Interview with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, May 14, 2019
1) Please tell the short version of the background story of why you began living the way that you do—building your own homesteads instead of living in prefabricated ones.
My creative urges have always extended beyond my art studio and office. It never occurred to me that I would not design my own living space. To date, my husband and I have undertaken eight such design/build projects. Most were located a few miles from previous ones, which reveals that necessity did not factor into the decision to repeat the opportunity to originate novel environments in which to sleep, eat, work, and congregate. The lure lay in the elation that accompanies crafting a living environment that is as personalized as a painting or a poem. Some people might call these homes ‘idiosyncratic’. I prefer to think of them as opportunities to craft a lifestyle, an urge that included the manner in which I raised my children and filled my pantry. In each instance, “good” was never “good enough” if it required accommodating to conditions that were pre-fabricated or objects that were mass-produced. Gradually, this pattern of interrogating cultural norms evolved into homesteading. For the past two decades I have gradually reduced disempowerment and anonymity that accompanies global/industrial /corporate dependencies by generating my own sources of sustenance. What began as a personal “lack of confidence” in the economic status quo has become a crucial component of my professional activities. As an art writer/curator/educator, I explore vanguard artists’ bold critiques and visionary strategies of cultural reform; as an artist/homesteader, I offer personal testimony regarding how deeply gratifying it is to nourish your own body and soul, instead of purchasing consumer products. In both regards, I am intent on disproving that satisfying one’s needs by personally crafting them is outmoded or obsolete; that physical labor is demeaning drudgery; that designing homes and cultivating food are diversions from significant professional endeavors; that engaging a broad array of materials and processes sacrifices the status accorded to specialization; that foregoing the conveniences offered by mass-produced products diminishes opportunities for enjoyment.
2) On a purely practical level, if a person wanted to make the kind of choice you have made, what do you recommend they do to mentally and physically prepare for taking a leap into homesteading in this way? Are there any gateway or starter experiences you recommend to people who might want to ease into this kind of life choice?
It would be misleading to imply that long ago I formulated a precise vision of living, as I do now, on an eleven-acre property in the Hudson Valley, in an ultra-efficient home, surrounded by a meadow, orchard, garden, pasture, stream, woods, and animal pens. Nonetheless, a review of the eight houses my husband and I designed and constructed reveals an unintentional progression. In truth, each new home was undertaken to honor a new phase in the children’s development. We proceeded from the ‘infant house’, which was our first, to the ‘grandparent house’, which is our last. These lifestyle shifts became progressively more articulated with each project, which entailed escalating deviations from real estate norms. How far did we deviate? One indication is that no bank was willing to provide a mortgage for our current home. The official explanation was, “there are no comparables.” Unconventional design and materials emerged at the juncture of three pursuits: economy, efficiency, and aesthetic appeal. Rather than inhibiting our options, balancing this trio liberated our imaginations during the design phase. They have been enhancing our domestic routines ever since.
A similar progression, year by year, marks my homesteading activities. They gradually expanded to include vegetable gardens, chickens, berries, orchard, ducks, geese, turkeys, lambs, pig, rabbit, bees, pheasants, and mushrooms. The foods generated on site are supplemented by wild foods I forage. This seasonal bounty is canned, pickled, frozen, dried, and fermented.
3) On a purely practical level, if a person wanted to make the kind of choice you have made, for the first time, but to still live close enough to an arts center to participate meaningfully in an arts community, what would you recommend they look for and expect to have to find a way to finance?
Artists who are homesteading are not isolated from the art scene. They are the art scene! Art professionals contact me. Art classes visit me. A week-long residency on my property is a part of the curriculum for MFA students in the Nomad9 program at the University of Hartford. Requests for interviews, lectures, workshops fill my calendar. They all indicate the growing consensus that homesteading constitutes a vanguard art practice. It is a strategic example of Eco Art. There are many. I gathered a sampling of the innumerable artists worldwide who are addressing our beleaguered planet to write the first college eco art textbook, TO LIFE! Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet (Univ. California Press), and the first book documenting the creative formulations being produced at the conjunction of philosophy of neo materialism, the science of ecology, and the culture of art, WHAT’s NEXT? Eco Materialism & Contemporary Art (Intellect Books). This report of my personal findings indicates that seeking alternatives to the environmental destruction associated with consumer-driven lifestyles is not just a personal anomaly or limited to a few rebels at the fringe. It exists at the heart epicenter of contemporary art practice.
Replacing hands-on crafting for money-dependent purchases reduces the pressure to earn income, at the same time that income-earning opportunities for eco artists expand. Sustainability and the arts are increasingly featured in art education, art grants, art residencies, art writing, art curating, art commerce, and art exhibitions.
Regarding adopting homesteading as a life style, here are a few offerings for consideration: Be patient. Proceed by increments. Take many risks, as long as they are each small. Join a community of like-minded seekers. Embrace the process of learning. The quest is as invigorating as its fulfillment, and the fulfillment is well worth the effort.
4) How do you feel your commitment to art inform these initial choices?
Art can be a vocation, an occupation, a career, a calling, a business, a mission, a hobby, a quest. Yet none of these designations of art informed my impulse to design the physical components that maintain my life. At first, I was emboldened to identify homesteading as an art initiative by the unanticipated attention bestowed upon my enterprise by members of the art community. Now, I boldly predict that, of all the forms of art currently being produced, it is eco art that will be featured in future art histories, comparable to Cubism and other art ‘isms’.
5) What are the challenges of classifying the crafting of a lifestyle as a work of art?
I expect that the response to this interview will be greeted by the same objection I have received in other art contexts – that ‘function’ has no place within the hallowed category of fine art. Functionality in art is as troublesome in art today as sentimentality and beauty were in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, objections to functionality are voiced by three distinct art audiences: those who subscribe to the popular notion that art is romantic expression; those who identify art with commerce; and academics who lack theoretical formulations and historic precedents to ground functionality within their scholarly accountings. Despite this resistance, functionality in art is insinuated into current definitions of artistic ‘success’. It is measured in terms of environmental gain, not personal wealth and fame. Eco art success means designing sustainable means to generate survival necessities, strategic means to remediate the planet’s faltering eco systems, and tactical interventions to preserve those systems that remain intact.
6) What questions do you think artists need to ask themselves when deciding how they are going live?
This question would have bewildered the vast majority of artists who appear in the annals of art history. Traditions and conventions provided them with the standards that determined artistic success, the audience to serve, the aesthetic qualities to favor, the patrons to satisfy, the missions to pursue, the subjects to present, the mediums to master, and the means to attend to their personal needs. Today, there are no artistic givens. The blank canvas that has long served as a symbol of artistic freedom, now applies to the entirety of the art enterprise. As such, “how to live” has been added to the creative challenge of every artist alive today. Whether this situation is applauded as artistic freedom or regretted as a burden, it is an unavoidable aspect of the inexhaustible possibilities that accompany the declaration of being an artist today. Thus, ‘how to live’ is as eligible to receive the artist’s originality, insights, philosophy, and beliefs as a studio practice. This can manifest in many ways. Consumerism, for example, automatically merges art and life for artists whose work as a producer and whose lifestyle as a consumer coalesce around commerce. By merging art and life with responsible stewardship of the planet, environmentalism introduces a radical alternative to consumerism and its associated abuse of ecosystems and their diverse populations.
6) Can you discuss, overall, how the balance of your ecological values, economic values (and/or practical needs), and esthetic desires is generally arrived at? What methods do you use to bring these three things into a balance that works for you?
Aesthetics may seem like an unlikely driver of the ecological and economic values that I uphold. The significance I assign to aesthetics emerged from an abiding conviction that shape, color, texture and their arrangements carry cultural significance despite the medium, subject, or context to which they are attached. Comparing the fluid aesthetics of ecosystems and the rigid aesthetics of engineered environments, for example, demonstrates that aesthetic ingredients embody social values and worldviews. As an eco artist, I rely upon aesthetics to convey the patterns that foster stewardship of our planet. This means discarding the on/off abruptness of technologies and replacing them with the gradual progressions that characterize growth, decay, weather, and season. It entails replacing the predictable repetition that prevails at the end of industrial assembly lines with the infinite variability that emerges when shapes evolve in response to perpetually morphing environmental conditions. It rejects the authority of top-down hierarchies and replaces them with bottom-up, generative processes. In sum, the visual language of aesthetics allows me to displace the environmental disregard that is described by ‘dom’ words (dominate/domesticate/dominion), and promote environmentally conscious values imbedded in ‘com’ words (compliance, communal, compatible).
7) Please describe the basics of your particular philosophical system: or at least what it is composed of (“’neo materialism’, art, ecology, and the cultivation of sensory sensations”) and how you came to believe in it.
Careless material interactions implicate humans in escalating extinctions, C02 accumulations, erosion, deforestation, and the degradation of the planet’s soils, waters, and air. Indeed, the fate of life on Earth may be determined by whether humanity disregards or attends to the material world. However, my sensual and pragmatic interactions with geological and biological ‘stuff’ transcend even these ecological concerns. Ultimately, they activate the philosophical and ethical principles that ripple through the growing body of Neo Materialist literature. Scholars representing sociology, theology, philosophy, and a host of other disciplines are interrogating the material assumptions associated with consumerism, technology, and engineering, and dematerialize experience that privileges simulations, digitized representations, abstractions, idealizations, and conceptualizations. While their approaches vary greatly, they tend to agree that material entities have value outside of commerce; that the planet functions according to dynamic interactions and not discrete objects; that the traditional hierarchy of humans over non humans must be dismantled to acknowledge the pervasiveness of mutuality among species. Like me, many neo-materialist artists are cultivating the sensual interactions that have been usurped by an infatuation with machinery, media, and technology. Our reinstatement of substance, density, temperature, moisture, and so forth entails a radical revision of the contemporary norms. Neo materialist art is not ‘realistic’; it is ‘real’.
How did I come to view human existence through the lens of a complex kaleidoscope that is ecological, neo material, multi-sensory, aesthetic, didactic, functional, interrelated, and holistic? It occurred when I was plucking the feathers, for the first time, from a goose I had raised since birth. I plucked them one-by-one-by-one-by-one for two hours, and still had only completed one third of its ample coat. My response to this time-consuming task was utterly unexpected; I was not the least restless or impatient. The revelation you requested followed; it demonstrated that plucking feathers was not tedious because each of the thousands of feathers on the turkey’s body was designed to perform a specific function. None were alike. Their shapes, sizes, textures, flexibility, fixity were infinitely varied, and therefore perpetually fascinating. I remain perpetually fascinated by the rich variability and the surprising discoveries that accompany interactions with the non-engineered materials and non-mediated experiences. My goal is to share these neglected wonders.