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For this aspiring novelist, a stay at an artists' colony is like a trip to the Riviera.- October 1, 2003
There are naiads out my window. Those mystical water nymphs—in statue form, of course—are there every day, across the expanse of lawn just before the grass slopes away into the trees. From my third-floor window I see them, sun glinting off their shoulders in the daytime, footlights glowing against their white skin in the dark.
It is the middle of the afternoon, and I am still in my pajamas. No one has noticed, because I haven't yet left my room. Eventually, I'll get hungry and go downstairs, where the chefs have prepared my lunch and my thermos of coffee. Until then, I'll watch the naiads. I might stay up until 5 a.m. again tonight working. I may not speak to anyone until dinner. No one will take offense. No one will even notice.
I'm at Yaddo, the venerable artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. I've been here for three idyllic weeks, and they will have to drag me out by my earlobes if they want me to leave.
Though artists' colonies sound like a recipe for reality TV—take anywhere from five to 50 adults, all of them at least somewhat "eccentric," put them in a house in the country, and wait for the creative juices to spurt—colonies are in fact the Riviera of artists' gigs. Writers, visual artists, composers, and multi-genre artists use these free or low-cost colonies as retreats to focus on their art. Usually the colonies are set somewhere bucolic, nestled among trees and softly rolling hills. Occasionally they're rustic, heated by wood stoves and without the comforts of home (like cable). At nearly all, one telephone suffices to keep the colonists in touch with the world.
Colonies, also referred to as residencies, can last anywhere from one month to three. (Beyond that it's a retirement home.) Meals are provided, free of charge, served hot in the evenings and, in some cases, to your door for lunch.
It's a blast. I'll be attending my fourth colony in October, and never have I been disappointed. I spent a January snuggled in the Vermont woods at the Vermont Studio Center, a May looking out over the fields of upstate New York at the Saltonstall Colony, and an August losing money trackside here at Yaddo. There's always the work, of course, but also time for a little play, too—a couple of ski days, the occasional splash in the swimming hole, breakfast by the racetrack. Before 2003 ends, I'll take a couple of beach trips at Djerassi in Woodside, California.
Much has been made, most recently in Vanity Fair, about the colony as "sex camp." I've also heard these rumors, and, to my vast disappointment, they seem to be only that—rumors. There are tales of men who leave their wives for lithesome young painters met in July at MacDowell and people who find true love during January at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, but I've never actually met one of these lovebugs, nor has there been any evidence that the "check your wedding ring at the door" policy is still in effect. If there is canoodling, it is out of my sight—and, sadly, my reach.
So, without sex, what does one do at a colony all day? I can't speak for anyone else, but here's what I do: eat, exercise, write, nap, play parlor games, write letters, read, and develop useless hobbies including, but not limited to, tarot-card reading, postcard making, reorganizing my laptop, making lists of things to do when I get back to New York, rehashing old relationships, composing letters to participants in aforementioned relationships, deciding not to send aforementioned letters, and macrame. The above activities are completed in no particular order, and therein lies the beauty of the colony.
Gone are the yokes of responsibility. There are no friends or children, or friends' children, or childish friends bugging you, no grocery stores to shop at, no meals to plan or prepare. There are no obligations that you need to shirk in order to do your work. There is just you and the metaphorical blank page. And 29 or so other "you"s and their blank pages.
The idea behind gathering people of different artistic disciplines together under one roof is that they will be able to share their interests and thus grow as artists. Admittedly, some of this does take place. I once traded a poem for a watercolor by a well-known artist (whose work fetches thousands at galleries—who got the better deal, I wonder?). I provided an anecdote for a triptych (it had to do with a certain college escapade involving a bikini). And I wrote a twisted story for a comic book.
I have read others' novels and poems, looked at their art, and listened to their music. All this, I assume, feeds into my creative unconscious, floats around and mingles with my own homegrown ideas and somehow gives my work greater breadth and meaning. Or at least makes me more interesting at cocktail parties.
But, more important, there is a powerful comfort in being among those who are doing what you do. Many of my corporate friends don't really understand the artist lifestyle—the whole "work from home" thing is a mystery. It is to me, too, but I can say with complete honesty that sometimes my work requires that I stare out the window for long periods of time, or flip through philatelic weeklies, or rearrange my socks. Colony-goers accept this without question.
At colonies, I can disappear into the world of my novel without embarrassment or excuse. I can talk about my characters as though they are real people without anyone thinking I'm weird. I can keep my strange insomniac's hours, and chances are there's someone as equally skewed in the sleep department as I am. If I don't want to talk to anyone for a few days, people respect that. Colonies let me relax so that the work comes first, before financial or social obligations, before housework and food preparation.
Colonies are funded mostly through endowments and gifts. Some charge a small fee to offset food and maintenance costs. Others receive funding from government organizations. Some accept all disciplines, others only certain arts. There are colonies with varying degrees of popularity and therefore differing levels of competition for its spots. There are colonies overseas, all over the United States, some rural, some urban. Though they may appear to be merely boondoggles, they perform vital services to the arts in this country. Pick any book of literary fiction in the bookstore and chances are there is a colony thanked in the acknowledgments section.
Meanwhile, back here at Yaddo, the naiads have not moved. Neither have I. Still, they shoot no recriminating glances, no sidelong sneers. They remain in the water, frolicking eternally, averting their eyes and not quite touching. They are the perfect colonists.
Allison Amend did eventually leave Yaddo, and doctors say her ears are healing nicely. She is back in New York where she is continuing to work on her novel before she leaves for her next colony. You can learn more about various artists' colonies here and here.
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