How to Grow Community: A Story of Place

Today I took a trip down memory lane because I was thinking about the importance of PLACE and COMMUNITY, especially in my development as an artist. I dug up an old grad school essay about place, specifically about The Family Tree, an underground art / music space I managed in Olympia, WA (almost two decades ago now!) :

“I am telling this story over and over again. So I don’t forget, so I’ll know it all really happened, and so I’ll do it again. It was Jahba’s idea to call it the Family Tree, which it was, but most kids called it “The Space,” which is was also. I had just reappeared in Olympia after a four month sabbatical at a San Diego art collective called World Evolution. So coming back to Olympia to hear of an empty and waiting warehouse space, I knew the next logical step.

meghan oona clifford family tree art collective
Olympia is a small town an hour south of Seattle, host to the Evergreen State College and all it’s politically radical student body. Also home to a defunct logging industry and the most rainfall in America, Oly attracts those who love green surroundings, green politics, and verdant creativity.

And so it made sense that an artists’ cooperative would thrive. I became the creative director and manager for the Family Tree. I guess it wound up my job because I wanted it. I had an unstoppable urge to create that space.

The glassblowers’ studio was already in place when I showed up. Some turntables were there, and the junk pile left by previous tenants. While the boys installed the bathroom, proudly up to code, I sorted through the heap according to usefulness: disco ball, paint, hoping carts, tape, chairs, wood…

While organizing, we started drawing up plans for the other office, a front room to be sectioned off, a booth for the DJs, and a VIP room. Over the months we built these sketches into reality, and the new structures became our next canvas. The emerging art included mural projects of course, but also an ongoing social sculpture that remain in my heart as some of the most beautiful art I’ve ever experienced.

meghan oona clifford family tree art collective

Amidst the sweat and tears, of which there were plenty, we all took time to stop and look up at each other, and realize we were working side by side to create this space. A community was forming – of DJs, glassblowers, fashion designers, dancers, yogis, painters, and teachers.

The Family Tree became a real sanctuary, especially during the winters. Though green and beautiful, Oly was also wet, cold, rainy, and oppressively grey for months on end. So the bright colors of the space cheered the soul. We couldn’t get enough of the colors. I started with the front room, duo-tone, blue and green like the earth and the floor with white waterfalls swirling upon it. The office was already a hospital green because Russell scored the paint for free, so I did the doors next, with the design I’d done in Hawaii, of a boy within two trees, the earth in his heart.

meghan oona clifford family tree art collective

The backroom, the largest space, filled up with the images of the Buddha, a Dakini, and Rumi’s poetry written along the Islamic-inspired border. Then came the graffiti kids, much to my delight, tagging snails, skeletons, and signatures. A youth group hosted a muralist from LA called Nuk who did a larger piece of city kids heading for the country. The painting projects were ongoing and nonstop.

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The music was always on, even if it was a mellow day and all we needed was some Ella Fitzgerald. We held a weekly dub and downtempo night called Family Roots, and a weekly hip-hop crew called the Unconventional. We hosted carious traveling shows came through, birthday parties, New Years galas, art openings, CD releases, fundraisers, and even a wake. Though there was absolutely no cash profit, but our community profited. It had a home.

When we first started working on the Space, we were living in our purple VW bus, which got old as soon as the November cold ushered in. So we rented a beautiful cabin on a cliff overlooking the sound. I liked the raindrops splattering on the roof and the smell of wet ferns. The rainforest informed the creation of the Space, and it made everyone’s inner reality grow too.

The mystic Hildegard conceptualized “Viriditas,” the creative effect of green surroundings. Like longhouses of the native people, the space became a refuge from the long winters, bursting with art, music, and friends. It became my home and family.

Everyone involved eventually scattered to the wind. What really tore apart the core group was ego; those for that cause, versus those for the acclaim. Artists versus investors. But looking back, maybe it was for the best. It became a TAZ, a temporary autonomous zone that ran for over two years.

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Because I’m obsessed with trees – their structure, symbolisms, cycles, as food and oxygen – I look at the Space like seeing a tree in the forest. Standing alone, but not alone; symbiotic with all the life around it. If its roots decay, it will fall. But once the seeds scatter, babies will emerge, and some are destined to take root.”

♥ ~ Meghan Oona

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