Having lived in the northern parts of the world, some of my best memories are of delicious summer picnics at scenic locales with friends or family. Of course, ants and other critters can overshadow these outdoor idylls, turning mishaps into anecdotes, retold as memorable stories at future occasions. My passion for eating outdoors stems in part from the depravations of the urban dweller lacking the amenities of a balcony, patio or garden. Hence, being invited to a potluck dinner at Open Room Austin by Susan Lambe and her team at Art in Public Places during a visit was a dream come true.
On approach, the spot's visual stimuli triggered many wonderful associations. I reveled in richly layered memories of childhood years spent in the verdant Bavarian countryside, visualizing our family home’s big garden and my grandfather’s farm orchard, where we picked fruits and berries all summer. To this day, I relish the inimitable taste of freshly picked, sun-warm strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, and boysenberries or, roaming through the forest to pick wild blueberries for cakes and baking, lingonberries for preserves and chanterelles for dinner. Climbing up trees, I savored the crisp apples, juicy plums, pears and delicious cherries – my favorite – straight from the branches. Or how about those first radishes pulled from the ground and the carrots washed in the rain barrel for immediate consumption? There’s nothing like it.
These thoughts passed through my mind as I was entering Austin’s well-appointed, public living room in a small park, surrounded by young trees that have to grow for another decade before casting shade on hot days. Having chosen the amenities of the city, the cultural richness and urban creativity over my former rural existence, I cherished this possibility of sharing a comfortable outdoor experience with others.
Like a scene out of a fairytale, a long dining table covered with a white lace tablecloth invites to be seated. Fabricated in powder-coated steel, the delicate fabric being frozen in rigid metal adds to its wonder and charm. At the four corners of this imaginary room, elegant, seven-arm chandeliers in matching color frame the ensemble. Realized by Miami-based artists Rosario Marquardt and Roberto Behar, the design responds to my own perpetual desire to find harmony and sense of place. This surely is a setting I want to revisit over and over again, probably like many neighbors and out-of-town visitors who happen upon the Open Room in this newly built park next to a new neighborhood on the north side of Austin’s Lady Bird Lake. If Open Room was mine, the only thing I would add is a little hedge or a white picket fence at the park’s edge for more comfort and as delineation for passing traffic.
On this balmy, early winter evening the warming rays of the Texas sun provide perfect outdoor conditions for a social gathering. About twenty artists, architects, planners and residents had followed the invitation to join this evening of food and conversation hosted in my honor. Two photographers capture the scene, Philip Rogers is one of them, a brilliant photographer known for his portraits of artists, on leave from his native Maine over the winter. As I look at the faces in his photos, I fondly remember our shared stories of successes and challenges similar to those of other cities I traveled to.
Two artists at the table recently designed bike racks, engendering Austin’s reputation as a forward thinking city that supports sustainable and creative life styles, while fostering innovation in design, public health and leisure activities. A muralist looks to work on more public art commissions. Concern is voiced over an ongoing public debate questioning the expense of a public art commission in the form of a security wall at the nearby electrical substation. With the richness of conversation, the potluck dishes in the center of the table remain mostly untouched until someone begins passing a few bowls. Eating seems less important, here and now, though someone tells of recent barbeque feasts.
As the sinking sun paints a glowing sky, our conversation turns to quiet reverie. A vivid palette ranging from deep orange to lavender marks the end of the day. Birds are singing their last evening song. Calm and gratitude for this lavish display of nature makes me feel at peace with the universe. The air turns chilly, so we bade our goodbyes, feeling richer and happier for what we shared.