Louise Farmer Smith was in a rut. When she arrived at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, her attempt to celebrate the life of her mother in a nonfictional narrative had stalled. Her effort of two years was in jeopardy.
On the first night of Smith's monthlong fellowship, Mary Curtis Ratcliff, a visual artist, solicited anecdotes involving cakes as a way of adding another dimension to her sculpture displays of fanciful, but nonedible, layer cakes.
Smith volunteered to dictate an account of her 10th birthday. In doing so she happened to invent a party guest. This fictional presence, she realized as she walked to her studio, gave her cake tale a missing ingredient: leavening. Within 48 hours she decided to toss her stale manuscript and rewrite the episodes of her mother's life with the help of fictional characters or made-up actions.
"Finally, the stories began to rise," she says.
Not all sojourns to artist colonies produce such magical results. But productivity invariably shoots skyward during residencies. It couldn't be otherwise. Colonies are designed to produce such results. They offer artists -- visual artists, writers and composers alike -- the most precious commodity: time.
Time is the fertile ground for artistic invention. Add that to studio space, tools of a particular craft, bed and board and the company of peers, and almost anything is possible. Without time, little is.
Most often an artist's time is not his own. Since few can achieve even a modicum of independence on the proceeds earned by art, most have to sell their time -- that is, hold a real job. Even the blessings of family, home and friends often are time-hungry.
So artist-residency programs exist in large part to provide artists with time. Some offer lengthy stays -- up to a year -- for a couple of artists at a regional art center. Others limit stays to two months or less, but cater to more fellows -- up to a couple of dozen -- at a time.
To assure artists the time they need, colonies usually limit public access -- even discourage visits from the artists' friends and family.
Some places are downright monastic, with one-artist/one-cabin studios spread across a park-like estate. Others are quite social with a common residency hall apart from the studios.
These are not schools. What learning there is occurs informally, often in exchanges of know-how among colleagues. As illustrated by Smith and Ratcliff, interaction among peers can produces wonderful cross-pollination.
If nothing more, colony residencies all but guarantee personal validation -- should it be wanting -- by providing a proximity of peers. Just hearing how fellow artists fight for studio time, struggle with their craft and wander the public labyrinth in search of an audience is enough to reaffirm the value of one's own artistic quest.
The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, in the Blue Ridge foothills 50 miles south of Charlottesville, is one of the more social colonies. Residencies, from a week to two months, overlap. In the course of a month's stay, a fellow can meet more than 30 writers, visual artists and composers.
Through after-dinner chats, fireside readings, studio visits and country walks, it's hard not to learn some of the personal history, residency accomplishments and career aspirations of many of them. Here are snapshots of some colonists:
Rob Nixon fled his homeland, South Africa, as a college student more than 20 years ago. In short, he was a draft dodger. Now a professor of European literature at Columbia University, he was writing memoirs.
He employed parallels he discovered in rearing ostriches in South Africa and in Arizona to talk about his own history on both sides of the Atlantic.
At an after-dinner fireside reading, he told of his childhood pride at wearing his grandfather's wristwatch. One Sunday his father drove the family to an ostrich ranch, where Nixon quickly tumbled off his first try to ride bareback. The second time, he hung on. The ostrich sized up its revenge -- or dinner. With a flip of its neck and a snap of its beak, the ostrich ate Nixon's watch.
Karen Klein, a tenured English and interdisciplinary humanities professor at Brandeis University near Boston, was on sabbatical. She hoped not to return full time. She felt alienated from the small-mindedness of academic bureaucracies, and her fascination with haiku wanted to consume more and more of her time.
The walls of her studio became a living text. Her succinct poems in graceful calligraphy were written one apiece on veneers of wood and sheets of paper. She said her juxtapositions were not determinate, but accidental. Yet visitors to her studio couldn't help but find connections among her short verse.
Qiyi Liu won the prize for industry. He disappeared into his studio morning, afternoon and night. He seemed above the restlessness that would beset others after about a week. Driving off campus for laundry soap was considered by many a therapeutic diversion. But Liu just painted.
This was his first trip outside China, where he is an art professor in Shanghai. While his subject at the art colony was portraiture of Tibetans, his style was pure Western, and conservative at that. Slides of his work revealed an emulation of Old Masters, particularly Dutch still-life painters.
Mao Tse-tung, Liu explained before showing slides, had isolated China from Western art. Only briefly before the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s had Mao let the Chinese see images of Renaissance oils.
We later learned that Liu's family suffered during the Cultural Revolution, that his well-educated parents were forced onto a squalid farm and that Liu was separated from his family. The name Deng Xiaoping, who ended the Cultural Revolution and brought reform to China, turned Liu's face radiant.
After his residency, Liu was heading for the museums in Washington, then New York. Several colonists expressed the desire to be his shadow to participate in his joy when he viewed for the first time the Old Masters he loved so much.
David Foley has had possibly the least public exposure of his work of anyone at the arts center. Seven years' toil as a playwright in New York has yielded him about a dozen readings of his plays, one three-night workshop production and several prizes in national competitions. But he has yet to see a full-scale production of his work.
He completed a first draft of a what-if account of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the Baltimore atheist who sought to end public-school prayer in the early 1960s. What if, Foley writes, O'Hair, who in real life had sought sanctuary as far away from Maryland as Hawaii, had shown up in the South Pacific with her family and her bank account after her disappearance in 1995? His rapid-fire reading of the opening scenes of the foul-mouthed O'Hair on the beach had the group quaking in laughter.
An artist from Baltimore, upon his return home, sent Foley the names of several theater troupes' artistic directors. Who knows? Baltimore could provide Foley with the break he needs.
Pub Date: 2/24/98