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[The Oxford Project]
I came to Iowa in 1960 as a student. After I got my degree in art, I taught in St. Louis, New York, and Boston. Five years later, I came back to teach at the University of Iowa. I needed a studio where I could do my artwork and found two dilapidated storefronts sixteen miles away in a town I had never heard of Oxford.
For me, Oxford was exotic, mysterious, and strange. It was the first time I had ever lived in a rural community. Even though I was an artist, college professor, and a New York Jew, almost everyone in town welcomed me. As I started fixing up the storefronts, people would poke their heads in and introduce themselves.
The buildings had a lot of bats. Bats have this habit of swooping down on people in the middle of the night, and they used to scare my wife and me to death. I asked Clarence and Margaret Schropp (both in their seventies) for help and they chased the bats out with a tennis racket and a broom. When word got around town, people started calling me Batman.
My neighbors are hard-working people without pretense. They don't put on airs. What you see is what you get.
I've always had this habit of counting things. I've been doing it my whole life. When I was six, my younger brother Don got polio. My parents would leave me with my grandparents on the weekends while they visited Don in the hospital. I slept on the daybed in their bedroom. I remember lying there, watching my grandfather in his long johns smoking his pipe as my grandmother changed into her nightgown. In the glow of his pipe I would count the parts of the furniture that touched the floor. My daybed, my grandmother's dresser, the door, a night table, a floor lamp, the bed, a window, my grandfather's chair. I continued around and around until I fell asleep.
I still count as I have every day since I was a kid. No matter where I am, counting grounds me. It's part of the reason I started taking photographs of everyone in Oxford. A psychologist once told me there are ways to stop. But after thinking about it, I said, "I don't know what I'd do without it."
From The Oxford Project. Welcome Books. Photographs © 2008 Peter Feldstein.
Text © 2008 Stephen G. Bloom. www.theoxfordproject.com