Friday, January 29, 2010

Donkey Trail, South Africa

(Haggas joins the family for dinner)

Erika Calitz and her husband Hanz have reopened a historical donkey trail near their Living Waters farm near Calitzdorp, South Africa. In addition to facilitating multi-day hikes (with help from pack donkeys), they train local members of the community as guides and donkey handlers. Their website is

Molly Stevens: Do you have more contact with donkeys than you do people?

Erika Calitz: There are those days yes. I certainly wish for more of them.

MS: And why is it that there are so many donkeys in your life?

EC: Besides the certainty that they are the best and least understood animals on the planet, they are a critical ingredient of a community development and conservation project we’ve birthed near the southern most point of Africa.

MS: Least understood, for sure. And so abused.

EC: The first five donkeys brought to us by animal welfare (we have an 800 hectare property with a river running through it - donkey heaven) fled into the bushes from the truck that delivered them. They had been sorely abused and neglected. We didn’t see them for days and decided to start taking our daily lunch in the field closest to where we had last seen them. It took only a few days for their curiosity to get the better of them and within four weeks we were hugging the bunch of them, some more gingerly than others. Scariest thing is that they had thereby exposed themselves all to potential abuse all over again. Does this make sense?

MS: You mean, they decided to trust you, despite the risk and previous experience with other humans?

EC: Yes that’s it exactly. Trust is the key word to describe a donkey. There is something about a donkey - if you get to know them, even just one, as if he were your pet dog perhaps - you would feel that deep trust, beyond obedience. NOT stubborn as they are commonly seen to be.

MS: So the stubborn idea that we have must be mistrust?

EC: Good way to put it. I often marvel at their discernment. Unlike our horses.

MS: Can you describe donkey-ness?

EC: Curious (noses in grocery bags), intelligent, scheming apparently planned escape routes out of any situation on particular days including the entire herd - horses just stay in their meadows. Soft, gentle, understanding, JEALOUS, preparedness, trusting, reliable, longsuffering, patient.

MS: Before we talk a bit about donkey trails, I'd love to hear more about how their jealousy crops up.

EC: They know when we have treats with us when we approach a meadow where they are grazing. This is where we see the kicking and nipping-one-another kind of jealousy. We have won our donkeys over with love and patience and that is what they really compete for. They are equally aware of when there are no treats and this is when they swamp us with imploring eyes, And they are so hungry for touch. We believe even the wildest of jacks would eventually approach a patient enough man for that very touch. They have specific soft spots that just need to be loved. Yet at the same time, I have stomped into a field in a horrific mood and sat down in the grass and none of them approach me. They seemed to know I just need the space. That’s why I say, understanding.

(Goldie introduces her new boy)

MS: That's quite heart wrenching and heart warming. I want to ask you about something you said yesterday: “I have to remind myself I'm not an Ass.” What did you mean?

EC: I have a secret place of escape with the donkeys, my total space of denial. Sitting with them trying to figure them out and wishing I could just stay there. But, hey, I’m a wife, mom, farmer, entrepreneur, and community worker. I have responsibilities. I envy them sometimes, despite their lot in so many countries.

In a different light altogether, I have tirelessly researched donkey art, sculpture, painting, sketches, you name it. I collect ANYTHING donkey. However, with due respect to all those artists out there who have seen the nature of this animal, I am yet to see someone really capture the essence of the donkey. He is a bit like a beautiful landscape that even a wide-angle camera can’t capture. Just too deep to get the whole thing wrapped. Their faces are so tempting so that becomes the subject but there is so much more. I can only do stick figures.

MS: That's lovely. I have a choice here, I can talk about donkey representations - my favorite happens to be the French movie "Au Hasard, Balthazar" - or I can talk about donkey trails. I chose the latter. What is a donkey trail exactly and what's the experience like?

EC: Generally a donkey trail is a hike or walk through a natural area with donkeys serving as beasts of burden. Our trail however adds the element of rehabilitation of a people and their heritage. Our country has only recently been set free from apartheid, there is much restoration to be done on a national basis, but, also on an individual level with regards to young people and drug abuse, and with the donkeys and their previous lives of abuse. What you therefore can expect with our trail is to (for four days) become part of the lives of youngsters who have the courage to change, of donkeys who have the hearts to trust again, and of a nation trying to heal from its wounds. All of this through a UNESCO world heritage site of indescribable beauty. The trail becomes part of you. You leave encouraged, no matter your own private battles. Life is a donkey trail!

(A training session with new recruits)

MS: What about the trail allows for this restoration? What I imagine is that the path itself is an exercise in taking things in stride. And in my mind, donkeys do this instinctively. You mentioned they sometimes seem to plan, but is that a reigning trait?

EC: We believe donkeys are compulsive travelers - they seem to love the journey and perhaps that is the key to restoration. Perhaps that is why, when we approach the meadow at 5 a.m. on a Saturday, Buddy and Saartjie know it’s their day to walk and they approach the gate to be haltered and led to the awaiting guests. To embrace each day with gratitude and expectation; to endure hardship with hope and trust that it can bring healing. Besides the development of people skills and education, which bring restoration to the community, the promise of finding a future through knitting our differences together into a new fabric is very exciting.

MS: It is exciting. Working as an artist, day in and day out, often without encouragement, is a similar experience, one that requires some sense that it's worth it, that the process of making things we call art is a way to become conscious, aware. The work in Donkey Trail, the exhibition, reflects this just by the fact of being there, and also by a fresh, winding quality, that isn't pre-planned (too much).

EC: The similarities are great. Our task, as leaders, donkeys and young guides, to climb a mountain over 28 km twice a week with a fresh group of visitors becomes tedious, exhausting, it becomes a trail, a TRIAL! But it also remains a journey of growth for all involved.

Friday, January 22, 2010

De-fense, De-fense

In writing – and especially in thinking about writing the upcoming press release –every sentence deflects an oncoming attack. I cover my bases, answer to any and all negative judgment, all with the type of a key and all with a smiley face. It goes without saying that this is defensive writing, and yes, it’s something I can talk to my therapist about.

Offensive writing would assume the reader was on your side, interested in, even in awe of, your investigation, able to like without liking a hundred percent. In other words, her judgment might be able to hold nuance, even contradiction. I’m assuming a “successful” person writes offensively.

It is in the vein of defensive writing – but with an offensive veneer – that I’m preparing an artist’s talk during the run of Donkey Trail. Tentatively entitled “Walk the Line” I’ll present a subjective survey of what line is in visual art, and also in language, sports and spiritual practices. I mean thick, thin, fast, slow, shaky, ruled. I mean line as drama, line as movement, line as delineation. I mean Egyptian reliefs, Matisse, Charles Ray, party lines and line dancing.

There, I said it. No turning back now.

I do love lines and what ties Donkey Trail together is, I argue and will argue, the line. Among other things.

Monday, January 11, 2010

What's in a name?

(Brice Marden drawing)

We have a date! Donkey Trail will open May 20, 2010.

That said, will the show be called Donkey Trail or will that be the name of its blog only?

This exhibition project began as a proposition: create a show through a process of one-thing-leads-to-the-next, of deal-with-each-obstacle-as-it-comes. The result, it was posited, would be inadvertent, instinctive and therefore a fresh departure from concept-laden curating.

Six months down the line, much has changed - much that I cannot disclose here - and it has become clear to me that everything is inevitably a process of one-thing-leads-to-the-next and I always deal-with-each-obstacle-as-it-comes. And while the art that I am drawn to is often a visible reflection of this approach, I do not think the work I have chosen suggests this first and foremost. All together, it points more immediately to something else (namely the line, but more about this another time). Moreover, although literalness is never a good place for art, the work in the show all has little to do with donkeys.

There are pluses, however. The name Donkey Trail has humor and humility, and it does imply a meandering path that at once makes logical sense and does not, which is in fact a good way to see the selected pieces. Furthermore, it’s the name that exists. So be it.

Stay tuned. Alternatives ahead.