“As artists, work is our life. We’ve got to weave our lifestyle through it.”
I’ve parked along a dirt road deep in the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania. I’m only about 150 miles from New York City, but I’m a world away. I stand there gazing up. The tops of the trees brush the solid felt-blue blanket of the sky and the musky scent of damp earth mixed with sweet fern envelopes my senses. I inhale deeply and detect the faint smell of wood smoke. A rusted mailbox planted in the ground declares an enigmatic designation: “Dion, Puett, Mildred’s Lane,” it says, with an arrow pointing back through the woods. I start down the treacherous, rock-strewn path that will take me a half-mile further into the heart of this ninety-five-acre compound called Mildred’s Lane. I emerge from the forest along a path providing access to the network of disparate, antiquated buildings and evolving constructions scattered around the property. I have stumbled into a magical world and will come to understand the deep significance of each of these buildings. Mildred’s Lane is a community, a school, and an experiment in creative resistance. It is a continually evolving utopian practice that spans decades and bridges the efforts of hundreds of individuals. J. Morgan Puett is one of four founding members of Mildred’s Lane and a prime advocate for its radical pedagogical approach.
A circular, neatly-trimmed lawn forms a focal point for the expansive property. A grand oak tree dominates the area and provides shade for an old stone hearth placed in the middle. A thin stream of white smoke drifts up through the stones and tangles with the foliage in the soft breeze. A crowd has formed around the tree. A diverse group of 15 to 20 people gather around while Morgan Puett holds court and the sun drifts slowly toward the horizon. She talks softly to the assembling crowd, welcoming new acquaintances and old friends. Her close-cropped hair frames her eyes that sparkle behind her wire-rimmed spectacles. A heavy twill apron supporting a patchwork of odd-shaped pockets layers over a white cotton tunic that flows around her as she moves. Morgan smiles easily as she beckons the group forward, then places her index and little finger firmly at the corners of her mouth. “Y’all stand back, I’m gonna whistle”, she warns as a shrill blast leaps from her pursed lips. “Come on over, I’m startin’ the tour”, she yells across the compound. This is her goal and her mission: to assemble a crowd and agitate for the style of living practiced at Mildred’s Lane.
Morgan is the “Ambassador of Entanglement” and she embodies this place. Her presence is enigmatic, curious, complex and warm. As she speaks, she creates an engagement that works on multiple levels. Her Georgia roots give a soothing rhythm to her discourse, but she also weaves seductive riddles that expand on impact. “Mildred’s Lane”, she says, “is an experiment in living that attempts to co-evolve a rigorous pedagogical strategy”. It’s also an attempt to elevate the banalities of everyday life into considered acts of political resistance. She espouses a re-examination of the social constructs of community, authorship, divisions of labor and relationship to the environment. Mildred’s Lane is also her home and that is the point. As she talks it becomes clear that J.Morgan Puett’s home is her art. Her artistic practice is defined by place and revolves around the human need to build a community, raise children, and maintain a healthy relationship with the environment. All are welcome, and simply by being there, I have now become a collaborator.
As the night progresses, we are treated to an exquisite meal served with rich pageantry in the banquet area that’s been arranged on the lawn overlooking the expansive landscape. Dinner is followed by a scholarly lecture in the “Barn Lyceum” and a sculptural bonfire, which, having been elaborately constructed by a guest artist in the days before the event, burns well into the night and is the highlight of the evening. This is a “Social Saturday” event as hosted by Puett. She invites the public to visit her compound and engage with the experiment in artful living that is practiced here. She is a custodian to this place and a guide to understanding the porous nature of the environment. She is a creative practitioner laboring toward social and political change, and her methods are unorthodox. I have many questions, and there is a unique language at play here that I want to learn. I will spend the next year and half returning to Mildred’s Lane to talk with Morgan and gain more insight into the nature of her work. But for tonight, I’m happy to sit under the stars in the middle of the Pennsylvanian woods and talk with strangers around the bonfire.
RA: You refer to yourself as not an artist, but as an “Ambassador of Entanglement”. What does that mean?
MP: Well, it’s complicated when you use the three-letter-word “art” in this environment, because people have so many different understandings of what that means. My practice is about being a human being. In this artist’s project that we call Mildred’s Lane, being is the practice. So, calling myself an Ambassador of Entanglement allows me to play out many roles.
RA: Can you give an example?
MP: Well, sometimes I’m a hostess, sometimes I’m a professor, and sometimes I’m a student. Sometimes I’m an installation artist; sometimes I’m sculptress or a gardener. Sometimes I’m a domestic worker and an administrator. All those things, I believe, can be very artful interests. By calling myself an Ambassador of Entanglement, it allows me to have an expanded understanding and act as a steward for the entire site that we call Mildred’s Lane.
RA: How does one elevate one’s everyday activities to the level of art? If one is doing household chores, how can that be artful?
MP: It’s about engagement. If you’re making an intentional gesture, but with a critically engaged approach, then any act can be an artful experience. We practice a critical engagement with every aspect of life. So, you become mindful of the politics of any given moment. For example, when you’re in the kitchen laboratory, and when you’re installing your food in the refrigerator. We try to slow the process down to understand what is really going on there. We decant the food, removing it from its original branded packaging, and install it in glass vessels so that that brand is not there barking at us all the time. Doing this changes the terms of our daily experience. We’re getting that dialog that the corporation wants to have with us out of the picture. That’s really political. That’s a critical approach to a rather mundane domestic chore… food shopping. It’s kind of an act of resistance.
RA: It sounds like a lot of work
MP: But that is work! To do anything toward change does take work. It’s laborious, so it needs to be artful. We need to bring that into it. As creative practitioners, we need to bring an art into that every day, banal experience because that’s where change happens, in the domestic sphere. That’s the feminist driven subject here. It’s centered on domesticity, the home, as a site of change.
RA: So, your practice is driven by feminist goals?
MP: It is and it isn’t. I think I’ve always been a feminist and those ideas have always informed my work. I used to make clothes and that was a feminist endeavor for me. But, again, it’s about being. It’s about creating room for greater collaboration and making something new happen, for everybody. It wasn’t until I got pregnant and became a mother that I really realized how important it was to bring my practice into the domestic sphere. I found myself as a single parent, really, living out here in the woods. It was out of a need for survival as a creative practitioner. I also needed to be there for my child. So, I slowly started gathering those creative forces within me just to maintain a happy existence. I mean, I could be living out in the woods in a shanty shack with my baby and working down at Walmart, but I’m not.
RA: Please explain Mildred’s Lane.
MP: Well, Mildred’s Lane is my home throughout the year, but it’s a school in the summertime. We have these topical sessions and our friends, from all around the world, travel here to convene around critical topics concerning us all. We have guest speakers, and we all co-curate who’s running the session, and who’s going to be speaking at the session. Institutions from around the country will send fellows here for the summer on scholarships. We also have our own scholarships that we can build here, because some of our great friends are sponsoring fellows.
RA: Do you have a teaching philosophy?
MP: It’s a school where we practice the philosophy of work-styles, which is a resistance to the term “lifestyle”. As artists, work is our life. We’ve got to weave our lifestyle through it. It’s not a commune. It’s not an artist’s colony. It’s not even a retreat, because we’re working. It’s a living, breathing, socially and politically engaged environment of creative practitioners.
RA: What are your goals for the future?
MP: It’s important to me that we continue to develop this as a site for practitioners from all disciplines. In the future, I want it to grow into a form of land trust, so that we can encourage and take care of the creative thinkers in the world. Our goal is to nurture them through a shared experience of working, researching and doing side-by-side, together. In the future, it’s important that this site maintains itself as a living work, as a growing research-based environment.
RA: If you met yourself as a twenty-year-old person, what would you tell yourself?
MP: I think I would tell myself the same thing that my father told me, “As long as you’re green, you grow, but when you think you’re ripe, you begin to rot.” Always keep thinking, keep learning, and keep an open mind. Stay in conversation with contemporary society. Be aware of every aspect of your environment. Don’t lose sight of yourself as an animal on this planet.