DIY White Mountain Writer’s Retreat

View across the valley of Hurricane Mountain

I love my life in New York City. It’s full to bursting with happenings, friends, and new ideas. I love that there is always a corner of the city I have not yet unexplored and new places to check out. However, this year I’ve also made a commitment to focus on my own practice as a writer and to finish a book project by September.

Covered bridge, New England pastoral

With a full-time job and full roster responsibilities and interests, I found that the book project was not getting done. It’s too easy to put off the really important, creative projects and focus on the less important. Watching my time drain away and my deadline approach I decided, “I need an artists residency where I can focus and get this done.”

The white mountains, pine trees, granite: the Mt. Washington valley in a nutshell

Here’s the problem: most artists residencies cost money. I don’t have money to spend on that kind of getaway right now. Many of them also require you apply and have work samples, which I’m still working on developing. So I thought, “What do artists residencies provide? Ah, space, time and a chance to focus.”  Then I realized: the book I am writing is about do-it-yourself culture, so why don’t I take my own advice and create my own residency?

The trail on Mt. Stanton

I took a week off from my day job and friends of my family were nice enough to let me stay in their “chalet” – an A-frame cabin they built in the 1960s in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. When I was younger I went there with my parents, my parents’ friends and their kids. We would all pile in to the house for days of skiing and sledding and spend evenings cooking huge communal meals and playing board games. I loved returning to a place I knew as a child and rediscovering it.

Desk du jour

Embarking on my “self-imposed writer’s retreat” made me nervous at first: could I take my creativity seriously enough to devote my days to it? To allay my fears I needed a plan.

Simple lunch en terrace

I created a menu of healthy, easy to prepare meals so I wouldn’t be tempted to spend hours in the kitchen or only eat junk food.  I made a list of the writing tasks I needed to complete and a schedule for accomplishing them. I know I work best in the morning, so I made sure to get up by 7:30 and be writing by 8. I also know that I get really tired after lunch, so instead of forcing myself to keep working when I’m not going to be productive, I took a two-hour hike up a mountain behind the chalet, and wrote for four more hours when I returned. Finally, in the evenings after dinner I did smaller writing tasks, such as blog entries, correspondence and article drafting.

Morning coffee by the river

At the end of my four days in the mountains I had completed a first draft of my book. I also rediscovered the fact that writing, especially writing well, takes intense concentration and is hard work. It’s about sitting in a chair, focusing your mind and putting one word after another, even if it feels painful. I was proud that I mustered the creative self-discipline to pull this off. I also am pleased to confirm that I can, and want, to write for eight hours a day. Next step: make that possible more often.

Casual chalet summer style: J Crew t-shirt and shorts with espadrilles

I also found this: as a teenager I wanted nothing more than to get away from the woods of the northeast, but I’ve fallen back in love with this environment. I’m incredibly fond of the mountains where I spent childhood weekends and it was hard for me to leave the chalet after only four days.

A little beatnik, a little north woods: USMC jacket (stolen from my father), J Crew t-shirt, generic linen scarf, Mavi jeans, Converse sneakers

I loved my days of solitude, where my only human interaction was with the clerk at the New Hampshire State Liquor Store where I went to buy a bottle of Cotes du Rhone one evening. When I arrived at the chalet I felt emotionally on edge from all my running around New York City and constant engagement with so many different projects.  Waking up to dappled June sunlight, the sound of the river, and feeling like I spent my days in a tree house slowly helped me gain back perspective and I left feeling emotionally grounded and creatively accomplished.

A map of the white mountains at the chalet

I might just make my “self-imposed writer’s retreat” an annual event.

And lest you think I’ve become a monk thanks to four days in New Hampshire, on my way out of North Conway I succumbed to temptation, outlet shopping, and that state’s lack of sales tax and bought my first pair of Minnetonka moccasins since the 1980s.
After being a holdout... I buy my first pair of Minnetonkas since childhood!

One more caveat: after reading this entry are you surprised that my favorite book as a teenager was The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac?

Advertisements

The Utopia Project Volume III: The MacDowell Colony

The library at the MacDowell Colony

The main building at the MacDowell Colony

Far into the wilds of southwestern New Hampshire, down a back road shadowed by pine trees, is the MacDowell Colony. It is an artists’ residency that is over 100 years old tucked away in the small town of Peterborough. It was founded by composer Edward MacDowell and his wife Marion, a pianist, who bought a farm there in 1896. Edward felt he created his best work in on the farm and when he passed away Marion championed the idea of giving artists a chance to thrive in the same environment he found so inspiring.

Kitchen garden at MacDowell

MacDowell Chickens

The MacDowell Colony invites artists from all disciplines to take part in a residency where they work in a community with their peers. Artistic excellence is the only standard for acceptance and all room, board and tuition is covered.

Inside the library at MacDowell

Entering the grounds of MacDowell feels stepping into a unique microcosm of society. Each resident is given a bike to use to travel around the campus to their studio, residence and the library. There are regular talks and presentations. The food is locally produced, much of it grown on the MacDowell campus. A local sheep herder brings their sheep to graze on the fields of the colony during the day.

Residents' wine bottles in the dining room

I also admired MacDowell’s openness and interaction with the local community in Peterborough and Southwestern New Hampshire. They regularly host lectures, presentations, screenings, and performances that are open to the public both on the campus and in downtown Peterborough, a super cute New England village if I’ve ever seen one (and I’ve seen a lot!). The Resident Director David Macy is very involved in making Southwestern New Hampshire a culturally vibrant place and is involved in town and regional planning organizations. I think this speaks volumes to the strength and history of the colony and how it is not just an isolated place for artists to perfect their craft, but a dynamic organization that helps serve as a cultural anchor for the region.

I have a secret dream to move back to Maine and start an artists residency and organic restaurant on my parents’ farm. David’s involvement in cultural development in Southwestern New Hampshire helped me see that my vision could also combine my interest in city planning and public policy and that a pastoral artists residency can also be a responsible community member.

The Utopia Project Part II: Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild

Why do artists need to get away to create? Does creativity really flow better in a rural idyll where one could shut out the outside world if one so chose?  Does modern life really hamper creativity and the ability to produce as an artist? Over 100 years ago Byrdcliffe was founded in Woodstock, New York to test out these ideas as a utopian Arts and Crafts community. The Arts and Crafts movement believed that industrialization and urbanization was compromising peoples ability to live and create and put a great value on the handmade and the skill of the craftsman.

The Byrdcliffe campus certainly seems the embodiment of the Utopia Project. It is transporting: a series of arts and crafts cabins from the turn of the century connected by dirt roads and trails. A stream runs through it and light filters through the birch trees. After I finished working I spent the afternoon hiking up the nearby Overlook mountain to explore the ruins of an old hotel and to look with awe over the Hudson Valley stretching out below me. I used to think that the golden, soft quality of light in Hudson River School paintings was a whole lot of Romantic bullshit.  However, the more time I spend in the Hudson Valley, the more I see that painters like Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole were actually capturing the quality of light that they observed.

The view from Overlook mountain

Ruins of the Overlook hotel

I cooked dinner in the communal kitchen the residence where I had given a room for the night and spent the evening eating and talking about art, politics and building a creative life with some of the resident artists. I felt privileged to be able to be able to step into the world of actually living as a resident artist for a night. Byrdcliffe is like an artists summer camp where there are few rules besides respecting the quiet and focus of others. As a child I never liked summer camp, but I found myself reluctant to leave Byrdcliffe. I think that’s because it combines the fun, peace and isolation of camp with the focus and autonomy of adulthood.

One of the residency bedrooms

Lunch at the Byrdcliffe Cafe

Just invoking the name “Woodstock” brings up a whole trope of myths in American culture. To an outsider like me I wondered how the region around Woodstock, which is sleepy and rural and mountainous, was host to such an important cultural event back in the 1960’s. Places like Byrdcliffe help provide an answer. Byrdcliffe was founded in 1902 as an experiment in utopian, artistic, arts and crafts living, supported by a wealthy Englishman. It has grown into a nonprofit arts services organization that now provides acts as a touchstone for artists throughout the Woodstock region offering exhibitions, performances, and many professional development opportunities. In addition to those who participate in the residency program, artists can also rent cabins and studios for the summer.

Screen porch artist studio

Artist studios behind the birch trees

As I become more deeply a New Yorker I savor more wholly the opportunities to get out of the city and to immerse myself in rural experiences. Byrdcliffe provides a place for retreat from the pressing concerns of modern, urban life, which is what the Arts and Crafts Movement focused on. There one can concentrate on creativity and artistic exploration in the midst of small town life and natural beauty. In what I think is becoming a resounding theme of my visits to Northeast artist residencies: I can’t wait to go back.

Mt. Guardian trail

The Utopia Project I: Vermont Studio Center

Red Mill Building, Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, Vermont

Vermont Studio Center, Writing Studios, Johnson, Vermont

What compels an artist to create art? Is it internal or external? Is it the environment, inspiration from peers and community members, or simply having the space, time and opportunity to work? What environment is most nurturing  to art and what type? Do artists create better in urban centers, buzzing with life, where their daily peregrinations and haphazard meetings can be the source of inspiration? Or do they need peace, quiet, solitude, nature and focus? While I live and work in the first set of circumstances (Brooklyn has the highest per capita of artists of New York’s five boroughs), I’m curious about the second. Specifically, the intentional artist’s community.

Roof of the wood and metal shop, Vermont Studio Center

This summer I am setting out to explore artist residencies, retreats or schools that have consciously built themselves away from urban environments. They are all situated in locations of surprising natural beauty, yet each has a particular history and offers artists a particular experience.

Bird houses, Vermont Studio Center

Swimming hole, Johnson Vermont, near the Vermont Studio Center

Places like MacDowell and Byrdcliffe reach back one hundred years or more, while others, like the Vermont Studio Center, reinvent the tradition. This summer I will be traveling to residencies, retreats, art schools and colonies in Vermont, New York State, New Hampshire and Maine, reaching out for work, but documenting these unique places for myself and for this project. I’m searching for insight into artistic inspiration, ideas about what binds an artistic community, and educating myself about an important tradition in the history of making art in the United States.

Deck of the Trustees House, Vermont Studio Center

Old Town Hall, Vermont Studio Center

Old Town Hall, Vermont Studio Center

My first stop was a seven hour drive north of New York City to Johnson, Vermont, which is practically on the Quebec border. I visited the Vermont Studio Center, which is a relative newcomer to the artist residency scene, and was founded by artists in 1984. Housed in a series of old mill buildings, and even the old town hall, the Studio Center integrates with the tiny town of Johnson. The residency itself is very independent—residents, who are visual artists and writers—come together for meals and studio visits, but that’s about it. Otherwise, they work in their studios and many of them work to keep the residency running. The residents themselves are diverse and hail from all parts of the world and are at all stages of their careers as artists. Serious, community oriented, independent, all set in a very tranquil northern landscape of lush hills, rivers and forests. While I’m generally unmoved by northern landscape (having grown up in one), the Vermont Studio Center felt like an escape for me as well. I hope one day to return as a resident.

Sign on the kitchen door, Vermont Studio Center

Inside the Red Mill, Vermont Studio Center

Night, Vermont Studio Center