Snow Pretty

26 Feb

My drivewayPhotographer and friend Cary S. Jenkins has captured the quiet, still beauty of our recent snowfall in Arkansas. Click on the link to see all of her lovely photos.

Cary Jenkins Photography

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Art of the sale

28 Sep


The image of the “starving artist” as a tortured soul who chooses to live in poverty to maintain the integrity of his artistic vision has long existed in popular culture. This perception visits upon the artist a bohemian lifestyle of eccentricity and excess during a lifetime of obscurity. And, of course, as anyone familiar with the life of impressionist Vincent van Gogh knows, the impoverished artist’s work gains acclaim and monetary value only after his death.

Many of today’s fine artists, however, have shed the cliched smock of the starving artist and repainted, resculpted and resketched their images and lives. Sixty percent of artists in the United States are self-employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but that doesn’t mean they’re all living in squalor, surviving at subsistence levels by selling their souls one canvas or sculpture at a time.

“Only the most successful fine artists are able to support themselves solely through the sale of their works,” the bureau reports in its 2010-11 Occupational Outlook Handbook. “Most fine artists have at least one other job to support their art careers.”

Some artists supplement their income by taking secondary jobs that have nothing to do with art. Others hold art-related jobs, such as teaching privately or in schools, and a number are employed as curators at art museums or directors of publicly funded exhibitions. Still others go into the business of selling art as gallery owners, brokers or agents.

“THAT WHOLE TORTURED ARTIST THING does not work for me,” says Renee Williams, owner of Gallery 26 in the Hillcrest area of Little Rock. “I find that the happier I am, the more I end up creating. In fact, I have to stop myself from making stuff.”

Williams, a painter and jewelry maker, sells works of other artists, as well as her own, in the storefront she opened in 1995. Her art business has its own sideline, a framing workshop that accounts for about half of her revenue. When she set up shop, the framing enterprise was to be the sole business. “That was the plan anyway,” she recalls. “But then we found we had enough room for display space so we decided to open a gallery, too.”


Renee Williams and artist Delita Pinchback Martin before Martin’s opening event at Gallery 26.

Williams and other central Arkansas artist/gallery owners say, whether by intention or happenstance, they’ve found being in the business of selling art is a natural for them. They enjoy discovering and nurturing local artists, as well as introducing artists from other states and nations to Arkansas art lovers. They say having primary income not dependent upon selling their art frees them to pursue their creative proclivities without the pressure of those pursuits being their livelihood. None believe, as some might claim, that they’ve “sold out” or compromised their artistic integrity in any way by entering into the business side of art.

“It’s quite the opposite,” Williams says, explaining that sole dependence upon art to pay the bills can cause artists to question their motivation. “They have that pressure of thinking, ‘Am I doing this piece out of love or because I need to bill it?’”

Stephano Sutherlin’s vibrant paintings of locomotives and colorfully creative portraits of noted artists such as Frida Kahlo are a physical testament to his belief that “you don’t create your best work when you’re depressed. I don’t think that’s true at all.

“IF I’M DEPRESSED, I DON’T PAINT,” says Sutherlin, who owns Stephano’s Fine Art Gallery in the Heights. “I’m much happier painting when I’m happy.” One thing that makes him and other artists happy is selling their work. An artist who has a gallery finds a ready outlet for his own work, plus gets to surround himself with the work of other artists while helping them sell.

“I want every artist to make money,” Sutherlin says. “I know it’s tough out there. If artists aren’t making money, they’re not happy, and they’re not creating their best work if they’re not happy.” Sutherlin’s position differs from that of other artist/gallery owners in that he isn’t deeply involved in the business end. His wife, Ashley, handles that as well as decides how to best display their wares. He also attributes ownership of the gallery to his wife.

“I wouldn’t have done any of this if we hadn’t met and fallen in love. She’s the one who’s great with people,” Sutherlin says. “I’m OK with people but I’m better off in my studio painting.” Because of the business, however, he spends more time outside his studio. He sometimes paints at the gallery or on the sidewalk out front. He talks with clients and other artists. As an owner, he also has opportunities to teach young artists how to market themselves and profit from their work.

“The hardest thing for young artists that they can learn from old artists like myself is pricing,” he says. “If you price your work too low, it looks cheap. Price it too high and no one can afford to buy it. So it’s that happy medium. You have to know how the pricing structure in your area works.”

Kyle Boswell, owner of Boswell Mourot Fine Art in the Heights — just a few blocks from Stephano’s — is a glass blower and sculpts with glass and steel. He says he thrives on the gallery environment.

“I’M INFLUENCED BY MY ARTISTS,” Boswell says. “I’m influenced by what I carry and I carry what I like. As an artist, I feel like I have a grasp of the different mediums because I’ve worked in most of them — until I found my niche and the medium that’s best for me, which is three-dimensional.”

The marketing aspect comes easily to him, he says. “I love marketing. I love marketing my gallery and my artists. It’s even fun to design the postcards for my shows.”

Boswell says he worked in politics in Washington for eight years before burning out. “I left Washington and said I’d never wear a suit again.”

Owning a gallery “is the first job I ever had that I enjoy coming to every day,” Boswell says. Like Sutherlin and Williams, he says being content with his life invigorates him and informs his work. Running the Little Rock gallery and another in Miami keep him busy, but he makes time to create art. He’s always thinking, always imagining, so when he gets into his studio, he may make 10 pieces in one day.

Sutherlin, Boswell and Williams sell some of their own work in their galleries, but not exclusively. They also show in other galleries, usually outside the immediate area or out of state. While these three artist/ gallery owners have found that their business endeavors improve their ability to create, Greg Thompson is an artist who discovered that selling art is an art in itself.

Thompson, owner of Greg Thompson Fine Art in North Little Rock, took art classes throughout his childhood, then got a degree in art at Hendrix College. He held a job as a graphic illustrator for two years, then began exploring the idea of selling art for others. In 1995, he held his first art show — featuring the work of Arkansas artists — in his apartment and made as much money in one night as he did in a month at his job. So he quit the job and put down his artist’s tools. He no longer creates artwork. His passion, Thompson says, is in the art of the deal, in managing and finding markets for other artists.

Thompson’s gallery isn’t the typical walk-in-and-browse type. He shows one artist’s work at a time, although he represents many contemporary Southern artists as well as some artists from around the world.

“I’ve learned that it’s just as easy to sell 30 paintings to a corporate client as it is to sell one painting to one client,” Thompson says.

Does he miss creating art?

“NOT AT ALL. I LOVE WHAT I DO,” he says.

Williams says she has never felt a sense of either/or in terms of art. “I’ve always wanted to have a mixture of social interaction and alone time. You have to have a balance.”

She believes that artists need to have something other than art to sustain them — creatively, emotionally and physically — and recommends that working artists get a part-time job. “It’s really good to have some other interest or stimulation. I think artists are more successful when they have something else to work on.”

This article was published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sept. 11, 2013
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Sister Suffragette

4 Aug

Written by dear friend Laura Cartwright Hardy, this post about the nature of being a feminist should be required reading for young women under 30. The fight isn’t over, girls. Thanks, Laura.

The Lolly Diaries

"So cast off the shackles of yesterday ..." “So cast off the shackles of yesterday …”

Disney’s Mary Poppins had a lot to do with it, I suppose, but I don’t remember ever not knowing that women had to fight for the right to vote. I was 8 or 9 when our entire family went to see the movie at one of the glorious downtown theaters and 9 or 10 when I was playing “Sister Suffragette” (in my Mary Poppins‘ songbook for piano) and singing along. It really struck a chord with me.

I can still burst into SS and march/dance around the room for my grandkids (OK, just because I feel like it):

“… Political equality and equal rights with men,

take heart for Mrs. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!

No more the meek and mild subservients we –

We’re fighting for our rights militantly – never you fear! …

So, cast off the…

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Pride of Place

18 Mar

Arkansan filmmakers who left the state are coming home—and they’re finding their state is much more than just a setting


Director Chris Hicky (second from left) on the set of “The Grace of Jake,” filmed in Arkansas in September 2013


Quiet on the set. Roll camera. Roll sound.

The camera’s eye focuses on a man with slicked-back hair and tattooed forearms plucking razor-sharp twangs from an electric guitar as he sings, “It’s gonna rain, it’s gonna rain. Better get ready …” about Noah warning his people of the coming flood. The singer’s gritty voice rises above the metallic patter of raindrops upon a couple of window-unit air conditioners, inspiring a feeling that the tiny church may float arklike into surrounding fields if the rain doesn’t end soon. It’s almost too perfect—the rain breaking a month-long drought in the Arkansas Delta on the day Forrest City native Chris Hicky films a pivotal scene in the movie he’s come home to make. In the scene, ex-con Jake testifies about his coming to grace after traveling from California to Arkansas to confront his father. The rain provides a coincidental metaphor of renewal and restoration that fits the film’s themes but, thankfully, brings with it no threat of biblically proportioned devastation.

The downpour that began before dawn turned the churchyard into a bog, forcing Hicky to rearrange the shooting schedule so the crew could spend the day filming scenes within the church’s paneled walls, saving for the next day an exterior scene in which Jake helps the preacher paint the church. The crew members made the change easily, their synergy representative of everything Hicky had hoped for when he returned to Lee County to shootThe Grace of Jake, the feature-length film he dreamed of making for the past 10 years, which he spent in Los Angeles working his way up the industry ladder, from production assistant to director of commercials and music videos.

In bringing his passion project home to Arkansas, Hicky joins the ranks of other Arkansas filmmakers who left the state to create lives elsewhere but—inspired by nostalgia, personal experience and pride of place—have returned to make independent movies. For them, The Natural State isn’t just a backdrop but a fully realized character, sometimes breathtaking in its beauty, while at other times appearing timeworn, cantankerous and uncooperative. These filmmakers look through the twin lenses of heart and memory to see their home state as a character that is always alive and kicking, with a strong sense of self.

READ FULL ARTICLE as it appeared in Arkansas Life magazine, Dec. 2013

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Nuts about coconut oil

26 Sep


My love affair with coconut goes back to my childhood when my father would crack open a fresh coconut with a hammer and separate the dense “meat” from the shell to give all of us a sweet, chewy treat. I can still feel the way the fresh coconut squeaked against my teeth.

Candy, cakes, cookies, ice cream, Asian sauces, on shrimp — I’ve eaten coconut every way imaginable. But I hadn’t cooked with coconut oil until a few months ago. Now that I have, I’m hooked. The slightly sweet oil adds a subtle flavor to all kinds of dishes, although it’s best used as a substitute for butter or oil in baking. It’s also delicious right out of the jar; spread it instead of butter on toast, pancakes or English muffins.

But all coconut oil isn’t created equal. The variety of coconut oil maligned for years was “hydrogenated,” a process of adding hydrogen to oil, then subjecting it to high pressure and temperature to create fats that are solid at room temperature. Hydrogenated oils contain “trans fat,” which the Food and Drug Administration has linked to heart disease.

The type of coconut oil I cook with is “virgin” or “unrefined,” which means that it is cold-pressed from freshly harvested coconut meat. Having never been subjected to heat, the natural flavor, aroma and scent are intact. Want to give your nose a thrill? Just open a jar and sniff.

Since coconut oil has become more popular, you no longer have to go to a specialty store to buy it. I get mine at the local supermarket, where it sits on the shelves alongside other vegetable oils — but be prepared to pay more, as coconut oil prices range from $7 to $12 or more per pint. I prefer organic coconut oil, so I usually pick mine up from the natural foods section. The oil, sold in glass jars, should be a pearlescent white solid. If it has a dark or yellowish tint, it’s rancid and should be avoided.

Coconut oil stores well unrefrigerated for months. If kept in a cabinet, it’ll usually retain solid form (which is more of a semisolid, so don’t expect the density of shortening or butter). If you leave it on the counter or next to the stove, it’ll begin to soften and often liquefy. No problem. To resolidify it, just move it to a cooler place.

I’ve experimented using coconut oil in a variety of dishes, sometimes adapting recipes or creating my own. Below is a selection of my quick and easy favorites.

Some things to consider when using coconut oil:

** When a recipe specifies liquid oil, just heat the oil for a few seconds or leave it sitting in a warm area of the kitchen.

** It’s lighter than other vegetable oils, but a little still goes a long way. When substituting for butter or margarine, start out with a smaller amount than what’s specified. If you need more, you can add it.

** When sauteing with coconut oil, take care not to overheat it. If the oil takes on a yellowish cast, it’s ruined and you need to start over.

** The Coconutty Nut Butter recipe makes a spread that’s less dense and sticky than peanut butter. You might want to play around with the amount of oil to get a consistency you like. Also, it solidifies in the refrigerator, which makes it harder to spread. Just leave it on the counter for a few minutes to soften before using.

** If you use coconut oil to cook, be aware that it imparts a slightly sweet, coconut flavor. If you don’t like sweet meat, you’ll want to save coconut oil for other dishes.


These have the most amazing texture and the coconut oil frosting will make you swoon with pleasure.

These have the most amazing texture and the coconut oil frosting will make you swoon with pleasure.

This cupcake recipe is vegan, which means it contains no eggs, dairy, or other animal products. But don’t worry, even without eggs the batter will rise and the cupcakes will hold together. You may raise an eyebrow, as I did, when seeing that you need to add vinegar, but do not leave it out. It reacts with the baking soda to make the batter rise and fluff up. Enjoy.

Fluffy Coconut Cupcakes 

1 ¾ cups cake flour or all-purpose flour

¾ cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup unsweetened coconut milk 

 ½ cup unrefined coconut oil, liquefied (see note)

2 tablespoons vanilla extract

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

Coconut Frosting (recipe follows)

Shredded coconut, optional

Heat oven to 350 degrees and line cupcake pans with 12 paper cupcake liners. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together coconut milk, oil, vanilla and vinegar. Pour the wet mixture over the dry mixture and whisk until just combined. Do not over-mix. Fill the cupcake wells about two-thirds full with batter. Bake at 350 for 18 to 25 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted in near the center of the cupcake comes out clean. Cool cupcakes completely before frosting. If desired, sprinkle frosted cupcakes with shredded coconut. Makes 12 cupcakes. Note: To liquefy the oil, heat it for a few seconds or place the jar in a warm area of the kitchen. 

Coconut Frosting 

½ cup unrefined coconut oil

1 ½ to 2 cups confectioners’ sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 to 3 tablespoons unsweetened coconut milk

Using a hand-held mixer, beat the coconut oil until smooth. With the mixer on low, add 1 ½ cups of the confectioners’ sugar, the vanilla and 1 tablespoon coconut milk at a time and beat until the frosting becomes of a spreading consistency. Adding more milk and/or sugar as necessary to achieve the desired consistency. Beat on high for 2 minutes until light and fluffy. 

Recipe adapted from 

Serve this colorful stir-fry as a side dish or add thinly sliced chicken breast for a one-dish meal over wholewheat linguine or brown rice.

Coconut Confetti Stirfry 

3 to 5 tablespoons unrefined coconut oil

1 clove elephant garlic OR 6 cloves regular garlic, chopped

1 or 2 boneless, skinless chicken breast, thinly sliced, optional

1 red or orange bell pepper, cored and cut into strips

1 yellow bell pepper, cored and cut into strips

1 green bell pepper, cored and cut into strips

A few sun-dried tomatoes, coarsely chopped and soaked for 10 minutes in just-boiled water

Sea salt, to taste

Ground red pepper (cayenne), to taste 

Heat oil in a large iron skillet on medium heat, then add chopped garlic and saute until translucent. Add chicken, if using, and cook, stirring, until all pieces have been seared. Increase heat to high, then add peppers and drained tomatoes. Stir with spatula, making sure all pieces are coated with oil. Sprinkle with salt and cayenne pepper to taste. Reduce heat to medium, continue stirring until peppers are slightly browned on the edges and have lost their crispness, and the chicken, if using, is cooked through. 
Makes 2 main-dish or 4 side-dish servings.

Coconutty Nut Butter 

2 cups peanuts, almonds OR cashews

Up to ¾ cup unrefined coconut oil

1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste 

Place nuts in a food processor and grind to a fine powder. Leaving the powder in the food processor, add the coconut oil a little at a time and process until you get the smoothness and consistency you desire; you may not need all of the oil. Add salt. The “butter” will be kind of runny, but will solidify when chilled in the refrigerator. Keep refrigerated in an airtight container, but serve at room temperature. (If you prefer your nut butter to be sweet, add a couple of teaspoons of honey.) 
Makes about 2 cups.

Recipe adapted from Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon

Coconut Potato Bake 

¼ cup unrefined coconut oil

4 large russet potatoes

1 clove elephant garlic OR 4 cloves regular garlic, finely chopped

Sea salt, to taste

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Melt the coconut oil in the oven in a large baking dish. Peel and thinly slice the potatoes. Add potatoes and garlic to the baking dish and stir well to coat with oil. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Bake 20 minutes, then stir and bake 20 minutes more or until lightly browned. Makes 4 servings. Variation: Coconut Chile Potato Bake, add a chopped serrano chile pepper (seeds removed) to the potato-garlic mixture. 

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Urban oasis: Bernice Garden

9 Sep

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — During President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, some forward-thinking person scratched the word “hope” into cement poured for the foundation of the Bernice Garden in downtown Little Rock. Today, it seems only fitting that such a sentiment is the sole defacement in the tiny, blooming oasis in an area of town long considered unsafe, even seedy.

When assemblage artist and collector Anita Davis bought the vacant lot at the corner of Daisy Bates and Main streets in 2005, it was a blank canvas waiting for a person with vision and imagination to bring it to life. Now it’s a vibrant cultural and artistic hub as well as a serene place for reflection or simply taking a break during a hectic workday.

The Bernice Garden on South Main in downtown Little Rock (photo by Laura Hardy)

The Bernice Garden on South Main in downtown Little Rock (photo by Laura Hardy, courtesy The Bernice Garden)

On Sundays from April through November, visitors flock to the Farmers Market devoted to local and organic products, then linger at the garden to enjoy the native plants and sculptures by Arkansas artists. Many stroll on over to the neighboring Bernice and Lincoln buildings, also owned by Davis, for a bite to eat at Boulevard Bread Co. or to savor a scoop of handmade Loblolly ice cream at the Green Corner Store.

The garden also hosts the Arkansas Cornbread Festival each November, which last year attracted more than 3,000 cornbread lovers. In May, the farmer’s market shared space with the first Arkansas Strawberry Festival as a celebration of Mother’s Day. In April, poultry and plant enthusiasts were invited to gather and swap chicks and seedlings.

Even when there are no events, you’ll see people sitting under the wooden shelter eating lunch, dog owners letting their pooches sniff the greenery or neighborhood children romping among the sculptures. Everything in the garden was created for and by Arkansans, with the focus on valuing and using native resources.

Bringing sculpture and art to the South Main area was one of Davis’s goals, but she also wanted to encourage and nurture Arkansas artists. So each year, she invites Arkansas artists to submit sculpture designs, then a committee selects six for installation in the garden for one year. 

“Nurture” is a word Davis uses often when describing her projects along the two-block stretch of Main between Daisy Bates and 16th streets where she also owns the building housing The Root Cafe and one she’s renovated or the Esse Purse Museum, a celebration of women and handbags througout the 20th century. Davis says she sees her enterprises not just as businesses, but as ways of nurturing the area by attracting entrepeneurs, artists and others interested in developing and recycling natural assets. And she wanted those already living in the neighborhood to benefit from her efforts.

“The garden has definitely made the neighborhood more family friendly,” says Dana Landrum, who lives within walking distance and frequently visits the garden with her three children. “It’s a gathering place for us as a community and it also attracts people who don’t live in the neighborhood. It’s a great way to introduce them to our community.”

When Davis bought the vacant lot in 2005, she had no grand plans. She had purchased the Bernice Building next door in 2004 as a business investment and as a storage space for furniture and other items she had inherited from her parents. When the lot became available, she decided to acquire it too. After that, everything “grew organically,” Davis says.

Looking back, the timing seems serendipitous because it was a period during which Davis was educating herself about the green movement. Keenly interested in recycling and reducing waste as well as repurposing old things for new uses, Davis went to Seattle, Wash., to attend a National Main Street organization conference. There, she learned about “placemaking,” the concept of designing or creating public spaces that honor the qualities, values and assets of a community or neighborhood. She realized her empty lot could become a community hub, a nurturing center for the South Main area and its residents. While a privately owned space, it would be open for public enjoyment.

As much as possible, Davis wanted the garden to reflect the nature of Arkansans. As the Bernice Garden website says, “Arkansans tend to be of hearty stock, people who can stand up to every extreme while retaining a sense of whimsy. The artwork and structures of The Bernice Garden reflect these qualities, adding unique and understated beauty to the mix.”

She also pursued a “sustainability” aspect, using recycled or repurposed materials for the structure, artwork and other features. A walkway of crushed glass — tumbled so that it has no sharp edges — winds throughout the 100-by-150-foot space. The resurfaced concrete patio was once the foundation for a Captain D’s fast-food restaurant that occupied the lot until it burned to the ground. A 50-gallon cistern for gathering rainwater is covered with reclaimed wood from slave quarters at the Alexander Plantation in Scott. The patio’s wood canopy funnels rainwater into the cistern; the collected water sustains the native plants with which garden is landscaped.

Laverne Davis, master gardener

Laverne Davis, master gardener (photo by Laura Hardy, courtesy of The Bernice Garden

Davis entrusted master gardener LaVerne Davis (who isn’t related to Anita) to keep the garden growing and blooming: “When LaVerne is working out in the garden, she’s so joyous. People just come up to her and they have this joyous exchange.”

“I feel like I’m an artist and this is my canvas,” LaVerne Davis says. “I absolutely love this garden. This feeds my spirit. It’s a peaceful place to work.”

A couple of times a week, LaVerne and assistant Willie Allen trundle in with seedlings in styrofoam cups, along with pruning shears, shovels and other tools. They weed and plant, rotating plants in and out according to season.
“Color, color, color, color,” LaVerne Davis crows when asked what she’s got planned for the garden this summer. “Lots of pink and bright, bright colors. Myself, I like color.”

The garden not only benefits the neighborhood, but also attracts people who don’t live in the immediate area to get out of their comfort zone to check out Main Street south of Interstate 430, says Liz Sanders, Bernice Garden coordinator. “I’ve had many people tell me they’d never been south of Community Bakery” at 12th and Main streets, Sanders says, explaining that the perception formerly was that the south Main Street area wasn’t safe and that people wouldn’t go there to shop or attend events. That’s changed, largely because of Davis’s efforts.

“It’s been amazing. What’s going on down here deserves attention,” Sanders says. “It’s something to say that Anita is a private citizen spending her money in this part of town and putting her heart into it.”

LaVerne Davis says visitors to the park are always curious about the garden, its dual public/private nature, and how it was developed. Many have an emotional reaction when visiting, especially when talking with her about the plants.

“We have a lot of folks come in and they are not familiar with a lot of plants but when they see ones like marigolds and coxcomb, they’re reminded of their grandmothers’ yards,” she says. “I remember one morning, a guy came by looking very, very sad. I smiled and said good morning. I asked him if he recognized any of these plants. He said he did — zinnia. When we finished talking, that sad, sad face was gone. He left with a big smile.”

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Family’s farming roots run five generations deep

20 Aug

This story, published in August 2012 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was awarded First Place in the freelance writing category in the Arkansas Press Association’s 2013 contest.


GRADY, Ark. — Fifth-generation farmer Jody Hardin calls his family’s heritage “the glue we can’t unglue.”  Hardins have lived in Grady and farmed the fertile alluvial soil of Lincoln County in southeastern Arkansas since the 19th century. Today, Grady’s Main Street is home to two Hardins — Jody and his uncle Ed Hardin, the town’s mayor. They live as neighbors a short stroll from City Hall in wood-frame houses that have been in the family for generations. Jody’s parents, Randy and Debbie Hardin, live within walking distance on Old Highway 65, next door to his grandfather, E.C. “Ned” Hardin.

“In Grady, we are rooted deeply into the land and our family heritage. It’s a huge source of pride,” Jody says. “We’re building on what our ancestors have built.”

SINCE THE 1890s, FARMING HAS SUSTAINED THE FAMILY, whose members have also been civic leaders, politicians, innovators in agricultural business and mentors for other farmers. Now the fourth and fifth generations are carrying on their heritage by promoting sustainability of small and medium-size farms that grow food to sell locally. Each generation has reinvented, reinvested and reimagined the concept and practice of farming. Through sheer will and a love of the land, they’ve persevered and held on during years when drought, heavy rains or hail destroyed all or most of their crops, leaving them with debt and little else. They lived off the land through the Depression and two world wars. They kept their business alive even as family farming gave way to corporate farming, and when staying in agriculture meant being dependent upon government subsidies and policy.

“This is a tough struggle,” says Randy Hardin, who successfully sought to keep his farm independent of government subsidies by switching from cotton to food crops in the 1980s. “You have to work practically seven days a week. You’re never without pressure or the stress of it. Nothing is guaranteed. Every year, you have to put out all this money and risk and there’s nothing to guarantee you’ll get it back.”

THE HARDIN FARMERS OF TODAY are 44-year-old Jody, his brother, 27-year-old Josh, and their father, Randy, 63. Randy’s father, E.C. “Ned” Hardin, 94, has retired although he’s always available as an invaluable source of knowledge. Randy’s brother, 69-year-old Ed Hardin, isn’t involved in farming, but as Grady’s mayor continues the family’s heritage of civic leadership. Since the early 20th century, Hardins have served on the Grady City Council and as school board members. They’ve donated land for the high school’s football field and provided a building for the Optimist Club’s annual fish fry. Ned Hardin and his wife ran the county’s revenue office for 20 years. Ned’s brother, Joe Hardin (who died in 1992), was an original member of the Arkansas Farm Bureau and served as president from 1948-55. He also ran for governor against Orval Faubus in 1960.

When Jody Hardin testified before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee in March on behalf of small farmers and sustainable agriculture, he was simply following the example set by his great-uncle Joe. “Uncle Joe spoke 32 consecutive years to the Senate Agriculture Committee,” Jody says. “He affected farm policy. We’re trying to follow in his footsteps to make a mark on. My dad has ended up being a mentor for beginning farmers. He’s helped a lot of people be successful. Now me and my brother, Josh, are helping young farmers. We’re kind of taking the baton in teaching, educating, mentoring.”

Jody, who started farming with his father since 1983, is known throughout Arkansas as an advocate for small farmers and for his stance that farmers’ markets are for farmers, rather than non-farmers who resell produced purchased wholesale. In 2008, he founded Certified Arkansas Farmers Market, which requires that its members verify they are the source of their products. A co-founder of the Argenta Market in North Little Rock, he serves as its local food coordinator. Jody raises fruits, vegetables and grass-fed beef and beefalo, heritage hogs and goats, and herbs on 20 acres at Grady. In pursuing and advocating direct farmer-to-consumer marketing, Jody follows the footstep of his father, who changed the family farm’s production from cotton to food in the 1980s.

agriculture“My dad has been through harder times than even the Depression,” says Jody. “What he’s gone through to keep the farm alive is a story in itself. He’s about broke his back … He carried $4 1/2 million in debt through the ‘80s.”

“THE WORST YEAR I EVER HAD WAS 1980,” Randy recalls. That’s the year he thought he’d really lose the farm. “There was a drought. We had high temperatures and we didn’t have irrigation. We had to mortgage all of our land.” He feared that was the end of the family business, just as his father, Ned, had in 1962 when a hail storm wiped out his cotton crop, and like his grandfather, E.C.Hardin Sr., believed when a fire gutted his cotton gin in the ‘40s. Well, maybe the fire was in  the ’50s, say Randy and his father,  who agrees with his son that there’s so much family history to keep up with that specific dates elude them.

Back to 1980. “We were in pretty bad financial shape and I was looking for some way to do things to get away from government payments,” Randy says, referring to agricultural subsidies paid to farmers to supplement their income and manage supply and demand. “If the government takes the payments away, the farmer is broke.” The solution, Randy says, was food crops. The family had always raised food for themselves, but not to sell. To bring his to fruition, he says, he traveled the country researching how to grow vegetables and learning about seeds, fertilizers and other issues specific to vegetable farming, which he says is entirely different from raising crops like soybeans and rice. Each vegetable and fruit has unique needs, and every year there are new developments in seed varieties and farming techniques to keep up with.

TODAY, THE HARDINS FARM AND MANAGE 1,000 ACRES at Grady while also harvesting about 1,400 acres of pecan trees in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. “We farm about 750 acres of soybeans and rent the rest to neighbors,” Randy says. “I have about 100 acres planted in vegetables.”

While bumping along in his pickup truck along narrow roads winding through the farmland surrounding Grady, Randy points out 15 acres of watermelons, eight acres of cantaloupes, 40 acres of sweet corn, 25 acres of purple hull peas, three acres of squash and two acres of cucumbers. The crops are planted in neat, virtually weed-free rows watered with a drip irrigation system. “We’ve had to put up this electric fence to keep out the coyotes and ‘coons from eating them up,” he says, gesturing toward wire strung along the melon patches. “We have several varieties of watermelon. We have icebox, seedless and some bigger watermelons that get to 30-40 pounds.”

Some crops are sold to wholesale produce dealers, but most are sold directly to consumers through Hardin Farms and Market Too on Arkansas 165 at Scott and other enterprises. A picking schedule is posted on the market’s web site ( Customers check it and call in orders for produce, such as bicolor (white and yellow) sweet corn, and they’re contacted the day it’s picked, Randy says.

But produce wasn’t the only answer. To keep the farm a profitable operation, Randy followed in the footsteps of the first savior of the Hardin farm — great-grandmother Bettie Hardin, who took over the farm in 1898 when her husband died leaving her alone to support five young children, among them Ned’s father and Uncle Joe.  “She operated the farm,” Ned says. “She was the manager and my daddy was the manual labor. She raised hogs and chickens. She raised corn and we ground it up into cornmeal. She bought my father a cotton gin.”

MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER WAS THE BONDING AGENT that got the family through the Depression,” Randy interjects. “She did everything imaginable. She sold stuffed pillows, chickens and hot tamales. She did sewing and took in boarders. She soaked corn cobs in coal oil to build a fire with. She kept the shucks to make tamales with. She plucked the feathers off of chickens and geese to make pillows.

“She saved the farm.”

Like Bettie Hardin, Randy has found that diversification can keep the farm running through good times and bad. “It’s hard, almost impossible, to live just off the farm. We have what I call ‘creative financing.’ We have a sawmill. We have pecan harvesting.  We have a catering business, a restaurant and a market, a commercial kitchen. We work constantly just to survive.”

BUT THERE ARE REWARDS.  “I love to watch the crops grow. I love the marketing end of it when things are going well. And there’s being your own boss. When you make another crop, then you’re proud you’ve succeeded and it’s one more year you’re able to stay here. You’re defying the odds. In this business, when you’ve made it another year and paid your debts and had enough to live on, then you’ve got a lot to be grateful for.”

Jody agrees, saying, “We ask ourselves all the time, ‘Why do we stay, why do we struggle so hard?’ But there’s not a chance we’re leaving. It’s our heritage.”

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Holy Sews: Tiny layettes comfort grieving parents of stillborn children

26 Feb

 “I sewed and I cried and I sewed and I cried” — Regina Binz


    On the day after Thanksgiving in 2008, Regina Binz and a friend visited hospitals in Northwest Arkansas to offer them something she wished she’d had the year before, when her son, whom she named Ryan Henry, died in her womb 17 weeks into her pregnancy.

(Holy Sews photo)

    During the months since his death in 2007, Binz had been working through her grief by designing an outfit suitable for miscarried and stillborn babies, who are unimaginably tiny and fragile.
    She had refined her concept and created a tunic open on the sides, which could be placed over a baby’s head, then secured with a ribbon. Fetuses in early stages of development are simply too delicate and small for typical baby clothing. Even doll clothes don’t work because they have small arm and head openings, plus fasteners that could tear a baby’s gossamer skin.
    After much trial and error, Binz had a prototype for a workable garment. Her goal was to make and donate them to hospital delivery units so they would have something pretty, soft, durable and small in which to wrap the little ones before showing them to their parents.
    Her first stop was Mercy Medical Center in Rogers, Binz recalls. “We took our stuff in to show them. The nurse at the desk looked at us like we were crazy and she said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Then she told me they had a mother delivering a stillborn baby at that moment and they needed the tunic right then.”
    Binz had been planning to keep the prototype, but handed it over — with an unexpected feeling of gratitude — after hearing the nurse’s words. Being able to offer such a gift to another mother was a balm to her grief. It also meant she was on the right path with her plan for the garments. Until that point, she had been ambivalent — she needed to find an outlet for her grief but she also knew she needed to focus on raising her daughter, Torrie, then 7 years old.
    “When I found out that mother was having a boy, it was like a moment of affirmation. The sense of affirmation and liberation is hard to describe.”

Handmade layettes by Holy Sews volunteers

 Since that day, Binz and the group she founded, Holy Sews, have made and furnished 700 to 800 layettes — each one with a tiny tunic, blanket, knitted cap (petite enough to fit the narrow end of an egg) and miniature teddy bear — to 32 hospitals in the state.
    The group meets once a month at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Catholic Church in Little Rock, where Binz lives, to cut, sew and embellish layettes. Many of the women have lost babies themselves, while others just want to help. The ecumenical group of volunteers spends an afternoon cutting, sewing, assembling and packaging the layettes.
    On a Sunday in October, the parish hall at Holy Souls was filled with the jackhammer-like sound of sewing machines and cheerful chatter. Binz pointed to a blue gown for a baby born prematurely on a stand next to a smocklike tunic about one-third the size of the gown.
    “This is what my son was wrapped in,” she says. “That was humongous, but that wasn’t on my mind when they brought my son to me. I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’ll make clothes for all the babies of the world.’”
    Her son weighed 3 ounces and measured 7 inches, barely the length of her hand. Binz and her husband, Kevin, wanted to see their son so the nurses brought Ryan to them wrapped in a regular-size hospital blanket.
    “My son was handed to me with his head folded over like it might break off,” Binz says. “It was very startling. That’s what I kept in mind when I was working on the tunic and blanket. I wanted to make something that would support the head so that wouldn’t happen to another mother.”
    With that in mind, she worked on her design, discarding idea after idea until she was sure she had created the ideal garment.
    “I sewed and I cried and I sewed and I cried,” Binz says. “It’s a simple design, but it took me forever to get right.”
    Among the first mothers to receive the Holy Sews layettes was Megan Garrison, who gave birth to stillborn twins Bella (6.8 ounces) and Paschal (7.2 ounces) on April 10, 2009. The boy and girl were 21 weeks old. Babies who die after 20 weeks of pregnancy are considered stillborn, while those who die earlier are termed miscarriages or “pregnancy loss,” according to the National Stillbirth Society.
    “As soon as I got them, I was so touched,” Garrison says of the layettes. A video montage of photos shows the twins first wrapped in white washcloths, then dressed in blue and pink tunics with matching caps and blankets. One photo shows Garrison smiling and holding both babies.

Doll-size knitted caps are part of each layette

Being able to see her babies, hold them and examine them — “they have all your features already” — was a “nice closure,” Garrison says. And seeing them dressed like other babies instead of wrapped in a piece of cloth used for bathing is a measure of comfort during an immeasurably painful loss.
    Treasure Grier, a nurse for four years in the labor and delivery unit at the UAMS Medical Center, says having the layettes on hand is a blessing for the nurses, who must present the stillborn and miscarried babies to devastated parents.
    “We love them, we love them, we love them,” she says of Holy Sews tunics. “They’re easy to place on the babies, they’re beautiful and we feel like we’re giving parents a pretty baby. That’s important because they don’t always look as beautiful as parents would hope or expect.”
    She said parents are always appreciative. “We’ve never had anyone respond negatively” to seeing their baby in a tunic and cap. “It creates a beautiful memory and we send it home with the family,” Grier says. “For the parents, it’s a tangible thing that their baby wore, their baby held.”
    Sometimes the babies are cremated or buried in the layettes at parents’ request.
    The need for the layettes is greater than you might imagine, Grier says, explaining that a week earlier, there were six pregnancy losses within two days at the hospital. “It’s never-ending. All we can do is try to make it easier on the parents.”
    Money for Holy Sews’ supplies comes solely from donations — sometimes from people who have received layettes but also from people who just want to help. Holy Souls church also provides funding, Binz says. Each layette is blessed by a Catholic priest before being given to a hospital.
    Word has spread about the project and Binz is mentoring four women in other states who want to begin Holy Sews programs. “Every day, I send them an e-mail. I’m trying to use that as an opportunity to write a procedure manual,” she says.
    Binz says the project has healed her and is doing the same for the other mothers involved. And she’ll always remember the day the healing began.
    “I never met that mother at Mercy Hospital, but I always think about her the day after Thanksgiving. After that day, I could move again. I became excited about Christmas again. I was liberated.”

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This article originally appeared in the Nov. 30, 2011, Family section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A fine edge

20 Feb

Some of the finest knife-sharpening rock is found in the Ouachitas

By Rhonda Owen
    PEARCY — My father always said that a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one because the extra pressure needed to cut something with a knife that has lost its edge increases the chances of the blade slipping. So he kept his knives — pocket, kitchen, hunting — micro-sharp, testing their edges by shaving hairs on his arm.
    He had a lot of knives, so it seemed like he was always sharpening one. I recall the biting whisper of steel on stone as he drew a knife toward him, covering the length of the blade with each sure swipe.
    Focused and flowing, the act of sharpening knives seemed like a type of meditation, a Zen-like ritual. Of course, he’d laugh at that, but no doubt he’d agree there was a certain satisfaction in the repetitive task.
    Sadly, I never asked him to teach me how to sharpen a knife. I don’t know why; perhaps I thought he’d remember the time I sliced a forefinger trying to whittle with my Brownie knife and worry that I might cut myself more deeply. Maybe I was simply respectful of his reverie, or so I’d like to think.

This four-sided sharpener features four grades of Arkansas stone. (Rhonda Owen/2011)

 My father was old-school, keeping a finely honed edge on his blades with natural sharpening stones that he bought in Hot Springs. While he occasionally acquired other types of whetstones, he preferred the Arkansas stones because “they were the only good ones.”
    Using a whetstone as my father did takes more time and skill than using sharpening products popular today — electric grinders, rabbit-ear ceramic rods, manmade diamond stones, two-sided V-shaped devices that let you pull the blade through carbide and ceramic surfaces, to name a few. These are favored by the kitchen variety of knife users; sportsmen, woodworkers and knifemakers still hone the edges of their blades with stone, although not all use novaculite.
    Sharpening a knife with an Arkansas whetstone is a natural for Arkansans because the state’s generous deposits of novaculite put it first in the country for production of silica stone abrasives, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. The dense white-to-grayish-black microcrystalline quartzite stone quarried and cut in mines west of Hot Springs is valued as a premiere sharpening material throughout the world.
 “The Arkansas stone is the only stone on the market that actually polishes as it sharpens,” says Richard Hall, owner of Hall’s Arkansas Oilstones at Pearcy. Hall mines all grades of novaculite from a quarry he leases from the federal government in the Ouachita National Forest in Montgomery County. He says novaculite removes less metal from a knife, or whatever’s being sharpened, than a manmade stone does.
    “Arkansas stone” is a term recognized by hunters, butchers, master knifemakers, cooks and others all over the world, says Dan Kirschman, owner of Dan’s Whetstone Co., also at Pearcy. Kirschman has been in the business of mining and cutting novaculite for personal, commercial and industrial applications since 1976.
    “Arkansas stone has been used for probably centuries and is well known for sharpening capabilities,” says Lin Rhea, blacksmith and knifemaker at Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock. “Among stones in general, the Arkansas has the best cut and qualities. We’ve got Arkansas medium soft, Arkansas translucent, black novaculite surgical … I prefer using it because it’s natural and because I learned to sharpen with it growing up.”
    Hall says he and Kirschman are among only a few businesses still mining their own Arkansas stone today, but at one time there were at least 10. Hall deals in whetstones of all sizes — from “bench stones” that are 4 to 12 inches long to pocket stones that are 3 to 4 inches long.

A block of quarried novaculite is cut into smaller pieces by a diamond saw. Dan Kirschman, owner of Dan’s Whetstone Co., says the pieces are then processed into whetstones. (Rhonda Owen/2011)

 Kirschman’s novaculite products include whetstones (among them two-, three- and four-sided honers), but he also produces flints for antique flintlock guns, triangular and cylindrical sharpeners for getting into small spaces, black stones used by gemstone companies in Germany for testing gold karat weight, small wheels for polishing diamonds and larger wheels for sharpening tools such as axes.
    His biggest market is the dental industry, for which he makes tiny triangular rods for polishing dental instruments. Companies that make dental equipment buy only the whitest of the translucent novaculite “because it symbolizes purity,” Kirschman says.
    Novaculite has been in use for centuries and longer, he says. Prehistoric American Indians fashioned it into tools and weapons. Arrowheads uncovered in areas throughout Arkansas are made of novaculite from the Ouachita Mountain range. Early settlers used the stone to sharpen woodcutting tools.
    According to Kirschman’s web site, “mining records indicate that settlers … began mining in the early 1800s near Magnet Cove in Hot Spring County” and mining has remained constant since 1885.
    Most working quarries today are in Garland, Hot Spring, Montgomery and Saline counties, but ridges of whetstone quality novaculite are primarily confined to Garland and surrounding counties.
    All grades of novaculite from Arkansas are technically Arkansas stone, but the term refers specifically to the most fine-grained novaculite, Kirschman says. A second category of Arkansas novaculite is the coarser and less dense “Washita stone.”

Stacks of novaculite wait to be cut and processed at Dan’s Whetstone, a family-owned operation at Pearcy, Ark. (Rhonda Owen/2011)

   White and black novaculite are the most prized, but the opaque stone is found in many colors (often within the same piece of rock) — pink, gray, rust, blue-black and brown.
    “If two grades of stone are the same color, the general public has a difficult time determining the difference,” Kirschman says, explaining that color typically isn’t tied to variations in hardness or grade of a stone. He also notes that the terms quality and grade aren’t interchangeable when referring to novaculite. In fact, most of the terminology used to describe novaculite isn’t clear to people outside the industry.
    “Grade is the texture, while quality can mean either workmanship or natural variations in the material. We have classifications of grades of the different qualities. People don’t realize there isn’t a lot of difference in the grain size from a coarse stone to an extra fine stone.”
    What determines the quality of a stone is not the size of the grains within it but “density and specific gravity” or the compactness of the grains and the void between them.
    An enlargement of a microscopic picture of the surface of novaculite looks like a piece of quartz — craggy and pitted, with points of all sizes. Without magnification, however, the surface appears smooth.
    All those pits and points are what shave and capture tiny bits of metal removed when sharpening a knife, Kirschman says.
    “An Arkansas stone is a maintenance stone because it doesn’t take off a lot of metal in a hurry. By the same token, it doesn’t deface and scratch a knife up. It actually polishes as it abrades.”
    Novaculite also is unique in that it doesn’t wear down or hollow out with consistent use, he says. But to maintain its surface, it needs to be oiled with a light mineral oil with each use. If treated right, an Arkansas stone lasts for generations.
    “You’d be amazed at how many people have their daddy or grandfather’s Arkansas stone and are still using them.”

    Here are steps and advice for honing a knife using an Arkansas stone — also called an oilstone because it requires oil — provided by Lin Rhea, Dan Kirschman and Richard Hall.
    “The single most important thing is the consistency of the angle of the knife,” Hall says.
When sharpening a general purpose knife (most knives), the knife edge should be held against the stone at a 22 1/2-degree angle. A thin filet knife should be sharpened at a 15-degree angle.
    Kirschman’s whetstones are mounted in wooden frames that provide a guide for the most common angle. Hall describes how to establish an angle without a guide:
    “Lay your knife flat on the stone, then look at the width of the blade from the sharp part to the top part. You want onethird of that blade off the back of the edge of that stone. Then lift the back end of the knife about one-fourth of an inch. At that point, you can get your pointing finger on the edge.”
    Once an angle is established, pull the knife right to left across the stone, moving the knife so that the length of the blade is sharpened with each swipe. “Start closer to the handle of the knife and cover the entire stone and entire length of the knife blade,” Kirschman says. Pull 10 times on one side, then flip the knife to the other side and pull it across 10 times. The point is to sharpen the edge evenly on both sides of the blade.
    Always apply honing oil to the stone before use (honing oil is usually included when you buy a stone).
    “Oil will float the microscopic pieces of metal that come off with every stroke. It floats them up and away and allows the stone to cut better,” Rhea says.
    After finishing a sharpening session, wash the oil off of the stone with soap and water.
    When sharpening a knife, you can either use only the medium grade of novaculite or use medium and fine. The medium stone will sharpen the knife; use the fine stone next to refine the edge.
    Anytime you sharpen a knife, you’ll establish a “burr,” which is “a little foil edge waiting to be removed,” Rhea says. The average knife user probably wouldn’t finish polishing the knife to remove the burr (which would come off during normal use) but knifemakers and others would do so using a third tool — a leather strop that has been coated with a polishing compound.

A version of this article originally appeared Dec. 11, 2011, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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Serenity in motion

10 Feb

Last weekend, my boyfriend and I spent an evening at a couple of casinos at Tunica, Miss. I’ve never been a fan of casinos — the energy is wrong.

Tension that pierces the nerves like glass needles, over-the-top emotions, desperation, despair … that even more than the gloomy haze of cigarette smoke tightens my chest and steals my calm, my breath. And I just know some of the glassy-eyed people slumped at the slot machines had slipped way, their spirits lost in some soulless triple-line exchange. Made me wonder if there was a body detail lurking behind some door, waiting to slip in and scoop up the dead losers while the ones still breathing were distracted by a frantically wild craps shoot.

Many might consider the drive back to Little Rock through the winter-bare Delta to be a bleaker experience, but that’s where the beauty lives, the energy feels right, I’m able to focus and breathe, recapture calm.

Setting things right were sweet moments of serenity in motion like this on Hwy. 70 near Brinkley, where we happened upon a flock of geese resting in a flooded field.

What casinos?

Catching a breath

Serenity in motion