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