Saturday, September 20, 2014

Living Creatively at Artist Colonies

A deer grazing outside my window
I first learned about artist colonies while a doctoral student at Indiana University.  I had finished all of the degree requirements except for the writing of the dissertation (an orchestra piece), so there was no compelling reason for me to stay in Bloomington while I composed. Claude Baker, my composition teacher, suggested that I apply to artist colonies. Intrigued, I applied to a number of colonies and spent the year leapfrogging from program to program. I had a wonderful time while I finished my dissertation!

What is an artist colony?  Simply put, it is a place whose sole mission is to give an artist time and space to work without the interruptions we typically encounter in everyday life. Artists - meaning composers, painters, sculpturists, filmmakers, photographers, writers, playwrights, and so on - apply to a colony; if accepted, they can be given anywhere from typically two to eight weeks to work in solitude (some residences offer longer periods). Artists are given their own studio space, many of which are equipped to handle particular disciplines; for instance, composer studios usually have a piano. Many colonies provide food for the residents as well - indeed, dinners are usually the one communal time the artists share together to enjoy each other’s company before heading back to their studios or taking the night off. Several colonies have wonderful traditions of dropping off lunch at artists’ doorsteps so that the artists can stay engaged in their work; MacDowell Colony  is famous for employing old wooden baskets as lunch pails, more or less identical to the type used over one hundred years ago when the colony first began. Most colonies don’t charge artists for their residence, and some even provide travel costs if you can’t afford it.
My studio setup at Ucross Foundation

I am currently in residence at the Ucross Foundation in Clearmont, Wyoming.  This is my first time here, and I have to say, this is one of the best colonies for a composer. Ucross has carefully thought through what a composer needs. Baby grand piano? Large screen monitor to hook up to your computer? Synthesizer with MIDI cables? Speakers? You bet! But the most stunning aspect to this colony is its location. Situated on a 20,000 acre cattle ranch, I am on the edge of lush prairies and rolling hills. My next-door neighbor is a herd of cows, and I get daily visits from large families of turkeys and deer who encircle my studio. This wondrous landscape is equal parts tranquil and wild, a combination that has thrilled and inspired many artists since colony’s founding in 1981.

A great piano is included in my Ucross studio
Another benefit to colony life is mixing with artists in other disciplines. Some colonies are set up to handle larger numbers of composers (MacDowell Colony is probably the best in this regard; it was established by the widow of composer Edward MacDowell), whereas in others, a composer might not have any fellow musicians. I see low numbers of composers as an asset – I greatly enjoy talking with artists from other disciplines, learning about their process, and seeing what they produce. While generally not a requirement, colonists tend to share their work with each other by means of an open studio or music night. Many cross-discipline collaborations have resulted by artists meeting each other at colonies.

Artist colonies exist all around the country as well as abroad. The Alliance of Artist Communities has a database on their website for you to look for colonies that support composers, as well by state or country. A partial list of colonies that a composer might want to check out includes Ucross Foundation, MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Copland House, Millay Colony, Djerassi, Ragdale, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Banff Centre.

I find that even a brief two-week stay at a colony can be a very rejuvenating experience. If you can break away from your daily engagements and want time to solely be creative, then apply for a colony visit!

Sunset at Ucross Foundation