Up Close & Personal
Ryan Hnat’s world isn’t flat, and neither is his artwork. His new exhibit at Afa Gallery is called “Plane Space,” and it’s anything but plain. The show moves beyond just a two-dimensional painting to a realm where flat surfaces don’t exist. It plays with geometry and physics to show a world full of textures, colors and lines. Hnat has a passion for turning things around him into art, whether it’s a surface of a canvas, or pieces of nature. That’s clear from his new outdoors-themed book, Watch Towers and Portals, which he co-wrote with his wife, Amy. The book will be released at the exhibit opening on Friday, March 7 from 6 to 9 p.m. at Afa Gallery, located at 514 Lackawanna Ave. in Scranton. The event is a marker in the Scranton resident’s young, already successful career. The Penn State and Marywood grad has shown his art in several other cities, including Philadelphia and New York. But he’s also working to unite other artists, right here in The 570. Meet Ryan Hnat …
Tell me about your exhibition at Afa Gallery.
The exhibition includes abstract paintings and several sculptures I’ve created. So it’s a really immense show — it’s intense. The sculptures in the show are built out of a lot of house materials, because we bought a house and we’ve been doing a lot of construction work and everything’s right there. It makes sense to work with those materials. The paintings are a year’s worth of work. It’s an exploration of plane space, the use of three-dimensional objects and also texture and color. Though the sculptures are very minute in color, the paintings are very bright. And they’re from small to large. We’re trying to meet everybody’s tastes and budgets so everybody can walk away with a work from the show.
Why should people come to the show?
It’s going to be something they’ve never seen before. They’re going to either really love it or hate it, and I think everybody’s going to love it. I hope anybody who comes to this show is going to be blown away. It’s going to be a real breath of fresh air, a new look at what a painting can be. We’re really trying to get more people out. Basically, come to a show and ask questions. Learn about the paintings and spend time with a work as opposed to looking at it and walking away. Some paintings that I experienced that I really enjoyed, I couldn’t tell you if I liked them right away or not. After 15 minutes or an hour and a half, that’s when you really get to know and see a painting.
What places do you find inspiration for your artwork?
My wife. She puts up with a lot and she helps me, a lot of times I’ll come to her and ask, ‘hey, is this color right? How do you like this?’ I also get a lot of inspiration from being out in the woods and from people in general, just being out and about and seeing how people interact with space and how objects are created. Also, I’m an elementary school teacher for Neil Armstrong for the Scranton School District, and it’s a lot of fun. The kids are great. I kind of steal from them every once in a while because their art is so good sometimes.
What is the concept of your new book, Watch Towers and Portals?
The quote on the back is probably the best way to say it: ‘a visual journey of play throughout remote places in Northeastern Pennsylvania.’ The book is not about doing these awesome, incredible works. It’s about trying to inspire people to go out and play in the dirt, get outside. We also dedicated the book to everybody who preserves nature around us. So it’s really about getting out and seeing how nature works and trying to show a human presence without having an impact. We’re not making any money off the book, we just did it to get it out there, show people what we did, document it.
What are watch towers and portals?
You would never see a watch tower or stacked stones unless it was from other human, so it shows you a human presence when you’re out in the middle of the woods in a very remote place but you know you’re still safe because somebody stacked stones here, so somebody else has been here. The portals are very temporary sculptures in leaves, and they’re about just a timeless moment, a real quick spot, and some of them are really big. We leave them and we try to engage people to walk around them or stand in them. And they’re built right by major waterfalls or along a path, and when you come across it it’s another human element. We probably started the first one 2 and ½ years ago. It was when Amy and I just started dating.
It seems like you really love nature.
Yes. Amy and I are both avid rock climbers. We’re probably out in the woods two or three times a week without a doubt. I probably take our two dogs walking every day in Nay Aug Park. When Amy’s home on the weekends, we’re usually at East Scranton Park. I built a lot of sculptures on Roaring Brook, which is in a really remote section, and you have to go down a little cliff to get to it. I think there’s still one standing.
How do you work to promote other local artists?
I’m on the board of Afa, and right now we’re trying to bring everybody together again. Everybody wants to do their own thing and be successful, but the only way that everybody can survive in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre is if everybody works together and supports each other. Everybody can prosper. What’s great about Afa is they support the artist so much and it’s a great place for your art to be seen. It was the first place that started First Friday. There’s a lot of support for other artists and it’s a great community and I can’t be more grateful to be a part of it.
What’s next for your career?
I would like to go on to a bigger city. We’ll probably be in Scranton for a long time. To really make a career as an artist and keep moving on, we really have to push for New York City and push beyond, trying to do something international. There might be a possibility for me showing in the Czech Republic in the next year, so we’re trying to get things moving in the right direction, and this is where it’s all starting. I’m getting tons of support from lots of public sources and it’s really getting exciting. I think starting local and getting the support here and having the people around here support the arts and support individual artists to keep building their career, anybody around here can do anything and that’s what we need lots of — lots of local support.
Up Close & Personal
The Business of Art
Artist and business teacher Lisa Malsberger only opened her arts and crafts business, Tig and Cooney’s, last June, and she has already built herself a nice following on Etsy and landed a corporate Christmas order from Pittsburgh. So far, her business offers place-related coaster sets, personalized pillows and doggie bags and will be expanding even more in the coming months. Every gift comes complete with a handwritten note and Lisa makes sure each customer gets what they had in mind. When she’s not riding bikes, doing yoga or heading to the beach, this Olyphant resident is thinking about her next art project. Meet Lisa Malsberger …
How did you come up with the name Tig and Cooney’s?
The business is named after my dog’s two favorite stuffed animals, a tiger and a raccoon, hence Tig and Cooney.
And you’re obviously a dog person, so let’s hear about your little guy.
(Laughs) He’s a cockapoo, and his name is Bubba Charles.
So how did you get started in making your art?
Well, I’m actually a high school business teacher and I do this on the side. The whole thing started less than a year ago — it will be a year in June. I always made handmade gifts or tried make something different for gifts for the people in my life. The whole idea started a few years ago when a friend was moving away to Texas. I wanted to get her a going away present to celebrate that she was moving away, but also something that reminded her of home. That’s how I got started with the maps, and it became the line Something Beautiful. Then that line expanded to include New Jersey where I always visited as a kid. I try to make gifts that I would want someone to give me or something that I would like. A lot of it has to do with maps, different places, oceans and things of that nature. Around here, I work with a lot of Scranton maps. I also make dog pillows and doggie bags.
How does the doggie bag work?
Well, say one of your friends gets a new dog, you give them this bag with some dog treats or gifts in it. The bag is personalized just for that dog. I base my ideas on my interests and music is another huge favorite of mine, so I’ve made some Bruce Springsteen coasters for girlfriends or wives to give to their husbands. I’m looking to expand the music part of the business more, so I started doing Pearl Jam, too — putting their lyrics on a throw pillow.
Tell us more about the map coaster sets, since that seems to be your specialty at the moment.
The coasters are made of travertine stone, which is a really great, quality material. I love when people order them through word of mouth and when I get to see them open them for the first time. They’re always like, “Wow, these are heavy.” (Laughs) But they’re really nice to display in your house or to use. I do wedding gifts, too, so I can personalize the coasters with a couple’s maps and memories. I have them choose four places that are special to them, like the place they met, or where they went to college, or where they live now and I make the coasters based on those places.
What do you think of selling your work on the website Etsy? Is there competition out there for your type of work, or is what you do so location-specific that you’re not really affected?
I think for the dog things, there’s a lot of competition. You can type in “Boston Terrier” and come up with 40,000 items. But if you type in “Manasquan, N.J.,” there’s going to be 10 results, and one of them will be a postcard and the rest will be my work. I have a niche there, I guess. Being a business teacher, I’m then able to take the business I have and the model I use and teach it to the kids.
What is the biggest challenge facing you in terms of your business right now?
It goes back to what you were saying — Etsy is great because I can get my products out there, but at the same time it’s saturated with so many shops. I have to strive to stay different and unique. When I make it, I make sure I put everything into it. Whether it’s a gift for Christmas, a birthday, a wedding, that person trusts Tig and Cooney’s to make it. I make sure to keep the communication open. Do you want something different? I’ll put a different tag on it. Having a personal relationship with the customer is really important to me. I don’t have a storefront. People can’t come in, see an item, pick it up and say, “I love it,” and take it home. That’s why I keep that communication open and rely so much on feedback on my Etsy site. And that’s a great thing about Etsy: It’s getting out to people, getting good feedback on how much they love these gifts and how unique they are. They’re personalized. I ask them, “Tell me a story. Tell me why you’re ordering this.” Then I personalize it and I even include a handwritten note inside the box. Let me know how you like it, and leave feedback!
And you’ve been contracted for a pretty big project out of Pittsburgh, yes?
That’s the other thing about Etsy. If I didn’t have that site, they never would have found me. The sales manager at the Renaissance Hotel in Pittsburgh was searching online for corporate Christmas gifts and she found me. I put their hotel on the map where it is in Pittsburgh and made them their own personalized sets. I had to make 280 coasters in three days. (Laughs)
Did the big contract change the way you run things in your art business? Sometimes those big orders can be really overwhelming, I’d imagine.
I did get some help from people, absolutely, but really, Tig and Cooney’s is just one person.
What is your creative process like? Do you have a studio space? Do you have any art-making rituals?
I work out of my house so it’s kind of insane (laughs). With the Pittsburgh order, I had to go elsewhere to get it all done. Most of the time, though, it’s just this quiet little space where I put some music on and start creating things. Again, this is why being online is so nice because I have no overhead.
What’s your creative-time music soundtrack?
I love the Gaslight Anthem, Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel … a lot. I like so much. (Laughs).
Your teaching job is unique. Can you explain it to our readers?
I was a teacher in a regular school for a few years and this is my first year as an online teacher. I teach at the Commonwealth Connections Academy, and the students can see the teacher and talk to the teacher, but we don’t have to see the kids. It’s a different way of learning and it’s becoming more popular for a variety of reasons.
Not that you’re not completely swamped with teaching and making art, but what do you do to unwind?
When it’s nice outside I love to bike ride. I do Yoga. I love going to the beach. But honestly when I’m not working, I’m usually just thinking of the next art project I can create.
Up Close & Personal
Some people just can’t stay away from the music. Mike Williams was a founding member of And The Moneynotes nearly a decade ago and played with the band through their rise and ultimate amicable split. Initially satisfied with the band’s run, it could have been the end of the story for Williams, but music has a way of making people antsy. After a short hiatus from playing, the seeds of creativity took hold once again. Mike Williams’ new band, Heavy Blonde, began as a studio project out of sessions with his brother, Roy. They assembled and arranged material with the intent of recording, tapping the large pool of talented contacts developed over the years. Although there isn’t an immediate plan to release an album or collection, Williams says he’s ready to work on a live lineup and take Heavy Blonde on the road. You can catch the band’s debut show this Friday night at The Bog in Scranton. Meet Mike Williams …
Let’s start with some history — And The Moneynotes.
Setty Hopkins and I started the band — he was the drummer in Dr. Horsemachine And The Moneynotes. We started the band in the winter of 2005. We started doing it at open mic nights. We started at The Bog while Pat Finnerty was running open mic and he and Brian Craig (owner of The Bog) wound up later joining the band. It was kind of a weird little four-piece band with simple songs, and it slowly evolved into something bigger. By the time we ended up incorporating some of the guys from Okay Paddy in 2007, it became more established. The background was just us playing open mics, and saying “we’ve got to write a song for this week, we’ve got to write a song for next week,” and then going out each week to play it. It became more ambitious.
You moved from writing for small open mics to touring regionally. How did that develop?
We did stretches early on with the original lineup. The original lineup was Austin and Coleman Smith — both great violin players. Coleman actually stayed with us quite a few years after we changed lineups. Austin played bass for us for a while, and Setty started playing drums — we all played whatever we needed. Austin was a classically trained violin player and he ended up playing bass for us. Around 2007 we switched it up a bit with another local band, Okay Paddy. We incorporated all of it into one band and dropped the first half our name. That was when we really picked it up. We recorded a full-length album. Half the songs were mine and half were Mike Quinn’s; really collaborative. A good chunk of the songs were 100 percent collaboration. From that point on, we did a lot more touring. We made an effort to get out there. We played South by Southwest, part of a showcase at CMJ and we played with a few more established bands like Ra Ra Riot at the Music Hall in Williamsburg and the Bowery Ballroom. We were ambitious and put time in.
Why did you guys split up?
It was a combination of things. To a certain degree, everything kind of runs its course. It’s not like we weren’t good together, it’s just that we’d gotten everything we all wanted to get out of it. We got some recordings we were really happy with, and I think toward the end, we were getting together and kind of struggling to come up with ideas and put them together the way we wanted. The other part is that it’s just a strain money-wise to go out and do that. It’s like any business — you need money to make money. I think we never got past the “lose money” phase. We’re all going out and playing, and because of that we’re all dropping down to part-time jobs or taking odd jobs here and there, you come back and you’re just a little more broke than you were the last time you came back. That can get to you and it hurts morale. The band always got along great and I think that’s why we can do things like get together and play a lot and do these reunion shows. It’s not like there was any animosity or anything. I just think it ran its course. I think a lot of people wanted to try new things and get out of what we’d been doing for a few years and shake it up. Then on top of that, I think we all needed a break from going out and playing a lot of shows. We’re still all great friends.
After And The Moneynotes stopped playing, did you go right back into music?
I didn’t really do anything. For two years, it was almost like I withdrew from it in a way. The day we decided we weren’t going to do it anymore was the day I went back to work full-time, and I pursued that for a while. I thought “well, I’d be happy if I never do this again.” That’s tough when it’s something you love to do and you’ve done since you were 11 years old. It’s not something you can just walk away from. So for a good year, I didn’t think about music. We did a quick reunion show, and that was fun, but I didn’t really write anything for a while. I had a good stretch for about a year when I wrote a bunch of stuff, but I didn’t really like any of it, so I scrapped it all. About a year and a half ago, I started getting together with my brother, Roy. I had an old organ that was from my parents’ house that they were going to throw away, so we brought that to my apartment. He lives in New York City, and he would come over once a week, and it was like going back to 2005 with the open mics. He was coming in once a week or every two weeks, and the goal was to have something to work on when he would come in. The first time he came, I really didn’t have anything written, so I thought “well, let me just throw something together, so when he comes over we have something to do.” I wanted to have some music, and after that, it turned into anticipating the next two weeks to have something else to work on, and it went that way for about a year. At the end of the year, we had a nice little collection of songs we had written and arranged between the two of us.
Heavy Blonde just kind of happened?
Yeah, really, just like before — we got together to play open mic night, so we had to do it. This came together so backwards compared to what we did in the past. Even when we recorded, it was to facilitate the live show. Everything was driven by live show first, it was all about being the best you can be and being really well-rehearsed. This was kind of the opposite thing, where it was 100 percent about the recording. I didn’t think twice about even playing a show until about two months ago. It wasn’t really on my radar because all year we’d been piecing things together to record an album. It came together kind of backwards, but it was still a necessity. In the past, the necessity was “we need to show up at open mic every week to have something to play,” and for this it was more “we want to hang out and play music in my basement, and I don’t want to have to play the same songs we played last week, so I’d better come up with a couple new songs.” So that was how it came together, just very naturally. Then we brought in Setty as our drummer really early on in the process, because we knew we needed a drummer. We knew we could record an album between me and Roy as far as instruments, but the one thing we knew was that we couldn’t cover drums adequately. He was really a natural fit — he was the only drummer that I’ve really played with in a band. The idea was that we weren’t going to go into the studio and just wing it, we were going to get together each week and make sure we had things the way we wanted them, and had a really solid idea of how we’re going to arrange these songs. It all came together mostly as a three-piece, and we added a couple other people later on without any live show in mind — almost sort of shooting ourselves in the foot, where we’d have people involved we could never possibly lock down in a live band. It was something we knew from the beginning, that it was going to be more of a studio band. We never really worried about how we would pull it off live. The goal then was to just make these recordings. We got guys like Nick Driscoll, a great horn player, in on a few sessions. We got JP Biondo from Cabinet — he did a lot with us vocally. But with these guys, you knew there was just no way we’d be able to play shows with that exact lineup of people. That wasn’t the point, though, it was to get it all done and arranged the way we wanted and recorded, and then we could worry about how we’d pull it off live later, and that’s where we are now.
You’ve got a lot of local talent on the recordings?
Yeah, we have me and my brother Roy, and Setty primarily. We went down to Philadelphia and we tracked it all live. We did bass, drums and acoustic guitar all live tracking. Then we came back up here and we pretty much turned Setty’s house into a studio. The guy who produced it, Nick Krill, worked with us in the studio in Philly and then helped us pretty much create a studio. We worked out of there for a few weeks getting these other guys. It was the three of us, then J.P. Biondo did a lot of vocals and a little bit of mandolin. Nick Driscoll did some clarinet and saxophone. Pat Finnerty, who was also in the Moneynotes, did a lot of guitars on it. Brian Craig also came in and did some percussion. These were all guys we brought in a little bit later. Once we knew what we really knew what we wanted, we were able to get the right people.
With a lot of old friends, is it a familiar sound or something new?
It’s a little more cinematic. I can’t avoid being kind of big with arrangements, and I think a lot of it is done effectively and plays out the way I wanted it to — like a soundtrack at times. There’s also a lot of throwback to ’60s psychedelic, too, which is something I don’t think we really did a lot of in the last band. It turned into something that’s very different from what we’ve done in the past. You could probably talk to each of the people involved and they’d agree; I don’t feel like we’ve touched on any of the stuff we’ve done in the past. I hope not, it feels kind of different to me!
Where does the name Heavy Blonde come from?
There’s a lot of references in songs to space. I wrote a lot in particularly about the sun. I remember at one point in the studio, we thought we should call the band Sun, and I thought that was awesome. Then we realized after like 10 minutes, of course there’s already a band called Sun. So we started passing around different names, and I remember sending something to Setty about really being into “heavenly bodies” like stars and planets. For some reason he looked at it really quickly and read it as “Heavenly Blonde” and then we kind of made it “Heavy Blonde” but didn’t settle on it. We thought if we didn’t think of anything better, we’d stick with it, and a few months later it was definitely the best thing we thought of. Then it went back to the Sun reference, the ‘Heavy Blonde’ was like the Sun. It turned into a backwards reference with what we were going with, and it just sounded right — big and theatrical.
Full circle from inside joke to an actual reference.
Once we came back around to it, we realized we settled where we originally were and it just made sense. It makes sense to me, anyway! I can visualize the artwork for it, there’s just something about it. We thought ‘we might find something better, we’ll keep that one on the list,’ not wanting to jump into anything. Then through all that we had all this stuff written and recorded and done before we finally settled on the name, and held out as long as humanly possible, and it just worked.
Was the show at The Bog a no-brainer, like a homecoming?
It just made sense, it was somewhere we hang out, a place we’ve played a lot over the years. Probably the most comfortable place for us to try something new, definitely the most comfortable place to start it. I think it just made sense right from the start that if we were going to do something live, we’d probably do a show at The Bog.
Where do you go from here? What are the next goals?
The biggest thing right now is that we put together a lot of songs and we even have reserve songs. We have a whole bunch we got in the studio and worked out, and a bunch we just didn’t have time to record. The next goal here is to just get out and actually be a band. We were a studio project, and now we’re a band. We have to find a lineup we can rehearse with and play with. We’re already dealing with a situation where our bass player, one-fifth of our band, is living in NYC. Right off the bat we’re struggling with that, so we have to be very careful about who’s in it and how it’s going to be. I think the goal is to just play some stuff live here and there when it pops up. You want to always have forward momentum and not to stall. As long as everybody feels positive about it, as long as there’s something going in the right direction.
— tucker hottes
Even more from Williams:
It’s time to just get it out into the world
The main thing right now is to just rehearse these songs and get them right. What we have now is a five-piece lineup, it’ll be like our fallback lineup. If we do something big like a CD release, and the opportunity comes up to do it, I’d like to get some of the other people that are involved in it up on stage. But we also need a lineup that we can play whenever, we needed to strip it down to a five-piece. We have to translate a lot of what were horn pieces into guitar parts, stuff like that. Figure out how to turn something that sounds like a movie soundtrack at times and bring it back to a band with two electric guitars, a bass, drums, and percussion. We’ve been doing a really good job with it, but we’re not even near done with that. There’s still songs we haven’t even touched yet that have to be rehearsed with this lineup.
Only way to do that is to play, right?
Yeah, once you get that first show under your belt, you feel like ‘alright, we know we can play this live.’ In a way we’ve been doing it now, we’ve been going to Windmill Agency Recording Studio up in Mt. Cobb. We’ve been going up there and doing marathon five-hour sessions, because we can really only meet once every other week or so with the full lineup. Other than that, it’s just been getting together in pieces. I’ll get together with whoever is available – you might not have a bass, but you can run through parts with everyone else. It’s kind of the way we had to do things with the Moneynotes before we played at Montage, so it’s not anything unfamiliar. We had to rehearse entire sets with Mike because he was out in LA, and it’s like that now with Roy in NYC. But with everyone else ready, you can get even one solid practice in and be good. It’s just the reality of the way we have to rehearse. It’s not like it was 10 years ago when we could get together every night. You’ve got to work around it, work with what you’ve got.
Will you be rehearsing with the Moneynotes as well before this year’s Susquehanna Breakdown?
We probably will a little, but we’ve played those songs like thousands of times. I feel like it’s etched somewhere in our brains, you know? Maybe it takes a couple days and you’ve got to get it back out of your brain, but last year we just got together in like 20 minute stretches. Same way we’re doing it now, we’ll get together working on material for our other bands, and then devote like 20 minutes to pick two or three of the old Moneynotes songs and brush up on them. We were all kind of expected to just do our homework – not to make it seem like regimented practice. I had copies of the albums at my parents’ house, and I just went up and grabbed them and listened to the songs and re-learned them. It wasn’t an issue to do that last year, I don’t think it’ll be an issue this time. If we get together in pieces and then get together as a whole one or two times, we can make it work.
How did the reunion shows come about?
Last year we got the call out of the blue – Bill Orner called us last year and asked if we’d be interested. Because we’re all really good friends, it seemed pretty obvious that if everybody could be around, we’d definitely do it. Nobody had any opposition to it. This year it wasn’t really out of the blue, I kind of felt like we would do it again. There was never anything official, I think it was something that a couple months ago Bill just started calling around to everybody. I think that this year because last year went well and we all had a lot of fun, everybody was happy with it, it wasn’t completely out of the blue. Not like we expected it or anything, it’s not like a band that doesn’t really exist anymore should play once a year. We don’t feel entitled or anything. But last year was out of nowhere, it was awesome because we hadn’t played in forever. It was a surprise.
We see so many national acts at Montage, it’s great to have something there for the local scene.
It’s amazing, I think the whole mentality behind it is just great. We don’t need to just rely on outside stuff, I don’t want to be down on any big acts, but there’s great stuff happening around here. Cabinet is doing awesome, and I think it’s important to have that kind of showcase here – to showcase bands like us. There are huge acts that come through, that’s great, but we have a lot going on here, and we can play too. I think it’s great that they’re doing and that Bill is doing this, to make it local because there is good stuff here. And I’m grateful that he’s willing to put a band on the bill that hasn’t really done anything in three years. And I dunno, two years now? I guess it’s a tradition at this point. I think it’s a great thing.
There’s so much great original music in this area.
I think it’s something I really took for granted here until we started going out and playing more shows out of the area. I remember talking about it with my brother and a few other people. The level of musicians here is amazing, there have been a lot of people for a very long time who are really talented and doing really cool stuff. You go to other towns, and you just expect that they’re going to have their version of The Bog, like it’s in your mind that every town has a Bog, or a place you know you can go and play a show and there will be people into it. You just take that for granted, that every place has some sort of scene. But it’s not true, not every town has really great bands and great supporters of music. I think that’s something we took for granted until we went out and did it – it’s kind of the exception to the rule around here.
There are a lot of talented people here.
That’s another thing – I’ve played with a lot of bands, and I just feel like the people I grew up playing music with were top-notch. You just take all that stuff for granted, that there are good scenes and good musicians in every town and anybody can just throw together a band. And it turns out that I just got really lucky. I have a brother who’s a great musician, and I have these friends who are great musicians, and we all grew up in the same town and somehow it just worked out that way. I don’t think it’s the case everywhere where people are so supportive, either. Just the fact that people will come out and see the Moneynotes at this point is pretty amazing and baffling to me – we don’t exist as a band. We don’t really play. But there’s people who will come out and be supportive. It’s awesome, there are just really loyal music people around here.
Up Close & Personal
Husband and Husband
When Curt and James published their wedding announcement in the newspaper over the summer, they didn’t think it was a big deal. But they were paving the way for same-sex couples in our area. Now, they’re getting ready to celebrate Valentine’s Day for the first time as a married couple. But they say there’s still a lot to be done in terms of gay rights. Parkins knows the legal battles first-hand. He works at Walker Comerford Law in Scranton and in the Public Defender’s office for Lackawanna County. He met James at a bar in Scranton three years ago, and the two of them hit it off right away. James, who works for Toyota, is an outdoors enthusiast, so naturally their first date was a hike at Bushkill Falls. Even though Curt is not so much an outdoorsy-guy, it was a case of opposites attract. One thing they do have in common, however, is their deep love for each other. On the holiday all about love, it’s even more pertinent for the Moscow couple to show love is equal. Meet Curt Parkins and James Hazen …
What are some of the things you do to promote equality?
Parkins: I’ve never been one to hide anything about myself, so I’m not the type of person to sit down and be quiet. I’m very vocal about it. We had our wedding announcement in the Times-Tribune, and that was important to us — not just to do what every other couple does, but to show people it’s OK to do this. And I think we were the first people to put it in there, the first same-sex couple from around here. It was important for us to show that this is fine, this is normal, just like everybody else, and you should be who you are.
Hazen: There were never any questions about it, either. With anybody getting married, you’re like, ‘let’s get our announcement in the paper.’ It was the same thing with us. You do have people asking if you’re nervous or scared about anything. But for us it was just more important to announce, here are two people who are in love and are going to seal that by getting married, and there’s no reason anybody should be afraid of that or not want to promote that or really put it out there. So for us it was really a no-brainer but at the same time it kind of took off and became something else. There was so much said about it at that time and it was being shared on Facebook all over. There was just so much support and love from everybody. There were maybe three negative things said in that whole period of time, and it became something where it took on its own life.
Parkins: We got married last June, and we were on our honeymoon in Hawaii. And while we were on our honeymoon was when the Supreme Court decision on DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) came out. It was funny, the one night I couldn’t go to sleep at all because they were announcing the decision. I was up at 4 a.m. on our honeymoon waiting for the decision. And I said “When we go back, I want to file a lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania to get them to recognize the marriage.” And then I came back and one (lawsuit) in Philadelphia got filed. Someone beat us to it. But there is active legitimation going on in the state about it, so that’s what I’m excited about.
Being in the legal field, do you feel like that gives you an edge to help same-sex couples?
Parkins: Definitely. I had the general principles and I know what the law was, but after getting married in New York, I became more familiar about the law and what it is here. That’s definitely something I’m familiar with and I’m starting to get an expertise in. We had a client in a situation where they got married in Connecticut, came back here and unfortunately for that couple they were getting divorced. But legally they couldn’t get divorce in Pennsylvania, because Pennsylvania won’t recognize the marriage. But Connecticut wouldn’t divorce them, because you have to live in the state for six months before you can get a divorce in that state. So they were in a bind where they were legally joined and they couldn’t do anything about it. There are tons of issues that LGBT people go through with the law.
Does it bother you to see couples who are similar to you, and maybe have been together less time, but they have more rights?
Hazen: Absolutely. It’s kind of redundant to repeat it because you see it all the time, like certain celebrities who meet somebody and can literally go get married and be divorced a month later. You hear stories about couples after a weekend, they’ve known each other 72 hours — they’re getting married. And it’s not even a question, nobody asks them anything about themselves or their love. It’s just like, you’re a man and you’re a woman, come out and get married. But when you have a deep commitment to somebody and you have a strong relationship and all you want to do is have that same ability, and we can’t do that here. We had to leave the state in order to do that. And it’s sad. New York is an hour and 45 minute drive, and I can literally drive to the city and have everyone recognize my marriage. It’s crazy to say, but it’s a different feeling when you’re there and you know that we’re recognized as a married couple. It’s just a totally different feeling. And then you come home.
Valentine’s Day is so often just about cards and chocolate, but do you think there should be a deeper meaning of equality?
Parkins: Absolutely. Especially now, when it’s such an issue across the country. I think there’s always a deeper meaning, especially for people who are in love. It is about love and not materialistic things. But especially when there’s such a debate going on in the country, it’s way more pertinent.
Hazen: The whole basis of the holiday is love. There are hearts all around, it’s the symbol of Valentine’s Day. And I think back to when I was a kid and you’d hand out the little Valentine’s cards. Even back then it was just all about showing love and respect and it doesn’t matter who you are. It’s about love.
How excited would you be if same-sex marriage became accepted in every state?
Parkins: It would be huge and I think it’s going to happen soon. Every federal court that is hearing the issue finds that it has to be legal, so that issue is going to make its way to the Supreme Court, probably within the next two years and I think it’ll be legal. So I think it’s just a matter of time. Maybe it’ll become legal in Pennsylvania before then, but eventually the states won’t have a choice because I think the Supreme Court will rule that away.
Hazen: I hope Pennsylvania makes the jump before it’s something that’s really mandated, just to have that support from your home state. It’s an exciting time to be a part of all this, to see the progression of everything that’s happening. There’s still a long way to go, but I think we’re definitely on the right track with everything. And it’s great to be a part of it. There are younger people who are looking to us because they see how normal it is and it’s really just about love.
— kirstin cook
Up Close and Personal
No bones about it
You may look at a dead raccoon and just see a carcass, but Aarika Whittle sees 300 potential pieces of unique, delicate jewelry. She has always collected animal bones, but it was only about a month ago that she turned it into a form of expression. That was the start of Whittle Bones, which offers a cruelty-free line of jewelry using pieces of animal skeletons. We’re not talking skull and crossbones here. Many of the pieces are dainty and “whittle,” with a feminine flair. They cost as little as $5 or more, depending on how ornate they are. These unique items can be found on the Whittle Bones Facebook page, at the brand-new Etsy page, etsy.com/shop/WhittleBones or at NEPA Tattoo Club on South Main Street in Pittston. Aarika says her handmade jewelry would make a special Valentine’s Day gift, not only because each piece is one-of-a-kind, but also because of it’s deeper meaning — you are wearing something that was once full of life. Making art out of animal bones is not for the faint of heart — it’s a long process and takes years of research. Meet Aarika Whittle …
Can you tell me how you got started collecting bones?
When I was little, my grandmother and I used to go looking for things like shark’s teeth and she’d take me fossil hunting with my aunt. We’re just really into collecting and observing specimens. So it’s just kind of been around my entire life. For the past four years I’ve been researching how to properly handle and clean specimens, to keep my family, my friends and my customers safe. I kind of like the idea of giving something a life after death. It’s like the last bit of you that doesn’t really go anywhere, it kind of hangs out and if you can make something and give to someone to appreciate or take with them through life, it’s a really cool concept.
When did you decide to make your interest into a business?
It happened randomly, I guess. I’ve always been very hands-on and very creative, so jewelry seemed like a happy medium. The bones are a whole new medium to work with and that’s really exciting. And it’s working out. Whittle Bones was very well received. The page got more than 200 likes within 24 hours — it was very overwhelming. I’ve already made tons of sales. I’ve been asked to participate in a lot of different vending events. It’s going over really well. I’m excited that it’s so well received and supported.
How long does it take to make these pieces?
It really depends on the condition of the specimen … there are many different ways I’ll get things. Sometimes I’ll get a hunter who will donate the parts he doesn’t use. I’ll go scavenging, hiking, pick up roadkill — it’s kind of weird, but … (laughs). Most of the time, the jewelry I make comes from naturally cleaned bone. I don’t do very much work in the way of removing actual flesh or tissues. But it’s a very long process. It can take months, depending on how much tissue is left on the specimen. If it’s just bone, though, I’ll go through a process of whitening and sterilization. But after that, you can pretty much handle the bone, craft it any way you please. It’s a very sanitary process and it takes a very long time.
Is all that hard work worth it?
It’s definitely cool to see it come together in the end. I’ll go out and find, say, a dead raccoon on the side of the road. I’ll bring it home, clean it, be able to start crafting it into something, like this ring with a raccoon vertebrae with a tiny, jade polished bead. I just kind of go with it. I don’t really have a method to my madness. I just pick a specimen and start wrapping it with wire, or say this bead would complement the color of this bone. There are no rules to what I do.
So you’re always coming up with new things to make?
Always. None of my two pieces are ever the same. I’ll never recreate a piece. I can do a custom variation of a piece, but I’ll never make two of the same. No two bones are alike, no two animals are alike, no two people are alike, I don’t think it would be fair to mass produce a certain style.
I feel like that’s nice for customers.
They get a one-of-a-kind piece, no one else will ever have it. The two biggest compliments that I keep getting are, ‘Wow, they’re so unique and they’re so different,’ and also that they’re so dainty and so much better looking than even online, which is a really exciting thing for me, because I think they look really good online. I’m like ‘Oh wow, I made that?’ (laughs)
Why do you think these would make nice gifts for Valentine’s Day?
I feel like they’re worth so much more. They’re coming from something that lived a life. It’s coming from the essence of something else. And it’s unique. You buy your significant other a ring or a pair of earrings, you can be happy knowing that no one else is going to have it, and there’s a story and a life behind the piece, be it all the work I put into it, or all the work that being put into it’s life.
How do you design your items?
I try to keep everything simple. I try to keep everything small. Obviously it ranges depending on the type of specimen or bone that I’m working with, but I generally try to use small pieces. I stick to the femininity of jewelry. Like a pearl with a bone just makes it more girl-friendly, rather than sticking a bone on a hunk of metal. It opens up a whole market, it makes other people interested in the product, or at least gets them to ask questions. Obviously it’s a very taboo thing that I do and not a lot of people understand or look at it the way that I do. They look at it as very disrespectful or dirty or things like that. I get a decent amount of negative feedback. I’m just trying to create something from something. I’m trying to continue the appreciation of that object. It’s a mix. I get a lot of love, and then I get a decent amount of ‘Oh, you’re messed up in the head.’
What do you like about the scavenging part?
It’s really exciting. Being outside is my zen. When I get outside, I’m just overwhelmed by my feeling of comfort, of excitement, of zest for being outside. I’ll just wander around, kicking over things, turning things over, checking things out. It’s not just about the bone, it’s about being outside and taking in the geometry of nature. It’s a lot of fun. You never know what you’re going to find.
Are you originally from NEPA?
I was born and raised in Dallas, but I moved around to Alabama and Florida a lot. Now I’m based in Pittston. It’s just not the same elsewhere. I appreciate the little things about the nature here. In Florida, they don’t really have dirt or rocks, they just have clay. I like the smell of dirt, I like the woods we have. We have mountains and beautiful sights. Our local arts scene is extremely alive. If you get out there and look around, there’s so much to do, it’s just mindblowing. And it’s very personal, because this area is large enough to be amazing, but small enough to be a family.
What’s next for Whittle Bones?
I’m hoping to expand within the next couple months into actual bone carving. It’s a whole other medium and style, but I think it’ll be the next step. I want to make plugs for stretched ears and beads for dreadlocks, just little things like that. Staffs, pipes, just various things, you can make anything out of a bone.
— kirstin cook
Up Close & Personal
Let There Be Snow
Surrounded by snow in sub-freezing temperatures outside the lodge at Montage Mountain, it’s easy to forget that the summer’s Lazy River attraction is buried nearly eight feet below. With only a few inches of natural snow on the ground outside the boundaries of the ski area, it’s a testament to the snowmaking staff that it’s so easy to take all the snow for granted. If you camped on the mountain for Peach Festival and hit the slopes, you’ve skied or boarded in the air over your tent. Brian Rotherforth, director of snowmaking, has been making snow for 15 years, ensuring locals and visitors have plenty of white terrain to enjoy in the winter, even when the weather conditions are less than ideal. Without man-made snow, skiing in this area would be sketchy at best, so those of us who enjoy hitting the slopes owe a debt of gratitude to the intrepid people who do what Mother Nature can’t. Snowmaking at Montage Mountain seems deceptively simple: pipe water from a reservoir at the bottom of the mountain through a main pipeline about a mile long, distribute it through another couple miles of pipes and hoses and point a snow gun. The ‘artificial’ snow is just water and air (no chemicals), but it’s a process that seems easier than it should be and is harder in practice than it sounds. Brian cleared up some misconceptions and gave us some fun facts.
How long have you been making snow?
I’ve been doing this for 15 years. I love to ski, and was looking for a job. I was like, “Hey, free skiing, I don’t mind snow, I don’t mind the cold.” I don’t really ski anymore — I do, but not as much. When I get a day off, this is the last place I want to be sometimes, you know? But you get a lot of gratification out of the job. You start with nothing, and then a week or two later the mountain is open and you have people enjoying it.
What does it take to get things running each year?
You’ve seen the mountain in the summer — it’s all grass — so we’ll start off in early November if temperatures start to get low enough. We have a pump house that pumps 6,000 gallons per minute of water a mile up the mountain. To the top, we’re pumping about 4,000 gallons a minute. We’ll start with a base of wetter, heavier snow, but in general if it’s white, it’s good; that’s what we shoot for at that point in the season. Anything we can get on the ground to get us open is good. From there, we focus on a few main trails. We try to get a few beginner, intermediate and expert slopes covered. We try to cater to everyone to open the mountain. Then we focus on other things like our tubing, because anybody can go snow tubing. Our goal is to be 100 percent open for Christmas. It doesn’t always happen — Mother Nature doesn’t always work with you — but once we get trails open and it starts to get colder, we can make more snow. Twenty-eight degrees is our starting temperature where we can make snow; you’re not making a lot of snow at that point, but when the temperature drops you can add more water to each gun, which creates more snow.
So all the snow guns are connected? How does it work?
The main line runs up the mountain, a mile bottom to top. Every trail has its own line — it’s about seven miles of pipeline that disperses water to each of our trails. Each gun runs on 480 volts of electricity, and we feed in high-pressure water. At the pump house we’re pumping 750 psi, but by the time it travels, you’re at about 350-400 psi at the gun. They use high pressure air from onboard air compressors, and the water and air flow through small nozzles. You put your high pressure water to your gun and the air breaks those particles up so small, and pushes them up in the air. Then a fan blows it all out, and it breaks the particles up more, and your air and water mixture, and that’s pretty much what makes snow. The water isn’t chilled; we pump out of a reservoir at the bottom of the mountain which is spring-fed, so it’s pretty cold to start with. When we start in November, our water is around 40-45 degrees. Right now if we were to make snow, our water is right around 32 degrees. It cools pretty quickly. We don’t use any chemicals — everybody asks ‘what are you adding to your snow?’ There’s nothing, it’s just high-pressure, cold water that freezes when it hits the air. You go outside these days when it’s below zero and spray your hose — you’re going to make snow.
Is it easier when it’s colder like it’s been lately?
It’s easier, but it’s harder on the guys working. You’re working against the elements. You’ve got running water in below-zero temperatures, so things freeze, things break. It makes it a lot harder when it’s colder, but you do make a lot more snow. You have to watch for things freezing up and make sure you have good flow through everything, and it gets a little dicey.
We usually run two shifts of about eight to nine workers per shift. I have to give the credit to all my guys: they’re the ones who are out there doing it all. I’m out there with them, but they do the bulk of the work. They’re the ones dragging the hoses, digging the hoses out, setting everything up. The credit definitely goes to them. They’re out there all night, and two weeks ago it was 12 below zero. The actual temperature with 20 mph winds… I don’t know what that adds up to for a wind chill, but it’s cold. You’ll have guys call over the radio asking what the temperature is, and when it’s that cold, you just say ‘it’s cold enough.’
What is the equipment like?
We have three different styles of snow guns, they’re all made by SMI Snow Makers out of Michigan. We have 50 of their Super PoleCat, which is their biggest gun. We have around 80 of the Standard PoleCat, and then we have about 35 of their Viking gun. They all make a little different quality of snow, but basically they all do the same job, which is getting the trails open and maintaining trails once they’re open. All the Super PoleCats are on our north face, our steeper terrain where you want more powder and where you want to keep your conditions top-notch. The bigger guns put out more water and more snow. The Standard PoleCats are basically the same, with less water flow, but they still put out a ton of snow. You can see that 30 foot pile of snow there from one gun right outside the lodge. We try not to make big piles, because once we have the trails open, the groomers come along and they push the snow around where it needs to be. We try to keep it in the middle, but the wind doesn’t always cooperate with you. Every gun has an oscillator, so the barrel will rotate back and forth 270 degrees, so that helps. You can also make a little pile, move the gun, and spread it out a little at a time. Right outside the lodge, we just cover our whole water park. You’re on like eight feet of snow on top of the Lazy River. There’s a lot of snow here — a real lot of snow.
How does natural snow factor in?
We’ve had around 20-30 inches of natural snowfall. It does help us, but when you get three or four inches of snow at a ski resort, it doesn’t really do much. It gets skied off, and when the groomers go over and run their tiller over it, it might be 1/4 inch. But when you get natural snow down in the valley, people look out their doors and say ‘hey, it snowed out, let’s go to Montage and ski!’ So it gets the people in the mood, so it definitely helps.
Natural precipitation affects the water supply, though?
We were a little low early in the season – it was a really dry fall. We watch the weather constantly, I’m on my phone every 20 minutes looking at weather to see what it’s doing out. We also have weather stations around the mountain that I can monitor from my office. But it was so dry in the fall, we got pretty low on our reservoir — you keep your eye on that. At that point, you say ‘OK, the mountain is 100 percent open, let’s shut down (snowmaking) for a couple of days, we’re covered.’ The weather affects things a lot. In December, we had pretty much the whole mountain covered. Then it rained and shot up to 60 degrees for four days, so that’s when the snowmakers come back in and work their magic. We have the capability to do it, and we did a pretty good job with it. You get the mountain back in a day or two, temperature permitting.
What happens once the mountain is open?
We keep it up. We have tower guns on every single trail now. There are spots where we have mobile carriage guns that we move around where we need. You’ve got to make connections, you always need snow at the bottom and top of the lift. So we move those around as we need to. We’re able to move right across the mountain and make snow as we go. There will be trails where we focus, like up here on Mainline — we can make snow over on Highball. Not as much, but there’s enough to put down. Then once that’s open, you can move the water somewhere else. We try to get a top-to-bottom open to start, then cater to everyone: beginner, intermediate, expert right at the beginning of the season. A lot of places can’t do that. The setup of our mountain allows us to open up all different terrain so everyone can enjoy it.
A lot of places claim ‘first to open, last to close,’ but we were 100 percent before anybody else this season. A lot of people were still trying to get to 100 percent two or three weeks ago. We have terrain parks already built – we had two terrain parks built already running early January. All of our north face was open.
How do you build terrain parks and maintain trails?
I’ll work with the terrain park director, and we’ll go out there and he’ll say, ‘I want a jump here, a jump there,’ and I know where I need put piles of snow. But you also have to get the trail open, so sometimes we’ll just open the trail first then go back and do specific areas and blow bigger piles of snow for that.
When you look at the line of trees and see ones that are all white, that’s where the guns are. When you don’t get the right wind, it goes all over. You get it on the trail, but it’s more work for the groomers. They have to move it around more. Snowmaking and grooming are basically like one department, we’ve got to work together. I’ve got to make it and they’ve got to put it in the right places.
— tucker hottes