New Southerner, January/February 2006
BY SARA JENKINS
On top of a ridge in western North Carolina’s Haywood County, Russell Smith mowed the meadow next to his house. It was early afternoon on New Year’s Eve, but the freshly cut grass carried the fragrance of spring. Clouds were moving in from points west. So was Dave Etheridge. With a load of 48 ironing boards to install on the hillside below the Smiths’ deck.
The ironing boards, long since retired from active duty and stripped down to bare metal frames, constitute the “elk herd” that figured prominently in a show of Dave’s art at the Haywood Arts Repertory Theater (HART) gallery in nearby Waynesville. The herd had stood with droll dignity on a slope beyond the theater entrance, spotlit by night and identified with a small label next to the box office:
As the herd migrates to its winter feeding grounds,
Great Smoky Mountain National Park officials report
experimental ironing board release a success.
The ironing boards are, quite simply, a visual joke. They are an assemblage of almost identical objects, more or less the shape of ruminant animals in having a horizontal body supported by four “legs,” one end of the body blunt, the other extending beyond the legs and tapered in a way that signifies “head” not “tail.” And with 48 of them clustered loosely on a grassy field and facing the same direction, the sense of “herd” is undeniable.
Dave Etheridge’s art employs the humblest of found materials, assembled according to a flash of intuition. Magic happens in the simple juxtaposition of ordinary objects: as art, those objects refract social, cultural, historical, ecological and mythic dimensions in one particular expression of Indra’s net, the symbolic interconnectedness of all.
After the HART show, Dave folded up the ironing boards and transported them with the rest of his art works back to his Swain County home. He could hardly have guessed that his elk herd would migrate back to Haywood County, to the home of Russell and Barbara Bates Smith—to that meadow Russell was mowing on New Year’s Day.
Barbara had fallen in love with Dave’s art when she saw it in the HART gallery at the opening night of “Arcadia,” one of Tom Stoppard’s best-loved plays. An actress herself, Barbara knew Kane Clawson, who played a leading role in “Arcadia,” and who, Barbara discovered, is married to Dave Etheridge. After the performance Barbara talked with Kane and Dave about the ironing board elks. At home she couldn’t quit thinking about them. She envisioned the herd in the meadow beyond her living room window.
Barbara called Dave. He hadn’t intended to sell the ironing boards. But he needed a new banjo, and for the price of the one he wanted, he said, Barbara and Russell could have the herd, installed.
The Smiths’ house on Runaway Ridge, near Crabtree Gap, is surrounded by “found art”: rusty farm implements and tractor parts, wooden whirlygigs and whammydiddles, weathervanes, propellers, wheels of many sorts and sizes, a mobile featuring dangling hub caps. The aesthetic is at once whimsical, ironic and nostalgic.
Dave’s art is informed by those very qualities, the whimsy sharpened by a wicked sense of humor and, at times, a piercing sense of loss. The HART show—titled “Garbage Collection,” with “Hillbilly Salvage Co.” given as the artist—featured works assembled from worn-out rocking chairs, old glass jars and broken clay pots, plastic Easter eggs, defunct metal mailboxes, aluminum cans, a Barbie doll, buttons and bottle caps. Raw materials, we might call them, except that, having been altered by time and exposure, use and abuse, they seem anything but raw.
Barbara and Russell Smith are collectors in much the same way Dave Etheridge is an artist. They gather around them objects they enjoy, some made by artists, many not, just as Dave makes art simply because he enjoys it. In both cases, there is a doing purely for the joy of doing.
When the ironing boards were displayed at HART, local newspapers carried stories about the real experimental elk herd. Part of the herd had migrated from the area of the National Park where they were initially released to another spot near the Cherokee Indian reservation.
“Did you hear?” people would say. “The elk have moved over to Cherokee.”
People love the elk, even without seeing them. People who might disagree on almost anything else share a feeling for the elk that is part proprietary, part awe: the elk are “ours,” a source of local pride. Yet in what is greatest about the elk, their grandeur, their otherness (not to mention their origins: they were transplanted from western Kentucky) of course they are not ours at all. People’s interest in them perhaps lies in their function as symbols, carriers of meanings that lie unspoken in our hearts. In the weighty matters of population migration, return to homeland, species welfare and survival, for example, there’s a subtle symbolic rightness in the elk heading over to Cherokee.
In our claims on the land, however, we face off against one another. The Eastern Band of Cherokee have bargained with the Park Service for a land swap. One of their members, Daniel Walkingstick, has occupied a tract he claims is legally owned by his family. Many mountaineers vote against zoning ordinances, which they see as favoring development by outsiders and restricting their own enterprises and autonomy. The retirees build massive second homes on mountaintops, gentrifying—some say despoiling—beloved wilderness. Letters in local papers from the “natives” and the newcomers bitterly decry the selfishness of the other, until some letter-writer raises the subject of the original inhabitants, the Cherokee, whereupon the acrimony subsides into chastened silence.
Who belongs here?
The elk wander across this land as the Cherokee did, guided by season and food sources. No boundaries.
For Dave and Kane, any romanticized ideal of Native Americans has been obliterated by harsh reality. They work in outdoor education, and a good number of their students are Cherokee teenagers in a substance-abuse program. These are children of layer upon layer of abuse: the present poverty, malnutrition and violence, and the past generations of unspeakable loss. After one of the outdoor programs, on the shore of Fontana Lake, Kane and Dave found a readymade assemblage that became, perhaps, the most wrenching work in the HART show. A baby stroller full of empty beer cans with a tiny perfume bottle on top, its label read, “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.”
Dave, Kane and I rode out to take a look at the real elk a few months after the HART show. The herd is most often seen in the Cataloochee Valley’s grassy stretches on the eastern end of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. That morning, however, the elk must have been in the woods surrounding the open fields; we were not honored with even a glimpse.
Still, Cataloochee is almost palpably haunted, I want to say, not only by the wild animal presence but also by the memory of the people who lived there until a couple of generations ago. Nestled among 6,000-foot peaks, the valley was home to the largest and most prosperous community in the area that is now national park. Of the 200 or so buildings there in 1900, only a few remain.
Dave told me about meeting a woman who had grown up in one of those buildings, a starkly handsome farmhouse expanded from a one-room log cabin. Hearing the woman describe her life there, he reconsidered his opinion about preserving wilderness as a matter of principle. What about the people who were displaced, whose land was taken? A staunch preservationist position suddenly seemed insensitive to the human dimension. On the other hand, the woman who had grown up in Cataloochee felt that the Park Service might as well have taken the land, because the few people still living there were unable to maintain it.
I asked Dave how he came to collect the ironing boards that became the elk herd. Rummaging through junkyards, thrift stores and rural dumps, he told me, he saw so many discarded ironing boards that he thought, These should be saved. As he said those words, Kane laughed; I could imagine she’d heard them many times as Dave arrived home with still more stuff. But in my mind the words took on a broader resonance. These should be saved: these trees, these rivers, these farms, these buildings, these towns, these main streets, these family businesses, these local products, these ways of being in the world.
Another thing Dave says strikes me as shedding light on this matter of salvage. Asked what an art work means, he asks in return, “What does it mean to you?” Wouldn’t it be interesting, illuminating, opinion-changing, perhaps, to hear from every person with any connection to a piece of wilderness that is slated for development or destruction, What does it mean to you?
Dave and Kane live on Needmore Road, which runs through the Needmore tract, 4,600 acres the power company turned over to developers a few years ago. The Little Tennessee River flows through the tract. It is the area’s only major river to contain all the species originally found when it was first studied, including half of North Carolina’s native freshwater fish species and the greatest diversity of freshwater mussels. The river is known as the Noah’s Ark of the Blue Ridge mountains.
After several years of debate about developing the Needmore tract, a coalition of conservation organizations, government agencies, rural residents and local sportsmen reached a consensus that it should be maintained to both protect biological resources and support the rural communities’ traditional use of the land. The Nature Conservancy worked with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee to raise funds to purchase the tract, which secures a forest corridor between two mountain ranges for black bears and other migrating wildlife.
The Needmore story is good news. The coalition drew people from across the political spectrum: from government agencies to farmers, from radical green types to members of the National Rifle Association and the locally influential coonhunters’ club—people who otherwise have little in common but antagonism. I like to think that they arrived at common ground through the impulses represented in the question, What does it mean to you?, and the assertion, This should be saved.
For almost 100 years, American and European artists have made art from ordinary manufactured objects, the cast-offs of contemporary culture. Our era is characterized by rapid rates of change and an insatiable thirst for the new. Materials showing wear and deterioration reveal what we wish to deny, the passage of time, the fundamental impermanence of our world—of us, really.
Several of Dave’s works from the HART show allude to impermanence through starkly personal and emotional content. A pair of shovel blades entwined by barbed wire and entitled “My Best Friend Is Dead, May 5, 1996” stabs at the heart. “A Broken Rake, a Cheese Grater, and a Piece of an F-15” evokes dark, violent overtones. Some pieces possess a simple but wonderful wit, like the three milk crates, one made of wood, one of wire, one of red plastic, labeled “Milk Crates 1900-2000, An Incomplete Retrospective.” A tricycle mounted on the wall with one wheel dangling, entitled “The End of Innocence/You Pick the Date,” moved one woman to tears and outraged another.
A broken wheel as the end of innocence: what an evocative symbol for our time. For are we not all implicated in the degradation—the increasingly undeniable brokenness—of our natural environment? Who can claim innocence? Those among us who do not ride in cars, fly in planes, consume mass-produced goods, control the air temperature in spaces where we live and work.
And yet, might not the very acknowledgement of our complicity serve to bring us together? We are one in our culpability, just as we are in the archetypal yearning for a pristine Arcadian ideal, whether it ever existed as we imagine it.
It was no accident that “Garbage Collection” was displayed in conjunction with the play “Arcadia.” The juxtaposition was the idea of Anna Wimberly Goddard, then in her third year chairing the gallery committee at HART. Anna is keenly sensitive to the interplay of visual art and theater, how each can complement and illuminate the other. “Art and theater make us think,” she says, describing “Arcadia” as a “convoluted treasure, rich with meanings that continue to unfold in us long after the play is over.” Dave’s art touches viewers in much the same way. Think of the levels of meaning in the title alone: Garbage Collection by Hillbilly Salvage Co.
As for the play, “Arcadian” refers to an ideal of pastoral simplicity and harmony. Arcadia was an isolated region of ancient Greece where poets and artists lived a peaceful life likened to that of the gods. A 17th century painting by Nicolas Poussin shows Arcadian shepherds somberly contemplating a tomb on which is inscribed Et in Arcadia Ego, “I am even in Arcadia,” meaning that even in that idyllic setting, death is inescapable. Poussin’s landscapes were immensely influential a few generations later in the English garden design of the early 19th century—which is when Stoppard’s “Arcadia” begins. And, coincidentally, when the Eastern elk were being hunted to extinction in North Carolina.
Moving back and forth between the early 19th century and the 20th—the era marking the culmination of the scientific life view—the play “Arcadia” deals with how time alters a landscape and, significantly, how what we think we know changes through time. In architecture and landscape design, for example, references to Greek and Roman styles had long been considered morally elevating. As suggested in the play, many an English squire tore up a piece of the countryside to enhance his estate by constructing tumbled-down temple “ruins” and, at the other end of the picturesque spectrum, a faux hovel to house a real hermit. A century later, such artifice was considered the opposite of elevating. Now another century has passed, and nothing seems quite so black and white. Even what we “know” shifts and alters with the passing of time.
“Arcadia” revolves around found objects, the meanings we attach to them and the inevitable degradation of physical systems, or entropy. In the world of endless improvement made possible by modern technology, entropy is the dark countermovement we wish to ignore—comparable to the presence of death even in the ideal setting of Arcadia.
But as one character states in Stoppard’s play, ultimately nothing is lost: We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.
The human spirit lives on outside time, overriding the inexorable processes of living and dying that govern material existence. Similarly, Dave Etheridge’s art is an immediate expression of what persists in spite of time, through the agency of human intelligence and artistry—and how, in the end, nothing is lost.
On Runaway Ridge, Russell Smith says what he likes best about the elk is how they move uphill and disappear around the corner of the house, so you can’t see exactly where they’re headed. A physician and a deacon in the Episcopal church, he knows whereof he speaks. I hear in his words an appreciative acceptance of uncertainty, of life as it is, the inevitable blurring away of today’s forms into … we know not what tomorrow. Into something, though—because nothing is lost. Death is not the last word on life.
The ironing-board elk herd withstood the winter snows and record-breaking spring rains. Six months after they were installed on Runaway Ridge, the meadow had grown up around them. Barbara expected them to rust, but she hadn’t thought of them standing deep in grass. Russell did; he’s the one who mows.
This year, more new houses will be built on old mountaintops. Old houses will be bulldozed to make room for strip malls. Four-lane highways will divide communities, and some will be obliterated. There will be ongoing losses to natural causes and to careless destruction: loss of artifacts, ways of living, and habitats, human and otherwise. We ourselves will be marked by time and change.
When I think of the ironing-board elk herd on Runaway Ridge, what goes through my mind is this: Here we are—all of us, all together—in the midst of change, knowing not what lies ahead, just around that corner of the house, that curve of the earth we can almost see from Runaway Ridge.
Running with ideas: Etheridge’s pant legs become art
When artist Dave Etheridge created cutoff shorts from a pair of old blue jeans, he couldn’t bring himself to throw away the legs. He wondered what other people did with the severed denim. After finding a pair in a dumpster, he started collecting what eventually amounted to thousands of denim pant-legs.
That’s how Etheridge’s installation “Amputations” took shape. The work consists of approximately 1,000 jean legs attached with clothespins to a 12-foot-high chain-link fence surrounding a basketball court.
“Amputations” appeared at the Caldwell Arts Council Sculpture Celebration in Lenoir, N.C., where it won a judge’s merit award. The previous year, Etheridge received a judge’s merit award for “The Ironing Board Herd,” an assemblage of 70 discarded ironing boards displayed to appear as an elk herd (see related essay, “The Elk on Runaway Ridge: Who Doesn’t Belong Here?” in Dog-Eared).
The ironing board elk herd was originally displayed in a field next to the Haywood Arts Repertory Theater in Waynesville, N.C.
The blue jean legs were displayed in a different configuration in the same field. The exhibit drew mixed reactions, with most viewers interpreting the work as symbolic of the amputations performed on American soldiers wounded in the Iraq war.
Etheridge doesn’t think artists should explain their work, but should let people glean what they will from it. However, he told The Waynesville Mountaineer (Oct. 13, 2004) that he was proud of the “amputation” interpretation, which makes the piece timely and corresponds with his anti-war sentiment.
“People take this thing and run with it,” he told the Mountaineer. “That is the kind of reaction I want.”
Sara Jenkins is a freelance editor and the author of This Side of Nirvana: Memoirs of a Spiritually Challenged Buddhist. She lives at Lake Junaluska, N.C.
New Southerner: A Mainstream Magazine of Alternative Thinking
New Southerner is a bimonthly magazine of literary journalism about Southern people, places and issues. We encourage readers to live a more meaningful, self-sufficient life through thought-provoking and instructive articles on good stewardship of our land, conservation of natural resources, neighborliness and support of local communities. We also highlight visual art and literature that show appreciation of these values in Southern culture.