@story MARLA CANTRELL
@images MARCUS COKER
Ben Buonaiuto lives in a modest ranch house on the south side of Fayetteville. He bought it for “nearly nothing” compared to what a similar one in his hometown of Santa Fe would have cost. Near the front door he’s secured his house number to the siding. It’s 1,000. The one is made from a recycled spark plug. The zeroes are mismatched bits of hardware, cogs and gears that anyone else might have thrown away.
Just inside there’s a wall with a series of mixed media art pieces he designed with working parts – one has a handle you might see on an old bathroom faucet. There are sections cut out where a steel ball rolls through a series of traps, drops to the floor, and then is snatched back up again when you hold it to the magnetic opening.
Ben walks past the display on the way to the studio he shares with his wife, Sage Billig. One wall is lined with shallow wooden shelves that hold rusty wrenches, old marbles, small tea tins, that will eventually end up his artwork. “There was a time when I had all my friends and family bringing me what they’d found.”
Sage is not home. She’s at an arts and crafts fair where she’s selling her line of children’s clothing called Cuddlefish. Ben points to a baker’s rack where dozens of recycled cotton T-shirts have been laundered, sorted by color and folded into neat stacks. Sage uses them to make the trendy outfits. Behind him is Sage’s sewing machine, complete with a mechanism so complex it looks as if the thread winding across its top is an adult version of Jacob’s Ladder.
In the living room, their son Ari, who’s five, is sitting on the wood floor. His brow is furrowed and he’s leaning on one elbow, trying to decide what color he needs next. In front of him is a white poster board; beside him is a watercolor kit. Already, the body of a golden lion is taking form, its mane painted in symmetrical blocks around its great face.
“Dude,” Ben says to Ari, “that’s a great lion.” He rubs his thumb across his chin and says, “You know, you could give him a bigger world to live in.” Ari shrugs as if he’s considering. “I think I’ll give him some grass to sit on,” Ari decides, and returns to his project.
There was a time before Ari was born when Ben spent most of his time working as a 3-D mixed-media artist. He finds a cardboard box sealed tight with shipping tape, and opens it to reveal two handmade journals he and Sage created. They are large pieces, carefully constructing, with ornate hinges and hand-carved disks embedded in their covers.
After Ben became a father, and then the recession hit, he decided to take a job as a stone mason, something he learned while in his early twenties.
At home he finds the time to work in his studio, brew a little beer, and watch Ari grow. His is a much different childhood than Ben had. “I was born in a kind of a cult, I guess you could say, in New York. These people were 1970s intellectuals from New York City, borderline hippies, I suppose. The group was based on Gurdjieff [the spiritual teacher born in Armenia around 1870] and it was taught by one of his students. It was based on meditation in practice, in really being present in your life. We didn’t have TV. There were art studios there and that’s how my parents got into art. There was a clay shop, there was a wood shop.
“We left when I was eight. The teacher died and the group started to disperse. There were a couple of hundred people, lots of young families. My parents were probably the age I am now, thirty-six, when they left. They took me and my sister through South America for seven months just to go wild and then we went to Santa Fe, because Gurdjieff was into Native American culture, into Buddhism. My mom’s still a sculptor.”
“Sage was born here. Her parents were Jewish New York intellectuals who moved here in the seventies in the ‘back to the land’ movement. Her parents were very grounded, growing their own food, very practical. We met in Park City, Utah, twelve years ago. I was a sculptor and she was making jewelry. She was my neighbor at that show. We took off on a road trip for two weeks. A few months later we had our second date. It was a two-month trip to Thailand. We rode elephants, sat on the beach, saw this ancient, ancient culture.” Ben smiles. “It was quite a second date.
“We lived for a while in Santa Fe. We moved here about six years ago. I was a little hesitant because I’d never lived in the South, but I love it here. It’s such a sweet, humble place. If feels like one generation off the farm. We’re raising our kid in this kid-party kind of place without the pomposity we found in the west.
“I think growing up with artists you don’t wait for entertainment to be fed to you. You create the world you’re after. I think that’s what art’s done for us and what it will do for Ari.”
As Ben speaks, he picks up one of the sweet potatoes sitting on the kitchen table. “Sage grew these,” he says. “She’s a great gardener.” On the wall above him is a long line of photographs he and Sage cut from a National Geographic book of portraits and pasted over the old wallpaper border. Outside, near the clothesline, the chickens scratch in their pen. The coop is made from the remnants of the cabin Sage built with her own hands when she was living alone in Madison County. “Who wouldn’t love a woman who could do something like that?” Ben asks.
Beside it is Sage’s brilliant garden, so full of plants Ben can’t name them all. He points to the perimeter and says. “These are the hops that I use in my beer.”
If you look past the organic garden you’ll see that it continues well beyond their property line. “Sage’s sister owns the property next to ours, probably an acre,” Ben says. “That’s her garden.”
He sits in his lush backyard and slips the straps of a red accordion across his shoulders. He starts to play. The sound is a rich and somber, and grows like an ache. As he stretches and retracts the pleated bellows, he bends his head. His right fingers work the keyboard. His left fingers press the buttons that crank out the bass. A cloud lifts, and the sky, azure blue, hovers above like the ceiling of a chapel. The chickens peck in the pen beside him, a car passes on the nearby street, and farther away a whistle sounds. Inside his son is putting the finishing touches on the watercolor lion.
It is a good life, filled up and overflowing. “There’s opportunity everywhere,” he says. “And I do meditate, not as much as I used to, but I do it,” he says, “even when I get stuck in traffic. I meditate a lot like a cat would.”
Those are the kinds of things Ben says that throw you off. He meditates like a cat. It’s an image that’s hard to forget. He describes himself as a pragmatic man, but still believes in the magic of everyday life. Not only does he believe, he has the good sense to cherish it every single day.
To see Ben and Sage’s art, log on to cicadabooks.com. To see Sage’s children’s clothes, log on to cuddlefishclothes.com.