Monday, March 30, 2015

Paradise as Necessity

It would be very hard to stumble across Summerville, Georgia on accident.
And after going there, I'm not sure why anyone would want to.

To be fair, my expectations may have been set a bit high. When I planned a trip down south with Keith about a month ago, I envisioned an idyllic and charming southern experience like something out of The Notebook, or Forrest Gump. My packing reflected this; I jammed my most Daisy Duke-like shorts into a suitcase, expecting the weather to be warm. It wasn't. It was about the same temperature 800 miles north of Georgia in Wisconsin. So much for those Dukes.

Weather aside, there were other reasons why my trip down south wasn't exactly what I expected. I'm sure there are Spanish moss covered houses and charming southern relics that exist somewhere in the state of Georgia (and the other southern states we passed through; Tennessee, Kentucky). But we did not see them. They were highly outnumbered by the nauseating urban sprawl that dominated the majority of the drive. The abandoned barns and rolling hills I expected were replaced with NRA billboards and Chick-Fil-As. Many of the towns looked to us like "Waukeshas of the south" (no, that is not a good thing).

It is fortunate that Keith and I had a particular destination in mind, or I really wouldn't have too many nice things to say about the part of Georgia that we drove through (in fact we mostly cracked a recurring joke about "hill people" throughout the ride, a claim that my southern-born roommate asserts is not too far off track. Yes, we are pretentious northerners). Perhaps the worst town of all was Summerville. I don't think I saw one charming relic whatsoever. Fast food and neon signs dominated the town, an old southern village which claims on its website to have a variety of parks and green spaces, and other cute southern-y railroad things. Websites are bullshit.

When we finally, finally, FINALLY got off the winding mountain road that led us to our denouement, I was almost certain we had made a terrible mistake in coming to this hick town in the middle of nowhere. I'm not trying to be rude, but that's what it was. A hick town with no visible redeeming qualities. In fact its only redeeming quality is basically invisible. Off the main road, down a dirt road, past another road. And there it was. Paradise.

I don't think I have ever been more relieved to reach a destination before this moment. Suddenly everything felt okay. We weren't going to get eaten by hill people. We parked our car, approached the visitors center, and were greeted with warm and welcoming smiles. I always feel relaxed in the presence of art, but this was nirvana.

The grounds were to close in two hours, but we didn't have to rush because we were spending the night. We had rented an "artist-designed cabin in Paradise" from Airbnb for $150 (totally worth it, if you ever decide to go here). We didn't really know what to expect, but after seeing the other options available in Summerville, we were very relieved to have chosen this. We not only got to sleep right across the street from Paradise, but we got keys to the grounds, and were allowed free range of the gardens at night. I think we were both a little bit in awe that we were just handed the keys to one of coolest things we had ever seen.

After a brief tour from a new employee, the staff drove away, and we had it all to ourselves. The only real rule was "lock up the gate at night." The executive director of the gardens, Jordan Poole, gave us a recommendation for a restaurant in town. We considered it for a brief moment but then changed our minds. After seeing the abysmal town of Summerville in comparison to the beautiful gardens, we didn't want to leave, and chose instead to scavenge a dinner from leftover scraps that previous guests had left behind. It was all we needed, because we were in Paradise.

After dinner we were eager to walk through the gardens again. I was delighted that there were two cats, Calvin and his brother Hobbes, running around the grounds (of course there are cats in Paradise). They seemed happy to have us, too. A stream ran through the gardens and tiny fish scurried away in every direction as we tiptoed around the mosaic boardwalk. The white dogwoods blooming in Georgia's early spring blew in the breeze. As the sun went down behind the mountains and the magic hour approached, I felt totally at peace with the world. I forgot where we were. I forgot all about the sprawl, and the fact that we were just in some other boring American neighborhood right across from some boring people in some boring houses who were probably NRA members. I had always envisioned Paradise Gardens to be some extension of a quaint and cozy little town that was already a paradise of its own; the Summerville that Summerville's misleading website depicts. But if that were the case, would Paradise Gardens even exist at all? Would Howard Finster have wanted to change what he saw out his window everyday?

Cat "Calvin" following us around the grounds

The mirror house at the magic hour

Enjoying the gardens after hours

Lit gardens after sunset


Interior of artist-designed cabin (designer Summer Loftin)

From our sunny arrival, to our nighttime explorations, to our morning coffee, we received a more fulfilling experience of the gardens than most people who visit for an afternoon or on a tour usually receive. But looking back on it now, I wish we would have stayed two nights. There's no rush to leave
paradise, go back to reality, and back to the sprawl. Next time I visit, I won't drive the whole way because now I know exactly what lies between here and paradise, and I would prefer to bypass it. I remember a particularly obnoxious billboard in the middle of Indiana: HELL IS REAL. Painted in huge white letters on a black background. Yes, it is. It's called middle America and it is depressing. It's no wonder that people like Howard Finster and other outsider artists create surreal environments for themselves. Howard Finster has been called a "visionary," but that's not really how I see it. Finster was just better at reinterpreting the American landscape than the rest of us are. Paradise isn't some far away place on an island in the middle of the ocean. Paradise is right in our backyards, existing as a necessary means to escape from the American hellscape that surrounds us. 

In other words, Summerville could maybe be beautiful underneath all those neon signs. I'm trying really hard to convince myself of that. 

Monday, March 9, 2015


Anyone who knows me knows that I have had some problems with the way that contemporary, Western feminism presents itself.

This doesn't mean that I don't like women, though. I've got no problem with women. Women are awesome. I'm a woman.

Yesterday happened to be International Women's Day, and I unintentionally happened to have a very woman-filled day.

I woke up to a bright and sunny sky to find my roommate on the porch sporting an eclectic spring outfit. A woman indeed.

Later, I went to the Milwaukee Art Museum to see an exhibition that has been up for about a month called "Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair." The exhibition, which has traveled worldwide since its inception, is a showcase of the key fashion moments that helped to empower black women. Here are some of my favorites from the show:

To be honest, I initially felt a bit uncomfortable wading through the packed exhibit while closely inspecting these stick-thin, black mannequins. If anyone knows the city of Milwaukee, and the blatant racism that plagues it, it felt like less of a celebration of black empowerment and more of an embodiment of the kind of objectification that I hear contemporary feminists discussing on a regular basis. I pointed this out to my friend Jamie who was accompanying me that day (herself a remarkable woman and a soon-to-be mother). She was quick to correct me. Most high fashion is designed for uber-thin models, especially pre-1990. Every model, black or white, was a twig. Until recently, the art form called for stick-thin women, and that's just how it was. To have a mannequin in any other size would have been untrue to the art form. After realizing this, I also noticed the diverse group of people who had come out to see the show. Men, women, children, black people, white people, old people, young people. Once I discovered that photography was allowed in the exhibition I was soon swept up into the profound beauty of the fashion, and found myself snapping shots of the avant-garde ensembles on my iPhone along with black women, white teenagers, and young children. 

I wondered what some of my more feminist friends would have thought of the show. I was mindful of what I have learned in my art history classes about the objectifying "gaze" of men and white audiences. This knowledge didn't seem to apply in this circumstance. This was a show about power, and powerful it was. If anything, the viewer was made to felt intimidated by these strong and poised women perched high on pedestals. Unfortunately, the show was still not as powerful of a statement as the message that the Wisconsin police force is still sending to the public as early as this past week. In a message that says, "Black people are powerless," another black youth was murdered in Madison, and Wisconsin finds itself yet again on the national news looking like a hellacious battleground of racism and backwards political battles. 

We've got a long ways to go.

After I got home from the museum I forced myself to finish a book that I have been reading for a couple of weeks now that has been a difficult read for me for many reasons. The book in question is Naomi Klein's most recent, entitled,  This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. I had brought the book with me on a recent trip to Minneapolis, only to have one of my friends ask me, "Why are you reading that? Don't you know we're screwed?" Indeed. This is why I was afraid to finish. I was terrified to know how this brave author, who recently became a mother in what she calls "the age of extinction" would end the 466-page saga of the battle between our current system of free market capitalism and our damaged Mother Earth. 

Ultimately, the book ends with a note of optimism, although it is faint. I believe that everyone who is alive and able should read this book. As my friend pointed out, there is a hint of masochism in my decision to read it. I could have remained at my current level of ignorance about climate change (despite what everyone already knows- the Inconvenient Truth, the sad stories of dead dolphins, the increasingly deadly hurricanes, etc.). But I owe it to myself, as well as to every other living creature on this planet, to educate myself as much as possible about the climate crisis. Klein's ultimate conclusion: The government is not going to save us from this mess. It is up to us to come together to form a strong grassroots movement to protect ourselves and future generations. We have the power to do it. We just have to do it.

"On one level, the inability of many great social movements to fully realize those parts of their visions that carried the highest price tags can be seen as a cause for inertia or even despair. If they failed in their plans to usher in a more equitable economic system, how can the climate movement hope to succeed? There is, however, another way of looking at this track record: these economic demands - for basic public services that work, for decent housing, for land redistribution - represent nothing less than the unfinished business of the most powerful liberation movements of the past two centuries, from civil rights to feminism to Indigenous sovereignty." -Naomi Klein

Yes. Women.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Artists Against Scott Walker

I've been scouring the web for the best political art, cartoons, and other memorabilia dedicated to exposing the tyranny of Scott Walker. Artists, this is your chance! Continue to speak out against Wisconsin's corrupt governor. Let the rest of the country know what will happen if we elect him to the presidency in 2016.

[source:, shop: brunopress]

[source:, a Madison-area teacher posted some of her students' artwork on her blog]

[source:, screenprint by Milwaukee artist Colin Matthes]

[source:, this is a screenshot from Barbara J. Miner's book This Is What Democracy Looks Like that chronicles the protests in Madison in 2011]

[my roommate Elena Grijalva found this and posted it on her Facebook page]


[from my own sketchbook]

[source: a comment by user "badscience" on]

[source:, user "LOL GOP"]

And, this beautiful article by Paul G. Hayes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that refers to Wisconsin as a "grand natural mansion" and mentions Aldo Leopold amongst others who have fought to conserve the beautiful natural landscape of the state.

If ever you feel alone through all of this, just know that the art I've found is not just made by Wisconsin artists. The rest of the country is watching, too.