Artist Residencies: Retreat, Refuge, and (Eventual) Reconciliation to Reality

Author: Virginia Konchan

The notion of the “lone genius” toiling in semi-darkened seclusion to create his or her hallowed (e.g. William Blake), or even hallucinatory (e.g. William Coleridge), works of art, was one of many cultural memes of Romanticism that has been all-but exorcised by our postmodern sensibilities, yet which goes back much further in anthropological—and particularly American—history.  From the Native American notion of the shaman, and the role he or she played in conveying the abstruse wisdom of the gods to the rest of the tribe (albeit often by first being plagued by the sickness he or she wished to heal others of), to the many instantiations of the neo-imperialist American subject (from Western cowboy to Frontiersman loner), these reifications of individualism engage with even deeper bodies of thought regarding the creation, production (and, in a Foucaultian sense, the “care”) of the (personal, as well as socially-embodied) self.  There is, however, an important distinction to be made between individualism, as a form of social and cultural evolution, and isolationism, both as a form of Cold-War social policy, and on the level of the individual, as he or she moves along the non-linear path from group identification, to individuation and self-actualization, in his or her personal, professional—and as it relates to this essay—artistic development.

This movement between individualist and collectivist forms of self-identification—which often takes place on the level of language, as in certain cultures where persons introduce themselves, or are introduced, in a socially-embedded (“Jane is the daughter/aunt/cousin of so-and-so”) versus individualistic (“Jane is an attorney who lives in lower Manhattan) context—is systolic, and ever-fluctuating.  Whether one really takes the ideas of post-structuralist theorists such as Judith Butler, for example, seriously (the “self” is not only socially constructed and mediated, but essentially performative in nature), the idea of the self is also inherently chimerical:  there is no there there, and never has been:  one more reason to stop pining for or identifying with traces of the “lone genius” in circles of creative production, though also all the more reason, one could argue, for this idea’s pervasive hold on our collective unconscious, and its current resurgence.

At the heart of these opposing tides is, I think (more than what is at the “heart” of the self, or, for that matter, the atom) the perpetual quest for the creation of a “space” that defines not the self but in which the self can live, move, and have its (however phantasmal) being.  Modern and classical architecture (the buildings themselves, as well as the writings related thereto), the cultivation of public spaces (whether devoted to commerce, civic life, education, or worship), and the attempt by members of institutions and organizations to consecrate spaces for the cultivation a lost, thriving, or, in some cases, endangered practice or art, all speak to this very human need to locate our “in-dwelling” being in an actual dwelling.

The mutual dependency of the inner “being” and the outer “dwelling” led Gerard Manley Hopkins to coin the word “inscape” to describe the unique “thing-ness” of a thing, or, the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity (one thinks here of Cezanne’s attempt to paint the “appleness of apples”).

Martin Heidegger spoke to this subject in his essay “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” from his book Poetry, Language, Thought, describing the act of dwelling as the “basic character of being.”  From the Old Saxon “wuon,” as well as the German “bauen” (to build), “to dwell” is intimately related to what it means to create, even on the level of etymology.  Dwelling also suggests the idea of settling (a dream toward which all forms of nomadism lead?):  to dwell is to remain, or stay, in a place.

The private and communal spaces, as well as the actual rooms in which we live and work inform the inner space (Stephen Burt’s observation that poems are “one interiority speaking to another” bears relevance here) of the work we create there:  for a poem, its stanzas and lines.  The word for stanza, in Italian, is “room”:  in my own experience, the actual rooms in which I write poems significantly inform my work.  My current studio apartment, for example, has given rise to an at-times-unrelenting stream of prose poems and sonnets, with very little aeration between lines.

Given this intertwined relationship between being and place, and considering our current historical moment—Gen X’ers are experiencing a historically unprecedented surge in both job mobility (the norm now being not five jobs, but often five careers, in the span of a life) as well as a dizzying physical mobility across the country and world—it’s not surprising that micro-communities have arisen within cities and towns, as a means of establishing and preserving vital human connections while our bodies hurl through space, rarely lingering in one place too long.

Granted, many of these movements toward community-building are virtual and occur online in chat rooms rather than actual rooms (the books written on the subject of how our attempts to substitute face-to-face contact for screen-to-screen contact range from the theoretical—Baudrillard—to the fictive—Vernor Vinge, with a whole swath of non-fiction tomes in-between) but it’s indisputable—and an auspicious sign, overall—that we have reached a point in American and global history where we are at least questioning the merit of “going at it alone.”

Practicing artists of every discipline are no exception, and our literary forebears provide a wealth of texts that mark key moments along this (textual and lived) journey.  Thoreau’s On Walden Pond and Whitman’s Song of Myself serve as two examples of texts that demonstrate that this journey toward self-definition never tended toward radical extremes, anyway:  On Walden Pond can be read as not only a meditative but an exhortatory text (“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up”), and many poems in Whitman’s Song of Myself (e.g. “The Wound Dresser”; “I Hear America Singing”) employ apostrophic address or speak to the subject of the poet not only living, but toiling, among not just other members of the literary elite, but the so-called “common man.”  In short:  if the dominant paradigm of modern life is, senso stricto, that of the individual finding his way in society, as George Simmel believed, we are now experiencing a revival of not just spaces dedicated to community building, but a desire to actually participate in those spaces, for whatever purposes they are consecrated.

Artist residencies provide an ideal middle ground between at-times necessary seclusion and the embrace of community—these places are literalized answers to the question of whether art is best made in that austere “cabin in the woods” or in a restaged version of the messy, chaotic art classrooms of our childhood, where the art teacher would weekly wheel in an “art cart” teeming with the tools to paint, draw, doodle, and sculpt.  (Though, to be fair, with instructional time as the exception, most creating that is done at residencies is done in private:  mealtime, slide shows, readings, performances, and studio visits constituting the communal element.)

Some of these residencies are legion (by American standards, anyway):  Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, NY, was founded in 1900, and The MacDowell Colony, in Peterborough, NH, in 1907, while others have cropped up in recent years, such as the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT, founded by a collective of artists (rather than wealthy philanthropists or patrons of the arts) in 1984.  New residencies are formed every year in the States, often targeting artists along lines of gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation:  Fire Island Artist Residency in Fire Island, NY welcomes emerging queer artists, for instance, and Woodstock A-I-R, artists of color working in the medium of photography.  All offer residencies of between one week and several months, and applications are often accepted from individuals as well as collaborators working in teams.

The actual sites of these hotbeds of artistic incubation span the gamut from the rural to the urban; the housing and studio spaces also vary vastly, from a single structure to a 400-acre estate.  A dozen to several dozen artists may be working alongside each other at any given time, often hailing from a variety of countries, and usually working in or across a variety of disciplines.

I have had the wonderful opportunity of attending three artist residencies in the past two years:  Vermont Studio Center, Ox-Bow, and Scuola Internazional di Grafica.  VSC was pretty evenly split between visual artists and poets and writers:  the poets and writers’ artist studios were housed collectively in the Maverick Writing Studios, while the visual artists’ studios were located in buildings throughout the sprawling 30-building campus, which borders the town of Johnson, and the grounds of Johnson State College.  When I was in attendance at Ox-Bow in June 2012, I was the only writer-in-residence (though other poets and writers undertake residencies there throughout the year) and, at the Venice residency, I had the honor of being the Inaugural Poetry Fellow.  Founded in 1982, the Scuola is best known internationally as a print-making and book-arts school (the state-of-the-art print-making equipment includes several Hexagon Spoke Intaglio presses and Star Intaglio presses, housed in adjoining rooms within two buildings separated by a cobblestone walkway festooned with a gaggle of cacti and plants).

The Scuola historically offered independent, academic and postgraduate residencies, though recently, the director, Lorenzo de Castro, has decided to shift focus from academic residencies (the Scuola was long affiliated with Boston University) to independent artist residencies, and to widen the audience for potential residents as well, expanding from a predominantly visual arts focus to a more inter-disciplinary focus.  During my time at the Scuola I was helping create a database of US and international writers organizations and resources (such as LitBridge) that could inform poets and writers seeking residency opportunities of the Scuola’s new orientation:  in years to come, the Scuola will be a source of culture exchange and artistic production for poets, writers, translators, filmmakers, and artists working in a variety of other disciplines.

Rather than speak to what I have gained from each of these residencies taken separately (and they could not have been more different in terms of locale, the friendships forged, and the art I planted the seeds for, and actually made, there), I would like to speak briefly to the question of why an artist should bother seeking out (and often paying for—funding opportunities vary from out-of-pocket residency fees, to work-study opportunities, to a range of assistantships and fellowships) a residency in the first place.  In one sentence:  to practice putting aesthetic theories about art (one’s own, or that of others, contemporary or past) into practice.

While I never thought a statement of artistic purpose for an artist residency to be a binding contract, I have surprised myself by how far I have strayed afield (or how far the work has strayed afield) from what I had set out to elaborate, finish, deepen my engagement to, or do.

I won’t go into the (sometimes depressing, during times of writers block) details:  suffice to say that the whole “process/product” or “theory/praxis” gambit discussed in academia and in conversations about craft becomes a very real thing indeed, when long hours in the studio eventually yield (or again, refuse to yield) a “product” far different from one’s intention.

I’ve been accepted at residencies under the stipulation that I would be writing poetry or working on my poetry manuscript, and ended up writing essays or literary reviews, or just holing up and reading.  I’ve bought art supplies on residencies and found myself trying to sketch or paint my way out of a theoretical-cognitive (the worst kind of “writerly”) hole.  I’ve taken two hour walks when I “should have” been editing poems, had whole afternoons happily derailed after falling into lengthy conversations or work-exchanges with artists working next-door or down the hall, and, stemming from homesickness (tinged with anxiety about my ability to even write a poem or story or essay), spent far too much time emailing or skyping with friends.  (I will never regret, at the end of my life, even a minute spent in the presence of or communicating with a friend, but I occasionally found myself turning to my friends when I should have been going through the muck of an unwieldy draft, reading, or just thinking—a rare commodity when “home” and faced with a seemingly never-ending stream of responsibilities.

I learned, in time, to value (in actuality, rather than just theory), the process, over the product.  Late capitalism discourages this.  Modern parenting discourages this.  The list goes on and on.

It’s all well and good to “wrap it up,” “stick to the plan,” and “get to the point,” whenever possible—but, it’s also good to acknowledge that projects (or people) which, or whom, “take longer” to reach maturity than other projects or people are okay too.

I am less impatient waiting in lines, now.  I burn my food, less.  I am de-subscribing from the bigger/better/faster disease of modern life in my own way, on my own terms, starting now.

Beyond the joy of actually engaging in experiential learning (an opportunity I realize is invaluable, given the creative and vocational output writers need to generate in order to survive), the other main gift of a residency is the opportunity to interact not just with a community of writers outside of the communities one forges institutionally (as a professor or graduate student), within one’s city or country (through writer’s groups, book clubs, reading series, and literary magazines and organizations), or interpersonally, among writer or artist friends, but to expand that community to include artist working outside the literary arts.  The conversations I have had with choreographers, composers, sculptors, calligraphers, and multi-media artists about arts funding, the epidemic of contingent faculty staffing universities (where many working artists seek employment as adjunct professors) the politics of public or installation art (everything from who funds it, to how to keep the materials from decomposing or being stolen or vandalized), to questions of the evolving dialectic between artist and audience, the responsibility of an artist to society (if any), and the instantiations across disciplines of “experimental” versus traditional art, as well as the lineage of abstract, conceptual, and post-conceptual art, have challenged, angered, and delighted me.  Above all they have inspired me to continue to struggle against the prevailing (lingering?) tendencies in American literary and political history toward atomization and isolationism (however much these tendencies can be traced to, say, the “murder to dissect” scientific rationalism of the 19th century, or the effects of globalization on human consciousness).

These vital, life-sustaining, in-person conversations and exchanges don’t have to take place abroad (though it’s wonderful when they can, even if it’s an international voyage, under any auspice, once every ten years):  they can take place at a community garden or a community arts space or pool.  But it is important, I think, that they happen, and that US writers don’t dismiss reflexively the (in my opinion, dashed-off, yet, worth taking into account, nonetheless) criticism in 2008 by Permanent Secretary of the Nobel Prize Jury Horace Engdhal of American writers.  An American writer hasn’t been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1993 because they are “too insular,” according to Engdhal.  They don’t translate, he added, and fail to participate in the larger dialogue of international literature.  The outpouring of vitriol from cultural pundits, critics, and writers ranged from merely reactionary to elegant defenses of the health of American letters, just as they did this year when the Pulitzer Prize committee declined to bestow the award in fiction to any of the three nominees (one being the late David Foster Wallace).

Flannery O’Connor defined despair as “the refusal to have any kind of experience”:  this truism should be applied to every aspect of our personal, artistic, and even civic choices, and lives.  Artists from all cultures, working in all disciplines, in all periods of history, have courted risk.  Whether that risk is interiorized or exteriorized, a fluidity can be achieved not just between “art” and “life” (as theorized, or lived), but also between intellectualization of experience and actual experience.  Whether that means bookmarking (or making valiant attempts to bookmark) weekends for taking in culture and nature, and spending more time with friends and family; establishing or contributing to a local artistic venture, attending an artist residency; or seeking out or even having a hand in creating literature in translation:  every small effort counts.

Art is what keeps life from being (or at least feeling), in Hobbes’ words, nasty, brutish and short.  An artist residency can be an incredible (because spatially and temporally bound) opportunity to forge connections and make progress, aesthetic and personal, but these opportunities also exist in our day-to-day lives.

This week, in preparing myself mentally for the fall, I have been reflecting on the painting “Autumn Rhythm” by Jackson Pollock.  Both the kinetic movement of the paint on the canvas, and the kinetic movements of the action painters in his era, stress the discovery of rhythm, in productions of all kind.

Whether frenetic or languorous, this sense of underlying rhythm is, I believe, what ultimately allows us to fully experience (as embodied, historical beings), learn from, and take pleasure in art, community, other people, and our individual lives.