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Bringing Art and Nature Together

udith and Bill Farmer relax on the porch of their home in Scotts.
Artists Bill and Judith Farmer have created a sanctuary in Scotts

My watch beeps, and as instructed, I make the turn, traveling down the backroads of Southwest Michigan between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. I am looking for Two Farmers Studio, the artistic refuge of Judith and Bill Farmer.

Horses graze in an open field to my right, and a farm spans the length of a city block to my left. I come to the little hamlet of Scotts — too small to be categorized as a town or village, it receives the unglamorous distinction of being an unincorporated community. But this proud community in Pavilion Township begs to differ.

Scotts acquired its name from fur trader Samuel Scott, who settled in the area in 1847. However, it is believed that much earlier, Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes occupied this area in fairly large numbers. A cluster of homes and businesses soon grew around the train stop of the Grand Trunk Railroad, and the community grew in population until the importance of travel by rail dwindled. As its population declined, so did Scotts, with the brunt of the demise taking place in 1911 when a tragic fire destroyed the majority of the town.

A U.S. post office is the lone holdover. I drive past the four corners, passing a general store, a café and a malt shoppe, making a mental note to visit these shops on another day. Turning down a driveway almost hidden within the trees, I ride past beautiful hanging artwork on both sides before the woods open up to a clearing where Judith and Bill Farmer’s homestead is found.

Visitors will immediately notice the cozy two-story house, complete with a front porch adorned with two pairs of mud boots carefully arranged by the front door. To the left, a brick walkway, featuring repurposed bricks from Kalamazoo streets, leads guests to Judith’s art studio, a building that also serves as a garage and as Bill’s woodworking shop. It appears that artistic blood flows through the veins of both wife and husband.

Moving a whole house

Judith waves me into the house. Art in the many forms surrounds me — photos, pottery, furniture. The floors and walls speak the history of this house which is sitting on its second foundation. Originally a two-story house built in 1842, it stood tall at the corner of 36th Street and R Avenue on a small dairy farm owned by Gladys (formerly Grover) and Ed Carver on the outskirts of Scotts, appropriately called Grover Corner at the time.

The Methodist church in Scotts eventually acquired the house, along with 40 acres of land, with plans to tear it down and build a new church on the spot. At one point, the members of the church even considered donating the house to the local fire department to burn down as a training exercise. Instead, a church board member fought to save the house. With its solid post and beam construction (like a barn), it was built to be disassembled if needed, and moved. The church held a silent auction for the structure, which the Farmers won, along with the 20-plus acres where it now sits.

But moving a 180-year-old structure from the center of Scotts to a wooded private area south of the four-corners was another matter. The process took six weeks from start to finish. The house was trailered down 36th Street, blocking traffic for several days before settling onto its new location on 27 acres of wooded land. The move attracted the attention of locals and even local media such as the Kalamazoo Gazette, which printed a story on the historic move.

The Farmers appreciate the importance of maintaining the integrity of their historic dwelling. “With every project we tackle, we are careful to follow the original design of the home — doorway trim, flooring,” Bill says. “We were able to save the flooring in most every room. While this wood flooring in the entry is new, we made sure it complements the flooring in the adjoining rooms.”

“Obviously we needed to update certain amenities,” Judith explains as we walk into the laundry room and bathroom, which originally functioned as a walk-in pantry. But even with the updates, every shelf, cupboard and teacup reflect the magic of this repurposed home.

The artwork found throughout the house is not just that of Judith and Bill, but rather a celebration of many local and regional artists, from Richard Jordan, who specializes in plein air painting (painting outdoors, while immersed in the surroundings) to Conrad Kauffman, another artist who paints landscapes found throughout Southwest Michigan.

As all homeowners know, updates are constant. “We just added a new coat of paint to the outside, monochromatic. A nod to its nineteenth century roots,” Judith says, noting how the colors are neutral but bold, fitting in seamlessly with the outdoors in every season. “It’s never ending. We’re always working on something.”

“She’s very hands-on and not afraid to get her hands dirty,” Bill laughs. “She even has her own wheelbarrow.”

We make our way to Judith’s studio, where the walls are accented with her oil paintings. “I used to paint to relax,” she says. “Then I grew into creating art with a mission to disrupt — encouraging those who view my art to think and contemplate what the piece is saying to them. My work has evolved to sometimes including an environmental narrative which speaks to our assault upon it.

“Art and my admiration for my surroundings was in my blood from as early as I can remember. Growing up, we often camped up north, and I was always combing the Michigan beaches for rocks, driftwood, anything that spoke to me.”

Art inspired by nature

Judith’s passion for the outdoors shows in her work: oil paintings inspired by nature. Looking at a series of oil paintings hanging in the gallery, it’s easy to see the message Judith is conveying, both metaphorically and literally in the dark dramatic colors and lines.

While in the studio, an orange tabby cat greets us momentarily before scurrying off to find the other cats that live on the property and come and go as they please. “It started with one feral cat who visited us and surprised us with two litters, one after the other,” Judith says, “We were finally able to catch her so we could get her to the vet, and they’re now all happily fixed.”

Making our way back to the house, we sit down for tea and more conversation. I take a bite of my cranberry scone, fresh from the oven, as I take in the kitchen, which has cozy Walton’s Mountain farmhouse vibes but with modern amenities.

“This is our spiritual sanctuary. The majority of our heat comes from our woodburning stove. It’s important to us to lessen our carbon footprint,” Bill says, noting that all the wood is taken from fallen trees in the woods on their property.

After a career in graphic design, Judith, and Bill, an arbitration specialist with the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) organization, now enjoy retirement at their self-described retreat, complete with a welcoming firepit in the backyard and an outdoor shower equipped with cold and hot water.

“Art is my life,” Judith explains. “It’s the environment you create for yourself. People often say they’re not artists, but I believe everyone is an artist in their own way. I used to be uncomfortable selling my art because it meant putting a dollar value on what I do, putting a price on where and how art fits in our culture. But quite literally art encompasses everything we do — what we eat, how we speak, and how we live.”

And it shows … all around me. From the house to the grounds to the woods.

“Sometimes we can’t help but wonder how this all came to be,” Judith muses. “It has become part of our life’s work, beating us up and feeding us at the same time. We always take time to acknowledge how fortunate we are to have found ourselves here, healthy and still loving everything.

As summer unfolds, their time in the studio picks up, planning for new work for this year’s Arts & Eats, an annual event coming up again this fall.

“When I paint, I am channeling from my visual bank of beautiful places, nature and everyday objects,” Judith says. “They become environments created with color, light and texture, in this time and place.

Within those images, stories are told, warnings are given, sadness is addressed, and the beauty of Earth is reminded … energy created.“

Heidi McCrary

Heidi is a Kalamazoo writer whose novel, Chasing North Star, is available at Kazoo Books and This is a Bookstore and online. You can follow her at heidimccrary.net and facebook.com/HeidiMcCraryAuthor.

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