There Are Places I Remember

What makes a place meaningful?  I paint a lot of "places", so I ask myself this question regularly, but in the past week, when I learned of the closings of two locally-owned businesses in my town that meant a lot to me because of their charm, benefit to our community's health and happiness, and the memories of friends and family I had made in them (Emma's Tea Room [above photo] and Garden Cove, as many fellow Huntsvillains will know), the question became a bit more pressing than usual.

The outskirts of my hometown have been a mass of sprawling, dull box stores and development since the early 90's, but now the Downtown area is in the midst of major redevelopment plans too, and with this redevelopment comes both exciting openings and sad closings, unexpected changes both beautiful and frustrating, threatening talk of "urbanization", and genuinely productive questions such as "What makes a town engaging?" and "What makes people love their hometowns?"

 [Above:  St. Mary of the Visitation Catholic Church, where I have attended many a Latin Mass and many an organ recital and Christmas concert.]

Though I am no city planner, I can still try to answer those questions, if only from my own personal perspective.  Moreover, as an artist and local business owner, I can manage to express a little bit of what I love in certain places through my work and seek to explain why some places hold more magic and poetry in my imagination than others.  I can even try to create a little of that magic for others in my business.  I am particularly drawn to historic places, especially if they were beautifully designed, local businesses where the owners remember my name, libraries, ornate concert halls, museums with great rooms I can get lost in, universities that offer plenty of public lectures, buildings dripping in ornamental carvings and corniches, untamed nature, parks in which people and nature may find balance, fountains, friendly small towns filled with flower shops and farmers markets, places that are romantic and old. . . but it is not always easy to explain why exactly.

Familiarity may play a role-- my thoughts are always moving and changing, so I long for certain things, such as the joy of sitting on an old front porch with a book, to stay the same-- but I think there is more to it than that.  I crave the sort of authenticity, continuity, and harmony that allows my mind to organize its jumbled words and images into meaning and value, and those qualities can be hard to find and even harder to cultivate in a world that seems perennially obsessed with shallow trends, obnoxious celebrities, vicious political ranting, and making a quick buck.

I look for the personal touches that add warmth to an existence that can be mysterious or cold, the organic traditions and quirks that can only spring up over time that help us bond with one another and enjoy life just a bit more, the lack of pretense and the openness to experience that spark thought, creativity, and discovery.

[Above: "The Tourist", a painting of me taking a picture on a quiet street in Old Decatur, AL.]

Sometimes, I find what I am looking for in my own hometown, but I often have to take to the open road to find it. . . to small towns, to hidden corners, off the main highways, to the places that are authentic because most of the people who would manage to obscure their authenticity have not found them yet.  I can hear myself think in these quieter, older places, and though some of the more rural areas among them may not offer enough in the way of academia or arts for me to see myself living in them permanently, they often still manage to awaken my soul enough for me to want to keep going back or hope to have a summer home in the country one day.

Seeing boarded up windows and crumbling bricks in once-thriving small towns can be as heart-breaking as seeing them torn down in the name of progress, but somehow, I still see hope in these places too, and sometimes they even surprise me with the way they have managed to revive themselves with art, local business, and lots of love and care.

[Above:  Lem Motlow's house on the grounds of Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynchburg, TN, a town that remains more or less frozen in time, though I hear this house has been rebuilt recently.]

What makes a place meaningful?  What makes a town engaging?  What needs to be protected, promoted, preserved and celebrated in a place?  Local ingenuity.  People who embrace what makes that place unique.  Memories.  Stories.  History.  Beautiful natural settings.  Beautiful, classic architecture with  balanced aesthetics and a human scale.  People who are proud of who they are and where they are going.  Authenticity.  Those are just a few of the things that come to mind, though I have only scratched the surface with this post and will continue to contemplate this subject for the rest of my life.

Do you have a favorite place?  Why is it meaningful to you?

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