NEW SMYRNA BEACH
The kids are all going to summer camp, so why not us adults? Don't we need to get away from it all and explore new experiences too?
I recently spent three weeks at the Atlantic Center for the Arts here, a sort-of sleep-away camp for artistic endeavors. Away from my family and daily responsibilities, thrown in with painters, composers and other poets, I experienced spiritual renewal, artistic growth and a taste of long-ago summer camp — just what the doctor ordered. While at artist's camp, I was told to let it rip, break my own rules, make glorious messes. What doesn't work will fall away, like so much in life.
The Atlantic Center for the Arts, founded by sculptor Doris Leeper in 1982, has become a premier destination for emerging artists in all disciplines, from video art to puppetry, kitemaking and photography to dance and fiction writing. Three groups of associate artists (you could call us campers), assembled by a master artist in the discipline, meet for three weeks in an intense period of study and play. The beautifully designed wooden buildings and boardwalks of the center sit on acres of untouched pine and palmetto scrub along an inland bay. Across the street flows the Intracoastal Waterway, and farther out, over the bridges, lies the Atlantic Ocean and its beaches. Each artist's room faces the unspoiled beauty of scrub, complete with cardinals and Carolina wrens, pine warblers and whippoorwills.
If you are interested in pursuing your art, pushing your boundaries, or just getting away to be with like-minded people, there is an artists' colony or workshop for you. The Alliance of Artists Communities boasts a nationwide (and some international) membership, from tiny colonies in Washington state to old grande dames such as Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Many support artists with fellowships, or they charge well below hotel rates.
Though these communities select participating artists for residencies based on merit (through an application and evaluation process), many, such as the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., also run summer workshops open to the public without the rigors of a selection process. Stay at the Anderson Ranch in Colorado, for example, to explore a variety of arts. Attend the Key West Literary Seminar in January, where you can listen to panels, take a writing workshop or do both. Artist retreats throughout the year and throughout the world are at your fingertips.
Ann Brady, executive director of ACA, notes that just recently the National Endowment for the Arts has formed a new funding category for artists' communities. Though the NEA hasn't funded individual artists since the early 1990s, it can now support the communities that foster their growth.
Artists' communities exist to nourish emerging artists, and Doris Leeper's vision for ACA included making sure that young professionals got to work with established artists in their fields. The focus is on exploration, downtime, play and discovery — not necessarily finished works of art. Artists' communities depend on their boards, foundations and private donors, and most reach out to the public, inviting them to experience the artists' presentations or to see work in gallery spaces. ACA will do a summer camp for children in a few weeks, they've held a successful Teen Creative Writing Residency, and when their spaces aren't scheduled, they may serve a dance troupe or a local school.
Sharing our work
During the first week of my session, we present our work to each other — poems, paintings, music, video — and as the evenings go by, we share more work in impromptu settings, and the master artists present to the public and us. Will Cotton, the painter, shows slides of gorgeous Candy Land places, for which he built gingerbread houses, root beer float flumes and ice cream snowscapes. No one ever told me you could make art like this! I decide I like Flan Pond, its lilac-colored swamp modeled on Monet's Water Lilies; my other favorite is a commissioned portrait of a woman with candy on her head, a ribbon of it trailing down beside her cheek like a tendril of hair. Surely it's Girl with a Pearl Earring, sensuous and sublime. We make a run with Will to the Dairy Queen after the show, and we take photos of each other featuring ice cream cones on our heads.
"This morning it came to me, how to write the villainelle," I write in my journal. The villainelle is a particularly tricky (and traditional) poetic form, harder than a sonnet, and our master artist, Brenda Hillman, known for her provocative blending of lyric and experiment, is not letting up.
It's been boot camp: a new poem a day, plus two hours of workshop in which we respond to a set of talented peers. We're generating a lot of unsettling work, and at dinner we continue a discussion about the "speaking subject," which heads us into postmodern theory. At night, in the wee hours, I work out in my head every postmodern theory in its relation to every other. I am so excited.
Sunday, my journal reports that I have a "big headache" due to the six hours I spent at a margarita party, dancing at the master painter's cottage with the rest of the "campers." There is photo documentation of the late arrival of the young composers, who, it turns out, can really dance.
In the morning, my camp brother, a painter from Chicago, makes espresso. I vibrate all day and do laundry. On the weekends we make our own meals together and apart, but during the week chef Tom supplies a delectable lunch and dinner with vegetarian options and desserts to die for. I had hoped to lose my love handles, especially when we started a morning yoga group, but it's not happening, not with an all-you-can-eat buffet every night.
The last week is a blur. An '80s-themed party was prefaced with a monumental two-hour primping session in the painting studio. There were makeup, hair and costuming. The next day we toured bee hives with Doug McGinnis, board member and apiarist, who explained why so many bee colonies are dying. Later in the week, the composers performed Alvin Lucier's 1970 piece, Sitting Alone in a Room. A person speaks, live, into a recording device which records its own loop over and over again; the recording degrades so much that speech is no longer discernible, except as rhythm, and all that is left to play (over and over) are the enhanced resonances of the room itself. Speech falls away into swelling choirs of oscillating harmonic tones. The room, in effect, sings; this is what art can do.
None of us wants to leave. It's the final week, and whatever we're going to do must be done, and soon. We'll present our work on the last night, the same night we must say goodbye. It's impossible. The painters barely leave the studio. The composers present work every night. Some poets, inspired by the bees, put an installation in the cafeteria called Colony Collapse Disorder. Some of us forsake yoga for surfing. I spend an entire day painting. I've got a new poem, maybe even a new style, and it's settled into something strong and deep.
Melanie Hubbard lives in Ruskin and is a frequent contributor to Floridian.