Harvesting crops as well as ideas, filmmaker, off-the-grid farmer, impresario and university department head Melinda Stone is engaged in a new venture this year, a tour of all 11 voting districts in San Francisco with a workshop so old-timey it's decades ahead of the curve. Not just the presentation of Stone's How-to Homestead films, but also skill-sharing, food tasting and folk dancing bring attention to living a more self-sufficient lifestyle. Stone, who's bringing these events to community centers off the art film/performance circuit, is no beginner at touring shows in unusual locations, having re-created live the phenomenal turn-of-the-century silent film A Trip Down Market Street and exhibited work everywhere from Hunters Point Shipyard to the Sutro Baths. We caught up with the solar-powered professor to ask a few questions about her new project, the 11 in 11: How to Homestead tour, which kicked off at the Exploratorium in the end of January and has its first community center shows at Booker T. Washington Community Center and Harvey Milk Recreational Arts Center in the coming weeks.
SF360: You have a unique career: farmer, head of a department at a major university, artist. Can you describe your life a bit here? How do you fit it all together?
Melinda Stone: Ha. I don't really. Just recently I had a major breakdown and realized that all my farming needed to be done in SF because the rural/city split was just too much. I did it for five years and I am glad I did it, but after year four things started to crack and I recognized the dual lifestyle was working against me—I was not able to manage/enjoy both lives to the fullest. Now that I am fully back in SF full time I can say that things fit together nicely as the majority of the classes I teach revolve around urban agriculture and hands-on learning about food systems and DIY processes. Everyday in class is like a mini episode of How-to Homestead. I direct the film studies program at University of San Francisco and when I meet a student who seems to have a strong inclination towards unusual forms of storytelling I integrate them into the classes and they start to document what is going on. We are creating a sweet culture here of media makers and homesteaders.
SF360: Where did your interest in agriculture begin?
Stone: My interest in agriculture began when I was an artist in residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts back in 1998. There was an amazing chef there, Jessica Prentice (she wrote a great book called Full Moon Feast), who taught me how to eat. Before then I was eating on the go—too busy to think about what was going into my body—but Jessica always told amazing stories about where the food she prepared us every night came from—stories about the farmers, stories about the special tonics she created for us. I was hooked. From there it was just one foot in front of the other before I was cultivating my own garden.
SF360: Can you offer some description of/insight into your How-to Homestead project? What's the best part of living off-grid? How often are you doing that?
Stone: Homesteading to me is respecting and utilizing the resources surrounding your home—some folks have a homestead that is 20 acres, others enjoy a patio homestead—but whatever one has I think it necessary and enjoyable to use it to its fullest—there is such pleasure in growing some of what you eat, fermenting foods, making your clothes and creating implements that you use. The farm I currently own is totally off the grid so I have learned through practice what it means to be responsible for harnessing sun for making movies. With one solar panel on my studio I always knew I had about four hours of editing every day. I became diligent in those four hours, made the best out of the available energy and then had the rest of the day to be out and away from technology. Now that I am primarily on the grid I still find myself staying to my four-hour-a-day computer use. I believe it is more healthy, so what started as a necessity has turned into a lifestyle choice. Right now I am super into solar cooking and teaching my students how to build solar ovens and cook with them. I am currently trying to figure out the correct amount of hours that homemade yogurt needs to ferment in a solar box—once I have that down I will feel super good as it will be passive yogurt—no home electricity or gas used. Yah.
SF360: Film, food, workshops, and dance: The 11 in 11: How to Homestead tour sounds like a lot of fun. Where did the 'traveling show' idea come from? What are your previous traveling tours?
Stone: I have done a lot of tours in the past. First I toured as the Barbie Liberation Organization—we were the folks back in 1993 that switched the voice boxes of Barbies and GI Joes and then reverse shoplifted them back into the stores. It was a big phenomenon at the time—that tour was to media art centers where we showed documentation of the project during the day and then afterward would hold workshops on how folks in the community could create their own media events about local issues. I was hooked after that. I liked making the art and I liked the hands-on instigating part of the workshops. After that my favorite tour was The California Tour, where a group of us toured to drive-in movie theaters in California showing experimental films that highlighted California in unique ways. We played bingo and had sing alongs with the audience—pure fun. I thought it would be nice to stay ultra local and discover corners of SF I previously did not know about—before booking this tour I had never been to Ingleside and now I can say, Ingleside is a sweet neighborhood in our city that seems to have lots of potential for homesteaders.
SF360: Can you talk about working within the context of amateur filmmaking?
Stone: Amateur filmmaking and amateur film clubs have been an inspiration of mine for a long time. I wrote my dissertation on the San Diego Amateur Film Club—what I love so much about the spirit of these movie clubs is that they worked collaboratively—they shared resources, they crewed for each other and created contests and screenings for their films—they did this all out of the love of making films. 'Amateur' means love—an amateur does something for the love of it, not for ego, not for monetary gain. I feel like homesteading runs out of the same wellspring. It is another form of creating outside of the commercial realm.
SF360: You've long been working in the kind of live event-oriented film programming arena that people are turning to more and more these days. Can you talk about your history in this? Your favorite events? Was A Trip Down Market Street one of them?
Stone: I have always been a fan of impresarios and vaudeville—back during the 1920s film and vaudeville shared the stage—I like the variety of it all. I like the human presence. So much of my inspiration comes from reading film history, particularly reading about film presentation—I love all the events I did. For a while I was really into site specific film events—creating and curating films specifically for a site. In San Francisco I have done shows at the Hunters Point Shipyard, the Sutro Baths, the Horse Shoe Pits, the Pet Cemetery and the foot of Market Street. I love the multi-sensory resonance that takes place in site-specific screenings—the way the landscape is experienced allows new perspectives to rise to the fore. One never quite knows what will happen and that is the beauty. I like taking cinema into unexpected places—with this tour we are going into amazing community halls and neighborhood centers that many folks may not know even exist in their district. I think it is crucial that we take advantage of these community spaces—they are ours—many of them built by the [Works Progress Administration] WPA—I find us living in similar times and wonder what our version of the WPA is—I think we must make it if our government is not going to. We must dance together, share food together, learn together, create together, and take care of each other.
Upcoming events are Booker T. Washington Community Center, February 26, 2:00 pm on, with a Justin Valone plant propagation workshop and Contra dance with caller Mavis L. McGaugh. Harvey Milk Recreation Center March 5, 2:00 pm on, with handicraft artist Sherri Lynn Wood and square dancing with the Stairwell Sisters. More at howtohomestead.org.
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