By Laura Tabbut
During the months leading up to CIVA’s biennial conference, I thought a lot about Homer’s Odyssey. I was on a journey of my own that felt a bit circuitous and prolonged. Odysseus’ journey home takes him ten years – the exact interim that I spent between my undergrad years and teaching in a college classroom.
In classical literature, the return of the epic hero is known as the nostos of the story. It’s the Greek root that gives us the word nostalgia. Nostos is characterized by an adventurous journey by sea, where the hero faces a series of challenges that transform the character.
If I think of nostalgia in terms of its original meaning, the pain of returning home, I find myself more comfortable with the term. Stripped of the sense of longing that the contemporary sentiment has, I can grapple with the idea that coming home is not always easy. Sometimes it’s downright painful.
I moved a year ago. During 2018, seven of my friends also moved out of state, leaving our comfortable Chicago suburb a bit emptier. The fact that I was not alone in my move out of state, made the transition easier. It helped that getting married precipitated the move. But what I wasn’t as prepared for was the transition between classroom environments. For the ten years that I was in grad school, I taught art in a recently founded, highly collaborative K-12 environment. I missed my students and colleagues. I missed the unbridled optimism that came with starting a new school. I missed the creativity that came with imagining new curriculum. These things were only bounded by the dread of not knowing exactly what the journey would look like.
On our way to the CIVA conference, my husband and I took a road trip from central Ohio, where we live, to Minnesota. I had the chance to connect with three of my fellow Illinois ex-pats on the way. In Madison, we enjoyed lunch with Margaret – a teaching colleague, friend, and mentor. Her home in Illinois seemed to be perfectly translated to the Isthmus on the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s campus. In this new context, we discussed the ever-changing landscape of higher education and where we found ourselves placed within it. In Minneapolis, my friends Mary and Stephen shared dinner with us. During our grad school years, Mary and I simultaneously navigated the rough waters of securing teaching positions while living in a time of economic downturn. We looked back at the way faith sustained us. We looked forward to our new lives outside of the K-12 classroom.
I arrived at the conference ready for the creative conversation. During Wayne Roosa’s opening talk, I was surprised and delighted to hear his discussion of Odysseus’ journey towards Ithaca. A circular journey, one that contrasts Abraham’s linear journey. Odysseus ends his journey in the place where he began – at home. This model of nostos given to us by Homer provides a solace for the creative practice.
The theme of nostos undergirds the structure of T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets. Eliot famously opens East Coker with the line, “In my beginning is my end” and concludes with the reversal, “In my end is my beginning.” In the beauty of the chiasm, it is easy to overlook the poetic journey that Eliot takes to reach that conclusion. The poem’s title is a reference to Eliot’s ancestral home. It serves as a personal odyssey for Eliot as he critiques his own poetry and creative practice.
Eliot laments a twenty-year journey which he feels is “largely wasted.” He describes the period between the two World Wars and his attempt to create meaning from words which seem inadequate, inarticulate, and imprecise. He writes: “Trying to use words, and every attempt / Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure.” Eliot’s lament is not completely without hope because he encourages his reader to try, to make the attempt at creativity. Then when we put our creative gifts out into the public eye, he warns, “The rest is not our business.” The artistic practice must allow for a release of ourselves to let the work do the job of transforming culture.
As Eliot brings his poetic quest to a close, he concludes, “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated.” Eliot encourages himself and his reader to explore and continue the journey in whatever place we find ourselves. In reaching the end of something, we find ourselves at the beginning of a new adventure.
Are we there yet? Am I there yet? Definitely not, just on a new expedition, using different oars and facing different giants.
My first teaching journey was not unlike the Odyssey – curious, storm-tossed, blissful, treacherous, transformative. I had always seen academia as Ithaca. And once I had arrived on the shore of academia, I would travel inland to bury the oar of K-12 art education. I never thought that teaching K-12 would ultimately prepare me for leading a college classroom.
On the way back home from the CIVA conference, I photographed the houses where I had grown up. I photographed the house I bought after college – now a symbol of the creative work done within my studio walls. The pain of returning home was real. It was the ache for a former creativity. In that ache for home is the realization of growth, the maturation that takes place during a long, circuitous journey.
My studio in central Ohio looks different, and that’s good.
Laura Tabbut is based in central Ohio and works in installation, new media, and textiles. Her work considers current ecological issues and questions the rituals and routines of the American landscape. She holds undergraduate degrees in Fashion Design and Sculpture, an M.A. in English from The Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College, and an M.F.A. in Visual Art from Azusa Pacific University. She currently teaches at Mount Vernon Nazarene University and serves as the Gallery Administrator for the Schnormeier Gallery.