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Stepping into the Light

By Mike Ragsdale

“If you hold still for a very long time, eventually, everything comes to you.”

In the minutes, hours, days, weeks and months leading up to the Digital Graffiti festival, we’d done everything but sit still. Kelli, Alys, Scott, Sean, so many others… we’d all been frantically racing to organize a very innovative event, during which we planned to project digital artworks onto the trademark white walls of Alys Beach. Over 150 artists worldwide had submitted entries from as far away as India, Austria and China, and as nearby as Pensacola, Panama City and Seagrove. 

Even though we hadn’t been sitting still, Janis Sawyer had come to us. And that’s saying a lot, since she typically leaves her room only two or three times a year.

Frankly, I’d forgotten that she even existed. In the stressful chaos of thunder, wind, rain, ponchos and vague rumors of demands for ticket refunds, the exhibiting artists were hardly uppermost in my mind. The sudden red-cell storm had kicked up a fine mist that clung to the air, making it impossible to use laptops or projectors. My mobile phone rang. The event was cancelled. Refunds would be issued. Invite people to come in and enjoy drinks, food and music at Caliza instead.

The festival was over—just moments before it began.

As months of hard work trickled down the cobblestone path, I briefly entertained the idea of fleeing into one of our town’s show homes. I could sneak away and hide upstairs. If the fridge was stocked, I might be able to survive for weeks. I could come out in the winter. No one would miss me. vie magazine mike ragsdale stepping into the light digital graffiti festival


But I didn’t. I couldn’t… I decided if I couldn’t retreat and cower, I’d march straight to the front lines instead. There was no in-between that night. I pulled a ball cap over my wildly wet hair, and firmly planted myself at the entrance where moistened ticket holders were meandering aimlessly in search of guidance.

To my surprise, arriving guests took the event cancellation news quite well.

“Unfortunately, due to the bad weather, we’re only able to show four or five of the fifty exhibits that were planned for tonight,” I said. “But there’s absolutely no charge for the event, so just come on in, enjoy the few works that are showing, and then let’s all go over to the party and dance.”

And then I saw Janis. Like a rock star or Mafia don, she sat in her chair, surrounded by a large entourage.

“Hi! Are you guys just arriving?” I asked with forced enthusiasm.

“Yes, we’re with one of the artists exhibiting here tonight,” said one woman. “This is Janis Sawyer.”

“I know. Hello, Mrs. Sawyer… I’m afraid I have some bad news…”

I quickly wove tragic tales of the technological gizmos that we were forced to store away when the rain began to fall. Janis smiled and craned her neck to look up at her husband. I knew she was terribly disappointed, but mostly for those who had come out to stand in the drizzle by her side.

“Oh, no,” sighed one of the women. “Do you know if Janis’s exhibit is one that’s being shown?”

“No, I don’t,” I lied. “I’m so sorry.”

They assured me that they understood, and that no one could control Mother Nature. Janis and her fans worked their way slowly down the puddled street past me as the next surge of ticket holders arrived. I recited my auto-greeting for the eighty-third time that night.

vie magazine mike ragsdale stepping into the light digital graffiti festival
Photo by Jessie Shepard
vie magazine mike ragsdale stepping into the light digital graffiti festival
Photo by Clint Brown
vie magazine mike ragsdale stepping into the light digital graffiti festival
Photo by Jessie Shepard

“I live here, I only live here.”

One week later, I stand outside Janis Sawyer’s Seaside cottage, her home for the last twenty years. Like an electronic imp, her cryptic e-mails had lured me here.

Janis’s dreamy white room is clean, but cluttered. 30A Radio blares too loudly from her laptop’s tinny speaker. I nose around at the countless global knickknacks and artifacts that litter every square inch of elevated space.

“These were all gifts to me,” she says, seemingly tethered to her bed by a crisscross of wires and electronic gadgetry. But I’d soon learn that the cords aren’t shackles. They’re liberators – an invaluable link to the outside world.

“Coincidence and synchronicity surround me for some reason,” she says. “In fact, I’ve found that if you hold still for a very long time, eventually, everything comes to you.”

The morning immediately following the washed-out festival, the judges had gathered for several hours in a home theater setting to review, discuss and debate the merits of each artist’s work.  Janis’s exhibit—entitled “SpyCam Series #2”—had won the $1,000 prize for “Best Local Submission,” intended to recognize artistic excellence in Bay, Walton and Okaloosa counties.

Her dream-like and grainy “SpyCam” videos were unquestionably mesmerizing—each capturing a tiny, compelling sliver of Janis’s entire worldview.

“Even after all these years, what I discover in this room still really surprises me,” she says. “I’m fascinated with small motion, because it is omnipresent. I enjoy rendering my animations in a less-than-fluid manner, as that’s how I see it through my SpyCam—much like a flip-book that’s missing pages.”

I ask her to tell me about some of her specific works. One’s entitled “Greetings & Flamingo Feet,” and stars the marionette and flamingo that dually dangle by her bedside.

“The waving marionette seems friendly and protective,” she says. “No harm comes while he’s here. And the juxtaposition with the flamingo feet was just a little silly to me.”

“What if I told you that one of the judges found this particular work reminiscent of the infamous Saddam Hussein hanging video? Grainy, dangling feet, a uniformed guard repeating a haunting salute…”

Janis perks up and laughs, seemingly fascinated by the notion.  Then she pauses, as if the idea’s ricocheting around in her mind.

“Everyone brings something to the party,” she says finally. “Everyone sees the world through a unique lens.”

But few could be more unique than hers. Janis lived in Germany for a couple of years, got phone-chatty from time to time with Gregg Allman, and witnessed a young Jimi Hendrix perform in several small venues. But then, in one unspeakable moment, Janis was paralyzed at the age of twenty-two. She would spend most of the next thirty-eight years in bed, the last twenty in this single room in Seaside.

vie magazine mike ragsdale stepping into the light digital graffiti festival
Photo by Jessie Shepard
vie magazine mike ragsdale stepping into the light digital graffiti festival
Photo by Jessie Shepard

“If you’re moving all the time, nothing can find you,” she tells me. “If someone’s shooting at you, you zigzag. We’re all zigzagging, every day. Things can’t find you. Only when you hold still are things able to reach you.”

Being shot at, being targeted. It strikes me as a strange and violent rationalization, perhaps a philosophical justification developed over time by someone who was so tragically struck down in her youth. But then the radio begins to play “Midnight Rider.”

“You see,” she giggles. “The Allman Brothers…”

Janis tells me that she’s only left her home a few times this year: once to go to the doctor, once to the dentist, once to an art show, and once to attend Digital Graffiti. I cringe, and try to change the subject.


“Why Seaside,” I ask her. “I mean, you never really leave this room, so arguably, you could live anywhere. What does it matter? Why did you choose to come here?”

Another long pause, as though she’d never given it much thought.

“I have to live by the water,” she says finally, although she struggles to articulate why. She doesn’t need to. I share the same inexplicable instinct.

On the radio, DJ Leslie Kolovich conducts a parallel interview with her own on-air guest. They begin to discuss the guest’s recent trip to France and Germany.

“Germany!” she laughs. “You see? It all comes to me.”

As someone who usually finds it quite challenging to sit still, it’s not very difficult for me in Janis’s company. I’m fascinated by our discussions of technologies and web sites, of digital art and SpyCams, of travels to places across the globe and to places just a few feet from the bed.

“You know my video has audio, don’t you?”

I didn’t. I guess I’d just assumed that her webcam videos were silent. What sound could swaying flamingo feet possibly make?

Janis turns off the radio and tweaks her laptop settings. This time, as the marionette and the flamingo and ceiling fans and prayer flags twirl across the screen, they dance to ancient reverberations. I smile.

“What? What is it?” she asks excitedly.

Thirty days ago, I wouldn’t have recognized that sound.

“When I was in California a few weeks ago, I found this great little shop full of curiosities from around the world,” I tell her. “I bought a Tibetan singing bowl for my wife.”

She giggles. Coincidence and synchronicity.

vie magazine mike ragsdale stepping into the light digital graffiti festival
Stills by SpyCam Series #2 by Janis Sawyer
vie magazine mike ragsdale stepping into the light digital graffiti festival
Photo by Clint Brown
vie magazine mike ragsdale stepping into the light digital graffiti festival
Photo by Jessie Shepard

As I leave Janis’s home, I step into the bright September sunlight and wonder if I’m being watched. Before I came here, I expected to find someone who’d been forcibly disengaged from the rest of the world. But I suddenly realize that I’m the one who’s been disconnected. What else have I missed over the years, through the impatience of my own perpetual motion? I wonder if coincidence and synchronicity permeate my life as well. I sit in front of her home in my idling car for far too long, waiting for more mini-miracles to reveal themselves. None do, and I drive home.

It’s almost a week later now, a Saturday. And I’m not feeling very well. In fact, I’ve lain in bed all day long. As I channel surf, I finally chance across one of my favorite movies. It’s about a guy who desperately wants to leave his small hometown to explore the world, but he’s paralyzed with fear. In fact, he’s the star of his own TV show—only he doesn’t know it. SpyCams.

The movie was filmed in Seaside.

I try to wrap my mind around the riddle, desperate to solve her puzzle. But I realize that I’m trying too hard. Patience. I know that if I hold still long enough, eventually, it will come to me.

— V —

Mike Ragsdale is the "Town Evangelist" for Alys Beach, Florida and is the creator of 30A.com.

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