C = Claire Repsholdt, E = Eric SandweissView podcast page
House of the Signing Winds Transcript
C: Welcome to A Thing of Beauty. I’m your host, Claire Repsholdt, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University studying English and History. This podcast is part of Themester, a themed semester brought to you by the College of Arts and Sciences. This fall we are exploring beauty as a core component of human experience. In each episode, we’ll invite faculty to share an object of beauty with us. So, let’s meet our guest.
C: Welcome to “A Thing of Beauty,” I’m Claire Repsholdt and today I’m here with Professor Eric Sandweiss, who is a Professor and Chair in the History department. Professor Sandweiss, welcome.
E: Thank you, I’m happy to be here.
C: And what is the object you have chosen today for our listeners?
E: Well I couldn’t bring it in with me exactly, so we’ll have to use our minds’ eye to picture the home of T.C. Steele, the Indiana born artist, who built and lived in the house that he called the House of the Singing Winds from the time that he built it outside of Belmont, Indiana, between Bloomington and Nashville, in 1907 until his death in 1926. His wife Selma continued to live in House of the Singing Winds until she passed on a couple decades later. She then dedicated it and the land around it to the state of Indiana and it’s currently run as a site of the Indiana State Museum and is open to the public.
C: And it’s only about 10 miles outside of Bloomington, I think, right?
E: Yeah, it’s, it’s a 15-20 minute drive depending on where you’re coming from.
C: Could you describe the House of the Singing Winds for me?
E: Sure. Part of the description involves getting there, and involves driving up a winding, small road in Brown County Indiana through the hills and the forests and then arriving at this hilltop, this suddenly a cleared hilltop that’s surrounded by beautiful gardens and flowers and flowering plants and seeing in front of you a very simple but striking wood-frame building with a pyramidal roof, screened porches around the sides, and a couple of steps leading up to it that is this very small country home.
So you walk up the steps into this house. You’re greeted by a big living room that’s got beautiful rugs on the floor and original art on the wall, craftsman objets d’art on the tables, and so on and there’s this mantle, fireplace in the center of the room with the mantle over it in which is inscribed, in kind of craftsman-type lettering the phrase, “every morning I take off my hat to the beauty of the world.”
And so, you realize you are in a space that is devoted to and is about beauty and the beautiful, but it’s a very practical space, too. So as you leave the main living area, which is also originally a working painting studio, you arrive at a very simple kitchen, small bedrooms, sleeping porches, washroom. In other words you’re really in a country cabin, and yet it’s one that has, uh, a unique spirit and flavor to it that you can’t mistake, except to know that you haven’t seen anything like it before.
It’s a place that clearly has been inhabited and has been inhabited well. That is, it reflects a kind of a sense of love and devotion from the people who built it and then lived in it, and there’s a kind of an integral relationship between the--not only the site and the structure, right?, the way it is built atop this hill in a way that just feels like its natural and belongs--but also between the structure and the objects inside it; you know, the fireplace--which I’ll talk about in a minute--the furnishings, the art that’s on the wall.
It all feels like a very intended and intentional kind of landscape, but an unpretentious one. And then finally, you can only imagine, a third relationship between the objects and the people who used them and collected them and getting some sense of that, kind of, spark of life--even though both T.C. Steele and his wife Selma are long gone--getting still, a sense of them walking around in the rooms there--using the pots and pans, or—or adjusting the art on the walls--is part of what I would argue is the beauty of this, uh, very unpretentious but special site.
C: And when was the first time that you saw it? Do you remember?
E: I remember seeing House of the Singing winds for the first time when I moved with my family to Indiana. And we would go out there with our kids on spring and summer days just to enjoy a walk in the woods, a tour of the house, or for the kids, oh you know, a watermelon seed spitting contest outside or something like that, so there were many levels at which one can appreciate the house, but I suppose the fact of its beauty, which doesn’t necessarily call attention to itself in the way of a big architectural landmark like the IU Art Museum or something. Its beauty is something that only sinks in over time. You’re mostly aware of it as a wonderful site and a pleasant place to visit.
C: Now you mentioned that for you it’s really connected to paintings that you’ve seen, the house, when you see it brings out the T.C. Steele work you’ve encountered, so is that really present, are there specific paintings? Like paintings in the IU art collection or in the Indiana Museum of Art that you’ve seen, or is it something separate?
E: Yeah. You’ll find that because he was a plein air painter, at least in that point in his life, that is he liked to set up outside and do landscape views, and that’s where he was spending much of his time for several decades after building and moving into the house. You will find these paintings walking through the halls of the IMU; and, when they’re up, in the in the galleries of the IU Art Museum; in books about T.C. Steele; Indiana State Museum has a collection; so it’s not—
You don’t have to go too far in, in South Central Indiana to find, uh, a painting that actually shows you the House of the Singing Winds or the drive leading up to it or the view out over the hills from it.
C: Then the house is something that is not only available at that site, but kind of all around us. So--
E: Yeah. I guess you could say there’s a kind of a presence to it in the same way that when you see a celebrity unexpectedly at a restaurant or on the street there’s a presence there, and it’s aided by the fact that you’re not just seeing the incarnation, the flesh and blood, but you’re aware of all of those other images that you carry with you of that person or of that place.
So, I think that’s part of, uh, what’s great about the House of the Singing Winds, but I certainly wouldn’t say it’s all that’s great about it, and I certainly wouldn’t say that unless you’ve studied the art you can’t appreciate the house. And that’s one of the things that made me bring it to you now. It doesn’t call itself out as, as an object for your attention.
It really does feel, as I mentioned, like a natural, y’know, kind of a naturally inhabited building, which I think--and we can talk about architecture more generally in a moment--but I think that that’s an important criterion for beauty in architecture: not that it was intended to impress or that it requires study or preparation to understand but, simply, that it seems to draw itself naturally out of relationships between a site, a structure, and the humans who use it.
C: Then when you see an object of beauty like the House of the Singing Winds, are you seeing the people that put it together? And is that, in this case, the artist and his wife? Or are you seeing builders…? You described a lot of the environment, but is there also that anthropological component, that comes alive when you see it?
E: Yeah, that’s a good-- A leading but good question. I mean I think you’ve captured it better than I could. I would say that in any object, and I say this as a museum person and not just as an architecture person, in any object there’s a, kind of, a relationship, there’s a relationship between-- that comes together for a moment in that, that specific material thing:
It’s the relationship between the people who built it, who created it, who crafted it, who intended it to be one thing or another; and the thing itself, its materials, its structure, its life over time, its wear and tear, and all the rest, and then finally the people who are encountering it at some other time. Whether its you and me, thinking historically, or somebody who’s about to bulldoze it, or somebody who’s there as a tourist visiting there’s-- All of those people are coming together, in a sense. They’re being revived in a way, living and dead alike, are being revived and encountering one another within the space of that building, if we’re talking about architecture, or around the space of that object if we’re talking about all different kinds of artifacts. So, for me, it’s very much a social relationship over time that wouldn’t be possible without this thing, this material object.
C: And when you think about the thing. Are you thinking about the house, specifically, or is it, as you were saying, a conjunction of many different peoples and times… Is it also a conjunction of the architecture and the landscape?
E: Yeah the great thing about the house is that it is not-- In contrast to, to many of the buildings that we’re, kind of, prompted or coached to think about as beautiful or as important, it is not something that sets out to call attention to itself.
So, it really is about the relationship, I think just as it was for the Steeles--the relationship between the structure--which is just a roof over your head, ultimately, and walls to keep out rain and animals. It’s really the relationship between that structure and this broader site, not only what you can see there, from the hill, which is, you know, which is beautiful in itself, but thinking about the site more generally, historically, for me, is important:
Thinking about the development of Southern Indiana as a cultural landscape in its own right; thinking about the poverty of Brown County, which then created its own kind of draw for the artists who gathered there at the turn of the twentieth century; thinking about things that are precious and lost in American life. But, in terms of its beauty, it really isn’t necessarily about the quality of its finishing or the, you know, the formal characteristics that it brings in the way that a trained architect might anticipate. It really is about the relationship of people across time and of a building to its larger landscape.
C: So I think we’re beginning to see that your understanding of beauty in the case of this house has a lot to do with its capsule of time and place, but what is your definition of beauty more broadly? So how does this house fit into your broader understanding of beauty in your discipline or kind of a general sense of what you think is beautiful?
E: It’s a good question, and it’s one that, that Steele, himself, was clearly thinking about. And one of the things that I should mention that made this a relevant object for me to bring to the table today is the fact that beauty, itself, is a word that Steele is using and he’s using it in relation to the house. So when we come inside, as I mentioned, there is a fireplace, which is wonderful in its own right but over the stone mantel or chiseled into the stone mantel is this phrase, “Every morning I take off my hat to the beauty of the world.” And it was a quote from a, kind of, a book of popular verse, a Scottish poet that Selma Steele had on her bookshelves, and it—
So it’s interesting that clearly the Steeles are thinking about beauty as a kind of a central guiding principle for themselves. And, incidentally, years later--when Steele dies--on his gravestone, which is also on the hillside there, is the epitaph, “Beauty outlives everything.”
So beauty is, is there, and, in a sense, they’re kind of raising for us the question that you just did: how did they define it and how do we define it? My own definition is probably not conditioned by a particular kind of aesthetic quality? You know, for centuries people have tried to define beauty as level of balance or imbalance or whatever. To me, it’s something that’s much more ephemeral, hard to define, and what should I say?
It’s something-- beauty is something that comes out of imperfections. To me, it’s something that is so striking that it would take my breath away… but then I would get my breath back, so in that moment there would be a sense of revelation about impermanence, maybe about death, maybe about suffering, and then some kind of measure of being rescued from it.
So a beautiful person or a beautiful object, to me, has something wrong with it as well as many things right about it. It has some sense of humility, of modesty about its own place in the world, and yet at the same time there’s something that’s powerful enough in it that it would remind me--or a viewer, I guess, more generally--of the impermanence and the transience of life, right? There is that moment where as you-- As when you say something takes your breath away, that means you’re not breathing. That means that if you keep doing that you would die. But, in fact, that taking your breath away is just a precursor to getting it back again, to appreciating and seeing and realizing once more what it is to be alive, and, to me, that is some way of getting around or approaching the question of what is beauty.
C: So, it’s something like a pause… that makes you think about where you are in that moment? Or it makes you think about… I don’t know. I’m interested in this pause that you mentioned between when you encounter something beautiful and when you realize what you’ve just encountered.
E: Mhmm. Yeah. I’m trying to avoid going back to the commercial for Seven Up soda when I was a kid, “The pause that refreshes”--or was that a different soda? In any case, it is not exactly something that takes your breath away, but I think pause is a moment at which, as I said you become aware of mortality but you become aware of your connection to other things and people.
If you’re attracted to a person whom you see but you don’t even know, there’s some element in that pause of a connection. “This is someone who would understand me or whom I would like to understand.” If you’re attracted to a place, a site that you suddenly see or a painting or a work of self-conscious art that you see, there’s something in that pause, that, again, I think, reverberates, that creates a connection between you and as I said before, both the object and the person behind that object, or persons, whoever it was that put it there in the first place.
And it gives you some sense of connectedness of life, which is not a sense we can, unless we are artists ourselves, it is not a sense we can afford to keep going in our heads 24 hours a day. You get back into your kind of selfish or self-centered world where you’re getting work done and you’re withdrawing from the world, but in that moment you’re reminded that there are those connections everywhere and that there’s that sense of empathy and mutual need that we all have both with one another and with the places which we inhabit.
C: It sounds a lot like love, your definition of beauty.
E: Yeah I think, in, in some ways, I’m in danger of merging the two, and obviously there’s a relationship between them. I suppose we love what is beautiful and what we find beautiful is something we love.
C: So was your understanding of beauty ever different? Like has it changed over time? Or has it always kind of been something that you just come to understand better as you learn more?
E: I think that I probably articulate it differently over time. And I think that there’s a natural way in which aging over time changes our perspective not just on beauty but on everything, uh, particularly as historians, as, you know, intervals of time become more internalized and less abstracted to us. So in that sense, I’m sure that it has changed but, in another sense, to borrow from Stephen Sondheim, “we always are what we always were,” and my—
My impression, if I think back on things that I considered beautiful or experiences that I might assign that word to, is that I was probably pretty much in my track from very early on in my life--why that would be be so or what’s responsible for it would be somebody else’s guess to make, not my own--but I do think that I haven’t changed in the kind of fundamental interest that I have in the kinds of lived experiences and interactions of people and spaces over time that I’ve been articulating to you today. I’m just probably explaining it differently, and probably less comprehensively, now than I probably might have when I was younger.
C: Then, your experience of beauty as isolated from the T.C. Steele house…Are there other times when it comes out? Like moments when you’ve been surprised… When it comes upon you, kind of unconsciously you realize that it’s happening, or?
E: I think, you know, beauty is, is a broad concept, and that’s what you’re exploring this term, and so there’s ways in which when I think about how to answer your question I’m probably veering into love or emotional responses, but sure.
I mean, I think the thing that I’m describing is an emotion that, uh, I recognized from movies that I saw as early as when I was a kid. You know, why did I cry at movies? Y’know, even at Mary Poppins? It’s hard to say, but I think that beauty was some piece of that.
It was something that I encountered in literature and for some reason, for me--as a young person, when I think you’re most susceptible and open to the beautiful in the literature of, kind of, mid 20th century hard boiled novelists like Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, whose books wouldn’t be described as “beautiful,” but for me they awakened some kind of awareness that I would put in that category.
Beauty was probably present in music, the music of my childhood that I continue to go back to, particular rock and roll and popular music from the early to mid 60s, at a moment when I think there was a kind of incredible flowering and cross pollination—to, to continue the botanical image—of styles and singers and musicians that’s never been matched since. And so I think that had an impact on me.
And then there’s beauty in places. Again, places that I remember as a kid, when I was most impressionable and thinking about the sight, out the airplane window, the first time that I flew in a plane into New York City, just seeing that skyline for the first time was a thing of beauty; or, more recently in my life a very rainy windswept day on a, on a public bus in Rio de Janiero in Brazil, riding along the coast through fulvellas and shanty towns which had, excusme—I’m going to rephrase that image of Ireland, “a kind of a terrible beauty to it.”
So these are all experiences that I guess I would gage by how they make me feel, and then I might typify as being beautiful, even though they’re in all of these different media: things that I read; things that I see; things that I--places that I visit; all of these different media I think are capable of showing us something beautiful and of awakening that kind of sense that I’ve described in myself.
C: So this is kind of a cheesy question, but would you say that you’re like a believer in beauty?
E: Yeah. I’m not sure what it is that I believe in, and those moments are kind of moments of doubt, right?, but I certainly believe in those moments.
C: And so then, what would you say to history students or non-history students who are hearing this podcast and thinking about beauty... How-- How should they continue going about incorporating it into their work or their thoughts? What would your suggestion be?
E: Uh. My suggestion would be to live life, and live it in your way because beauty is, is only real insofar as you experience it as such, and so much of my life has been trying to unlearn what my own professors taught me about, y’know, what’s supposed to be beautiful, what’s supposed to be important, and trying to remind myself of what I found along the way that worked for me.
So, kids, all that stuff you’re learning in class—No. Go ahead and learn it, and chances are that you’ll draw from it as well, but make sure that along the way you’re looking for your own responses and your own reactions to the works of the women and men who came before you, and finding in, even the most ordinary objects, the stuff that doesn’t get put on your midterm exam, even in the most ordinary objects, some sense of that beauty of the human experience that is involved in doing one’s best, sometimes falling short, but leaving it behind for others to come after.
C: Well it sounds like Professor Sandweiss’s beauty tip is find your own experience in the world that you feel is beautiful, and don’t listen to what any professorial types try to tell you, is that true?
E: Yeah, that’s sort of like saying “The following statement is a lie,” so with that contradiction maybe we have left it here: The professor tells you not to listen to the professor.
C: Well thank you very much, this has been “A Thing of Beauty,” and I’m Claire Repsholdt. Go find something beautiful this week.