In a renovated farmhouse on the Durham-Chatham county line live visual artist Katy Clove and her husband, musician Brent Ballantyne. From the outside you can see a wide, deep, shaded porch in the front and a neat garden in back.
But inside, they've created a master work of art. Piece by piece, through sweat, accumulation and a hundred small projects--and with virtually no money--the couple has turned the house they rent into the ever-evolving home of all their creative influences and aspirations.
Clove has turned the front bedroom into a darkroom. And in practically every corner of the house, you'll find more evidence of her industry: neat piles of unusual fabric in the dining room, which she uses to make clothes and pillows; sculptures made of waxed paper formed into miniature dresses. Brent's music collection adorns the walls, from the steel guitar in the dining room to the collection of rare 78s (Muddy Waters, Bill Monroe, Carter Family) hanging in a grid in the front room. There is a seemingly endless collection of cool stuff there--but the place isn't cluttered or messy. Each object is carefully placed, as though part a shrine.
Clove and Ballantyne's house is more than just creatively decorated. It's a space designed around their creative processes. She works in the books production department of Duke University Press. He works at a nice restaurant. But their home is arranged around their true callings.
"I'm a real homebody, I spend a lot of time here," Clove says. "Not only am I creating my work in this space, but it really is my work. I mean I don't see them as being separate. I build the environment around what I'm doing. I definitely feel like my house embodies everything that I identify with, who I am. All of my influences come together in this space. It's the piece of work that's never complete, you know, it's always changing. It's not static at all. My house is the piece of work that I feel like I work on most consistently."
When they moved in, they painted every room. Clove was determined to change the tacky light fixtures--all of them. She went out and bought about $150 worth of new ones. That's a lot of money to someone who makes or finds most the furniture and ornaments in her house. When she tried to install them, dust and bugs and other mysterious stuff fell out of the ceiling cavity, and she found that the original farmhouse wiring was frayed. She gave up, took the fixtures back, and came up with another idea: There were a few hundred pieces of waxed parchment paper lying around, with words on them--cypress, salt, river, bell, bruise É She hung muslin from the ceiling with nails to cover up the old light fixtures, and placed the papers in the space between. The papers glow when the lights are on, revealing layers of curious words through golden light.
The house is filled with art like this--art of practicality, art of improvisation, art of patience, art of remembrance. Black and white photos of old, distant relatives hang on the walls along with photos her brothers took (they're both artists, too). Dozens of wax origami boats she made for an installation project at her art school in Portland, Ore., sit in a heap in a wicker basket on the floor of the living room. A metal wind-up zebra, a stack of stereograph picture cards, all of the objects invite you to pick them up, as though the art won't happen until you take a look. "I want people to feel like they can pick things up and look anywhere," she says, "and nothing's really off limits."
Much of the art on the walls is by friends, like the photos by up-and-coming artist Joe Biel, and by others whom Clove has traded with. In the bedroom, a Tammy Rae Carland photo of a tussled bed hangs over their neatly made bed. A silk dress and a sandalwood fan hang on the back of the bathroom door, next to a basket of knitting. The bookshelf is full of novels, poetry and found objects, like old, broken toys and plastic kazoos. "I've found a lot of stuff in old abandoned barns, mostly in Portland and places I've traveled."
The darkroom/studio, by contrast, looks somewhat cold and practical, thanks to the oversized '50s-era metal furniture she got from the Duke surplus store. "The first thing I got was this table. I thought, I'm going to go for this '40s, '50s laboratory. Because I think of a darkroom as a lab--we always called it a lab in school." But even the lab has soft touches, like the collection of plastic toy horses that sit next to strangely shaped glass bottles, and the antique Cray-pas on the desk. But the most important object is her Mac G4, where she works on design and photography. She's managed to find special inks for her printer that will create archival digital photo prints.
What furniture they didn't get second-hand, Clove built. Growing up with a single mom, she learned a lot of practical skills. "I just remember she had a toolbox and we'd learn how to use the tools, and I think we all have pretty impressive toolboxes now. She was the one to teach me how to use power tools."
Ballantyne's materials are simpler, just a notebook and a guitar. "I don't make things like Katy does with my hands, but writing, that's what I do during the day." They have opposite schedules, which works out well. "I need a lot of space to write. And then I've got amplifiers set up that I just play in the dining room." He's considering building a recording space but is content for now to keep things low-tech. "A lot of times when I'm writing tunes, I just use cheap tape recorders. I like the idea of recording, but for writing and stuff, I'm not hung up on technology. I have a lot of tapes I'll never listen to again, but it's nice just to process it."
He says what's most important is simply to have the right space to work in. "The main thing is that the house isn't sterile, so I feel like it's conducive to getting in a creative frame of mind." He points to one of their three paintings by Georgian outsider artist Howard Finster, which serves as a frequent inspiration. "'I work daily hard,'" he says, quoting words in the painting. "I think that's pretty inspiring that a guy can work that much. I always feel humbled."
The couple is working on combining their skills to start their own company, Telltale, doing multimedia archiving and documentary arts. But meanwhile in order to see her work, you might have to go over to her house. She's working with other Chatham County artists on creating a home gallery circuit. "I thought, why not every few months have these open houses? We'll make good food and invite everyone we know and just have it work by word of mouth." What better place to see her biggest work of all?