Building a Twenty Mile House

Community Feb 15, 2020

by Matt Turner

Recently, I read Maria Semple’s book, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, a story about Bernadette Fox, a mother and former architect who struggles with her copious life crises.  In the book, Fox builds a Los Angeles home (called the Twenty Mile House)  using only materials from within a 20 mile radius.  These materials—discarded objects, junk parts, or stripped goods—are then repurposed.  No trips allowed to the nearby Home Depot or Lowe’s to purchase lumber or plumbing—everything has to be refashioned.  For example, light bulbs are broken and used to create part of a table top, old catalogs are used to build furniture, or old rags are used to fashion drapes for the living room.  This venture, beneficial to the environment, seems obvious: why throw something away or chop down another tree if those materials can be recycled?  But, what I like about her approach is that she is being creative and economical within a contained (local) area to create something of beauty and purpose.  Moreover, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of acquiring local facets to this project.  No more transporting materials from thousands of miles away.  What you need may be found right under your nose—less expensive, more efficient, and with high quality.  Similar to the benefit of purchasing home-grown foods. Why ship apples from 900 miles away when one can visit a local orchard and support local farmers?

Consider this: replace the term “local farmer” with “local artist” and this puts a spotlight on my next point—the term “local artist” and what it means (or doesn’t).  Is the word “local” here used as an innocuous descriptor—since everyone is local regardless of where one resides, or does it suggest that local artists’ work is somewhat inferior to the work of national or international artists?  (By the way, artist here could mean visual artists, dancers, authors, poets, musicians, film makers, actors, etc.)  I used to cringe when I would hear or read the term “local artist.”  Perceived or real, it conjured up negative connotations of cutesy, fluffy, and amateurism when more than often this was not the case, nor the intent.  At the same time, there is danger here. Local artists can be ignored or downplayed.  It’s the “you aren’t a star in your own backyard” maxim to which I can attest having lived here for more than 25 years.  It can be more sexy to bring in someone from the outside than to invest in a local artist, a resident who can equally deliver the goods or maybe even better.

Case in point, many years ago, several people approached me after I gave a presentation at a conference—I believe in Pittsburgh—and asked if I would fly to New Orleans to give an educational workshop/performance.   I recommended that instead of spending a great deal of money on airfare, hotel, food, and transportation to send me to Louisiana, that they hire someone from New Orleans, and I provided names of reliable and capable people excellent for the job. Why not provide work for those local artists? (Not to mention in doing so, this can help diminish our collective carbon footprint.)  In this case, the New Orleanians were unaware that there were accomplished and adept artists right under their noses.  Sometimes it takes a small amount of research to realize that a consummate artist might just live right around your corner. The more we look around us, we discover that we have numerous resident artists who create dynamic and important contributions.  And, in that observant effort, we can look through that lens and find different perspectives, develop more support for our local artists, and construct a community akin to the Twenty Mile House.

I look forward to occasionally contributing future Fabricating Something More articles.  I might offer a preview of an event in our area or provide food for thought about local art and its impact relating to community, education, performance, collaboration between and among disciplines, and so forth.  I thank fsm. for this opportunity.  Until next time, please make an effort to support your local artists.

Matt Turner is a cellist, pianist, improviser, and composer who teaches at Lawrence University in the Jazz & Improvisational Music Department.  He has performed in Europe, Asia, and Canada, has performed on over 125 recordings and has dozens of compositions published with Alfred, Carl Fischer, Latham, and others.