On Art Colonies (What Works, What Doesn't)

I'm happy to serve as a guest editor for the SheWrites blog this week--especially knowing we can create some precious creative space for co-founder Kamy Wicoff to work on her own book. Go, Kamy, go! Today, I thought I would give you a glimpse of where I am; each day this week I look forward to featuring a post from a talented member of the SheWrites community. 


For most of January I've been in residency at Virginia Center for Creative Arts in the mountains of Amherst, Virginia. This is my third stay here--a precious time to plunge ahead on the third poetry collection, make notes toward a new nonfiction project, and read a half-dozen books. I've been in the studio the staff calls the "sunken living room," because it sits with its front windows facing the path that leads from the main house to the barn studios. I can see everyone coming and going--and they can see me at my desk. Luckily I'm pretty impervious to distraction (and, perhaps, a touch of an exhibitionist). 

There is a reason I keep coming back. The landscape fits me, and I get a lot of work done. Over time I've learned to pack the little items that make me more comfortable: postcards to warm up the studio's bare walls, a favorite pillow, an electric blanket, a sturdy printer, a few glasses from home that have a heft and size I like.

In some ways I cling to "real life" more than others--I muddy my impractical heels in the gravel and soft lawns, I don't apologize for spending a few hours on email each day, I make trips to Charlottesville or Richmond to see friends and give readings. I do so because I've learned the hard way that I don't like having Real Life hit me like a ton of bricks on Day One post-colony. I'm secure in my sense of community. I'm pulling my weight. If we connect and share a dozen late-night talks in the studios, awesome. If we don't connect and I'm the muted breakfast wraith in snakeskin pajamas, sipping her coffee silently, that's okay too.

Many Fellows are "colony hoppers," and we trade stories of where we've been. Occasionally you'll hear folks admit that the experience is not what they'd hoped, that they didn't get work done, that they wouldn't go back. And though hindsight is always 20/20, if you're considering applying to an art colony for the first time, it is important to realize that not all residencies are the same. If you're looking for a chance to workshop drafts, go to one of the places with a Master Artist in residence--Vermont Studio Center, or Atlantic Center for the Arts--and if you're not at one of those places, be prepared for the fact that asking a fellow Resident to read pages could be a fraught thing. If you're using up precious vacation days from work and will feel let down if there isn't an exotic view and a sense of adventure, pick a place with plenty of hiking options, such as Ucross in Wyoming, or an international residency held in a castle or resort town.

The Millay Colony was my best experience in terms of eating, because only the dinners were communal and the cook was dealing with just six people, so she was happy and game to accommodate my allergies 100%. This has been my favorite chef and my best allergy experience yet at VCCA. But I face the same struggle I always do--giving myself permission to skip breakfast and lunch if they don't match my work schedule (knowing that if I skip a meal, the kitchen facilities available to then fix my own food is minimal), and knowing that skipping dinner without a day's previous notice is seriously frowned upon. It can be agonizing to tear myself away from the page at 6:05 PM some nights, yet you gotta do it.

If you come to VCCA, you will be astonished by the care that has been put into developing the grounds for maximum places to hide away. An unexpected bench, a fishpond, so many sculptures that pop into view only as you dusk around a certain hedgerow. That said, bring a certain dormitory hardiness. Sound insulation is notoriously poor in the main house, carrying even the softest giggles in the Wavertree Library to the upper bank of bedrooms. The thermostat in one room controls an entire hall. You'll be at the mercy of a bathroom-mate, one with the power to leave his or her room with you (accidentally) locked out from shower access on occasion. I'm not reporting these things to complain; none of these factors have ever bothered me. But I've seen them be dealbreakers for others, and a bad fit for a Fellow is hard on everyone.

Don't be afraid to be honest about your needs. If you need hi-speed internet to research your biography or upload sound files for an installation, that's perfectly legitimate. If you value new amenities, pick a fresh upstart like Ucross's sister residency, Jentel; don't go to Yaddo. Sure, that's some rich history and some famous residents, but that's also some old lace and moldy woodwork. If you can't appreciate it, no one wants to hear you moaning for five weeks straight. If you want a sense of family, choose a colony where everyone shares a one-month cycle. Otherwise you may find constant hellos and goodbyes emotionally draining. And if going to Vermont Studio Center on a two-week residency, and you tend toward insecurity in new groups, make sure it's not the second two weeks of the month. You'll arrive to find one-monthers grieving the loss of the first round of two-weekers. Nothing personal, but it can make anyone feel like a runner-up.

The point of all this detail is that you can't assume every colony will work as a haven--and that what causes it to be a "good" or "bad" experience for you, as an artist, will probably be rooted in something far quirkier than the prestige level.

What I've realized I value most, especially in this time of constant travel, is being grounded. I don't need a castle. I need to get the work done, which for me requires nesting and routine. Part of what I love best about VCCA is exactly what others find most distracting; the sheer size of it, the flex and flow of Fellows on all different schedule (some come for as little as a weekend). I'm content to give a knowing nod to the other January regulars, create a handful of practical connections--here our proximity to my hometowns of DC and Virginia come in handy--plus one or two extraordinary friendships to take with me forward into the world. The rest I let go.

Well, okay. I also value one awesome dance party. We got that covered this time around, thankfully on the night that the light sleeper was visiting family off grounds.

I'll keep applying to other colonies. It's good to mix it up. I dream of a lunchbox with my name on it at MacDowell, I envy those who have been to Bellagio, I'm newly intrigued by stories of Caldera. But I hope I get to come back here. In one of the side kitchens, there is a draft I wrote in 2005--and which would later appear in my first collection, Theories of Falling--still push-pinned to the bulletin board where I left it. I spotted it as I walked back from from the field where I'd sat all Sunday afternoon--wind whipping my hair, sun bright in my eyes, sipping from a tumbler of scotch to guard against the chill--and read the first 200 pages of Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang. Oh, VCCA. I already dream of returning to you.

I would recommend any of the residencies I mention above. In addition, here is one of the most comprehensive indexes of artist colonies, edited by DC's own Kim Roberts. If you know of other great resources for those in search of such experiences, please share your links in the comments.

Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize selected by Joy Harjo, and Theories of Falling, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize selected by Marie Howe. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, and The Oxford American. Her most recent book, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life (Crown, 2011), is a memoir and cultural history of food allergy. She lives in Washington, DC, where she serves on the Board and faculty of The Writer's Center.

Find out more about her work at www.SandraBeasley.com or by reading her blog, "Chicks Dig Poetry," where she has been profiling her experiences on the road and most recently at VCCA. You can also find her on Twitter @SandraBeasley, and on Facebook

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Comment by Sandra Beasley on February 6, 2012 at 8:49am

HI Deni~ I would stick to submitting a writing sample that showcases one genre, the same style as the project you're proposing to complete during your residency. It's hard when you don't yet have credits in the genre where you're applying; I've known others who have struggled to get admission based on that. You might want/need to adapt some excerpts in order to get a track record of publication, even if they are not "short stories" per se. Good luck!

Comment by Deni Cary Phillips on February 6, 2012 at 8:45am

Thanks, Sandra. I have a ton of credits, but they are non-fiction and I've switched. What is your opinion about the mix and match game? Fiction/Non-fiction submissions? And how old or new to have them count? I have not written short stories. I have one finished ms at 90,000 words, and another wip at 40,000 with a presumed goal of 60-to-70,000. Commercial/literary women's fiction.

Comment by Sandra Beasley on February 6, 2012 at 8:36am

Deni, one of my favorite people at VCCA this time around didn't have an MFA (she came to writing post-motherhood, with no grad degree at all, though she does have books out). Another one of my favorites was still trying to get her first book into the world. It is a diverse bunch, especially if you look at places such as VCCA and Hedgebrook versus MacDowell and Yaddo. That said, it is important to be able to point to a certain level of accomplishment before you go, i.e. a number of journal credits, versus simply having a killer writing sample or a great idea for a project; that's one way they try to ensure that the people who attend have the discipline to use the time wisely. If you have not yet achieved that level of credentialing, I'd start with submissions versus with a colony.

Cynthia, I've never had a "so-so" colony experience; I think what matters is figuring out your priorities. Community? Solitude to work? Not having to worry about cooking versus control over your meals? Gorgeous setting, or one that won't distract? Typically the meeting with other artists (rarely is it all writers) will revolve around sharing meals. I'd say I usually stay in touch with 3-5 people in the year after a residency, 1-2 people in the long term; plus you always have the welcome nod if you should happen to cross paths with anyone you recognize later on. 

Comment by Deni Cary Phillips on February 6, 2012 at 8:21am

Hi. Thanks for posting this. I've been looking at residencies and have applied to one so far, but as I look at the people they choose to become fellows, I'm disheartened. I don't have an MFA in writing, or a national best seller. It seems there is a lot of competition and the most likely winner will be someone who is already credentialed. I hope to prove myself wrong and will continue to apply. I get so much more written when I can 'get-away-from-it-all'!!

Comment by Cynthia Manick on February 1, 2012 at 11:06pm

I love this blog post. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with art colonies. I have been flirting with the idea of applying for a residency, but sometimes it's hard to tell the "good" from the "so-so." Especially since I work full-time in a office setting and the most time I can take off is two weeks.  I'm also interested in the type of community at these colonies. Do you meet with other writers? Do you stay in touch after the residency is over? Or is you're time there solely about the writing project you're working on?

Comment by kathie Anne Umbers on February 1, 2012 at 10:29am

This is my first time of writing.....how or where can I be intouch with an editor or someone who will giude me along my way kathie....

Comment by Sandra Beasley on February 1, 2012 at 3:35am

Thanks, Sarah! I think art colonies are a mystery to many writers; happy to share what I can~

Comment by Sarah Pinneo on January 31, 2012 at 10:21am

Sandra, this was so much fun to read. I've always been curious about those places, and I loved this glimpse!

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