One of Fresh Milk‘s residents for the month of March, Bahamian artist and writer Sonia Farmer, shares her first blog post. Arriving in Barbados at a time in her life when several things are shifting, this residency marks the beginning of a number of new journeys, including her recent acceptance into the MFA programme in Book Arts at the University of Iowa for later this year. Her first week also kicked off The Art of the Book workshop, which Sonia is leading each Friday during her stay. Read more below:
What a joy to finally be in Barbados, and how quickly this first week has breezed by in a whirlwind of new faces and places. When I applied to the International Residency opportunity almost six months ago, I was in a strange place: frustrated and defeated by events out of my control at the disastrous hotel development Baha Mar, and overall uninspired and lacking in the drive to pick up and start over. All I knew was that I wanted to change my context and find inspiration again, so I applied to the open call at Fresh Milk; designed a several month odyssey to visit Book Arts Centers across the United States; and put my hat in the ring for an MFA in Book Arts at the University of Iowa—all things I had always wanted to pursue, but found circumstances contradictory to taking those steps. Rock bottom is a great foundation for building the life you want, and I’m glad I found the courage and support to pick up the sledgehammer. Because here I am, finally in Barbados, the first leg of the next chapter in my creative life, with an exciting schedule of travel to look forward to afterwards, and finally, acceptance into the graduate program of my dreams just three days ago.
Fresh Milk is a true blessing. I already feel as though I have been made new. Every morning I enjoy my coffee outside while I work on my artist pages, listen to the sounds of the farm, and enjoy cuddles from resident cat Tiger or dog Rudy. Then I head to the breezy studio and work on one of several writing projects at a cheerful blue desk, or surrounded by books in the Colleen Lewis Reading Room. A writer’s dream! I’m already working my way through their fiction and poetry section in my spare time. Though this first week has been more about finding my “sea legs” in a new context than diving full on into my own work, I’m so overjoyed to have this space to tap into my writing more fully now that I feel truly settled.
I spent most of my time in the studio this week preparing for my first class in many years. As part of my residency, I had committed to teaching a four-part workshop on the Art of the Book, whereby I give my students a crash course in handmade book structures and the ways they can drive or interact with narrative. It’s similar to the course I took during my junior year at Pratt Institute with Miriam Schaer that changed my trajectory. I’d like my students to walk away after every class with a new perspective on books and narrative and how these things can function in their own creative practices. But it’s been ages since I have taught a workshop, so I was very nervous! Not only is my class over capacity—already a great sign!—but it is composed of a fantastic cross-section of artists eager to see how Book Arts can function in their creative lives. If the success of our first class is any indication, I am going to have a great time with them this month.
For week one, I started with a quick slideshow examining book arts throughout various art movements, including a few contemporary examples, in order to broaden their understanding of books and how much control they can have over narrative. We also covered resources for book artists, including vendors for supplies, book arts centers around the world to visit, and retreats and fairs should my students ever want to explore more.
Then we shifted into hands-on practice, breezing through the one sheet/8 page “Instabook” structure as well as the accordion fold, which they nailed. Since my workshop is also about narrative, we explored several experimental writing challenges to engage with the forms they just learned. We started with an erasure of “A True and Exact History of Barbadoes”—a vintage text by Richard Ligon from the Colleen Lewis Reading Room that I’ve become a little bit obsessed with—whereby students erase parts of the existing text to reveal a new poem. Then we all took part in an “exquisite corpse” poetry exercise where each of us contributed a line to a poem in response only to the line before ours, which will be turned into a group accordion fold book at a later date since we ran out of time before the end of class. The theme, fittingly drawing upon the current environmental crisis in Barbados, was “The Drought”, and I think you can see how much we are all in sync by the final product. I’m looking forward to spending more time with them next week when we engage with simple sewn structures and chapbook culture!
The week closed with a very exciting island adventure with a group of wonderful artists and creative thinkers from the Bajan community. We were quite ambitious in our itinerary—visiting a couple of the Fresh Stops benches as well as key sightseeing points at literally every corner of this beautiful island—however we managed to cover enough that I have a good sense of the gorgeous expanse of Barbados as well as feel connected to some dynamic individuals who call this place home.
Hailing from a Caribbean island myself, I find visiting other islands an exercise in magical realism: familiar elements approached with the same level of wonder as every encounter in a foreign land, a welcome strangeness in some alternative universe of our lives. In every Caribbean island lives another version of a history which we all share, expressed in our industries and infrastructure and shared ghosts. I am most struck by the ubiquitous old sugar mill here, haunting its rural and suburban landscapes alike. I feel confronted so boldly by a path of colonial history we have not experienced in The Bahamas, and also fascinated by how this has informed the trajectories of our island’s individual histories and subsequently our social identities today. How do we intersect, how do we divide? And how does this exercise, in exploring these differences, actually help us as a region to overcome our internal prejudices? The Bahamas occupies a strange role in this conversation. One of my students told me what other Caribbean people have told me before: that they don’t consider The Bahamas a part of the Caribbean. I think things are shifting though, especially through the exciting amount of region-driven cross-cultural platforms and conversations taking place, and I’m thrilled to be a Bahamian artist taking a seat at the table.