THE YELLOWHAMMER’S CROSS: MICHAEL LODERSTEDT, GROWING UP ON NORTH CAROLINA’S EMERALD ISLE
The yellowhammer is a bird a little bigger than a robin, protected (like many other song birds) by international treaty as it migrates down the Atlantic coast. When printmaker and photographer Michael Loderstedt was growing up in North Carolina, on the southernmost dot in the string of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks, yellowhammers were a familiar sight. In the fall, they rested high up in the bare, cross-like silver branches of cedars, poking above the live oaks on Emerald Island, where Loderstedt and his family lived in the 1970s. He remembers these formative years in a thoughtful, often moving new book, The Yellowhammer’s Cross (PHOTOcentric, 2020).
For some of the pretty yellow and brown birds, those cedar roosts would be the end of their journeying, since (protected or not) yellowhammers are said to make a delicious addition to bird stew. At least that’s what Danny Smith told Michael. Danny was one of the island kids from the nearby town of Salter Path. Loderstedt recreates a vivid scene, made more real (and funnier) by his precise recollection of the group’s all but impenetrable Tarheel accents. It’s the 1970s, and they’re all on a bus driving past a stand of tall cedars on their way to school on the mainland. Then Danny begins to drawl and brag. He tells Mike how he hid with his .22 rifle at the foot of those trees, shooting the yellowhammers up on their crosses, later adding them to a loon and robin stew. Loderstedt (something of a chef himself) adds a rough description and recipe for the concoction, as it might have been boiled up in a cast iron pot. “While I’ve never had a bowl myself, neither I imagine has any game warden,” he remarks with feigned diffidence.
After Michael’s mother fled from a bad marriage with Michael and his two siblings, the young teenager quickly found friends in the scattered community near their new home. It helped that here it was almost always warm enough to roam the shore and woodland—even to go without shoes along the island’s sandy roads and paths. The tall grass and sea grapes on the dunes were full of wildlife, against the backdrop pounding of the Atlantic. On the downside, it wasn’t long before an abusive stepfather entered the picture and made matters at home almost unbearable. Even so, in his new memoir Loderstedt remembers the island as “a sandbank of paradise.” There were good times fishing with his grandfather, though there was also the real hatred that flared between Michael and his stepfather, and the deep sadness of his relationships with his mother and sister. Fortunately, above all there was the improvised comfort he could find with the gang of kids he hung out with— “the feral island children,” he ruefully jokes at one point. He was one of them.
He attended school during those years, but his legendary base (the Outer Banks is famous as the pirate Blackbeard’s stomping grounds, and for countless tragic shipwrecks) offered a different, deeper education. Loderstedt writes:
“It may have been the perfect breeding ground for an artist. Everything was sort of self-serve, poor choices on the buffet table set with positive ones. The island in its wisdom let us raise ourselves, taught us to recognize trouble by trial and error… And the depth of its beauty, all its myriad of overlapping systems of waves, wind and tides… If you were willing to look… there was always more to know, something to find…And I, its attentive student.”
The Yellowhammer’s Cross was written to accompany a spare, elegant exhibition of photographs and objects, evoking the harsh freedom and sea-stripped deprivations of the Outer Banks. The show was a portrait of margins and damage, of eternal transition flickering against the stillness of deep time. But Loderstedt’s memoir isn’t a catalogue essay; it’s a tightly written coming-of-age narrative, built around youthful events that helped to shape the artist’s character and artistic goals. Loderstedt, who is professor emeritus in printmaking at KSU, opened a gallery earlier this year dedicated to exhibiting new, mainly photographic art. Though he showed his own work in printmaking and photography widely over the past three decades and was a principal voice among the Northern Ohio artists who mounted solo shows at Cleveland’s William Busta Gallery (prior to its closing in 2015), the new gallery is Loderstedt’s first venture into the business of running such a space as owner/operator.
Called PHOTOcentric, the rehabbed storefront was launched early this year in the teeth of the COVID-19 pandemic, moving steadily forward with exhibitions and publications over the past few difficult months. Social distancing, masks, and limited capacity appointments were all observed, but none of that stopped audiences from showing up, hungry for first-rate fine-art exhibitions. Loderstedt’s space at the corner of South Waterloo Road and East 156th Street turned out to be a model of professionalism; and the well-designed, cogently-written on-demand publications that accompany each show are the sort of texts, copiously illustrated, that artists and audiences alike value, extending the brief life of a show into the broader cultural record.
“The Yellowhammer’s Cross” is a vivid, poignant memoir throughout, bringing to life parts of Loderstedt’s past with plain speaking about often uncomfortable truths. The author is clear about failures and regrets, and clear, too, about the crucial pleasures and lessons learned through his companionship in the makeshift tribe that he shared with the other neglected island children. His book achieves a remarkable sense of the artist’s interior life, lived so long ago. These were the long, strange years when the boy found, or found ways to hold onto, an innate openness of spirit and mind that would form the bedrock of a developing artistic self. A half-wild animal himself among the overlapping wild places all around, he describes in these pages how the island prepped him for the later revelations of art and academic art training. In the book’s snapshot-like chapters, Loderstedt describes the confluence of passions, necessities, and decisions that guided and pushed him away from childhood, toward the mature person and artist he would become—always, as he remarks, “a work in progress.”
“It’s a wild self,” he concludes, “one that has always had a deep respect and love for the land and water. An outside self that is far happier than an inside self. A maker self, one that must continue to photograph, build and write in order to exist… Most importantly, it is an ongoing self, a bigger sense of self with more room for the needs of change, hopefully smart enough to know when it has found a good thing.”