A while back in the nearby woods a large gaggle of wild turkeys started raising a ruckus to the high heavens. A veritable convention of agitated gobblers, it was, them being in their tribal mood. By and by a bunch of the turkeys came running out the tree line, hopped the pasture fence and started circling in the grass, not so noisy now that they’d switched over to dancing. One Tom turkey froze, puffed himself up like a balloon, shuddered to make himself a teensy bit bigger by getting his chest feathers to stand on end, then fanned his tail feathers, curled his neck and broke into a skittering little soft-shoe, his movements dainty. “Lookee here,” he was saying, “ain’t I something?”
Self-expression is everywhere in nature, everything from the rocks on up tells a story, and each story is inextricably woven into all. We are the creatures of our earthly surroundings, and Delta Blues rose out of the rhythms of stoop labor and sweltering sun; Jazz mimics the sounds of the city, Bluegrass the songbirds, creeks and breezes. If a writer writes about the desert, his or her prose will be spare; writing about the jungle, florid, the sea, in ebbs and flows reflecting the lack of solid ground underfoot. The creator is made manifest in creation and self-expression, whether animal or human, is meaningful to the extent it is social. Art for art’s sake? How about food for food’s sake, or water for water’s sake? How about that Tom turkey prancing around out there if he was all by his lonesome? How long before he started feeling silly?
“You may as well try’n herd house cats,” the woman advised after I’d told her about Mendocino Stories, the artist’s collective. That seemed a reasonable enough sentiment, given the little I know of the county’s “artist communities.” Yet I do know that, given their affluence, the one centered around the town of Mendocino more resembles the ones you’ll find in Malibu, Laurel or Topanga Canyons than in, say, Willits. Yet even the Villagers celebrate their surroundings; in fact most, especially the visual artists, set down roots out there to do just that. Throughout Mendocino County live artists of one sort or another: musicians, painters, sculptors, photographers, writers, potters, weavers, jewelers and what all. We’ve even got our own homegrown art forms: chainsaw sculpture, to name one. And that grew out of the now belly-up cottage industry that once manufactured redwood burl furniture. Go back a couple of hundred years, and for countless generations before then, and what were the ocean-going boats that plied these waters but works of art put to practical use?
Say you are a painter and you create a magnificent painting that, owing to the tremendous amount of time and intensity and talent you’ve put into it, only the richest of the rich can afford to buy. Why would you feel any different than the field hand who, having just helped bring in the last of a bumper harvest, sees the paymaster pull up in his pickup truck and immediately starts wishing for a bonus; a small cash token of appreciation as he or she’s sent on their way? If there’s a difference between the two, it’s that harvest workers—at least until TV invented Throwaway Culture—knew that virtually all of what they’d helped produce went to good use.
But what if the buyer of your magnificent painting lives in a vast and empty Winchester Mystery House-style mansion with rooms leading to rooms and in all of them hang magnificent paintings? What if your painting winds up decorating a guest room visited only by the maids who periodically enter to keep the suite and its furnishings pristine? Having gotten your price, would you rather that your painting hung in a high school library? Better yet, would you rather it hung in an art museum or, better still, alongside the masters in a famously prestigious one? If you were a painter and you achieved the last possibility, then you’d feel just like the field hand who’s been given a fat wad of crisp twenty dollar bills, the keys to the paymaster’s pickup truck, a full tank of gas and the sight of him in your rearview mirror waving you a misty bon voyage.
As a practical matter, the field hand moves on to the next crop, and the painter to the next painting. Still, without social relevance, there is no art. There is no philosophy, religion or science, either. The innate need to share is why birds and whales sing, why Monarch butterflies and buffalo migrate, and why a backwoods hermit jaws with his surroundings. The need to share is why Thoreau left his cabin on Walden Pond. It’s why John Muir left the High Sierra for San Francisco. It’s why Moses came down from the mountain top, Jesus returned from the wilderness and Buddha resumed talking. Coyotes don’t sing to the moon; they sing to each other. Any human that forgets that loses its way.
When I heard about Mendocino Stories, the artist’s collective that stages live entertainment and also hosts a website given over to local artists, their wares plus a web store for selling them, joining up seemed like a natural to me. The Heyday addition of Walking Tractor had just come out, I had plenty of pretty pictures already digitalized and the cost–$40.00 per year plus a couple of hours of me having to head-scratch and punch keyboard—was nothing at all in the grand scheme of things, or even in the little scheme of things, for that matter. Then why wouldn’t I invest in myself to increase my audience and maybe make some money back? (In my case, joining Mendocino Stories was like buying a bundle of storefront penny stock, walking around the block and then selling it back for nine cents a share).
I also knew that, when it comes to marketing, the more, the merrier. By way of illustration, say you own a corner gas station in the big city. On your left and right are other gas stations and kitty-corner sits a vacant lot. Now, if on that vacant lot a fourth gas station is built, your sales will increase. Why? Because living within a mile radius will be thousands of car owners who will know that, if they need gas and they want it in a hurry, yours is the intersection to head for. The wisdom of joining in cooperative ventures was proven by the first successful hunting party, or harvest party, or agricultural co-op, and it’s why today we have arts fairs, county fairs, shopping malls and, out on the open Interstates traversing the depopulated hinterlands, why corporate motels, gas stations and eateries cluster together. It’s also why, as Saul Alinsky so famously pointed out, the only difference between the rich and the poor is that the rich are organized. And that’s another way of saying that dog-eat-dog competition makes perfect sense only so long as you ain’t a part of it. Because you enjoy laying down money on cockfights, that doesn’t mean you wish to be a cock.
So if you are an artist and wish to showcase your wares, or just an art lover (if artists and art lovers don’t love artists, who will?), or are interested in live entertainment bargains, or just out for some free internet entertainment, check out www.mendocinostories.com.
–Originally published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser