Thursday, August 11, 2011
My Own Private Oregon Part III: The Oregon Country Fair
My life is full of serendipitous coincidences. One of those is this.
When I was making my plans for dog care, it happened that I was at Wildwood one day. They volunteered – bless them! – to keep Raven for me while I was gone. They would've taken at least one more, but they were also babysitting another dog that week, and for some reason five dogs are more manageable than six. This is really true; I'm not sure why, but I've found it to be the case.
As it happens, S's mother lives in Eugene. I had planned to call her and invite her to join us for one of the cookouts. But not long after Wildwood had volunteered to sit Raven for me, Susan called.
"What days are you going to be in Eugene?"she asked me.
"Fifth through twelfth," I told her.
"My mom is having surgery, so I'll be down there taking care of her from the 4th to the 11th," she said.
"Wow, really? Then of course you must join us at our reunion. You are, after all, a fribling."
Here I will pause to explain that there's a tendency in our family to invent terms for certain things when no word exists for them. A fribling is a friend who is like a sibling; someone who had become family in a real sense, not through the graces of blood or marriage, but through those of merit and affection. If nothing else, it's convenient to have some code for this, rather than explaining it over and over. Those who know us well know we have friblings, and needn't have the long-form explanation every time.
At any rate, we arranged that one of the events S would join us for – between-times of taking care of her mother – was the Oregon Country fair.
This, I gathered, is an Event. It takes place on only one weekend in the entire year, Friday through Sunday. My brother Mike used to work security for it – which, I gather, consists in large part of sweeping the grounds after closing each night for stragglers. The technique is to form a human chain, hands linked, and walk from one end of the grounds to the other. Any person you meet has to leave unless they are wearing a wrist-band authorizing their continued presence. Those who have wrist-bands are allowed to duck under the linked arms of the sweepers. All others are gathered together and kindly but firmly evicted.
I was struck by this method of clearing the grounds. It seemed odd that a human chain was required – why would people be that difficult to get to go home? What's the incentive to try to sneak past the go-home time and try to lurk after hours? – but that was before I went to the fair.
For one thing, the grounds are enchanting. It looks like Sherwood Forest – treed and grassy, with shaded and sun-dappled dirt paths wandering between and among the booths and stages. The booths themselves are wooden structures, built among the sheltering trees. Some of them have second stories built up in the trees themselves; they look like balconies and decks, bowers and Robinson Crusoe cabins, with an enchanting Disney-esque charm. These are private areas for the booth workers and fair staff to use. I envied them that, their green-shaded perches, from which they could look down and watch the fair pass by.
The patronage of the fair is a trip in and of itself. Kind of like an acid trip, really. Or so I imagine, having no personal experience of that, so here I may misspeak - but to me it seemed like acid trip meets Disney meets Haight-Ashbury. People are creative about their clothing at the fair – fair-workers and patrons both. No sooner had we been ushered in (by a series of astonishingly cheerful and energetic people, each of whom seemed to take great personal delight in the fact that we'd come to the fair) than I saw every costume imaginable. There were people dressed as pirates and Vikings and various animals. One man was painted head to toe in black and orange tiger stripes, wearing only a pair of brief fuzzy shorts. Another couple strolled the fair on stilts, wearing long furry pants and short furry vests, small horns sticking up out of their hair, like very tall fauns. Other people looked as if they had been lifted out of Alice in Wonderland and set down amidst the fairgoers. An entire series of people was dressed in lime green, for the lime parade (where they all gathered together and strode through the fair, inviting people to join the lime-light and take a call on the telephone lime and so on). One man walked around with a live and apparently amiable python draped over his neck. There were belly-dance costumes (my sister amongst them, having been forewarned, and joining into the spirit of the thing), and people who looked like they belonged at a Renaissance festival. There were, of course, a majority of people dressed in everyday clothes, and there were quite a few dressed in very little at all. One man (who I did not observe, but S did) came dressed only in three socks: One on each foot, and the third where he evidently felt it would do the most good. Several women wore only a brassiere on top (pretty ones, naturally), but more had opted to forgo that in favor of body paint. I saw one woman gorgeously covered in painted peacock feathers all over her bare back (and presumably her front). Many opted for flowers (either painted, or fabric ones stuck on by means I prefer not to contemplate). I saw a few wearing little electrical-tape X's (YOW – think about removing that later!) and one who opted for skirt and waist-cincher and nothing else whatsoever. A few had little tufts of feathers or other decorations somehow jauntily perched over their nipples (clearly not pasted to their skin, so I'm not sure how they were attached, but it seemed rude to either stare long enough to figure it out or to inquire). I kept thinking: This would never fly at the Alaska State Fair – but at the Oregon Country version, it seemed strangely appropriate.
The people working the booths were sometimes just as well-costumed. There was one booth filled with gorgeous hand-made masks of all kinds – Mardi-Gras masks, masks shaped like cat faces and other animals, Green Man (or Woman) masks, funny masks, half-masks, full masks, little eye masks with edges like flames, painted and beglittered. They were made of shaped leather, painted, decorated with feathers and fabric and ribbon and what-have-you. I wandered through this booth in admiration of the beauty of the work, and glanced up to see one of the booth workers beside me, posing for a fairgoer to photograph in front of a wall of masks. He was lithe and muscular and brown, with rich dark curly hair falling about his ears, dressed only in a pair of very brief shorts so decorated in leaves that you could only guess at there being fabric beneath. A braided leather strap diagonalled his bare chest, holding a polished drinking horn that rode at his hip. The illusion was so complete that for a moment I was surprised that the tips of his ears were not pointed where they peeked out from his curls. I had to laugh at myself. I mean, in real life, how often do you have to remind yourself: Of course his ears are not pointy, he's, you know, a HUMAN, not an elf or a faun or a wood-sprite? But the illusion was so complete, I actually did have to remind myself of that.
The people-watching was worth the price of admission in and of itself – but the art. Oh, my, the art. Eugene is the glass-working mecca of the United States, and nowhere is this more obvious than at the fair. There was gorgeous work to be found, booths filled with beautiful hand-made glass tempting the hand, sating the eye. There were gorgeous ceramics works, things made lovely through the beauty of the glazes or the shape of the vessels. There were fabric works and leather works, metal works and woodworks. One shop sold nothing but horns – pairs of horns made of Fimo clay, strung on a leather cord to tie them about your forehead, in every color and design imaginable. There were rounded horns, slightly curved. There were angular horns, spiraled like ram's horns. There were delicately-twisted little unicorn horns, rising from nests of down and fabric. One of the booth workers wore a series of spirally ram horns, gilded in bronze, all about his head, like the nimbus of some pagan god.
There were of course the usual souvenir t-shirt-or-tote kinds of things, or the yearly fair coffee cup – but very few of those. And of course there was fair-food, although it was a bit upscale from the usual. A drum circle played the entire time, audible all over the fair. When you neared the circle, the drumming thundered in your blood, echoing in your bones, calling up that fierce, atavistic, primitive creature that lives, thinly buried, at our core. Further away, the drumming faded to a heartbeat, the pulse of the fair, as if the event itself were a live thing, a creature of marvelous design, vital and aware.
As usual at such venues, I had my eye out for the souvenir – the one thing that I really really wanted, enough to pack it and carry it home. Of course, many things were tempting – the glass, the leather, the charming little horns – but in the end, I decided I wanted a mug from one of the ceramics shops. These were glazed beautifully in blue and bronze, with white-glaciered mountain peaks standing beneath a white sun, and pine trees and soaring birds picked out in the glaze. They reminded me strongly of the view out my front windows, where eagles and cranes and swans fly by, and the Chugach mountains stand tall and peaky, harboring snow in their crevices all year long. But after traversing the entire fair, I could not find my way back to that booth again.
No matter. My sister L was going back the next day, and my sister H had bought a mug from that booth that I used as an example to explain what I was looking for. L obligingly agreed to look for the booth and buy me the mug I described. Only when she went back the next day, all that kind had sold. But she evidently asked if there were more stashed away, because her sister from Alaska really liked them, and they reminded her of the view from her house. L returned with a business card and the promise of the artist that if I took a picture of the mountains outside my window and sent it to him, he'd make me a mug that looked like that.
Wow. That's kind of cool.
In retrospect, that sort of creative accommodation fits right in with the spirit of the fair. The Oregon Country fair was really, really cool, the whole thing, from start to finish. I understood the need for the human chain to clear the grounds; the Robin-Hood trees and huts and balconies made for a lot of hiding places, and the charm and warmth of the ambiance made for a lot of temptation. Mike mentioned that the after-parties were of fabled quality, and I could see why people wanted to stay – and how difficult it could be, by any means other than the human chain, to ensure that only those personnel who were authorized remained.
It was a perfect experience – nothing to regret, not even being unable to find the ceramics booth again, since I had the promise of being able to get my mug after all. I have pictures galore of the view off my balcony (some of which have been posted on the blog in the past), so nothing could be easier than emailing a photo. I admit I was tempted by the horns (I have a history of wearing horns – literal and, I'm sure my family would say, figurative) – but S suggested we make our own from, you know, actual horns, which she would have available to her in the fall. I liked that idea enough to be content that I didn't buy some there – and of course, now ideas are percolating in my brain as to how exactly I want to decorate them. I took no pictures (sorry, Gus) – but because of the sort of "clothing optional" culture of the fair, photography is somewhat discouraged – or at least expected to be discreet and by-permission. It's the unique culture of the fair that permits the degree of comfort with undress that is there; in another context, those who were comfortable being half-naked in public might be dismayed to find a photographic record. Out of respect, a certain discretion is observed. And in fact, it does seem rather normal there. Certainly none of the kids – and recall, there were several teens present – seemed even slightly fazed by it… and realistically, that's the group I'd have expected to have the least comfort with it. Certainly the younger kids were more interested in chasing each other about and eating enormous cookies than in the fact that they were cavorting within feet of a woman sitting at her leisure under the trees in a skirt and a waist-cincher and not another stitch nor trace of body paint nor any concealment whatsoever over the way God made her. My nephew Mr. D is of course an old hand at the Oregon Country Fair – he's been many times, growing up as he has, just down the road from the grounds - but for the others it was all new and different.
For me it is the charm of it, the complete immersion in a different world, that I recall the most. Granted that the charm of it, and the world that it is, is due in part to the sort of accepting nature of the fair; but part of it is the enchantment of the setting, the abundance of art, the happiness of the attendees – cheerful despite the very marked crowd. Somewhere in the fair there is a large raven, built out of wood, that observes the fair with a benign eye, and I think it will be a long time before I forget passing beneath its wings with the cheerful crowds, the drums in the distance calling to the blood, the pulse of a living thing, vital and sentient.
When I got home, one last serendipity remained for me. I walked into Town Square Art Gallery, my favorite art store, intending to quiz the owner (a friend of mine) about how one establishes a gallery presence for art – because Michael is way too talented not to have his work out and about in the public eye, but in Eugene – remember, the glass-working mecca of the United States – you can't swing a glass rod without hitting a glass artist. So how to find a venue?
My friend J, owner of Town Square, told me that you find a gallery that doesn't have anything quite like what the artist is doing, and establish a relationship there. Having a look at Mike's work, she mentioned that she didn't actually carry anything like his work. Would she be interested in carrying his work? Yes, she allowed, she would. So I put her in touch with Michael, (and his stuff is now, in fact there, so you should obviously run down and get some of it, because it's really cool).
Well. That's satisfying. But serendipity wasn't done with me. Because the minute I walked into the gallery, there – right in front, where I could not miss it – was my mug. My knees locked and I stated for a moment. Really? I picked it up and carried it to the back where I asked one of the girls, "Where is this artist from?"
"Oregon. Road's End Pottery."
No way. My mug was waiting for me – exactly the style and size I wanted – at home. How cool is that? I didn't even have to carry it home, risking breakage and causing worry. And in its way, that little event prolonged the fair for me, brought it back here to Alaska to resonate in a little more than just memory. It's a small piece of the fair, a tangible link to it – and now it sits on my desk, along with a gorgeous handmade marble from Mike. They both give me a smile every time I see them. The mug grounds me, as mountains always do – a necessary thing, in the work I do. A handy fringe benefit, and not something I'd have expected a simple coffee mug to do – but there you are. There's a certain magic in the piece. The marble… that does something else. From the outside, it looks like a clear dome above a cobalt-dark four-petalled flower. When you turn the marble to look down through the clear dome, the dark leaves of the flower form a cup which looks as if it contains a spiraled galaxy, or maybe the core of the Universe right before the Big Bang. It makes me feel peaceful when I hold it and look into it, its solid and substantial weight a pleasing contrast to the celestial quality inside the cradle of the petals. The inside looks nothing like the outside – which is maybe a good metaphor for the Universe, come to that. Much is contained within it that you would not expect at first glance, and when you turn it to look into its heart, there will be within it an unexpected beauty that gives you peace. It is, somehow, larger on the inside than it is on the outside. The Tardis marble, I suppose.
Little bits and pieces I brought back, small things with surprising power and a gravity all their own. Anchors to my own private Oregon.