Guest blogger Brad Ford Smith is a Dallas artist and arts conservationist.
JOHNSON, Vt. — You would think that without the distractions of job, family and phone, making art all day would be a piece of cake. Well, it is sweet, but it is also a strangely surreal experience. Large blocks of time are consumed in focused bursts of creativity that leave you staggering back to your bed hoping to grab a few hours of sleep. But then you come across some comrades sitting on the front porch, and you find yourself engaged in conversations about art, books and movies, swapping silly stories and laughing that kind of painful gut wrenching “Stop! Stop! I’m going to pee in my pants” kind of laugh that is so very rare and so very, very good … Then you find it is once again 3 a.m.
This is my second week at the Vermont Studio Center, and I am just now getting around to writing about my experiences so far. The days here are full, quick and exhausting. Trying to schedule them in the same fashion that I would while at home is not possible. That would be forcing a structured regime onto a world where the only real passing of time is measured by when to eat.
So, here is a little info on the Vermont Studio Center. It is an Artists Residency program located in the small town of Johnson, Vermont. Each month, 50 artists are set up with a private studio and a house that they share with a few other artists. All meals are provided in the Red Mill. There is always dessert served after dinner. The artists here are either writers or visual artists. I am of the latter, but hanging out with a bunch of writers has been a novel and wonderful experience. The VSC Web site explains the program in detail; I’m going to focus on the more ethereal aspects of this experience.
On the first day of residency, one of the staff members shows you to one of the old wood-framed houses that will be your new home. Then it’s over to your studio, which contains a chair, two sawhorse tables and your boxes of art supplies that you shipped up from home. The studios are large, clean and very white. Most of them have windows with wonderful views of either the river or the wooded hills. Then, with a “see you at dinner” you are left to your own devices.
In fact, being left to your own devices seems to be the unwritten motto of VSC. They provide you with food and shelter, plus a calendar of optional social events and lectures. From there you are free to go in whatever direction you wish. You can dig deep into your creative psyche or spend your days in the coffee shop down the street reading trashy tabloids. There are no expectations for what you do with your time or for the creation of some end product. You are free to let whim and whimsy run amuck. Of course, this freedom creates a scenario where things can get a bit surreal.
A quick survey of my artistic comrades reveals that the first thing we lose track of is the days of the week. Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, they all feel the same. At this time of year in Johnson, the sunrises at 4:30 a.m., so by 5 it is so bright that your internal clock skips a beat and then stops. Soon, sleep only happens a few hours a night, or more likely while attending one of the numerous side lectures or readings. Note to visiting lecturers: The snoozing audience seated before you is not bored, they are exhausted.
The first week of residency is all about adrenalin and remembering. You are in hyperdrive to get started on a self-centered creative adventure, while at the same time desperately trying to remember the names of all 50 artists you have just met. A few of my personal stumbling blocks have been finding I did not pack the right computer cords, but I did pack a two-year supply of pink highlight markers. I also keep misplacing my dental floss, and the nearest store to get moisturizer is 20 miles away. (I need the moisturizer because I am working with plaster, which tends to dry my out hands … and I like having baby soft skin.) As for remembering names, I suck at it, but I am really good at remembering art and creative ideas, so the names have been slowly falling into place.
Referring again to my quick survey, the second week begins with complete exhaustion. The adrenaline is gone. Only 12 people show up for breakfast on Monday morning. By 11:30 a.m. you might find a few people shuffling around listlessly in their studios. Dark circles under the eyes seems to be the trend of the day. Over the next few days, the amount of dirty coffee cups at breakfast is three times the amount of dirty plates and bowls. If asked how things are going in the studio, the enthusiasm of the reply is usually tempered by the amount of coffee just consumed.
The second week is also an emotional rollercoaster ride, where the creative struggles in the studio start to clash with personal expectations and perhaps a wee bit of delayed stress syndrome. Personally, I am flip flopping from what I feel is either a creative breakthrough or just arty dabbling and then back to visions of grandeur. I also have a stack of very sophisticated novels that I am completely ignoring, opting instead to downloading audio books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which are filling my head with images of Pellucidar, At the Earth’s Core.
Friday was the first Open Studio Night, which means everybody got the chance to visit everybody else’s studio. This created a frenzy of activity that has kept the creative juices flowing for the next three days.
It is now Sunday night. I know that because the Red Mill only serves brunch and dinner on Sundays. There is an unspoken realization in the air that the residency is now officially half over. How that will affect the dynamics of the third week I can only muse upon.
Please note, this posting should to be taken with a grain of salt, as it is based solely on my personal and by now somewhat surreal observations. Each person’s experience at VSC is different. Some are actually getting up early to jog miles and miles through the lush green hills of Vermont, or spending hours in yoga posses that would cause me to spit blood. Some people are even eating right and going to bed on time.