Art Gone Wild

Gone Wild

I like art.

My husband says he did not know this about me, like it’s some nasty habit I’ve developed since we married almost ten years ago, or the harbinger of a mid-life crisis. But that’s not true. I’ve always liked art. In fact, a piece of art features in the story of how we met.

He was working for a marine contracting company, traveling up and down the eastern seaboard – building bulkheads, bridges, ferry terminals, and other structures. He spent his days cursing like a sailor and playing with giant building blocks.

He was just supposed to be in town for six months or so, replacing the bridge fender system. Then, he would move on to the next massive sea wall, the next fully furnished house all to himself.

His company had rented an old building by the bridge to use as their work shed, where they could store equipment and fabricate the fenders. The building had once been a seafood market called Sandy’s.

I know it was called Sandy’s because someone had painted “Sandy’s” across it’s metal roof, so big and bold, you couldn’t miss it. Sandy’s was part of my daily drive to and from work, part of the best part – the view from the bridge. I loved Sandy’s.

So, I was devastated to learn that my new boyfriend was going to destroy Sandy’s. He was contractually obligated to knock it down and throw it away at the end of the job. 

I had second thoughts about that boyfriend. In fact, it might have all turned out very differently, if not for one saving grace.

In the months that we were dating, before the fenders were ready to fend for themselves, while Sandy’s was still standing timelessly by the bridge, I found a little watercolor painting at a yard sale, of a weathered brown building with the word “Sandy’s” painted on its roof.

When the fender job ended and Sandy’s was no more, I still had two mementos of its existence. 

One was my husband, the wrecking ball. The other was a painting, hanging near my back door, where I could see it every time I came in from the yard.

So you see, I liked art then, too. But I’d go a step further – I’d say the real art wasn’t that painting, but Sandy’s itself. The reason my love for art may not have been clear, is that the art I love doesn’t always look like art.

Like Sandy’s.

Or this beautiful seahorse I found in an old boatyard last month, made of a caulk blob and drips of paint and grease. Or the graffiti that I saw by a creek near my mother-in-law’s this week.

“Seahorse” (Artists: a boat repair guy and a leaking tube of caulk)
“Creekside Graffiti” (Artist: Rose et al, apparently)

My favorite piece of art in my house is a rendition of Van Gogh’s Fishing Boats on the Beach at Les Saints-Maries-de-laMer, made entirely of string. It makes me feel like anything is possible.

And all this talk about odd art reminds me of Mary’s Gone Wild.

Back when I lived near the NC-SC border, back before kids, I was out driving one day – you know, just fooling around, no big rush to be anywhere, in my leisure time, when I spotted a roadside sign with the word “art” on it. It had a lot of other words, too, hand-painted close together and impossible to read from the fast, winding, two-lane road. I turned around.

I pulled into the driveway and parked around back, behind a not-so-white wooden house.

There was stuff everywhere – 100% hoarder conditions, but there was also a bottle boat – a boat made entirely of bottles, cemented together. There was art amongst the junk.

Following the welcome signs, I walked around a string of little storage sheds, painted in cute colors and trimmed with gingerbread details. Each building was slam-packed full of stuff.

Next was a series of ramshackle houses, joined together by breezeways and porches, the walls mostly made of windows. On the porches hung paintings on windows – of mermaids, flowers, and animals – in bold colors and thick lines. I went inside.

It was like being inside the rainbow – on the walls, ceilings, floor, tables, everywhere, were these colorful paintings. Since much of it was on glass, the light shone through. It was like you’d finally found the end of the rainbow, took one step, and found yourself standing inside its arch, looking out at the whole world colored and transformed by prismatic brightness.

Here is a video tour of what I saw:

Mary’s Gone Wild Folk Art – Supply, NC

In one of the rainbow worlds, I came upon Mary Paulsen herself, painting. She welcomed me, then went to back to work. When I asked if the art and objects around the place were for sale (nowhere was this obvious), she said yes, and pointed me to an article on a welcome table, telling of her history and mission.

Mary had a vision from God to build a children’s village, in order to raise money to feed children worldwide. She built the village, and the visions continued, leading to the current paintings and bottle structures.

The village.

It had been vaguely visible from the road, a jumble of wooden structures half-hidden by trees and shadow. Now, I rounded the corner of the front porch and saw it in its full glory.

There were a dozen small buildings made for children – the library had real books, the school had a chalkboard. Everywhere, decrepit baby dolls posed and slowly decayed. It was creepy. I loved it.

There was a second story, with bridges joining extra rooms and lookouts. There were stairways a foot across and with a foot rise, pitching you into two-foot tall fences and dead ends, and junk scattered everywhere. It was all painted in greens, blues, yellow, purples, reds – all the colors – with those same animals, flowers, and mermaids.

Here are more pictures.

It’s creepy, yes, dangerous, and crazy.

But Mary says: “I’ve talked to all kinds of people. Magazines and reporters come out here, they always say I’m crazy…Folks say, ‘Why would you do all this?’ But people come here, and it makes them happy. And if it makes people happy, it’s not crazy now, is it?” (PortCityDaily)

Before I left, I bought a set of flower pot stakes, for no real reason other than to own a piece of that place. And I took my husband there when we were dating, around the time he knocked down Sandy’s.

Yes, I’ve always liked art. How about you?

A Love Letter to Oysters

A Love Letter to Oysters

This post is a love letter to oysters. But you should just read it to yourself. Oysters have mouths but no ears; they won’t hear a thing.

We hosted an oyster roast over the weekend, one in a long string of oyster roasts I’ve hosted, attended, or crashed. Once, I hovered over a table of steaming bivalves and did not know a single person there. I don’t know whose house it was; I’d just heard there was a big roast, invited myself, and brought a knife. Those oysters were delicious.

They’ve all been delicious. I like tiny ones, like last year when a friend emptied out his beds in the sound near us, bringing the last few bushels of the season – singles with deep cups – each a sweet bite of the beach. I like big juicy ones, too, ones as long as my middle finger (or my husband’s pinky – I have tiny hands). I stab them with an oyster knife to let the excess saltwater drain then dip them in cocktail sauce (extra horseradish, please), dangling them shamelessly over my mouth before letting them slide down in one gulp. My favorites, though, are mid-sized, midway done, jiggly but not oozing, firm but not chewy. I’ll eat those without any cocktail sauce, butter, hot vinegar, hot sauce, or whatever other abomination you’re putting on yours, thank you. And with dark beer – it’s winter, after all.

We eat oysters in the “R” months around here, both because there’s less chance of contamination or bacterial growth in cooler (and less touristy) waters, and because the randy little bivalves mate in the warmer months. They turn gamey when they mate, lean and focused on the continuation of generations, releasing seed and eggs into the water. The resultant babies, or “spat,” settle on hard surfaces (preferably other oysters), and everyone plumps up for my winter eating pleasure.

Oysters don’t appeal to everyone. They’re filter-feeders that eat the plankton (tiny floating critters) in the water. I suppose, during mating season, they eat their own babies. They clean the water as they filter – they can clean around a gallon of water an hour, which is not what one generally wants out of their food. No one’s trying to chew my humidifier filter.

But they’ll line up and pay good money for a taste of an oyster’s salty, unique merroir. That’s a real word, and it’s fun to say, if fancy-sounding for a snotty little ocean scrubber. Merroir is the flavor of the sea; it changes depending on the oyster’s source. Oysters from Stump Sound (just north of Wilmington, NC) are much saltier than Rappahannock river oysters (in the Northern Neck of Virginia), for example. If you suck down a VA river oyster after having been raised on NC salty sounders, you might accidentally “act ugly.” It’s not polite to insult someone else’s oysters, but what is there to taste in Virginia?

Now that’s Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster, native to the southeast coast of the US. Sure, it has “virginica” in the name, but Virginia’s doing it wrong. I guess the pilgrims once guzzled down some Virginia bags of bacteria, and the name stuck. But once they tried NC oysters, they knew they’d tasted saline superiority. They’ve been jealous ever since.

They’re not the only species of oyster. There are five species harvested commercially worldwide and hundreds more out there. I wish I could say that I’ve tasted them all, or even one more than Crassotrea shouldbecarolina, but no, I’ve only sampled my own geographically limited merroir. If you have an oyster to send me, I’ll eat it.

I learned a lot about oysters from reading A Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobsen (also, I cheated – I was a marine science teacher). Rowan ate all the oyster species, lucky fella. Before reading his book, I was content with my gnarly gray goobers. Now, I will spend my life wondering what I could be missing.

I was missing their potential for ecological art, that’s for sure, but others found it. In the North River of Carteret County, Carolyn Henne created a 3D art installation from a special material made to grow oysters; you can see it from the air or a boat. She colored and sculpted the material to create an octopus and several large sea stars. As oysters grow, the structures will be altered – like those art-that-interacts-with-its-environment projects you learned about during “Intro to Art” class.

Oysters are surprisingly hard to grow – they need just the right salinity, intertidal range, wave action, water quality, temperatures, and then, if you want to eat them, about two years of waiting time. A storm or any disruption in their needs can ruin the harvest – not that harvesting them is easy. They’re sharp, muddy, heavy, and cemented to each other and their substrate.

Still, people do it anyways, because oysters sell ($60-100/bushel – about 100 oysters depending on size). Oysters are good for water quality, they protect shorelines, and they create habitat. Oysters are sexy. Living shorelines, oyster farming, and name-brand oysters are trending. Plus, they’re supposed to make you feel sexy. But that could be the beer talking.

If you want to host a roast, invite whoever you want, but jot down how many oysters they will eat. There’s a big difference in preparing for a 1/2-busheler like myself versus a “maybe 6 or so” saltine sampler. Get your oysters, ice them, keep the raccoons and possums out, then spray them off with the hose before cooking, so your hands and mouth don’t get so muddy.

You have several options. One option is not to cook at all and crack those calcified fortresses open with sheer willpower (and maybe throwing them onto a hard surface; I think it disorients them and makes them easier to crack. Also, it’s fun.). They will be cold and extra snotty, but you won’t lose any flavor or texture to the fire.

If you’re just feeding a few pigeons, throw them in a deep pan (not your favorite pan) in the oven with a half-inch of water or so in the bottom. Cook them until they open, adding water if it dries out and turning on the exhaust fan.

Don’t want them in the house? Do the same thing but on the grill. Benefit: you can put wet oyster rags on the grill top to dry while they cook.

Because you need rags, a big pile of cut-up old towels, to lay across one hand while the other hand wields the knife. The rags will protect you (from the oyster but more importantly from your own knife), catch some of the leftover marsh muck, and allow you to handle the shells hot off the grill. If you wait any longer, I’ll eat them all first.

More people? Get a steam pot. We got a 53qt one this time; your ability to lift it while full of oysters is your limiting factor here. Rags can also dry on the pot lid.

About a hundred people? Invite me. Might as well; I’ll show up anyways.

You need a pit (and a keg). Stack cinder blocks to make a rectangle or square, leaving spaces between them for airflow. It doesn’t have to be very high.

Steal a large metal street sign or wait for a hurricane to knock one down. Have a teenager stab holes in it with his/her unfocused rage. Put your oysters on that, over a low fire in the pit (again, wait for a hurricane for firewood). Throw a few wet burlap sacks over the oysters (you can get these at the feed store) until they open.

Pour out your oysters onto a table, break out the knives (I’ll bring my own), and dig in.

They may have better oysters in France. But at my house last weekend, I got tiny plump pea crabs in at least one out of every ten I opened. I love their quick crunch. I got three half-inch long cuts on my right hand, four dark craft beers, a half-bushel of friends, and I got to laugh loudly over a table full of Carolina’s finest. Lucky gal.