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VOL. 42 | NO. 20 | Friday, May 18, 2018

Firefly nurtures creative spirits with nature

By Linda Bryant | Correspondent

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When Erin Elizabeth Smith and Joe Minarick purchased Firefly Farms in the winter of 2013, it was an unkempt property with a decades-old ranch home that had been left empty for years.

The home had been vandalized and the surrounding portions of the land were badly overgrown and portions were flooded. A natural spring on the farm was clogged with old beer cans and rubbish.

The old farmstead probably seemed like a ramshackle disaster to many, but Smith and Minarick sensed an opportunity to use the property to contribute to the Knoxville region’s burgeoning art scene.

Bolstered by $20,000 from crowdsourcing and personal fundraising, hundreds — make that thousands — of hours of elbow grease, persistence and the long term commitment of dozens of volunteers, the couple led a successful effort to purchase and renovate the farm.

The result was the birth of Sundress Academy for the Arts at Firefly Farms, a 45-acre nonprofit artists’ retreat about 20-minutes from Knoxville.

Often referred to as SAFTA, the organization has offered, since 2014, one to two week residencies for artists who need to escape the routines of everyday life in order to complete creative projects. Most of the residents are writers, although SAFTA is open to hosting artists of other disciplines such as visual arts, music and filmmaking.

The organization also reaches into the wider Knoxville community by hosting numerous activities and classes that engage area residents — themed writing retreats, poetry readings and workshops designed for those they feel are underserved such as members of the LBGTQ community or survivors of sexual assault.

“We try to target communities where we feel being heard can work as a form of building community,” Smith says.

If that weren’t enough, SAFTA also operates an independent small press that publishes seven full-length literary titles a year and six “e-chapbooks” [short online books], broadsides [literary posters] and several online poetry journals.

Smith explains it’s important to have an arts organization such as SAFTA in the Knoxville area because it helps bridge the gap between academia and the arts.

Artists have adorned the farmhouse at Sundress Academy for the Arts at Firefly Farm with unique artwork making for quite the creative environment.

-- Adam Taylor Gash The Ledger

“I like having a foot in both worlds,” she adds.

Bringing the farm ‘back to life’

From the onset, SAFTA was a labor of love — and a whole lot of sweat equity.

The group has dozens of volunteers who say they believe in its mission, and there are no paid positions in the entire organization.

“When we first started we spent eight months of our lives, spending pretty much every moment we weren’t working full time doing physical work — tilling, dry walling, installing electrical wiring and plumbing,” Smith recounts.

“We basically gutted the house and brought it back to life.”

Smith and Minarick, who are a couple, and their legion of volunteers also worked on getting surrounding fields cleared for animals and on associated tasks such as fencing and landscaping.

An important aspect of SAFTA’s emergence as a full-fledged artists’ retreat with a distinct and unique identity involved bringing a caboodle of animals to live on the farm full time. Over the past four years, the farm has become home to Jayne, a donkey Smith calls SAFTA’s “confirmed mascot,” a growing herd of sheep (14 at present), one goat and a flock of backyard chickens and resident ducks.

The sheep are especially helpful since when they munch on grass and other greenery they serve as natural lawnmowers.

“We had so much land we really needed animals to help tend to it,” Smith acknowledges. “It was overwhelming to have that much acreage and face having to mow or bush hog it. It just made sense to be like a working farm.”

The animals are also a great benefit to visiting artists who help take care of the furry and feathered companions throughout their time at SAFTA.

From left, Katherine Bell who recently finished her residency at the Farm, Erin Smith and a new resident. 


“The residents have a chance to interact with the animals and work on a schedule,” Smith says. “When you get stuck [while working on a project] you can go hang out with the donkey or take a hike in the woods.”

Typically, there are two standard residencies available at any given time at the Sundress farmhouse, and a third option is offered in a converted chicken coop about one-quarter mile from the farmhouse.

The coop, which was added last year, is a decidedly more rustic space with no running water and only a bed, desk and wood stove.

The fancier accommodations at the farmhouse have a communal kitchen, bathroom, office, living space, wireless internet and cable. And everyone living at the farm during a residency gets amenities specific to the farm life at Sundress — farm fresh eggs, the sounds of ducks splashing and quacking in a nearby pond and the braying of Jayne the donkey at 8:30 a.m. every morning.

“We expected a few people to apply [for the chicken coop],” Smith says. “But it turned out to be insanely popular. It’s usually booked every week.”

Residents are expected to pay a fee of $250 per week for a room at the farmhouse and $150 for the chicken coop. While the farm is unusually affordable, there is financial aid available.

Making lifelong friends

Residents are chosen through a competitive application process from a pool of writers and artists all over the country — even the world — and have hailed from as far away as Pakistan and as close as East Tennessee.

There is also one full-time resident who typically stays at Sundress during the year to take care of the grounds and animals, but that person is not chosen by a formal public application process.

“We do draw a lot from Tennessee and the Southeast, but people are coming from all over — Maine, California, Canada and England,” Smith says.

“You meet lifelong friends here,” Smith adds. “It’s extremely rewarding work. There’s nothing I like more than working on the land or building something like the coop that people are now coming in from all over the country to enjoy.”

Sundress Academy for the Arts at Firefly hosts many writers from around the country.

-- Adam Taylor Gash The Ledger

Smith says another rewarding part of SAFTA is seeing writers and artists experience breakthroughs during their residencies. “You might find out that a manuscript, which was at one point in time taped all over the walls of the farmhouse, has gotten picked up, or that someone has just won a prestigious award,” Smith explains. “It’s not unusual.”

Leslie LaChance, associate professor of English at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, a former SAFTA resident and board member, says a resident’s experience often has a transformative effect.

“If you are uncertain about your status as an artist when you go to Sundress, that will change very quickly because you will be taken very seriously there,” LaChance says.

“I used to be one of those people who thought places like this were just for artistes,’’ she continues. “So many of these kinds of retreats seemed economically out of reach, and I thought they were for another whole class of writers.

“But after doing a residency, I discovered that making that time for yourself to write is a gift to yourself. It teaches you to take yourself more seriously a writer.”

LaChance says Smith’s passion and commitment inspire others to get involved with SAFTA. She also praises Minarick’s diligence, especially when it comes to focusing on the nuts and bolts of keeping the farm maintained and pointed to the future.

“Joe and Erin share a vision for Sundress,” she adds. “They are both very passionate and complementary in what they bring to the project. Joe has always got something going on the property itself. He’s the engineer.

“Erin amazes me because she’s a brilliant artist with an incredible work ethic. Joe shares that, too. They are incredibly creative and they also work really, really hard.”

Smith, who acts as the official creative director of SAFTA, an unpaid volunteer position, also works as a senior lecturer at the University of Tennessee teaching various levels of English composition, creative writing and literature.

She has a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Southern Mississippi.

Minarick is currently the plans officer for the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, headquartered in Knoxville. As chief of operations, also a volunteer position, he is able to pursue his interests in Appalachian history and sustainable development.

Kristi Larkin Havens, assistant director of undergraduate studies at UTK’s Department of English and former volunteer outreach director of the group, points out SAFTA is needed — and appreciated — in the Knoxville area.

“Knoxville is really a creative community but sometimes we are separated from one another,” Havens says. “Sundress likes to bring the community together as much as we can.”

She also says the privacy and rural character at Sundress make it a rare gift to the city, region and country.

“It’s just 20 minutes out of Knoxville, but it’s in a ‘holler,’ “Havens notes. “You are far enough away for it to feel peaceful. There’s space to write, animals to feed and other writers to spend time with hanging out on the porch. It’s really a great place.”

Havens also has high praise for Smith.

“Erin is really well respected in the literary and publishing world,” she says. “She is a dynamo. She has a lot of connections to other editors and independent journals. She’s incredibly active in the poetry community, and she brings all that experience with her. Plus, she’s willing to do the work herself.”

Because Smith and her crew of volunteers bring so many skills and talents to the table, Havens says SAFTA is able to offer some of the highest quality programing available.

Katherine Bell, who was writer-in-residence at SAFTA from August 2017 until May 2018, came to the farm after she completed her MFA degree in creative writing from the University of Eastern Washington in 2017.

“Retreats and residencies are so important because you get away from your day-to-day life and make your own magical space to craft your own work,” Bell says. “[Sundress is] a great experience, even if you’re from Knoxville and looking for a way to get away for a week.”

While staying at the farm, Bell ended up accepting a job as an adjunct instructor at nearby Pellissippi State Technical Community College.

She says the animals at SAFTA left lasting memories.

“The farm aspect was my favorite part,” Bell recalls. “I love the animals so much. I would try to take an awesome photo daily of the animals, and it was part of my job to make sure they were always fed and well taken care of.”

Bell says the menagerie of animals at Sundress were a source of humor and whimsy, and they sometimes required hard work.

“One of the hardest things was when the sheep, the goat and Jayne, the donkey, all got out on New Year’s Day and we had to get them all back inside the fence. The sheep were easy –they follow the food. Jayne and the goat, Munchma, were more stubborn. But we got them back in with bread.”

Although Smith and Minarick spend most of their free time at Sundress, the couple lives in Oak Ridge about 20 miles down the road. It is their dream to eventually build a full-time residence on the property.

But in the short-term, there are plans to start fundraising to build a tiny house on the property that will be able to accommodate another resident. After that, there are plans to build a large workshop space that holds more people than the current space at SAFTA allows.

“We want to have enough space for everyone who wants to come here,” Smith says.