Serenbe Style and Soul

with Marie Nygren



April 2016

Fair Weather Friends: Serenbe Playhouse’s ‘Carousel’ Was the Wheel Deal

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How do you improve on Carousel, one of the most beloved musicals in American history? If you’re Brian Clowdus, founder and executive/artistic director of Serenbe Playhouse, you put a stage in a field, surround it with a fully operational carousel, ferris wheel and fair games and sell out every seat for every show.

When Brian first came up with the concept, he called numerous carousel operators around the country, asking them to build a fair in our field and run it during the three-week span of the show. Everyone said no, but he kept dialing. He was down to his last potential vendor but refused to give up. He picked up the phone, explained the project for the millionth time and the man said, “Sounds like a great idea. Let’s do it.”

It was pure magic. There were kiddie games with prizes, one of those strongman games with the mallet and bell, beautiful county fair signage and strung lights all around. While the play was in progress, the ferris wheel would start up and go round and round.

Steve and I took family and friends to see it on a Thursday night. During the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the rain — which wasn’t supposed to come until much later — started to fall while they were singing these lyrics:

When you walk through a storm

Hold your head up high

And don’t be afraid of the dark

At the end of the storm 

There’s a golden sky 

And the sweet silver song of the lark

Some people got up, but the actors stayed, so we stayed. The rain only lasted for a couple minutes and felt like it was part of the play. Some magic just can’t be planned.

Brian’s next adventure is bringing Charlotte’s Web to Serenbe Farm, complete with live animals. Reserve your tickets for the May 27-July 31 run of the show here.



April 2016

Basket Case: Hunting Down The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe

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On the surface, community Easter egg hunts seem like an easy thing to organize: Put someone in a bunny costume and a bunch of plastic eggs in a field and let the kids do their thing, right? Not so much.

The annual Serenbe Easter Egg Hunt has been a work in progress since it began in 2010 — each year we have made wonderful memories, but also a few logistical mistakes. This year Garnie had the most brilliant idea in the history of Serenbe Easter Egg Hunts: put Kara in charge of it.

Kara is the queen of lists: Nothing makes her happier than organizing something. Back when the girls wereView More: in high school, we’d host pre-prom dinners in the backyard for 55 people — they’d organize; I’d cook. When Kara was a senior, she decided we could pull off double that amount. I decided to hire a caterer. She hired two buses and organized it to perfection. We set up a buffet on the Hawthorne patio and I have the best picture of her, clipboard in one hand, fork in the other, eating directly from the buffet because she didn’t have time to sit.

But it was brilliant. And it was fun. That’s our Kara.

Before she moved home from Seattle, Kara contacted all 20 counselors from Camp Serenbe to help out with the event. They distributed 8,000 plastic eggs — yes, you read that right — and navigated all four age groups of kids through their designated hunt times. If the counselors were lucky, they got to hold one of the five battery-operated bullhorns Kara purchased so everyone could hear the announcements.

She had three face painters, two balloon artists and envelopes with tickets and wristbands for everyone who pre-registered online. She even had Easter baskets available for purchase in case someone forgot theirs or didn’t have time to pick one up the week before. When parents arrived, they got their envelope and hopped off to have fun.

View More: though the weather was gray, it all worked out perfectly. We had 800 people here that day, 350 of whom were children, and it never felt like chaos. Parents were happy, children were happy and we even got to take advantage of the set from Serenbe Playhouse’s production of Carousel, which was surrounded by real fair rides and games.

And what would a Serenbe event be without food? The Inn did a locally made bratwurst from local Double T Farms with chips and a drink and The Children’s House, the Montessori school in the community, did an old-fashioned bake sale table. Steve and I bought lots of goodies, but my favorite was the chocolate chip cookie. They were absolutely delicious, so I reached out to the daughter of the woman who made them to see if she’d share the recipe. I got this in response:

“I have bad news (maybe).” She said she just followed the recipe on the back of the Yellow Bag (aka Nestle Toll House Morsels). She likes to cook them a little longer so they get nice and crispy.

“It makes me feel better knowing that even Alton Brown wouldn’t do a show on chocolate chip cookies because he said the Yellow Bag recipe can’t be improved.”

Nestle Toll House Cookies

  • 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • ¾ cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 cups (12-ounce package) Nestle Toll House semi-sweet morsels
  • 1 cup chopped nuts (optional)


Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in a large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels and nuts. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.

Bake for 9-11 minutes (or longer, for crispier cookies) until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.



April 2016

Man of His Word: Give and Give with Poet Anis Mojgani

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photo by Carra Sykes from

photo by Carra Sykes from

The first visiting artist to stay in Serenbe’s new Rural Studio cottages was spoken word poet Anis Mojgani.  Also a visual artist and musician, Anis lives in Portland, Oregon, was born and raised in New Orleans and graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) here in Georgia.

He’s been on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and has toured for years doing poetry slams and performances all over the world. He’s published three collections of poetry — Songs From Under the River, The Feather Room and Over the Anvil We Stretch. The month he spent at Serenbe was focused on a children’s book.

“I have a batch of picturebook ideas and stories for young readers that I’ve been thinking on and developing for a few years now,” Anis said. “So I came with those, to see which of them bubbled most to 12383462_1665646870389533_1482272687_nthe top to ask for time and attention while at Serenbe. Of those, there are three I mostly worked on, shaping and fine-tuning the actual story of them, and putting down on paper the visual storytelling of them.”

On one of his last nights here, Anis shared some of his poetry with us around a bonfire at the Art Farm. One of his newer pieces about beauty really struck me. Anis is the poetry: He’s one of those artists that fully embodies their work.

Steve and I soaked it all in, then looked at one another in disbelief that an artist of this talent and caliber had come to gain inspiration from what we’ve created. I’m not going to say it’s a give and take — it’s a give and give.



March 2016

Batter Up: Making Scratch Pancakes For The Home Team

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12771845_10103794972830923_3553577696846724648_oThe last little chick is officially back in the nest.

Kara and Micah packed up and left Seattle a few weeks ago, starting a glorious cross-country trip that ended at their new home in Serenbe.

They texted gorgeous pictures from Zion National Park in Utah, where Kara hiked five miles in her fifth month of pregnancy. They explored Santa Fe and crossed paths in Texas with Micah’s mother, Kristen, who was on her way to Joshua Tree. Kara reconnected with a sorority sister in Austin then they drove to New Orleans where they had beignets at Café du Monde, a muffaletta at Central Grocery and a fantastic meal at Peche.

After they arrived at Serenbe, Micah looked around and said, “This isn’t a visit. We’re actually going to live here.” They have a house in the Grange hamlet.

Steve and I decided that, now that all three girls are home, we’ll start having family dinner every Sunday night. Since Gerry Klaskala was here for the Southern Chefs Series on the first Sunday night after Kara and Micah’s arrival, I did a family breakfast instead. Ever since they started having sleepovers, the girls have loved a pancake breakfast. It was the one time Steve got in the kitchen.

I cracked open my 1956 edition of Joy of Cooking and flipped to my favorite pancake recipe. What makes IMG_5510it special is that you separate the eggs and whip the egg whites to make a better batter. After everything’s been sifted and whipped, all you need is a hot griddle — I prefer a cast-iron skillet — maple syrup and good butter.

We are complete now. People ask me all the time: How did you get all your kids to come home? And I usually say with a smile: You build a town and your kids might want to live there, too.

In all seriousness, the girls generally do like to hang out with us and it’s ultimately the most gratifying thing in the world that they want to live and work here.

Of course, the little boy in ever-growing belly makes it all the more special. Steve and I just look at one another and say, oh my God, we’re going to be grandparents. Every chance I get, I lean down and say, hello baby boy. I want him to know my voice.

And soon enough, there’ll be a brand new chick in the nest.

Pancakes, Griddle or Batter Cakes

  • Courtesy of Joy of Cooking, circa 1956
  • Makes about 14 four-inch cakes 
  • Sift before measuring:
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • Resift with:
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 ¾ teaspoons double-acting baking powder
  •  Beat lightly:
  • 1 or 2 eggs

When using 2 eggs, you may separate them. Add the yolks to the milk mixture. Beat the whites until stiff, but not dry and fold them lightly into the blended batter, after adding the milk and butter.

  • Add:
  • 3 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1 to 1 ¼ cups milk



March 2016

Bread Winner, Part 2: How Gerry Klaskala Turned Potato Bread and Bacon Into Dinner

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In last week’s post, I wrote about the rye toasts that chef Gerry Klaskala made during his visit to the Southern Chef Series. Today I’m back with more Gerry and — that’s right — more bread.

Months before his visit, Gerry told me he wanted to do an Alsatian theme to expose participants to recipes from the French region so heavily influenced by nearby Germany. And did he ever. Gerry brought three types of sausages, three kinds of pork, ham, roasted duck, boiled potatoes, different mustards and a big loaf of potato bread to make bread dumplings.

Oh my.

View More: he started by cooking the applewood-smoked bacon in a pan. You know, because we needed more pork. Then he added onions and added that mixture, plus nutmeg, parsley, salt and pepper, to the potato bread that had been cubed and toasted. After moistening it with chicken stock, he formed it into the shape of a sausage, wrapped it in cheesecloth, tied off the ends with cotton twine and poached it in a pot of boiling chicken stock. Then he sliced it up into discs and served it with the pork and its juices. It was amazing. Might have something to do with the fact that he cooked the bacon in fat rendered from the goose he cooked at Christmas.

There was nothing green about this dinner. The only vegetable was the cabbage he’d put up three months ago and brought with him. And we couldn’t get enough.

Gerry is easygoing and such a natural with the guests. He entertains at home a lot, which means he cooks all week at work, goes home and has dinner parties on Sundays. He does it because it loves it and it shows.

Join us at the next Southern Chefs Series with guest chef Ford Fry of JCT. Kitchen, No. 246, The Optimist, King + Duke and more. The experience includes preparing and eating dinner on Sunday and lunch on Monday with the chef, breakfast and an overnight stay at the Inn at Serenbe. $695; 770.463.2610

Bread dumplings

  • Serves 8
  • 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
  • 1 cup applewood smoked bacon, medium dice
  • 1 ½ cup onion, small dice
  • 3 quarts potato bread, cubed and toasted
  • 2 each eggs, whisked well
  • ¼ cup Italian parsley, coarsely chopped
  • 2 each scallion, thinly sliced
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
  • 1+ gallon chicken stock
  • Salt and freshly milled black pepper

1. Heat a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, add oil and cook bacon until half cooked

2. Add onions and continue to cook until onions are soft. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

3. In a large mixing bowl, place the toasted potato bread croutons and add onions, bacon, nutmeg and parsley. Season well with salt and pepper. Moisten with chicken stock and mix well.

4. Lay out a sheet of 20″ x 24″ cheesecloth. At one end, shape the dumpling mix into a large sausage shape. Tightly roll up and tie off each end with cotton twine.

5. Place chicken stock in a pot large enough to hold dumpling. Bring to a simmer and cook for 35 minutes. Shut off heat, cover and hold.

6. When ready to serve, remove from stock, cut strings and unroll. Cut into ¾-inch round discs.

Note: These particular bread dumplings are intended to be served with roasted meats and sauce or pan gravy. They are great for sopping up all that deliciousness.



March 2016

Bread Winner: The Rye Toast That Took Me Back 45 Years

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View More: Klaskala, chef-owner of Aria and co-owner of Canoe, arrived for his visit to the Southern Chefs Series with two freshly baked loaves of bread, European butter and sea salt to sprinkle on top. And as far as I’m concerned, he could’ve stopped right there.

(He didn’t, of course. More on that in another post).

View More: women were on my side: Each one said they could die happily on a belly full of bread and butter. The men said they’d prefer steak. And it struck me how those ancient rituals — men hunting; women baking bread — still feed our cravings centuries later.

Bread touches something deep within us; I think it’s a big reason that artisan breads have made such a comeback.

Gerry sliced the rye on a mandoline so it was razor thin, toasted and served it as part of the Sunday night dinner. My first bite jarred a childhood memory of the rye melba toasts I loved as an after-school snack when I was 10 years old. It was a box brand called Old London and I’d smear them with butter, sip Red Rock ginger ale and watch Bewitched.

Gerry topped his version with housemade cold-smoked salmon he’d marinated overnight in layers of View More: and cardamom, salt and pepper. The next morning he scraped off the spices and cold-smoked it, a process that makes the fish taste much less smoky than hot smoke. I don’t like smoked salmon for that exact reason, but this one had me salivating and figuring out two things:

1. How soon I could get to Aria to have more

2. How to make my own cold smoker

According to Gerry, all I need is a smoker, some galvanized pipe and a refrigerator. It’s genius and totally doable with a little help from Quinn’s boyfriend, Lucas.

This could very well be my new summer backyard décor.

Join me next week for more details about Gerry’s Alsatian-themed visit, featuring bacon cooked in goose fat he rendered after Christmas dinner.



March 2016

R.I.P’s and Qs: Death Over Dinner Breathes Life Into Death

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Are you afraid of death? What about it scares you?

How do you want your life to end?

How can you support the end-of-life wishes of those you love?

These questions aren’t common dinner party conversation starters, but Death Over Dinner isn’t just any dinner party. This one-night event, held last Saturday at Serenbe, put a taboo topic on the table and had us chew on it awhile.

It was hosted by Angel Grant, executive director of Death Over Dinner, an organization based on the theory that “how we end our lives is the most important and costly conversation America is not having.”

The event was a two-part experience, though both were optional: a guided meditation and dinner afterwards. For the meditation, we laid on the floor in a dark room with a blanket and pillow as Angel talked us through the process of the final 8 hours of our lives. She asked many questions along the way to make us think about the way we live and how we want to die. She even took us through the process of our organs shutting down. And while this may sound morbid, it demystified the end-of-life process. If you’re not afraid of death — if you’re conscious that you’re really dying every day — you can live a fuller life.

After the meditation, we took an hour-long break to journal then met back up in the Oak Room for dinner and discussion. Steve and I were both raised by parents who didn’t shield us from the realities of death and we were thrilled to be surrounded by people willing to talk with great honesty on the subject.

Our first dinner topic involved acknowledging someone no longer with us and explaining why we admire them. After we’d gone around the table, Steve and I realized we had the most experience with death. All of our dining companions had living parents but us. I lost my father when I was 22 and my mother at 38. Having a parent die is a very intimate experience with death and was especially so with my mother, who died here over a two-week process at Serenbe.

Death Over Dinner didn’t bring up any fear or anxiety in me: It gave me the opportunity to reflect on Mother’s death and reaffirmed that I’m comfortable with the death process — my own and others. Though I may be afraid of the way I might die, I’m not afraid of dying. And I think that leaves a lot more room in my life for living.

taboo logo squareCurious about Angel and her talks? Join me June 3-5 for The Taboo Weekend Sex, Drugs, Death: Things We Don’t Talk About at the Table, a weekend of taboo topics at Serenbe. Click here for more information.



March 2016

Roux the Day: In New Orleans, The Besh Is Yet To Come

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Everyone travels to New Orleans with a meal in mind.

For some, it’s a dozen raw oysters and bottle of beer at ACME Oyster House. For others, it’s the catfish courtbouillon at Cochon. For Steve and I, it’s the muffuletta we pick up at Central Grocery on our way to the airport and share as we fly back home.

We made our ninth visit to the Crescent City a few weeks ago: Steve had an Urban Land Institute meeting focused on food and development and asked if I wanted to join. I went for the same reason I always do: to experience the city with an open mind and open mouth.

We arrived on Sunday morning and I was overcome with a craving for pompano almandine, so I convinced Steve to go to Gallatoire’s. We were seated next to a couple who’d been going there every Sunday since forever. The waitress knew exactly what to bring without even asking. Determined not to be a creature of habit, Steve ordered a bourbon milk punch — he’s usually a Campari and soda man — loved it and said his broiled tomatoes were the best he’d ever had.

After lunch we strolled up Magazine Street, taking in the boutiques and galleries along the way. At some point, my shoes and feet had a painful disagreement and I had to buy new shoes. When I came out of the shop wearing Keds slip-ons, Steve just looked at me. Forget vanity, I told him, my feet are killing me.

We walked all the way to La Petite Grocery, where we had beautiful ricotta dumplings with hen of the woods mushrooms. Light as air.

Steve had Monday morning free, so we had lunch at Peche, which won two James Beard awards — Best New Restaurant and Best Chef: South — in 2014. And believe me, they deserved it. Every single mouthful was amazing. We had fresh oysters, fish sticks, fried Brussels sprouts with chili vinegar and sashimi tuna with pickled wild mushrooms, arugula and a vinaigrette that must’ve included some form of crack. If I had to do it over again, I’d order two of them.

IMG_9152IMG_9150That night, as part of the conference, Steve had dinner at a private home cooked by John Besh. I was not invited and may have pouted about that a bit. I so enjoyed John when he visited for the Southern Chefs Series.

I made plans to meet up with Rosie, one of Kara’s best friends who’d moved to New Orleans with her family. We originally planned to have Vietnamese, but I decided that if Steve was eating John Besh’s food, then I would too, so I made a reservation at Lüke. I texted Steve to tell him I was pining away but consoling myself at Besh’s brasserie.

Rosie and I made a progressive dinner of it and started at Mopho, where Michael Gulotta, former chef de cuisine at Besh’s August, makes some fantastic spring rolls and popcorn rice.

When we got to Lüke, they took us to a table right by the kitchen and treated us like royalty. Turns out, Steve told John Besh I was headed to one of his spots and he called ahead. We shared oysters, I had gumbo, Rosie had pate and a salad and we were too full for the pork schnitzel I wanted to try. When the bill came, it said, “too beautiful to charge.” If I couldn’t have John cook for me, I certainly had the next best thing.

DSC_1726webBy Tuesday morning you’d think I’d had enough food to last me a week, but I woke up hungry for an adventure. I got our muffuletta at Central Grocery and took a cab to St. Claude Street. At the conference, Steve learned about the St. Roch Market, seafood market that shut down after Katrina and had been re-launched as a food hall.  It was exquisitely done, with a bar, coffee shop, oyster bar, juice bar, produce market and Korean-Creole spot where I had a fantastic bibim bowl.

Followed by a muffaletta.  Oh New Orleans. Something about that city just does not inspire moderation.



February 2016

Nicked Names: How the ‘Be Came to Be

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Serenbe sign meadow- Greg Newington

Today, the word “Serenbe” represents our community and everything in it, from the Inn and spa to the farm and a calendar full of events. But in the fall of 1996, it began its life on a sign outside our little bed and breakfast.

Or so I thought. More on that later.

That one little word quickly became a conversation piece. And to this day, the No. 1 question people ask us is: What’s the story behind the name?

Over the years, I’ve parceled out pieces of the story — a drive down a country back road; a hidden folk-art mecca — but until now I’ve never sat down and told the whole from start to finish. There are so many good stories behind the beginnings of Serenbe, but this one put the magic in motion:

In the spring of 1996, Steve and I hopped in the car one weekend and headed to Americus, Georgia. We loved doing drives along country back roads — it’s the way we found what is now Serenbe — but I can’t recall why we decided to make Americus our destination. A circa 1892 hotel? Habitat for Humanity headquarters? It doesn’t matter. We just loved to take our time and explore.

As we cruised down a tiny two-lane road, I got lost in thought about the farm and what it meant to me. How it was a place to be serene. And in my mind, the words “serene” and “be” became Serenbe. It instantly felt right. I knew that second that I’d just named the bed and breakfast we’d open in the fall.

Either a short time before or after, I noticed a faded old sign deep in the trees with nothing more than the word Pasaquan and an arrow. I’d never heard of Pasaquan, but something about it struck me. I said to Steve, let’s turn and see what it’s about.

Turns out, Pasaquan is an unbelievably fascinating folk art installation. I’m not talking about a few sculptures in a field or some small shack full of outsider art. It’s a seven-acre compound with four acres of brightly painted concrete walls and six structures, including a farmhouse. There are totem poles, painted snakes and peacocks — all in concrete. It was created by Eddie Owens Martin, who later called himself St. EOM. He was a sharecropper’s son who returned to his homestead in the 1950s after many years in New York City when his mother died and left him the land.

Pasaquan was the manifestation of a vision he had to create a peaceful place. Since Martin’s suicide in 1986, Pasaquan has been preserved and is on the U.S. Register of Historic Places. His work has been displayed from New York to L.A. and in Atlanta’s own High Museum. But for most of his life, he was known as the village fool.

When we arrived, at Pasaquan, we walked around alone for quite awhile before meeting Gwen, Martin’s protégé, who gave us a tour. It was just wild and we’ve returned many times to share the experience with friends.

We traveled on to Americus, which was ho-hum, but I’ve always felt an invisible string connects the naming of Serenbe with our discovery of Pasaquan in the same 30-minute time frame. Just as people thought Martin was insane for creating his vision, people thought we were nuts to build a town in our backyard. First they call you crazy, then they honor you as a visionary.

Fast forward to 2011. I’d gone to England for a conference, as I do as often as possible. England and Ireland are sacred ground to me and always feels like a return to my roots. While I was speaking to another woman about Serenbe, a groundskeeper approached, politely waited for our chat to conclude, and asked if I knew that Serenbe is an ancient Gaelic blessing meaning to be of the stars.

It was one of the most exquisite synchronicities I’d ever experienced. In that moment, I realized that what I’d thought was an original word wasn’t original at all, but a word my ancestors used hundreds of years before.

It didn’t feel like a job well done message from beyond  — it felt like a blessing. And a confirmation of the magic that is, and has always been, Serenbe.




February 2016

Cottage Industry, Part 2: The Inside Story

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In last week’s post, I wrote about the many years of magic behind the new Rural Studio artist cottage at Serenbe. The cottage itself is a big, bright feather in Serenbe’s cap and being connected with Rural Studio is a dream come true for our community. But what makes this space special isn’t just the partnership or the plans—as we all know, it’s what’s inside that matters most.

We wanted the cottage—a 2BR divided into two private areas—to have the same look and feel as the View More: of Serenbe’s spaces: casual, chic and elegantly efficient. Atlanta has a huge design community and calling any number of our connections wouldn’t have been a problem at all. But we needed someone willing to take on the projects pro bono. Two someones, actually.

We lucked into Kerry Howard of KMH Interiors and Steve McKenzie of Steve McKenzie’s, two designers who were intimately acquainted with Serenbe through committees and former projects. In addition to the lengthy list of donors and sponsors, both were incredibly generous with their time, talents and resources.

View More: of them, the cottage turned out amazingly charming. Temporary artist housing has a reputation for being spartan but both area very warm and welcoming. Connected by shared deck meant to inspire collaboration, the writer’s space is very 50’s retro and the painter’s quarters is a bit more contemporary. In the writer’s cottage, the desk, donated by a Serenbe resident, faces the woods and an old pie safe works well with quartz countertops. The painter’s cottage is a bit looser, with lots of open spaces for the artist to configure their own arrangement, and a gorgeous end table made from reclaimed mill beams.

As the Art Farm grows and expands, so will our number of Rural Studio cottages. Right now, one is being broken in by Anis Mojani, a spoken word poet and our newest artist in residence. I hope he can feel the community that came together to create his space. I hope it feels like home.

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