The most insightful observation I've ever heard about the artist's life came from Alice Weaver, the legendary creator/proprietor of the Ferguson House in Nashville and one of the great characters I've known. The catalyst for her proclamation was my wife Judy's reaction to tourists viewing her artwork.
Among many other talents, Judy was an abstract painter. And in the fall of 1977, we opened a shop called Creations in Alice's Antique Alley, where we sold Judy's paintings, weavings and assorted creations, my photographs, our hand-made Colombian imports and a variety of other arts and crafts. Our next-door neighbor was The Paint Box, where saw blades painted with rural scenes sold all day long, day after day after day. The common refrain heard outside our adjoining doors: "Oh hon, look'it the saws!" Inside our shop: "Anybody could do that."
Nashville tourists were a little more accepting of photography as art in the late 1970s, but only marginally so. And despite our grasp of the culture we were involved with, reality was difficult to accept, even if we did get our share of positive reinforcement. Alice swept our bruised egos aside with a wave of her hand. "It doesn't matter whether people love or hate your work," she advised. "It's when they respond to it like it was skimmed milk that you're in trouble."
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Since then I've used that standard to judge just about every creative endeavor I've observed or engaged in, be it photography, art or writing. Unless some readers love it and others hate it, hopefully not in equal proportions, then it probably isn't worth the effort. Or so it has seemed to me since that little Alice Weaver-inspired epiphany.
We met Alice and her husband Dick in the fall of 1977, after we had decided to discontinue our Colombian importing business. We were transitioning to our next pursuit, and art seemed the logical direction. It was what we knew best and enjoyed most. The houses we lived in during the late '70s had ample space for darkrooms, easels, studios and work tables. And we were settled in some of the most beautiful environs southern Indiana has to offer -- lush, hardwood forests, geode-embedded creeks and hills and hollers that have inspired great art for more than a century.
"Those daring enough to ascend the stairs to the Ferguson House's second floor found a skeleton in a casket in the center of one room."
A friend had spoken to the Weavers about putting a rug store in one of their Antique Alley spaces. Alice was a former psychiatric nurse from Chicago who imposed inviolate conditions on store hours and what products her renters could sell. My friend wasn't interested in a retail business with rules and turned us onto the opportunity.
Alice was notorious for her cantankerous, eccentric ways of doing business. Those daring enough to ascend the stairs to the Ferguson House's second floor found a skeleton in a casket in the center of one room. She jammed every other inch of the dark, musty old place with her "treasures." Downstairs she left only a narrow, one-way path that required customers to file past her and Dick, who manned the back-door exit like sentries. Alice sat, Dick stood.
No one who exited the Ferguson House escaped Alice's gaze. And she evaluated each on the spot, pricing her merchandise according to her visceral reactions. Some she refused to sell to, at any price. So, it was with some trepidation that we approached the Weavers in early October 1977 with a sampling of our imports, Judy's artwork and a few pages of my 35 mm color slides.
The rent was $75 a month, with a two-month deposit, which we didn't have. As she studied my slides, Alice peered up at Dick, "What do you think, honey? He says he doesn't have any money. He looks like he has money. But he takes beautiful pictures." To our amazement, they let us move in without a deposit. We opened Creations at the end of the fall season, payday in Brown County, and we eked out enough money to get us through the winter.
Alice told us from the get-go that we had what it took to make it in Nashville, an observation confirmed by our earliest experiences. Paul Smedberg, who today runs BCS Advertising in Bloomington and Indianapolis, published a Nashville tourist guide in 1978. He was one of the first people to visit our shop, pronouncing as he walked through our door, "Modern art in Nashville!" He featured one of Judy's paintings on the cover of his spring edition and ran a small feature on Creations inside. Soon thereafter, the Herald-Telephone ran a photo of Judy at her loom.
But 1978 was not the year we needed. The spring and summer were almost as brutal as the winter, eternalized for us and tens of thousands of Southern Indiana folk by the Blizzard of '78. It was cold and rainy almost every weekend in March and April, and the tourists stayed away in droves. Spring morphed immediately into August-level heat and humidity. All the merchants said business was as bad as they had seen it.
Economically we hit bottom that summer. Public Service Indiana (PSI) actually disconnected our electricity due to an unpaid bill, so we spent our last two months in the old 446 House completely off the electric grid. We cooked in a pit we had dug in the back yard, stored our perishables in coolers and sweated a lot. We slept in the tent as much as we did in our bed.
While life as Nashville merchants didn't pan out, the response to my photography had been encouraging. The photographic journal Edward Weston: The Flame of Recognition had profoundly impacted my life, and I drifted toward the camera as my survival tool of choice. Another encouraging force at that time was a woman named Doris, who managed Hazel's Camera Center, a literal hole-in-the-wall camera store conveniently located next door to Nick's English Hut on Kirkwood Avenue.
She had told me once, "Ther's a lot of 'em out there who think they're good. You are good." When I told Doris I was looking for a job in the summer of 1978, she offered me a part-time sales position on the spot.
"Nashville tourists were a little more accepting of photography as art in the late 1970s, but only marginally so."
Hazel's was the smaller and less professional of Kirkwood's two camera stores at the time. The other was Wiles Camera, located next to People's Park where the Bicycle Garage is today. While my first job post-college paid minimum wage, it offered abundant benefits for an aspiring photographer, including discounts on supplies and equipment, a store full of camera gear to learn on and an opportunity to explore the business side of photography.
While many of the female clientele patronized the store because they thought Doris was Hazel, its original owner, a man named Lanus Hazel, had sold it to a corporate film-processing company in Evansville called Snap Photo. The women usually laughed when I told them the truth but kept doing business with us.
Hazel's was also a great place to meet people and offered the best view of Bloomington during the two years I worked there, bar none. Downtown was a creative, exciting place in those days. And Kirkwood was where the action was.
The Chipotle Mexican Grill site in 1979 was home to a little burger joint called Ollie's Trolley. The next year it became Oz Bach's Boogie Woogie Burger Bus. It was a narrow, seatless walk-through with tables and umbrellas outside. A themed restaurant called Middle Earth occupied the Dunkirk Square space now housing Jimmy Johns. The inside was molded and designed in Hobbit style.
A photo counter on Kirkwood also meant exposure to photographic influences, like Bob Talbott, who owned Talbott Studio a couple blocks down Kirkwood. His work was salon quality, produced in an intimate, artful setting. He did most of his business at Wiles but threw some to Hazel's from time to time.
I learned a lot about the studio game from conversations with Bob and gave the professional portrait/wedding side of the art a try, with mixed success. I recall shooting four weddings. The most challenging was firing away with a manual-focus Nikon F in St. Charles Catholic Church, which was like shooting in a cathedral-sized cave. No light whatsoever. I shot one of Judy's co-worker's wedding, and I did rather well, except I didn't get an image of the full dress and train. Doh!
I had one disaster of fairly epic proportions, ego-wise, anyway. A high school girl recruited me to shoot her sister's wedding in Hope near Columbus. The pressure was on from the beginning, as she said the groom was a photographer who developed his own color prints and only wanted the negatives.
With three weddings and some environmental portraiture behind me, I was pretty confident of my ability to use fill flash in daylight and was eager to impress. Instead, I overexposed negatives. The client was Randy Shedd, the resident photographer at By Hand Gallery for as long as I can remember. I never knew if he was able to salvage those negs.
Of everyone I met through my two years at the camera store, Bill Thomas was my inspiration. He had worked at the Cincinnati Inquirer in the 1960s, when there had been a particularly nasty bloodletting for reasons I'm not sure I ever knew. Bill was among those axed, and he turned to freelancing. He regularly contributed to National Geographic, The Saturday Evening Post and other publications on that level.
When Bill walked in the door of Hazel's in autumn 1978 with a flier for a photo workshop he was holding at his wooded Brown County home, he had published several books, among them a 1974 Indiana travel book titled Tripping in America: Off the Beaten Track and three coffee table photo books: The Swamp, American Rivers: A Natural History and The Island. In 1976, he had received the National Geographic Award for Photography.
The weekend seminar was designed to teach budding nature photographers like me about freelance photography. He lectured us on the business side and led photo hikes during the Brown County autumn. That weekend was the prototype for his Touch of Success seminars, through which he led photographic sojourns around the world, from the deserts of Arizona to the plains of the Serengeti to the Hudson Bay and the coast of Alaska.
As a result of that weekend, Bill and I became friends. A conversation we had at the Brigantine restaurant (now the Trojan Horse) set me down the path that led to journalism. We were sitting at a booth at the top of the stairs when he told me professional photographers earned $2,000 a day. He also shared with me a tip that I share with my journalism students today when we talk photography. It wasn't uncommon, he said, for Geographic photographers to shoot 200 rolls of film to capture the dozen or more images that might grace the magazine's pages.
One afternoon Bill came into Hazel's to tell me had been asked by the Indiana Arts Commission to advise them on grants for fine art photography and urged me to apply. The next time I saw him he was primed for a hearty thank you. When I told him I hadn't gotten the grant he was genuinely stunned. He had advised them to give it to me and assumed that's what they had done.
A particularly intriguing subset of Hazel's clientele in 1978 was a parade of Bloomington Ashram devotees. I became intimately familiar with the reputation of Michael Shoemaker, who that year had become Swami Chetanananda. I asked one of my favorite customers how long she was going to be in Bloomington. She answered, "As long as the Swami is here."
"Hazel's was the smaller and less professional of Kirkwood's two camera stores at the time. The other was Wiles Camera, located next to People's Park where the Bicycle Garage is today."
In addition to its spiritual center in what is now the North Washington Historic District. the Ashram and its members ran several Bloomington businesses, including the Tao Restaurant at 10th and Indiana, a stained glass studio called Graphic Glass on the South Side of the Square and a wood shop called Woodworks, which had a showroom on the north side of the Square and a woodshop at Fourth and Madison. The Swami's office was located in the back of Rudra's Oriental Antiques on Dunn Street where Bloomington Bagel Company is today.
As business tanked in Nashville, a part-time camera sales job no longer made the grade. And the Swami had a reputation for helping those in need. On a steamy August afternoon in 1978 I walked into the Swami's office with my portfolio to see what advice he may have.
I have some clear recollections of that meeting. Probably because we were living without electricity, the place felt like a dairy cooler I worked in as a teen-ager in Indianapolis. And I was a little taken aback by a holy man who used phrases like "pissing in the wind" and sat beneath a nude photo of his spiritual teacher in a lotus position.
The Swami expressed admiration for my photographs, and as we parted he squeezed my shoulder in a way that induced an out-of-body experience. After I emerged from the dark coolness of his building, Judy and I walked down the alley from Dunn toward BloomingFoods, and I had the distinct feeling my feet were not touching the ground.
As we walked I told Judy that the Swami told me he was sure I could get some work photographing Woodworks furniture for their sales brochures. I might even get on in the woodshop. I intuitively knew we were on our way back up.
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com .
Editor's note: As I wrote the section above about my old friend photographer Bill Thomas, I Googled him and was saddened to discover he died in June. He led one amazing life.