Growing weird—and liking it

A potter living in rural Nevada writes about family life in the sticks

Living in the Country Growing Weird: A Deep Rural Adventure
by Dennis Parks
University of Nevada Press, 2001

You’ve dreamed of abandoning your dreary suburban life for some rural haven to raise your kids and write the great American novel—but you just never got around to doing it. Sound familiar? If so, then Nevada potter Dennis Parks’ new memoir, Living in the Country Growing Weird: A Deep Rural Adventure, might inspire you to get off your lazy ass and seek a saner, more peaceful life in the sticks.

Parks tossed aside his tenure track, art professor, Southern California existence over 30 years ago to eke out an artist’s hardscrabble life with his wife and two sons in Tuscarora, an old gold mining town an hour north of Elko.

“The town and the valley made me restive: the sunshine and the big sky, the quiet pace and potential,” Parks writes. But he had his doubts, too.

“There was no way we could afford to live in the middle of nowhere. I had found an outcrop of clay that might do just fine. Perhaps I could start a small school here. With time the boys would grow wiser and more responsible, develop outdoor interests and mature into allies.”

And thus began Parks’ “deep rural adventure.”

One part town history, one part personal memoir and one part the writing of an inadvertent naturalist, Parks’ book is a collection of lessons learned from the sagebrush sea. The author subtly conveys the virtues of a rural existence: how to raise your kids sans television; the economics of making a living in the boondocks; and the all-important art of negotiating with new neighbors.

Visitors who make the pilgrimage to Parks’ rural Nevada studio repeatedly ask, “Don’t you ever get bored?” The artist answers this in Living.

“I have thought of elaborating with a string of questions: How could I get bored when I have no proper job? How could I get bored working in the studio making whatever whenever I please? I can stretch out on my sofa by a wood stove and read the weekly New Yorker from cover to cover before the next issue arrives, or explore above town looking for the makings of a salad, or spend my day with a fishing rod. How could I be bored when each day is filled with all those activities a regularly employed worker dreams of indulging in after 65?”

I talked recently with Parks about his new book.

What prompted you to write a memoir?

Dennis Parks lives, writes and makes pots in Tuscarora, Nev.

I wrote a book about the time I spent in Central Europe during the transition from communism, called Among Anxious Artists: An American Artist Travels in Middle Europa, and sent it to the Pantheon Press in New York. They told me “communism doesn’t sell, but where you live sounds interesting—why don’t you write about that?” And so I did.

The book has surprisingly little to do with pottery. It doesn’t seem like fellow potters were the readers you had in mind when you wrote the book.

It’s the first memoir by a potter that doesn’t have any glaze recipes or kiln designs in it. [He laughs.] You know, potters have interesting lives—I wanted to do a service to the ceramics community by showing that and trying to get people who wouldn’t read a pottery book interested in the field.

Tell me about the title of the book.

People have called me that—weird. When I had lived in Tuscarora for about 10 years, a sculptor friend of mine from New York visited and told me, “Parks, you have lost every vestige of civilization since you’ve been here.” He was joking, of course.

Being a new mother, I was especially fond of the stories and photos of your sons. It sounds like the rural atmosphere was the best tool for raising your kids.

More than anything, it instilled in them a sense of self-reliance. I was so young; I didn’t have any plan about raising the boys. Kids won’t listen to their parents anyways. So I thought if I lived a full and fulfilling life, I could be an example for them. They didn’t need to follow in my footsteps, but I thought if I was expressive and obsessive and compulsive, I could show them that life is interesting.

It seems you had a lot to learn over the years in Tuscarora about the rural way of making deals and settling disputes—for example, you write about a time when you bought your ancient Land Rover or when you had a showdown with a gun-toting drunk over some late night Tammy Wynette music.

That was really scary. I had post-traumatic stress syndrome for weeks after that. It’s a good thing that I was just a city kid, because if I weren’t, I would have just taken a pistol out there and blown his brains out. But I didn’t know anything about guns.

The vignettes in your book were brief. I thought each one of them could have been expanded into a longer short story.

I never want to write—it’s very painful. It makes you a little crazy. But there is a compulsion to write every so often. It helps me understand my life a little better. Writing and pottery are a good balance for each other—pottery is so non-verbal. And the way that I write is also how I give lectures and slideshows: make it just interesting enough that you have the taste on your tongue but still want more. I do have in mind some stories for Weird II, however.