The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 22, 2006


An artist's retreat fit for Thoreau

for the Commentary page

By Teresa Leo
I spent my summer vacation living among cows, avoiding coyotes, learning loon calls, honing poker skills, canoeing, playing parlor games, sharing bathrooms, and writing. Sound like summer camp? It was, except the campers were adults and the purpose was to create - poems, sculptures, music, paintings - in a place where the biggest distraction might be a blue-tailed skink running across your copy of Walden.

Such is life at an artists' colony, where artists can work free from the distractions and responsibilities of everyday life. But for someone who's not used to huge stretches of uninterrupted time away from the big city, being out in the wild surrounded by nature, books, and the echo of one's own thoughts can be a little daunting. Sort of like Henry David Thoreau at that pond - in reverse.

I attended two artists' colonies this summer: the Blue Mountain Center in upstate New York's Adirondack Mountains, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts on the rolling Blue Ridge farmlands. Each colony hosts between 14 and 22 resident artists at a time, and provides meals, lodging, and a studio or working space.

What's the draw? Why couldn't I take my vacation and just hunker down in my home if all I wanted to do was write? I could talk about the challenging, inspiring, and collaborative environment an artists' colony provides, or say you can't beat the camaraderie that comes out of participating in a learning community gathered around common intellectual and artistic passions.

But instead I'll say Home Depot. I own a 105-year-old Victorian in constant need of repair. If I tried to write at home, chances are I'd spend my summer vacation in home-improvement stores wandering about the paint aisle, bugging the guy in Nuts and Bolts, and running my hands over the power tools as though I were at a petting zoo. Sometimes you just need to put 350 miles between you and your drill bits to let the creative juices flow.

It took a few days for me to stop wearing a watch, checking my e-mail and phone messages, and worrying about whether the lamp timer I'd set had shorted out and started an electrical fire in my living room. But I finally got into a routine and, like the other residents, spent most of the day working on my art.

Yet even doing something you love has its limits. I found that after writing for six hours or so, I was ready for some kind of distraction, anything at all, but there was nothing within striking distance that needed spackling, caulking, stripping, sanding, or painting.

So we built bonfires; played dominoes, cards, and Scrabble; drove around looking at silos; hiked; went boating; and talked, literally, until the cows came home.

In Walden, Thoreau said, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach...."

Separated from my caulking gun and miter box, I wrote more in a few weeks than I would in a year living in the work-in-progress that is my house. I came to revel in the bucolic landscape and the "essential facts" way of living that the artists' colony inspires. Toward the end of my stay, I was able to forget about the real world and my house completely.

But even Thoreau had to leave the woods.

I returned home from one of the colonies just after the torrential rains and severe flooding that resulted in disaster declarations for 46 counties in Pennsylvania.

I knew it wasn't a good sign when I saw roof shingles scattered about my driveway as I pulled up to my house. The ceiling in an upstairs room had sprung a leak, buckled, and created its own five-foot stretch of abstract art, with cracks that looked like an aerial map of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York.

If I'd been home, I might have been able to prevent some of the damage.

I could have gotten a contractor in to patch the roof before water seeped inside. But if I'd been home, I wouldn't know what a mockingbird looks like up close, be able to distinguish the four types of calls made by loons, or have gotten to meet extraordinary people who are talented artists.

In the end, I wouldn't trade my experience of "living deliberately" for anything. Not even for a tightly sealed roof or a crack-free ceiling.


© 2006 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.