Last summer Jeanne Vockroth, recent honors fine arts alumna and New Orleans native, found herself in the lush hills of northeastern Pennsylvania at an artist’s retreat, Mildred’s Lane, that can only be described as a “living museum.” Vockroth was part of a weeklong fellowship program that led to her initiation into the secret “Order of the Third Bird.” From breads and cheese carefully wrapped in hand-woven cloth before being placed in the fridge, to three-hour long guided meditations on an object that shall remain unnamed, Vockroth brought back strong motivation from Mildred’s Lane to spark her own art career.
Tell me about Mildred’s Lane; what was it like while you were there?
Mildred’s Lane is a farm. There’s a complex of buildings on the farm, most of which are actual art projects. There’s the main house, the barn, and Mildred’s House, who the residency is named after – she was one of the original farm owners. Mildred’s house acts as a museum now. The main house is where J. Morgan Puett, the founder of Mildred’s Lane, lives.
I did meet Morgan. We spent time with her socially, but we did not work with her as a part of the Third Bird practice. She’s really eccentric. I really enjoyed meeting her because her artwork is heavily textile and fashion based, which coincides with my own interests in textiles and material studies. I got to see her working studio, which was just amazing. Her story is that she went to grad school for film and film studies, but became a sort-of fashion starlet after she graduated; she did her graduate thesis on recreating Depression-era clothing. After that, she moved to New York and started her own business. She ended up working in the fashion industry for a long time, but she’s always done fine art as well.
Mildred’s Lane is sort of an interactive living environment: living in art. Morgan is really interested in tearing down the boundaries between work and life. A major part of being at Mildred’s Lane is called “work styles,” which is looking at housework as an artistic practice: arranging things in the house artistically and basically being very intentional about the way that you live.
There are different work styles that you’re assigned every day. There would be cleaning work styles for the barn area, a housework style for taking care of the house and cleaning the house – tidying, and then there would be a kitchen work style, which was the most demanding. It involved cooking and helping to prepare meals, as well as a setting up the dining table and space. We ate every meal formally, so we had to set up a dining area.
When you were doing the kitchen work style, you’d get up early and try to be in the kitchen by 8 a.m. You’d make some eggs, set out some granola, and make the coffee for everyone. We would all hang out or have free time until 10 a.m. The first couple of days we did a practice called Feldenkrais. It’s similar to yoga – bringing your mental awareness in sync with your physical awareness. We would have lunch after that, and then we’d reconvene at 2 p.m. for an “Order of the Third Bird” practice, which would usually last about 3 hours. You actually do the practice, and then you reflect on it verbally.
I stayed in a loft that is up above the communal space of the barn. It’s been called the “Bat Motel” because apparently there used to be a lot of bats up there before recent repairs were made to the barn roof. It was really nice; although it was in a communal area, it was sort of hidden. We were staying in old antique beds, and there were antique chairs in the room. We had these gigantic comforters, which was nice because the first night it was really cold.
It’s amazing that Morgan has just opened up her home. She has made her life into an art piece, essentially. Her house is art. The people living in her house are art. It’s sort of like being a living art piece all the time. It’s difficult because as an artist, you are constantly critiquing yourself and trying to find ways to make your art better, so it’s sort of like that never stops while you’re at Mildred’s Lane.
What was the group project you worked on?
Well, I was doing a very particular session at Mildred’s Lane called “Order of the Third Bird,” which is different from the normal Mildred’s Lane routine. Normally, I think the sessions at the lane are 2-3 weeks, and the “Order of the Third Bird” is just a week long. They do the program every year, and it’s led by two professors from Princeton, D. Graham Burnett and Jeff Dolven, and Sal Randolph, an artist based out of New York. I can’t really talk about it that much because the “Order of the Third Bird” is ritualistic; it’s sort of a critical art practice. You’re basically sworn to secrecy when you are initiated into the order.
The practice is a means of using focused attention to reflect on an “object”; however, the definition of “object” is loose here. Although usually an art object, it could be architecture or performance as well. It’s a method of using focused attention in a group setting, but all in silence. That’s the best way I can describe it.
It’s a meditative process; It was more about experience and reaction than production, but we did actually produce something one day. We came up with words, as our individual responses, and then recorded those words. I thought of it as a living poem. It was more verbal than visual. We would have reflective time alone to write our written responses to each practice, and then we would reconvene. Sometimes we would have long discussions, and other times we would restrict our experience to one word. I really liked that because I am interested in writing and in words and bringing that into my artistic practice.
The practice was really psychologically exhausting. It was the same experience as going to a museum. Going to a museum is really intellectually and mentally tiring; it’s a different kind of work than you’re used to doing. This was interesting because it was a different way to look at an art piece. With art, there’s always a viewer, an audience of some sort: viewing a piece is finishing a piece. It was very much about that idea. It was about approaching that experience in a different way than we are taught in school. It was the opposite of an academic critique. It was about letting your guard down and removing yourself from criticism, judgment, and just sort of letting your responses flow.
We did create a bonfire at the end of the week. That was the one tangible thing that we did make. Every group has to make a bonfire on the last night, and I got to meet Mark Ruffalo, a friend of Morgan’s, at the last dinner. He was very nice. He looks exactly the same in person as he does on screen, which is rare.
What was it like to work in a group rather than by yourself?
It was hard. It was a really good experience, but it was definitely challenging. My group working experience was about the group process of art criticism and doing this practice together, but it was also involved in the work styles; that’s where I had the most collaborative experience. I liked it in the sense that when you are working in a group, everyone takes on different responsibilities, so you don’t have to bear the entire burden of the work. At the same time, as inevitably happens in a group setting, there are always some people who take more initiative than others. That was true with the kitchen work, which was frustrating. If you wanted a break from things because it was so group-oriented, you had to just sort of disappear. So, people would disappear and whoever was still there and had a strong sense of responsibility was left with the work. That can be difficult.
How did visiting Mildred’s Lane impact your work?
It’s very motivating. I’ve been working a 9-5-service industry job and taking my “after graduation break” and it really made me motivated to find ways to integrate art into my daily life.
What’s next for you?
I’ve started studying for the GRE. Mildred’s Lane got me to start thinking about graduate school and what I want to do next. I do want to have my art as my work ultimately, everyday. It’s made me start thinking of ways I can integrate that more into my life. I just joined the Fayetteville Underground and got a studio. I’m in the process of setting that up and getting into my studio practice again. Being around Morgan also made me really want to work on my clothing construction skills in general, so that’s a larger goal that I have right now.
At this point I see myself going to graduate school for fibers. I’m looking for a program that is interdisciplinary in nature, but has fiber staff members and facilities: dyeing facilities, weaving facilities, sewing facilities and staff experts who can help me with those skills.
It’s hard because my struggle has always been “I just want to go back to New Orleans,” but there’s no fiber program that exists in New Orleans or Louisiana. So that’s my personal struggle, feeling like I need to return, but being pulled in different directions by other things.