Spotlight: Kathleen Tenpas (Kathleen)

By Nancy Polanski (nap) on October 4, 2010

Kathleen is the owner of a cubit named Farming. She and her husband run Hillfarm, in the Southern Tier of New York State. It's beautiful country, situated near Chautaqua Institute. She is also a writer, and a creator of Fiber Art, and she is chatting with us today.

Today I want you to meet Kathleen Tenpas.  She's versatile, amusing, talented and humble.  She seems to think you're not going to want to sit through her story.  Let's prove her wrong.

NP: I like the response you gave me when I asked if I could interview you for Who's Who Spotlight. You said, “Oh, do you really want my life's story (small town farm girl marries high school sweetheart farm boy, has baby, starts farm)?” Yes, I do want to hear that story, Kathleen! Just imagine we're having a nice conversation over a cup of tea, and just tell me what's on your mind.

Kathleen: So we’re sitting at the kitchen table (which my granddaughter and I just refinished, using Spar Varnish - a little bit of overkill, but I hope it lasts longer than the factory finish), drinking a cup of tea and I am selfishly hogging the conversation and telling you way more than you really want to know about me.

I was raised on a small farm above Mina Corn2010-09-29/nap/7ad0baers in New York State. Very small towns are the background of this tale. I was actually born in Rhode Island, but that was because my father was in the Navy at the time. My Dad is from very urban northern New Jersey. He met my mother on a blind date when he went home for the weekend with his Agriculture School roommate. Mom has always lived on the farm that she and I both grew up on. That wasn’t what she had in mind, but that’s the way it shook out.

My grandparents were very much a part of my life. My grandfather was a very well read man and when we went for walks, he would recite great chunks of poetry to me. He had a wonderful talent for memorization and his favorite poets were Sir Walter Scott, Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost and I think this early exposure to great poetry was what sent me in that direction.

My grandmother tried very hard to corral my tomboy tendencies and taught me how to peel apples, make bread and fill a woodbox to the top, but I remained a tree climbing, snake chasing, mouse raising, running down the hill and scraping all the skin off my knees slightly wild child. I have two younger brothers and we also had two male cousins who lived with us on and off. I was the one who taught them to climb trees.

My junior high, early high school years were2010-09-29/nap/fe8c75 pretty lonely. I’m not a mixer and had few friends. Stan and I met in high school, married after he finished tech school and I dropped out of college the first time (there were several to follow - there's a funny story there from my Master's Degree program, but not really relevant to what you're looking for, I'm sure), had a daughter, started to farm with eight cows and twelve bred heifers that we bought from his dad and six calves that we got from my family on a farm that we rented for 22 years before we bought it.

We had another daughter, added more cows, bought some real equipment (we started with some very used stuff), and I droppe2010-09-29/nap/55644ad out of two more colleges and then went back and pulled together an Associate’s Degree in Humanities. I had in this period self-published one book of poetry entitled Country Woman and had another published as a special awards issue of a small press entitled Hill Farm. I had also been involved with several writers’ groups, facilitated readings and been an artist in residence in three different programs in area schools.

NP: That picture of you as a young child is adorable!  What a little sweetheart!  Kathleen, what can you tell me about the “artist in residence” programs? That sounds like a good thing.

Kathleen: Artists in Residence programs bring local schools and area artists together through grants from the state and federal arts funding. I would spend a week in classes from 4th grade to high school doing a poetry workshop. Generally I helped the kids to think about the words they wanted to use and then to use them in simple forms. I also taught classes at C2010-09-29/nap/8f762ehautauqua Institution to 12 to 18 year olds and adults through the Summer Special Studies Program.

NP: That really is a very good idea, isn't it? Like bringing the arts into real life. I wish they'd had something like that when I was a kid. Tell me now about your farm, Kathleen. You mentioned you lived on it for 22 years before taking ownership. How did you come to acquire it?

Kathleen: Throughout those years, we were farming. Early on, we had done cropping (haying and silo filling) with Stan’s dad, but we decided that it was actually easier to do it ourselves. As the girls grew, they took on more and more responsibility until they left home (our eldest is a fourth grade teacher and our youngest is a Physician’s Assistant) at which time, it was back to Stan and me.

When our landlady reached the grand old age of 93, it was decided that she could no longer live alone, and her daughters, after much discussion and disagreement decided to do what she told them to do and sell us the farm. Our eldest was married and attending college and our youngest 2010-09-29/nap/4bafc9had just started college when we finally moved from a two bedroom trailer into a four bedroom farm house. We spent three months completely remodeling the downstairs and cleaning and painting the upstairs and moved in January on a day with a high of 10 and a 50 mph wind. The Bills were playing the Steelers in a playoff game and we had TVs going in the trailer we were moving out of and the house we were moving into so that no one missed too much of the game.

NP: Once a football fan, always a football fan! I'm thinking now about what you said earlier in regards to college. It was an on-again/off-again process, apparently, but you finally got your Masters Degree. And you mentioned something about a funny story during that time. What was that?

Kathleen: In 1995, I pulled together a large folder of all that I had done in writing and editing over the years and applied to the MacGregor School of Adult Learning of Antioch University in their Masters of Creative Writing program. Shockingly, and without a Bachelor’s Degree, they accepted me and I graduated with a Masters in Cre2010-09-29/nap/857eddative Writing: Poetry in 1997.

The story from the Masters program involved me and another student. She was in the Business program and we were all together for some workshops on our motivation and our learning abilities. She got up and said that she could have been the girl who stayed in the small town, got pr2010-09-29/nap/407e5begnant and married a farmer, but she wasn't, she wanted MORE. I was next up and said, well, I was the girl who stayed in the small town, etc. etc. She stayed as far away from me as possible the rest of the week.

About the time I was finishing up my Masters thesis, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis and over the next four or five years, eased my way out of daily chores and harvesting. I still occasionally go out and help put cows in or feed a new calf, but Stan is the farmer with some help from our son-in-law, grandchildren and the children of friends. Stan, of course, took my ‘retirement’ in stride and put on ten more cows. Farmers have work ethic issues - they are almost religious in their practice of taking on more and more and more.

NP: You have many talents besides writing. Artistic talents. I'd like to hear about those.
Kathleen: One thing that I was doing a lot of at college was photography. I probably had almost enough credits to say that I majored in it, except that wasn’t actually a choice. I was given my first camera for my 8th birthday and have been taking pictures of everybody, everything and everywhere since. I learned to sew when I was ten (won’t bore you with the 2010-09-29/nap/2e0935problems this caused between my junior high home economics teacher and me) and with the photos, the sewing and the poetry, it only took me 50 odd years (some very odd), to put it all together into painted, photographed, quilted wall-hangings with poems written on them. I also make some ‘useful’ objects d’art in table runners and placemats. I’m trying to convince Stan that we could build up a little business with his woodwork (he’s made some wonderful furniture and frames) and my fiber art, but he keeps telling me he isn’t good enough at it. Well, I say practice makes perfect. I have an entire bedroom suite as well as a room full of desks and work tables to say nothing of the stuff he’s made the girls and grandkids and a glorious cupboard that he made from a carving my mother 2010-09-29/nap/373b1fdid and some old pine doors from my grandparents house. Here's one quick link to some of my fiber art.

NP: It's quick question time now. Ready? First, who (famous or familiar) would you say was an inspiring or motivational force in your life and why?

Kathleen: Well, the familiar would be my grandfather and his love of words, my parents for being supportive of my artistic leanings and my husband and daughters for more than putting up with me, for encouraging me along this slightly whacky road. The famous would include Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and Ray Bradbury.

NP: Who would you love to meet and have a chat with one day?

Kathleen: This is a tough question. Thomas Jefferson would be one. I'd like to correspond with Annie Dillard and Barbara Kingsolver. They are both authors who have written about our place on this earth. Barbara Kingsolver's books include the Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer, Small Wonders (essays), Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.

NP: Have you ever met anyone famous?

Kathleen: I have met and spoken with Madeleine L'Engle and corresponded with her for a time. Madeleine L'En2010-09-29/nap/5f6cf3gle was a writer who wrote for both children and adults. Her books include, A Wrinkle in Time, ( a Newberry Award winner), A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. (I know a lot of people who are famous in their own minds, and I know many who should be famous, but most of the world has never heard of them)

NP: Where would you travel, if money and time and good health were no object?

Kathleen: We've always said that we'd like to drive across the US and see what the rest of it looks like. The drive across the country is going to have to wait until we are no longer responsible for the welfare of the cows, though. We do have some help, but they are all either going to school now or teaching school. In a few years...

NP: Last question. If you could do it all over again, would you change anything?

Kathleen: No, I've always lived one day at a time - who can handle more than that? As they say, past is prologue, I am who I am because of what has gone before. And I do pretty much like who I have become.

NP: Kathleen, I'm so glad we have had this time together. You are someone that I wanted us all to know in depth, and you kindly shared your life with us. Thank you. If you'd like to see more of Kathleen's articles, here's a list of what she's written for Dave's Garden and a link to the article she wrote for her Farming cubit.  I hope you'll visit her Cubit about farming on Hillfarm.

Kathleen and I hope you will enjoy her photos and visit the links we have provided. If you hover your mouse over the images, you'll see one titled August's Bitter Gold. Here is the poem Kathleen wrote to accompany that artwork.

August's Bitter Gold

If a tree fall in the wood
in August’s bitter gold,
does it make the sound
of crack and kick out,
slow tear and fall,
muffled thud and sigh
of brush and branch?

And if I,
alone in that stillness
do hear all of it,
from first tender break
to last hollow crashing,
must I say
it was all for me
that the sound welled
across the pond's calm?

Related articles:
art, biography, farm, Interview, poetry, spotlight

About Nancy Polanski
I live in Western New York. I'm retired, after working for 30 years in the Microbiology Labs at our county hospital. My time now is spent mostly with the Karen refugee population in Buffalo, advocating for them, teaching, helping and enjoying them. I've twice traveled to their camps in Thailand and experienced their culture. It seems they have taught me more about life than I have taught them.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
How beautiful! Sharon Oct 22, 2010 6:49 PM 28
Similar Childhood ge1836 Oct 10, 2010 3:52 AM 5
Very Creative gardenersdetective Oct 9, 2010 10:50 AM 1
Stunning! NEILMUIR1 Oct 4, 2010 8:35 PM 5

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