Memento Mori: Path. Second of Three Panels. Created at the Fundacion Valparaiso, Spain.
Imagine waking up in a gorgeous, centuries old Moorish olive mill to an amazing light across the mountains outside your window. There is a wonderful cook and pamper person taking care of all your basic needs. It is super quiet and peaceful where you are but you are a twenty minute scenic walk into a charming white washed town on the Mediterranean. Oh, and you have your own art studio with a wall of windows overlooking those mountains. In Spain. Or a river in France. Or the high desert in Lama, New Mexico. Or the mountains of Virginia. Welcome to the world of art residencies and why I am thoroughly hooked.
I don't attempt to call myself an expert in either applying for or attending art residencies by any means. There are far many more people who have travelled the globe for such a thing more than me. I like to think what I lack in expertise though, I make up for in enthusiasm. I would love to share my experiences at four residencies I have had in the above locations. And yes, I AM endorsing each of them!
1. Virginia Center For Creative Arts. Amherst, Virginia
Tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains in Amherst, Virginia is the VCCA. I have had two residencies here in my (almost) home state. I remember so clearly the first time I went in 1995. My son was only 2 and I left him with his more than capable father in order to have a week of art-making at this gorgeous mountaintop retreat.
First of all, the Virginia Blue Ridge mountains are...stunning. I mean, I have seen quite a few mountain ranges, but anyone who has seen the Blue Ridge will tell you, there is something about that whole area that will stop your heart with its beauty. The lush of color, especially in the fall is simply majestic. Here I need to mention that without trying, all four of these residencies have been in high places. Mountains seem made for creating, and walks on dirt paths and through forests have yielded many a great crop from artists and writers over the centuries. I have been twice to the VCCA, in 1995 and 2003. Sadly, I have no personal photos of my time there. This was the dark ages without handy and ubiquitous cell phones.
But I remember I had a very large, airy studio much like this one. It was a composer's studio, and so I had a piano! Since I actually can play the piano, that was quite a perk. There was also a bed, but I understood later that was not so uncommon. This is the largest retreat I have personally been to. They usually house 25 fellows a residency session with stays from 1-4 weeks. Even though the other artists there took pity on my relatively short stay, as a fairly new mother I was absolutely thrilled to have one week of time all to myself.
The resident's quarters are cozy and lovely. Everyone has a private room and semi-private bath. The studios—just a short walk away—are housed in a very large old barn. On my second stay, there was a huge snowstorm the night I arrived. We were all snowed in for the duration and the nightly walk around the pristine mountaintop from residence to studio was magically gorgeous in the snow. The VCCA not only provides all of your meals, but for lunch they even deliver to your studio so you do not have to break your creative groove. How thoughtful is that? You will find a miner's type lunch box with your name on it outside your door at the appointed hour.
The nightly meal at an art retreat is a great gathering of conversation amongst the fellows about the day's failures, successess, creative processes and investigations in addition to complaints, laughs, love lives, kids, life shit—you name it. It is the perfect combination of having your studio cave time and then, when you are ready to come up for a little air, you get to be inspired by other people's stories or bits of interesting talk. At longer retreats you really do leave feeling like you've gotten to know people. It's such a bubble of shared experiences and comaraderie and the intimate atmosphere allows for confidences.
Creating is a private and solitary practice. There is an unspoken rule at retreats not to disturb the studio unless specifically invited. When you are invited to see paintings in progress or listen to a poem in it's first stages, it feels like a privilege. A trust has been established. Someone is making themselves vulnerable to you from the place in their creative process that is unsure. This naturally leads you to reciprocate and connections are made.
The VCCA has many returning customers. I have one friend who has gone every year for over twenty.
2. Moulin à Nef. Auvillar, France
I am pairing Moulin a Nef with the VCCA because these two retreat centers are connected. In order to apply for a residency in France you must have first been a fellow at the VCCA. I went to the Moulin a Nef in the summer of 2016. It was also my first time in France. When I made my application, as always, I had hoped to be considered for financial aid. (The VCCA and Moulin a Nef both have financial assistance). Unfortunately, since I was in the "second string" of applicants, by the time I had been accepted they had already dispersed whatever funds they had to offer. Once I was out of luck for funding, the cost seemed prohibitive. A friend suggested an Indigogo campaign which is something I had never done before. Friends, colleagues and patrons came through in exchange for prints and cards, and I was gratefully on my way.
Arriving in Paris first and spending some days there allowed me to absorb the city and all the museum hopping and strolling (and dancing on the
Seine) primed me for the train south.
The residency is in Auvillar, a postcard - perfect little village between Toulouse and Avignon.
It was a long train ride south from Paris. Since I don't speak French, there was a bit of anxiety about missing my stop. Here's a tip: they do NOT announce them in English on the TGV train. After much hand-wringing and vigilance though, I finally made my connection to John, half of the wonderful couple who are the caretakers, and I arrived at the residency to a scene out of Babette's Feast: a long table of food, set up outside in the garden with strung lights, wine, and the welcoming smiles of my three other fellows. My travel weary demeanor was immediately replaced with the knowledge that I had landed in the best possible place.
As opposed to the VCCA, the Moulin a Nef is an intimate residency. There is room for only four fellows at a time housed in a centuries old house on the outskirts of the village, but directly on the Garonne River! In addition, the path leading to the village of Auvillar happens to be part of the Camino de Santiago. My all white and light filled studio faced the river and throughout the day I could hear the tap-tap of hiking sticks from pilgrims under my window.
In my gorgeous French studio. Photo: John Alexander
One other painter, one poet, and one novelist, all American were my companions. They were generous and lovely people and I had great respect for their work. I should say here that one of the best by-products of going to a residency is meeting like-minded creators from all over the globe. The connections, mutual sharing and respect that I have had for my fellow fellows is immense.
At the Moulin a Nef, apart from the arrival meal, the residents are responsible for buying and preparing their own food. Cheryl and John loaded us into their car and took us to the weekly town market which was a bountiful bread and cheese mecca, along with everything else! The four of us prepared and ate dinner together and it was all quite convivial.
There is an expectation that you will pariticpate in an evening that is a cross between an art opening and an open house. Basically, the villagers are invited to come, share some wine and snacks and see what the current four residents are up to in their studios. Although it was lovely meeting the locals, mostly all I could do was nod and smile. Almost no one spoke English, and I silently cursed my French-less tongue. Even so, as we all have experienced, art has a way of transcending language and we managed to communicate what was necessary.
Although my stay in the France residency was short — only nine days — creating in another country, surrounded by a different culture, and language had a profound effect on my work, making space for new ideas to come out and play.
Ready to make an application yet?
Here is another great resource: The Alliance of Artist Communities.
I would love to hear other artists' thoughts and experiences.
Stay tuned for Part Two!