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Trial by Fire 

A community rallies around an artist after she loses her studio

To get to the Goat House Gallery, you went north on N.C. 87 from Pittsboro, or south from Chicken Bridge Road, and turned off onto a gravel road. Then, past a yard full of old engines and chained dogs, you crept down a rutted drive through the woods. Next to a gate was a cabin--the Gallery--and to your right the handsome goats. Gardens flowed down the slope, and a pastel purple house studded with windows and porches overlooked a dell where geese fed. Sculpture filled the yard, and in the distance, the hoarse cry of a heron rose above the trees.

When you first saw this place, you could be forgiven for feeling disoriented. Were you in rural North Carolina--or the Italian countryside? And in what year--1900, 1970, 2000? It almost seemed a land out of time, under a magical spell. "I created here a world the way I would like for it to be," says the gallery's owner, Italian-born ceramic artist Siglinda Scarpa. And the world she created for herself was very beautiful.

But now a stone chimney amid a pile of cinders and twisted metal roofing is all that remains of the cabin by the gate. On Feb. 5, an orange light rose up before dawn, and fire consumed the Goat House. The lovingly restored 100-year-old cabin--named for the angora goat dwelling there when Scarpa first took the dilapidated structure in hand--burned down to the cold ground.

There had been rain the day before; that and the tin roof and the lack of wind prevented the fire from spreading to the woods or the house or the animals' sheds. Beyond the black circle of ruin, the rest of paradise remains. Still, another irreplaceable piece of North Carolina's rural vernacular architecture is gone forever.

But that is not the worst of it. Along with her artwork, and all the tools of her profession, Scarpa's dreams have been incinerated.

A ceramist has an intimate relationship with fire--without it she is only a shaper of mud--and fire has betrayed Scarpa, leaving her with nothing. Artists are accustomed to creating something from nothing, but can Scarpa now make herself anew from the ashes of her former life?

If she can, it will be with a lot of help from her friends and the kindness of strangers. "After this burned, I didn't know if this was still my home," says Scarpa softly as she surveys the cinders. "Even Italy had not been my home like this, but now everything was a question mark. Would I be a gypsy again? But how do you travel with 14 cats? The only thing that made me feel this is my home is the community."

Siglinda Scarpa grew up in a tiny village in Tuscany, near Siena. It was a place where everyone looked out for each other. When you grow up in a community like that, you try to recreate it--or find it--everywhere you go. As an adult, Scarpa settled in Rome, where she created community in the form of a school. For 25 years, she worked and taught there, but after refusing to cooperate with the Mafia, the world she had made was destroyed in an hour. Two big men held the struggling Scarpa while others smashed every object in the studio. Police and lawyers wouldn't do anything, and Scarpa settled into a deep depression.

After a year of this, an American film director for whom she had done some film editing and music work came to Rome asking Scarpa to work on his next movie. Seeing her condition, he talked her into taking a vacation in New York. Once she was there, Scarpa was coaxed into staying and working. But it didn't suit her. "I can't compete," she says, shrugging. "I want cooperation and sharing. Community was what I was missing in New York."

Then Bruce Payne, who was running the Duke in New York program, invited her to come down to North Carolina. "I was looking for a place to make roots," Scarpa says--and she decided that this was the place. A friend of a friend had a cottage for rent in Chatham County, and six months later Scarpa found the Goat House property and set about creating her home and her work there. She then spent a year restoring the property while simultaneously making friends and acquiring students.

Scarpa has taught at the Carrboro ArtsCenter, the Durham Arts Council and other venues. She has shown her poetic porcelain and terra cotta sculptures, her tiles and her robust Tuscan-style cooking pots, in numerous area galleries in the four years she's been here. She went out and made herself a part of the community, and once her Goat House studio-gallery was complete, she drew a circle of artists to it. "I wanted this place to be a community place, where people could come and work," she says sadly, "and I had some really good artists in the gallery."

Because of her community orientation, Scarpa's loss is the community's loss as well--and many people have jumped to help her. A lawyer turned potter is handling the insurance problems--some of what Scarpa thought was covered was not--but she'll get some compensation. The Italian-American clubs are coming to help clean up the site; friends are lending supplies, tools, studio space; and the Triangle Potters Guild has leaped into the breach, hiring her to give a workshop.

And on May 5, friends will hold a benefit sale at Lyn Morrow Pottery, because, as Morrow says, "everybody needs to support everybody." Kenneth Neilson of D.K. Clay, one of the organizers, says that they are accepting "not just clay arts but any art--or anything else!" Already a wine importer has donated cases of Italian wine, and clay artists are sending work from as far away as New York and Wyoming. "Part of this support," says Neilson's partner Don Hudson, "is reflecting the contribution she has made here. Siglinda is in a special category." The Goat House will be no more, but Scarpa surely will rise again, with this much love among the ruins. EndBlock

Lyn Morrow Pottery is located at 3449 U.S. 15-501 South, between Fearrington and Pittsboro. For more information on the May 5 art sale to benefit Siglinda Scarpa, call Lyn Morrow, (919) 545-9078 or Kenneth Neilson, (919) 708-5788.

  • An artist tries to restore her life after a fire destroys her studio.

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