was deliberately opposed to traditional academic means of development, and leaned towards collaborations with other artists and self-instruction as a means of cultivating any art or craft.

Asheville, Part 2, Peggy Seeger

After many subsequent trips to the Asheville area to indulge myself in two of my favorite pastimes, camping and hiking, I decided to leave the Virginia coast and move to Asheville, North Carolina. When I first arrived in September of 2002, I found the art scene to be stimulating. Many of my tribe– the faeries, had taken up residence in this quirky little mountain town where hippies, lesbians, and hillbillies shared similar visions of growing their own organic food, low rent rural housing, and more time for artistic and natural pleasures.

In November of 2003, a corporate client left my writing business, so had had to I take a small bookkeeping job to make it. I began working once a week for Peggy Seeger, the sister of Pete Seeger, an acclaimed musician who writes and sings traditional music. I was clueless about the Seeger family history when I began my stint with numbers. Numbers and language are located in separate parts of my brain, not easily mixed.

Bookkeeping for Seeger was a difficult job. It turned out to be a hard year for me and for Peggy Seeger. On a hot afternoon, it was easier to listen to some of Peggy’s stories rather than balancing all of her accounts. Stories about Peggy’s family made dancing with numbers a little easier. Her stories also reminded me of my childhood. I was very close to one of my Irish Grandmothers, Estelle Kevlin Mackie. In her house, I was sheltered from the excessive testosterone, teasing, and manipulations of my three brothers. She was the only person in my family who ever brought music into our house. My grandmother played Irish folk music on the piano, or sometimes she collaborated with my Uncle, who played the washboard with thimbles. We all sang with her, or she was cross with us. Peggy felt very much the same about music it was an element that brought family and friends together.

I was intrigued by the fact that Peggy’s father was Charles Louis Seeger, a pioneering ethnomusicologist with the University of California. Her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was a composer and a teacher. Charles Seeger worked closely with Alan Lomax in the early years of collecting, recording and cataloguing American folk music. I observed a similar influence in Peggy Seeger’s own work. Once again, the idea of “collecting” songs (from the South) was before me, larger than life. This time it was a ‘quintessentially hip grandma’ giving me lessons, in a somewhat Americanized British accent.

I actually prefer to learn in this way, through direct transmission of knowledge and experience, rather than traditional means. Peggy told me many things, especially about her deceased husband Ewan MacColl. She misses him a great deal, not just because of their relationship as partners and parents, but also because of the creative collaboration that was at the core of their marriage. Peggy gave me recordings of her work, and she introduced me to the Radio Ballads. One evening in the spring of 2005 she even gave me some insight into her creative process of collecting people’s stories and turning them into ballads or songs. During this time she was writing “The Ballad of Jimmy Massey” about a Marine who refused his commanding officer’s orders in Iraq and was discharged. She said she visited his home in Western North Carolina and interviewed him for 3-4 hours. She derived her ballad of his experience from this information she ‘collected.’

On hot summer days when Peggy’s house was quiet and vacant, I grew bored with the bills and bank accounts and I snuck into the storage room behind the desk and leafed through some of her publicity and photo albums. I tried to imagine Peggy and her husband Ewan traveling down some blue highway in England, kicking up dust somewhere, in search of music, narratives, and characters. They did just that when they put together the Radio Ballads for BBC radio in the 1960s, when they documented the lives of gypsies, miners and more and wove lyrical and musical ballads throughout their stories. What an adventuresome pair. I continued my research on “collecting” by reading the snippets of information that came across the desk and poking around in other places.

I abruptly left the bookkeeping business, and Peggy’s employment, in late summer of 2005, when my business transitioned into a web site promotion company and the cash began to flow again. Peggy moved to Boston to begin a new set of stories, and to teach at Harvard University.

Lately, I’ve been musing about my own life, and the way my creative work merges with my spirituality, sexuality, social and professional life. On a cool morning in May on my back porch, Leokas Sword Hand and I hatched a plan to start documenting and collecting stories from the fairy community and publish the audio and video podcasts on the Web. Leokas Sword Hand is an audio and video producer and musical composer, so ours is the perfect creative match. It seemed like a neat idea, to cruise those back roads and find those out of the way places where fairies live, worship and gather. I am familiar with the haunts of fairies in the rural south. Because I am so active in the fairy community, I can even scare up a fairie or two in cities like Philadelphia, New York, and San Franciso.

Like most artists, I’m now reflecting upon how I actually arrived at my decision to embark on such a huge project as building out FairiesInAmerica.com with a collective of others. I want to give a nod to my predecessors, Jonathan Williams and Peggy Seeger, who are both my elders and artists I admire. In the fairie tradition, our elders are always worthy of honor and respect, not just because of their age, but because they convey to us important knowledge verbally, which we might not receive anywhere else. For this, I’d like to send out a heartfelt thank you to both.

FairiesInAmerica.com is produced by a collective of individuals who identify as American fairies. This website will be a space where we will ‘collect’ images, writings, art, music, performance and more about the contemporary fairy movement in America in multi media formats, giving new insight into art, culture, gender identity, sexual practices and spirituality from a fresh angle. Personally, I am tired of the over worn and in my opinion depleted right wing Christian version of worship that seems to monopolize the conversation on religion and spiritual practices in this country.

Fairies are highly creative beings, intelligent, warm, loving, and natural performers. There are other alternatives to the bland and often predictable rhetoric of these restrictive fundamentalist faith based communities. The fairy way is one of them.

Fairies are far more interesting and colorful than fundamentalists. We do not believe in the ‘devil.’ Our rituals are tied to the eightfold wheel of the year that agrarian cultures used to observe, until Christian laws forbid them. In the United States, we do not live under such restrictive legal systems, and if challenged, we are prepared to defend our rights to worship. Fairies believe in individual and group contact with our gods and goddesses, and we do not rely upon high priests or priestesses to arrive at a higher spiritual place. Our magic, and the way we live, is non-hierarchical.

The fairies’ tribal values need to be spoken about, and our cooperative attitude towards each other needs to be highlighted. The truth is, we have been secretive about our community and our practices for too long. Now is the time to come out of the fog and the darkness and give others who may be interested in learning about our ways a portal into fairy tribal life.

The producers of fairiesinamerica.com agree that ritual and other sacred practices will not be recorded. Yet there are so many other aspects to the fairy faith and the fairy community that we can document which will inspire and illuminate others. I want to thank all of the fairies who have personally worked with me, but especially Princess Perfect, Yo, and our fabulous web development team. With the help of the tribe we will make this website a living artistic project that authentically reflects the fairy way.

In Memorium: Jonathan Williams

Jonathan Williams passed into the other world on March 16, 2008. He will be sorely missed by many artists. His influence is felt far and wide, mainly because his taste in art was based on the quality of ideas and execution of them in various forms. Jonathan Williams was recently honored at the 75th Anniversary Celebration of Black Mountain College, held at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina. His contemporaries, including Michael Rumaker and neighbor Thomas Rain Crow, as well as Tom Meyer, and many others gave short readings from prose and poetry in his honor.

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