Commitment, Community, and Value

“To fashion powerful art is to realize the God within and thus to feel connected with enduring vitality and abundant generosity.” Eric G. Wilson

“I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s; / I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to Create.”   William Blake

Holidays remind me how interesting and important it is to absorb views beyond our daily routines, as wonderful as they might be. Weave in threads of voices, sounds we hear in a day—partners, spouses, children, teachers, colleagues, students, media, wind, horns, geese, roosters, water, machines, other music—with the internal voices of, What day is it? What time? Did I pick up the eggs? Am I late? How cold is it outside? What was I dreaming? That sky is beautiful. I hope X or Y slept well. These streams prompt, spark, prick, awaken our attention.

Anniversaries are also sparklers or milestones to encourage our review and, hopefully, celebration. Incredibly, 2017 is the tenth anniversary year of this General Store. Jeff Barney and Cameron Ratliff , its proprietors and our guiding lights and jugglers, continue to create with their custom color palettes. Approaching a new year always adds sparklers too, especially when the conscious theme of this tenth year is renewal of our physical, soul and spiritual selves. Renewal requires and inspires continual commitment, vision, and attention, just as our neighbor and Culture Mill co-director, Tommy Noonan, articulates.

Culture Mill’s year-long project Articulating Value in the Arts was a series of conversations among artists that culminated in a symposium and a book. (If you’re not familiar with Culture Mill, I hope you will introduce yourself to these artists and their amazing work.) Infrastructure may not be “sexy,” as I’ve read somewhere, but maybe that is in part because we do not yet effectively articulate and see the design of our support systems and their necessity. Watch dancers Tommy Noonan and Murielle Elizeon (Culture Mill’s co-directors) and appreciate the energy and beauty of their support systems. Without support, creativity recedes, which we know when we get hungry or thirsty or, dare I say, bored. Like our bodies and minds, this General Store, and this community, Culture Mill powers and sustains an ecosystem by drawing multiple energies in and spiraling new ones out—an ongoing creative process.

Artists are everywhere. We can see the beauty of woven wool and threaded fiber, for example, with our very own Crochet and Complainers (here in the Store on Monday nights, at Cup 22 Wednesday mornings), and exclaim over it without thinking of the passion and craft in each person and how they express it.

Holidays and anniversaries also urge us to think about and express gratitude. Myths, traditions, memories mingle. Interweaving is always present, with highlights, just as art is a stream and river that runs through and in us, a chemical composition we play as a symphony, a jam, band, a quartet, trio, solo, village, feast.

Like our 10-year anniversary, the slim volume from Culture Mill offers rich food for thought that anyone who cares and thinks about what it means to be human, an individual, a collective, a community, and an artist will savor and absorb in levels, dependent upon how honest we are and how we value our inspiration. These conversations and the choices to identify, articulate, and to act beyond our assumptions are powerful, and, I believe, vital to our human and community health and growth.

I like what Tommy Noonan writes in his section of this book (one of seven) called “Assumptions.”

“In my opinion, we artists walk around with a myth about our labor, which has two components: one is that we are special unicorns who live outside the normal rules and conditions of capitalism, and the second is that our love of our work precludes our right to be compensated for it. This myth is not only untrue, but it is harmful, because it enables the continuation of an exploitative system – because we carry it around in our heads and it conditions our behavior such that we enter into dubious, quasi-exploitative relationships with one another as artists and collaborators, once again, with the best of intentions. This is not entirely our fault, but it is, to some extent, our responsibility to address.”

Articulating dream, vision, and value openly invites us to examine our myths and beliefs about life, death, creation, community, and ourselves; what we love. I don’t think we can get more relevant than that.

Tommy Noonan: Perhaps one value of Art is that its networks can be a scaffold which takes shape around greater structural problems within society, and therefore a frame through which those problems might be revealed and addressed.

Perhaps it has to do with cultivating the curiosity to show up in other spaces, and not so much to construct new relationships, as to foster the conditions for new relationships to blossom across segregated social networks.

I think “we” can express something useful about value and the arts, even as the multiple unpredictable variables determine art’s social value. What we decide has value reflects infinite expressions and media. Everything has a history, context, or frame, which is vital to artistic expression and relationship. Take Wilson, North Carolina’s whirligig creator, Vollis Simpson, and the grass-roots efforts that emerged as plans to honor and preserve the unique legacy of this artist whose home is their home.  Hearing about the planned park and the story of its creation, and more about Simpson, led me to thinking about what the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) calls “creative placemaking.” Think of what it means for cities and towns to rally around their best art assets.

When motivation surges, we honor art and local history that we value. Creation and community mean something that can be defined and expressed.

Saxapahaw draws diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired. The history of this area is known by some, such as Wally Quakenbush, a man worth anyone’s time to meet and listen to, and the Museum is ready to receive anyone who wants to follow the trail of pictures, stories, news bits, artifacts, media, and narratives of all kinds. We all have the opportunity to more consciously contribute our own energy and narrative, what we value, to this place we love. Just look and listen.


Tommy Noonan articulates two basic conclusions he came to throughout the course of the Culture Mill conversation series.  First, there are no easy answers to any of the questions or topics of discussion; second, the operative characteristic in being a professional artist, of addressing questions of labor value, or of confronting the reality of a segregated arts community, is commitment.

Our choices reveal what we value. How do I (and we) encourage courage to be honest about what we value and why, what we contribute every moment to life and each other? As Tommy Noonan put it, “One is either committed to these questions or not; one either advocates for ethical practices or they do not; one either shows up in Other spaces, or they don’t.” Each thoughtful addition and insight about what we truly value enriches us in ways that we may not recognize until much more water flows under the Haw River Bridge.

Art, like any garden, is not accidental and often surprises.

Showing up is a first step.  To all who have shown up and share this journey, thank you, and here’s to us!


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