The fine folks at Hobbs Architects in downtown Pittsboro are powering our Meet This Artist series this year. Architecture is art, and the Hobbs crew values art in our community. They join us in inviting you to take a look. Meet your very inspiring neighbors. Meet This Artist . . .
“Art is the basic process of having a vision and manifesting it….whether engaging with a roll of duct tape and saying, okay what do I want this wallet to look like, or what do I want this community to look like?” – Louise Omoto Kessel (L.O.K.)
Entering the driveway, the field is full of bright green grass and abandoned chicken houses. You are compelled to lower the windows. There is sun, and the air is cool. You can feel the history of the place. You pass a pond where sunlight beckons the dormant watercraft stacked on the shore. The driveway bends, turns, goes on and on. You are leaving the world you know behind. You are entering a place that is older, remote, magical, with the deepest of roots. You edge into a clearing. A few cars have been abandoned in a grassy lot. A few barns, full of life, stand solidly welcoming you to Clapping Hands Farm.
Smoke drifts from the woodstove perched upstairs in the room above one of the barns—Louise and her family used to live here. The 100-acre retreat is a haven. Clapping Hands Farm is unplugged, a primitive experience. No running water here. Another ring of smoke lifts gently from the remnants of the early morning fire into the sky-blue sky—the color was named for places like this. Around the fire, benches eagerly wait for their moment to shine, paying attention to the characters, young and old, drifting in and out, making momentary shadows on their day. They are watching the story unfold and waiting for Louise to tell it.
How It All Got Started
“At some point there was this intersect where the storytelling gigs were making it hard to make my classes, and I didn’t find that choice difficult. From then on, I made my living as a storyteller for a long time.” -L.O.K.
Louise Omoto Kessel came to this area when she was a young girl. She grew up in Chapel Hill—attended Lincoln before it was closed, attended Chapel Hill High School (where she taught a clowning class as a student)—and then set off to explore the world. From college in Vermont, where she designed an independent study to tell stories to school-aged children in the community, to her time on a boat called The Clearwater (an environmental education vessel founded by the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi), to a stint back at UNC, she now realizes that of all the things she was learning, what she really learned was to tell stories. For 25 years after that, Louise told stories (and made her living doing it) about all kinds of things–from the mythical to the everyday. She told them all over the country and all over the world. Organically, storytelling became her art through her experience by being in a multitude of places with countless characters to choose from.
At the age of 21, Louise landed in Chatham County in 1981. Nearly two decades later, she met her husband, Holmes, and was also introduced to Clapping Hands Farm. When she walked the land for the first time, she knew that camp had to happen here. Having spent time as a camp counselor growing up, she knew a camp when she saw one. This was definitely a camp. And so, she made a camp. At first, just friends—no intentions to ever make a living at it—but since then, nearly 20 years later, it has become a place where campers come and return.
What the Heck Happens at Clapping Hands Farm
“I love Chatham County. This is very much a place-based project. Places are containers for stories. Donald Davis told me that a long time ago. There is the creation of this vision which is Clapping Hands…the art is a wonderful part of what we’re doing here, but I always tell people that it’s just a front for what we really do here, which is connecting with the kids and building them as people and creating community together…I think one of the things that facilitates creativity is safety. People feel free to be themselves. To express themselves. To be authentic. To be honest. That kind of safe haven is rare…When I see teenagers relaxed and in real conversation with people they would never talk to at school, I feel really pleased.” – L.O.K.
They come every week of the year. They come in the winter. They come during the summer. They come without screens, or central air, or running water. They come for the sunshine and the rain, and they leave with the stories that this place allows. Louise has created a place where stories can happen and evolve naturally—love and compassion nurturing them from seed to flower. And they leave this place, and they grow and expand and cover the universe—and the master of the story, Louise, sits back, not with the telling so much these days (though she often closes out camp sessions with a story), but more tending to the soil that allows these young people and their parents from all different kinds of backgrounds (check out their vital scholarship program) to let their own stories unfold and grow.
At one point, she turned the tables on the interview by asking me if I was an artist. In that moment, I saw—she is also an artist of the nudge—someone who reminds us to pay attention to that hidden wholesome urge to create. She lends a spark.
The flames were all smoldering at this time of day, letting the smoke rise in the air. That smoke seemed a signal, reminding us to drive out into the country and free ourselves from our daily trappings, to free ourselves from our preconceived notions about who we are and what we are supposed to be doing, to free us from all that stress and obligation and worry. Here, there is rich, dark Chatham soil, healthy doses of rainwater and sunshine, and a reminder to grow.
Louise’s son, Jabu, a professional tap dancer who spends a little more than half the year here, is at camp today, helping the kids. He gets some more water for the baby pool where a few campers attempt functional watercraft made with recycled materials. Of course he and his sister, Makayla (who, by the way, dances, sings, plays the ukulele, and acts) have grown up here.
One group takes apart and puts back together fishing rods. Another designs and completes their own sewing patterns in the loft above the barn.
Children come here as babies in slings and come back year after year. Some come back to teach and participate as leaders. Some go off and spread the music and the story of this place near and far. One of those is Sarah Perry, who is here as the onsite director for the day. Sarah is the Program Assistant and part of the leadership team. She will be at ClydeFEST (produced by the Chatham Arts Council: Get your tickets here!) with the 12-member Clapping Hands ukulele band on April 6, 2019. Come out and see them and experience what kind of magic this place can generate.
Then visit the farm. Bring your kids, bring yourself—there are camps for parents, too—yoga in a field is an option. Come out to the western border of Pittsboro, and bathe in the goodness of this place that Louise has made (with lots of loving help!). Come and see what story you have to tell.
What’s Next for Louise
“I want to tell stories; I want to tour. I want the whole thing, and I very much love camp. There are too many beautiful things about camp, now, to just walk away from it…and, I consider myself a storyteller.” -L.O.K.
Before long, Louise is going to head back out on the road. She will again become the bard. She will travel and tell the truths of our lives around campfires, in lodges, in school rooms, and in open fields beyond these in Chatham county. She will tell her stories to eager audiences and create new, albeit momentary, havens for magic to take root.
“Storytelling is co-creative by nature. I love how simple it is. I just show up. I just walk in. I love stories—how they connect with the same part of us that dreams…you can talk about things that matter without arguing intellectually.” -L.O.K.
She will tell her stories with the love she has gathered from this place and the people who have helped create it —down the mile-long road, past the old pond, and to the barns near the back of the property. She will search for other sacred ecosystems in hidden pockets all throughout this land. Louise will continue in her aim to bring people together from a variety of backgrounds and help them to connect and appreciate one another. And while she will no doubt love her travels, she will also look forward to returning each time to her home, Clapping Hands Farm.
From the Artist
- Full Name: Louise Omoto Kessel
- Born/I live in: I live in Chatham County. I was born in Chicago but never lived there–as a child my family lived in Oregon, Boston, and then moved to NC when I was 10.
- One of your favorite childhood memories? Running around barefoot. My mom was born and raised in Hawaii and never made us wear shoes. (Shoes are optional even at school in Hawaii.) Also, the big Japanese New Year (January 1) open house my mom would have. And making LOTS of sushi and other special new year foods and inviting over EVERYONE we knew.
- As a kid, my dream job was: I wanted to be a clown and join the circus. Since, I have worked as a park naturalist at Merchants Mill Pond State Park in Eastern NC, and as a member of a traveling show called The Circle of Water Circus put on by In the Heart of the Beast Mask and Puppet Theater. (We traveled down the Mississippi River one summer, and the show told the story of the Mississippi from the Ice Age to the present!) I’ve worked on the crew of more than one large sailboat, including the Sloop Clearwater on the Hudson River (“flagship of the environmental movement”), and for the Nature Conservancy as a caretaker for one of their preserves on an island off the coast of Maine.
- Three (or four) words that describe my art: Community. Healing. Cultural identity. Activism.
- I am inspired by: Nature. Sacred stories. Everybody’s stories.
- When I am not creating art, you’ll probably find me: Taking a walk. Spending time with my family.
- Next on my bucket list is: Getting Clapping Hands Farm in a secure place with other people running things, so it can continue happily while I return to storytelling full time!
- The most dangerous/craziest thing I ever did was: Sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1989 from Leningrad to NYC on a big sailboat with a crew that was 50% from the US and 50% Soviets. Our motto was “We’re all in the same boat!”
- On my bedside table you’ll find: Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor
- My favorite places to go in Chatham County are: Haw River in Bynum. White Pines Area.
- Three Chatham County artists I admire are: Jan Burger, Emma Skurnick, Charity Alston, Sarah Perry, Mardi Magoo, Jimmy Magoo (Just 3??)