Growing Up (2003)


I joined antfarm in the summer of 96–which meant that I benefited a great deal from the energy put into the building by many friends in the three years prior (including Ray and Chris moving the first of the letterpresses into antfarm while I was still at Penland). By the time I became a member, antfarm was almost three years old and had actually become a fairly stable concept with a sound infrastructure (though the roof still leaked like a sieve).

Like many other farmers, I was young and idealistic with a large dose of enthusiasm, and I didn’t want to go work for “the man.” Ray Duffey and I were both interested in integrating the often separated processes of design and making by doing letterpress work for people and local businesses in the community. People who understood that subtlety and attention to detail could be a viable alternative to the standard high-gloss sheen in the realm of printed matter. We just didn’t know what to call ourselves. Watching an Andy Griffith rerun, the name was presented to us when Barney–overwrought after finding that Opie was failing math becomes hysterical, telling Andy “He’s a third grade flunkie, next thing you know he is a high school drop out. You’re raising a horse and buggy kid for the jet age!” We made our Horse & Buggy Press business cards the next month (and showed the extent of our business savvy by neglecting to include an area code with our phone number).

Antfarm was a lot of different things to the many folks who came through during my seven years. An alternative to graduate school for some, it was a steppingstone to graduate school for others. A place to hang your sign on a shingle and attempt to make a living as an artisan for some farmers, it was a place to retreat away from the world and make personal artwork for others. The concept worked in both theory and practice because of the amount of respect that we as antfarmers afforded each other.

“The concept worked in both theory and practice because of the amount of respect that we as antfarmers afforded each other.”

It was a lot of fun, a lot of work, and a major learning experience to be a part of an evolving and growing studio collective to attempt to broaden and enlarge the concept, while being true to the original purpose. Many ideas were discussed at our Sunday meetings; some of them were even implemented. Sunday meetings were the time for airing grievances (“why am I the only one that knows how to take out the trash!?”) as well as where we shot the shit about goings on in the area. Certain farmers especially Heath, Ben, and Ray were invaluable, as there never seemed to be a building or equipment problem they couldn’t fix. This was key as we never had the funds to hire people. We voted on everything that affected the group, from when to hold open houses to deciding if we should use ant-farm funds to replace the boombox that wouldn’t play due to all the dust it had digested. Sometimes the meetings would evolve into building improvement projects, sometimes into arguments and debates that seemed to go on forever, and sometimes into food and drink with each other.

Antfarm, and the public nature of the open houses, was a tremendous tool, bringing and keeping people in touch with each other and establishing a network of support and resources as we tried to turn our dreams and desires into realities. This network extended to the folks who took time out to visit during our open houses, helping to create a dialogue and a sense of purpose and perspective in becoming active citizens of the community.

“Antfarm, and the public nature of the open houses, was a tremendous tool, bringing and keeping people in touch with each other and establishing a network of support…”

Every year the building was improved a little bit, both through our own desires and proddings from the fire marshal. To this day you can see the presence of past farmers when you look around. The front walk leads past the garden I started with Jodi and Jeana above which hang paintings by old farmers which leads to the front door clad in metal by Heath under the sign he made based on Dan’s logo mark. The loading dock door has handles that Ben made and it leads to the steps Jack fashioned that lead down to the back yard. The hanging walls made for the first antfarm show are still used for shows to this day, as is the upstairs meeting and eating table that Jason made.

Part of what made antfarm unique was the variety of and different approaches to the work created within. Originally a group of eight, antfarm several times became a group of eleven people working in a smattering of mediums and making the most of the building’s 3600 square feet. For a while the phrase “art, craft, design and some of the spaces between” was used to reflect the diverse range of activities.

Downstairs, Ray and I cranked hand-fed letterpresses while Meredith and Jack were throwing pots just on the other side of the Vandercook. The electric kiln was kept between the phone and the papermaking drybox in the foyer. On the far side of the downstairs boombox the centerpoint of the floor and set up on a clay-splattered lazy Susan was the shared woodshop space where painters would stretch canvases and Jack would work, in between cigarettes, with an assortment of hand tools. Next to the loading dock was the metal shop where Ben, Heath, and Jason each investigated very different approaches to the same medium. Heath tended to use the grinder a lot, shooting off sparks in every direction, while Ben could be found with his head down, rhythmically pounding on the anvil he found at the flea market. Jason somehow operated in the spaces between (and the wee hours of the morning) using a variety of salvaged materials. On the other side of Ben’s coal forge was the patio where I would turn plant fibers and the Jill Flink matboard scraps Savage brought into paper, highly entertaining to some of the vagabonds that drifted by.

Upstairs was not only where a crew of painters worked, but also where Jeana worked on textile imagery, Sandra with leaded glass, where I sewed books, and where Ray cut his images into wood and linoleum blocks. When antfarm was in high gear, it was a beautiful-sounding place with energy that carried us all. And sometimes it was nice just to sit in the beat-up rocking chair and watch the light fall on the neighboring buildings or stare into the woodstove and listen to the train rumble by.

The different versions of antfarm over the years displayed repeated patterns and connections. Of the forty-plus farmers who have spent time at antfarm, more than thirty of us came via the School of Design. I was one of several members who worked at area restaurants, choosing to work at night so I had the daytime to work for myself when my brain was a little fresher. Andrew took it a step further by working third shift unloading boxes for UPS. Several farmers worked the early shift at coffeehouses and bakeries so they could clock out early and still have a large chunk of the day left. This resulted in an around-the-clock antfarm. I would walk up the stairs winter mornings and get the fire going, often aided by hot cinders left behind by the night crew of painters who hadn’t left all that long before.

More than a few farmers have been active at Penland through work-study workshops, studio assistantships, and participating in the Core Program. Several metalworkers were able to work in traditional apprenticeship roles, including three antfarmers who worked under Thomas Sayre as the Clearscapes fabricator. Many farmers reduced their full-time jobs to part-time, and then made the plunge quitting for the up-and-down life of the self-employed, using antfarm’s relatively low rent and friendly surroundings as a security blanket until making the step to a bigger shop.

There were several instances of antfarmers rooming together (Heath, Dan, and Jack; EJ and Janet; Dave and Ray; Dave and Jack after Ray moved in with Meredith; Ben and Jason). Many antfarmers went on to graduate school, and several have become art teachers. Some have moved on to larger cities and some have headed for the hills. A handful of antfarmers have worked for local museums in important positions Jen King at the NC Museum of Art, Ray and Sandra at the NC Museum of History, and Chris at Exploris. Even the two dogs who spent the most time at the farm had similarities. Their names: Blue and Mister Green.

Raleigh has changed quite a bit since the summer of 1993. No longer a cheap place to live, the area has seen developers convert more than a few warehouses to high-priced condos or high-end dining. (Thank you to whoever decided to put the Carolina Washboard factory next to the noisy railroad tracks where most of the land belongs to the railroad, thus making a parking lot out of the question). The building at 303 Kinsey Street still stands in a form very similar to its days in the 1920s-even though washboards have long gone out of fashion, as have buildings without air conditioning. With all the development that has come to this area, it’s refreshing to see that the building has remained remarkably basic and still manages to find an eventful life. One where the development has been inside where artists and craftspeople work on the sills and ideas important to them.


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