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F’Air Words 2013 – 3rd place nonfiction

This submission is an excerpt form a much larger body of work titled,”Volatile Traversal, Explorations of Home and Body Bound by Recollection.” A graduate thesis, it is based upon the lines drawn and crossed over between art and life. Robbins included many of the stories of strangers she met on a bicycle tour she created between California and Alaska in 2011, while also raising awareness and funds for the Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland – Artist in Residence Program. Robbins is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage in the Department of Art. The entire winning excerpt can be read online at

It is Here that I Search for an Anchor

By Cole Robbins


An important question to consider is: How does an artist know when to begin and from where? It is time for new beginnings, as the influence of my physical and geographical location lends itself to the process of creative endeavors. However, even random acts and daily routines can be worked into a system of exploration and discovery. Traveling from one’s home to a place beyond the private life and into public space can encourage both intellectual and artistic pursuits. An immediate association with an artist’s studio, especially when prefaced with the word sculpture, are chainsaws, welding equipment, table saws, power tools and assorted industrial materials stacked and sorted on the shelves that line the walls. “The tools of art have too long been confined to ‘the studio,’”1 (Smithson, 1968). What happens when the system within a sculptor’s studio is disrupted? What happens when the studio becomes the “bondage of creativity” instead of a space to work through ideas in three dimensions? As the years accumulate I record time in the pages of notebooks. I respond to situations I am unable to articulate otherwise. As long as I carry a pen in one hand and pages are tucked into pants pockets, I am armed with an escape route.

To write down the pain in narrow hallways and on the rooftops of unfamiliar buildings was not enough to identify a solution to unanticipated circumstances of adolescence. I had only just arrived in that small town with a suspicious accent and just as Smithson, “must leave New Jersey,” I knew I had to leave North Carolina as abruptly as I had arrived. This was only the beginning of a journey without a clear destination, except to recognize I held on tight to the name of place marked on a map, over three-thousand miles away. The act of getting lost within the pages of text is similar to an artist in her studio, rearranging spaces and creating systems of organization. Smithson was interested in the decay of the natural and urban environments and I was trying to navigate a route beyond self-destruction and towards the vast landscapes of the Last Frontier.

There were many people who stood by and said I wouldn’t leave that small town. I was being pulled like a magnet to metal in a Northwest direction and I didn’t want to contemplate another option. I bought a round-trip ticket with the intentions of making it a one-way destination. My instinctive attraction to the process of creating art lured me into the studio. Before stepping through the doors that read, “Sculpture,” I spent summers hiking high elevations and treading single trek trails. I spent my time late at night writing down the daily observations and encounters with strangers. This routine found its way into my practice of working out thoughts in sketchbooks and while drowning uncertainties. It is here that I identify with Smithson and how he “later drew analogies between the process of making sculpture and that of writing.” Following my first two years in graduate school, I sought the connections between traditional and performance art. I set conversations on fire in appropriate settings and gave the viewer restricted access to personal reflections. This immediate, direct connection with an audience challenged both the artist and the viewer. Through performance can take on a new life, separate from its initial intentions. What is placed on a page can be as important as a performance, especially when presented to multiple audiences. However, does this form of representation force the original single artwork to loose its integrity? At present, I am following in Smithson’s footsteps and assembling a “collage of texts” in an effort to remind myself that there is in fact, power in beginning what we fear, a reminder to walk beyond and return to the space of the studio.

It is here, as an adult, that I map the concepts associated with the body, with its incisions and scars under an umbrella of memories that I undress before you. It is here, within these pages that I am anchored to my truths of my past. The woven layers of my story have been sculpted by my experiences, as they are perceived through these eyes, the eyes of an artist. It is here that I put down an anchor.


The weeping willow would wrap its branches around my little body and I would swing around in circles all summer long until the snow began to fall. I would climb the narrow stairs through the door beside my bed, up into the attic, and I remember falling asleep late at night listening to the train roll by out on the tracks. I would walk those train tracks during the day, flattening pennies and climbing over railroad ties. Those are the few memories I have of living in that house on Woosley Street in Lansing, Michigan. Just after my baby sister was born we moved across town to Gilbert Street. I would spend the next ten years of my childhood, quickly adapting to the reality of innocence taken and adult arguments. And this time instead of stairs, I climbed trees, hid high above the ground and settled in between the pine needles caught in my hair and soaked in my tears. I wanted to run away from home and when I wasn’t trying to live in trees, I was peddling my bike past one house and another until the streetlights came on at dusk. I remember all too well the morning my mom stood in the kitchen, skin and bones, hair falling across her shoulders, shielding her face as she stared at me and the boxes that scattered the floor. Surrounded by dishes wrapped in plastic bubbles and others broken and piled in the trash, the only truth I knew was that we were moving far away from the cornfields I would get lost in until after dark. We were leaving this house, my pink bedroom, and the yard where my cat Squeekers, and Casey my cocker spaniel were buried. I didn’t realize the duration of time spent down the driveway from the mailbox that read 2296 Gilbert Street would be the most significant in shaping the next the thirty years of my life.

We found ourselves, a family, driving the highways that connected Michigan to North Carolina with everything we owned packed in a U-Haul truck. I was the passenger riding high above the other cars, knowing we would not be returning to the place I could once point to on the palm of my hand. Instead we moved to the part of the country defined as The Bible Belt.

Days later, we arrived at our new ‘home’ down back roads and dirt roads to sixty-four acres of land with a waterfall and a place where Dad’s dreams were to build a house to call home. I would enter high school at the age of 14 in an unfamiliar town, and an unfamiliar room to call my own with walls painted bright shades of lime green. I would wake in the middle of the night to my mom saying she would return in a few days, to not return at all.


Home became a battlefield where I stuffed condoms in my pockets in search of love, found my Dad in a closet of pot plants and my sister sleeping the days away. Within a few months our home was cluttered with a woman who filled a void for Dad, accompanied by a (temporary) stepsister and stepbrother. In order to satisfy their needs and destroy my fathers dreams, we all packed up and moved, yet again, to a house closer to a different town with enough room for everyone to disappear into their own worlds behind closed doors. Eventually, the slamming of doors would break the support and the crack the frame. The morning light would settle against the shattered glass and the wooden floors were gouged with the history of a rushed escape. I was tired of being the victim, tired of reacting to circumstances that were out of my control. I took to spending endless hours in my room, similar to a long narrow hallway, painted green in the basement, hidden away from the world I didn’t want to be a part of. Instead, I traveled by turning the pages of books and I released the fear across the strings on the fret board of my guitar.
The year I graduated high school, I rented a hotel room in Durham, North Carolina and spent endless hours circling the pages of classified ads. After visiting multiple rooms for rent I decided upon an apartment complex I could clearly not afford as I signed my name away at nine hundred and eighty dollars a month. The display model, two-bedroom apartment, furnished in such a way that was inviting, elegant and organized led me into the excitement and anticipation of a place to call my own. So, I signed the papers and I would call ‘home’ a vacant apartment with a balcony overlooking a few trees. I didn’t realize the apartment would not be furnished with the comforts of home and I was walking into an empty space I would not be able to afford on my own. I needed roommates, and a place to hide away from the chaos of living with strangers. Far from the elegant, organized idea of what I thought this home could be, it became for me a mattress within a closet as my bedroom and sheets suspended from the living room ceiling to create private spaces within what became an all too public living arrangement when parties started to occur on a nightly basis. The need for a private space was conveyed clearly when the second roommate, my friend, bolted a lock to the outside of his bedroom door.

Holding onto nothing but a thread from the piles of needles we were treading on, I broke the lease and closed the door that held the imprint of my ex-roommate’s boot. I spent the next few months walking and running on the country roads surrounding my Grandparents house, their home for over forty years. In the years that my sister and I had lived, we spent most of our summers and weekends visiting with my Grandma and Grandpa, “Packey.” This time, I had my choice of one of the three rooms upstairs to settle into while I saved enough money to get back on my feet. I would spend the weekends with Packey in the shop – Grandpa’s Hideaway – watching as he formed knives and built furniture. As night fell he and I would pop popcorn on the stove and I would situate myself on the edge of Grandma’s chair between her cat: Lucy-Lou and the quilt she was working on. I would say “goodnight” and awake in the morning to my room with a view of the snow settling onto pavement. A few months had passed and I had saved enough money to buy one round trip ticket to the place I had dreamed of since fourth grade, Alaska. Packey helped me shove warm winter clothes and coats into his old Army sack and books into a backpack. The clock was quickly counting down the hours before my plane would leave out of Detroit. My best friend parked the car in the driveway and watched as we said our good-byes, tears streaming down our faces, my Grandma knew I wouldn’t be on that return flight, two weeks following my twentieth birthday. With a backpack and three hundred dollars to my name, I was on a plane in February to Anchorage, Alaska. When the plane touched down I found my way across town to an international hostel – a place for fellow travelers to drop their things and stay awhile.

The temperature reached fifteen degrees the next morning and I skated in my Doc Martins across streets of solid sheets of ice searching for a place to call home. I had two weeks before the return ticket expired and I came across a duplex where I would live with two roommates for the next few months until the snow started to melt. While working at the locally owned art store, I decided it was necessary to explore the magnitude of the mountains and the beauty that bordered this town.
Leaving the sprawling city streets of Anchorage behind, I caught a ride down the Kenai Peninsula in the pickup of a friend of a friend. I wandered into a lodge where cabins were neatly situated further down the road and there was a campground at the base of the mountain. I lived in one of those tiny cabins with three other girls as we spent our time rotating between shifts in the restaurant and staying awake all night around the campfire. Our lives were complicated by the drama and excitement of thirty strangers quickly becoming a community in a few short months. At the end of the tourist season many of us became tourists ourselves, with cash in our pockets. I chose to navigate another airport, this time en route to Prague, Czech Republic.

Returning to Alaska, I had just enough money to visit REI and purchase all required equipment to call home a tent for the next few months. I stood with my life situated neatly on my back as I put out my thumb and caught a ride back down to the Kenai Peninsula. That summer I created a home in the town of Copper Landing, within walls that flapped in the wind and held small pockets of rain in unfortunate areas when unzipping the ‘door’ in the morning. My fold up cot took the place of a mattress and my -35 degree sleeping bag replaced down comforters. I stored a few pots and pans and a backpacker’s stove below my cot and books and journals in a plastic container that doubled as a desk. Winter was approaching quickly as termination dust lingered at the top of the mountains and it would be time to pack up and move back to Anchorage to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage.

I spent the following year and a half moving every three months or so between friends’ spare rooms, dorm rooms and lover’s bedrooms. Freezing rain and sleet tapped at the windows and as weeks progressed, snow blanketed everything from front steps to rooftops. To heat things up, friends and I would head to the local gay bar and dance until two in the morning and saunter or stumble to the parking lot lit up by headlights with people on their way home with someone else, or home to their own bed. In the months to follow, slowly becoming years, I spent my days with a woman I would later marry. We settled into an in-law suite situated in the hills above the city, with a view of the waters that wrapped around the coast of Anchorage.

Between the scheduled holidays marked on an academic calendar I made several trips home. One trip in particular followed the completion of my baccalaureate degree in 2005. To go home at that point in time meant getting on a plane and traversing at least three thousand miles across the country to a small town outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan to my Grandparents house situated on a dirt road separated on either side by wetlands. This time of year the wetlands were miniature skating ponds covered in thin layers of ice. Following a brief visit, when I returned to the home I’d created with another, I was met with disappointment.

That late afternoon on New Years Eve, she removed the ring from her finger and tossed it to the floor and said, one of us needs to leave without an explanation. Scanning the room through the tears, it was clear that I was more prepared to frantically pack up my life into a few boxes. As I drove away from the life I had clearly only imagined, my car broke down on the side of the road covered in sheets of ice. My friend Maria and her father came to the rescue and she and I spent the next few months calling home someone else’s until the for sale sign read sold. After a few months, when I was invited to return to the place that belonged to two, now belonged to one and it was my chance to paint the walls, walk through open doors and dance in front of the fireplace on my own. But it was within those walls, the red wine stain on the carpet and the curtains that covered the window where the secrets of our love and fear were hidden from view. The memories could be pushed under the rug and painted over but the history lingered in the air like the smoke that would fill a room from her pursed lips. The winter months and the depths of the darkest days began to weigh down my spirit and so I accepted the invitation to stay with a friend in Florida until I could seek to find my way home – wherever that home would be.

Connections and conversations can carry me, hold me, drive me and break me, but this encounter reminded me I could try on and situate myself in California. I caught the next flight to San Francisco and spent the next few months trying to adjust to the atmosphere, the traffic, and the idea of an ‘open-relationship’ while sharing a bedroom with my friend, my lover, in the home of three strong spirited women. Seeking courage and strength I caught a ride from a guy who posted to Craigslist and when he picked me up we drove to a Northern California town. He needed some help with the gas money to get to his hometown and I was desperately searching for my mom. I heard she lived on a Native Reservation in a tiny town called Hoopa and that we had not met face to face in twelve years. Though fearful of what I would discover, I could not have been prepared for the week to follow. Her home was a shack with carpet covering the holes in the floor while sheets covered the broken windows. We did not recognize one another, but we knew the tears that poured down our faces. As I looked through tear filled blurry eyes all I could recognize were the suitcases beside the bed, packed with the same old clothes from the year she walked out of our lives. Instead of suitcases I carried my backpack and caught a ride back to the Bay Area.

Following a few months here and there in places that didn’t feel quite right to call home I called a small cottage in the backyard of a Berkeley home. I fell in love with a woman who lived in the apartment across the lawn. She would soon return to the empty house she once shared with another for fifteen years. She arrived to view of the Bay through her kitchen window and Wildcat Canyon as her backyard. Today, four years later, we live together in the house on the hill and we have created a space to call home. We invite and we are often invited to the homes of our neighbors across the way and around the corner, for spontaneous dinners. We have grown to become a family, all of us sharing keys to our front door. And over a glass of wine or two we wander through the day sharing stories of things we discovered or dream of accomplishing.



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