NEAR LITTLE SWITZERLAND, N.C.
The last time I went to summer camp, 40-something years ago, its appeal was that seductive mix of fun and fear. • The fun was being free from our everyday routine and the family's eagle eye, goofing around in the woods, meeting new pals, eating with elbows on the table and trading stories into the night. The fear was whether I would survive learning how to dive in a murky Florida lake without breaking my neck or being eaten by a gator. • Oh, and I worried about bears. • When I went to summer art camp for grownups last month, the fun part was pretty much the same. The fear involved no gators, since I was high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Instead, as an amateur painter used to fussing over one painting in a month's worth of studio classes, I worried about whether I could keep up in a fast-paced, weeklong outdoor art class. • And about bears.
If you think summer camp may be wasted on kids, just look around — there are plenty of camps for grownups, tailored to all sorts of interests.
Ringling College of Art and Design has its main campus in Sarasota. But each summer and fall, its community art program offers three one-week sessions at Wildacres Retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. In July, more than 80 people came there from as far away as New England and as nearby as the next town to paint and draw, throw clay, shoot digital photos, hike in the woods and sip wine on the porches while the fireflies flashed.
Some of the campers had been coming for years — I met one couple who were there for the 16th time — while others, like me, were first-timers. In terms of skills, they ranged from working artists to beginners. Several were in their teens or 20s, but most were middle-age or older. I met a doctor, a hairdresser, a lawyer, a librarian, an architect, several retirees and a whole school's worth of art teachers. They came from all over the eastern United States, but by far the biggest contingents were from Florida and North Carolina.
They came for the art, the camaraderie, the scenery — and they also came for the bargain: six days' room and board and an art class in the mountains in summer for less than $800.
I've been drawing and painting off and on for much of my life, and for 10 years I've taken studio classes at the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg. Looking for a challenge, I signed up for the plein air painting class at Wildacres. (Other choices included studio painting, digital photography, clay studio, drawing in color and a class in "inspiration and action.")
Plein air (French for "open air") simply means painting outdoors. Pluses: lots of subjects to paint, interesting problems of light and color, and an opportunity to enjoy the cool mountain climate. Minuses: lugging a portable easel and other paraphernalia up and down the landscape, picking bugs out of your paint and coaxing the occasional daddy longlegs out of your tote bag, avoiding poison ivy and trying to finish a painting in a single session of two or three hours.
The last was a major challenge for me (I started four paintings and finished only one), but not for some others in my class: One accomplished and efficient plein air painter completed eight beautiful canvases in five days.
Our class of 14 students was lucky enough to be led by two fine teachers. The instructor, Jean Blackburn, also teaches at Ringling and is a third-generation Floridian, born and raised on Anna Maria Island. She calls the Myakka River her muse, and her paintings, prints and photographs of it and other waterways merge realism and abstraction. (For a sample of her work, check out the glass art piece and murals in the dining room of the new All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.)
Blackburn's assistant, Bob Nulf of Charlotte, N.C., is a fine art painter as well as a decorative painter and finisher who has been featured in several episodes of the television series For Your Home. They made an effective team, keeping the class focused on a busy schedule: classroom sessions some mornings, presentations by various instructors in the evenings and plein air painting every day. They kept the atmosphere relaxed and supportive, taking the edge off critique sessions with humor and positive advice. And Nulf even provided some of the bear-avoidance tips I remember from my earlier camp sojourns — not that I really needed to be reminded.
History and irony
Wildacres Retreat sits on 1,400 heavily wooded acres atop a mountain called Pompey's Knob, which rises to 3,300 feet just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Little Switzerland, N.C., northeast of Asheville.
Wildacres has an unusual history. It was first developed in the 1920s by Thomas Dixon, a lawyer, preacher and novelist best known for writing The Clansman, an admiring fictional account of the Ku Klux Klan that became the basis for D.W. Griffith's influential but controversial 1915 film The Birth of a Nation.
Dixon built several lodges on the site and sold lots, but he went broke during the Depression, and in 1936 the land was bought at auction by businessman and philanthropist I.D. Blumenthal. He and his brother, Herman, restored the buildings and continued to develop the site.
The Ringling art school began holding its summer classes there in 1941, and in 1946 the Blumenthals started inviting other groups, many of them religious and interfaith organizations, to use the facility. Wildacres became a nonprofit dedicated to the betterment of human relations — a satisfyingly ironic change from its original owner's views.
Today, Herman Blumenthal's son, Philip, is the director of Wildacres, which hosts more than 70 organizations each year. Philip Blumenthal and his family have a home near the campus, and during my stay his wife, Amy, zipped around on a Segway, their teenage son, Ethan, took a clay class, and their dogs — poodle Kiva, basset hound Jazz and mixed breed Vivace — patrolled the grounds.
No tiaras required
Wildacres' facility, built of native stone, brick and wood in a rustic modern style, includes two large lodges with a total of 57 double-occupancy rooms. Between the lodges, a stone patio, broad porches and a glass-walled lobby all share the same lovely mountain views.
The campus also has a 200-seat auditorium, a library, an amphitheater, several studio buildings and a spacious, high-ceilinged dining hall.
All of these are reached by walking up and down lots of stairs and slopes — there are few level spots on top of a mountain, and none of the buildings have elevators — so if you miss your gym sessions for a week, no need to feel guilty.
At least until you sit down to eat. The food at Wildacres is served family-style, and in large quantities. We tucked into egg casseroles, turkey sausage, fresh fruit, waffles, pancakes and oatmeal in the morning, and hearty sandwiches, soups and salads at midday. The fresh, locally grown tomatoes were so good I must have eaten 10 pounds of them; I barely had room for the fresh-baked cookies.
Dinner entrees were mostly delicious — stuffed chicken breast, spaghetti and meat sauce, roast turkey (the tofu "crab" cakes, not so much) — and served with veggies and salad. There was always dessert. We even had s'mores, although not in the dining hall. A bonfire in the amphitheater midweek gave everyone the chance to roast their own while enjoying the mountain views.
Those who like wine, beer or liquor will need to bring some along or drive to a nearby town to buy it; Wildacres is located in a dry county. I found a small but good selection in the wine shop at the Little Switzerland Cafe, about 10 minutes up the parkway.
Rooms at Wildacres are clean and comfortable, with wood-paneled walls and sturdy decor. Each two-person room (they'll assign you a roommate if you come alone) has a private bath, but no TV, phone, alarm clock, air-conditioning, housekeeping service or lock on the outside of the door — you can lock yourself in at night, but your room will be open the rest of the time. You might not want to bring your diamond tiara, but during my stay folks left their electronics and other stuff lying around casually without any apparent crime wave.
About those electronics: Wildacres is intended to be a retreat from the world, so its brochures and website warn that cell phone and Internet access are limited and urge visitors to unplug.
A pretty idea, but one of the first pieces of information I heard being passed around by repeat campers was the best place to find a cell signal. For me, it was a large sculpture at the end of the driveway — maybe its wood and stone served as a sort of primitive cell tower.
WiFi is available in the north lodge lobby, but its bandwidth is limited. That means connection speed ranges unpredictably from fairly zippy to 1996 dialup, so don't count on downloading any movies. But you'll be too busy making art, anyway.
Although we weren't likely to run out of vistas to paint on the Wildacres campus, our class took a couple of field trips. One day, we went to the nearby home of a painter and master gardener. It was a lovely spot with a hillside dotted with apple trees and a sparely handsome house skirted by a little stream and surrounded by gloriously colorful flower beds.
On another day, we took a longer trip to Linville Falls, a National Park Service site off the Blue Ridge Parkway. The class scattered to find shady perches below the narrow silver waterfall or next to the broad, rust-brown Linville River. Even en plein air there are critics: I was working away when a little girl with blond braids stopped to tell me my painting was very pretty; she came back later to ask if I would give it away.
On our way to Linville Falls, riding in the second of several cars, I finally saw the bear. The first vehicle in our convoy braked for a black bear cub, about the size of a Labrador retriever, standing in the middle of the two-lane Blue Ridge Parkway looking around, most likely for his mother.
Safe inside a Prius, we hollered excitedly as he scampered down the mountainside. I was so sorry I couldn't get my camera out fast enough — I really wanted to paint him.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.