Thursday, April 20, 2017

Creating Something Special For The VCCA Guest Blog Susi Smither

Being half American is very dear to me especially when that ties me to Virginia, where my Mother was born in Lynchburg. I've always felt at home there especially as an escape from the frenetic pace of London so you couldn't have a better location for an artistic retreat. At the end of a long winding driveway, tucked amongst lush woodland with the Blue Ridge Mountains on the horizon you'll find the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). Since I've been collaborating with them on an auction lot to raise funds during their Fête Champêtre on Saturday April 29th 2017, I was delighted to have the chance to look round their grounds, hear how things are run and even meet a couple of their residents last time I was in town.

“One of the leading artists communities in the world with locations in Amherst, Virginia and Auvillar, France, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) has as its mission advancing the arts by providing creative space in which our best national and international writers, visual artists and composers produce their finest creative work.”

Every year across both of their locations at Mt. SanAngelo in central Virginia and at the Moulin à Nef in France they host over 500 professional artists selected by a peer review panel from the applications they receive. Each is deemed to be at a point in their artistic journey which would merit their time there and are working on important or innovative work in their artistic field whether they are poets, fiction writers, nonfiction writers, playwrights, performance, film and video artists, painters, sculptors, photographers, installation artists, composers or cross-disciplinary artists. They are given the space to create, be that a large airy studio, a room with a writing desk and comfy chair or a music room with a grand piano but more importantly they are given the mental space without distractions as well as board and 3 meals a day. 

At the VCCA in Virginia, which I visited, they have up to 25 residents at one time with 9 visual artist studios, 3 composing studios and 13 writers rooms. Part of the magic of their time there is the community created with the resident coming together each evening for dinner - a chance to talk through their projects, get fresh insights or spark off new ideas. So many of their past fellows are so moved by their time there you can find their pieces of art dotted around the grounds or hanging proudly on the walls. 

During our visit we were lucky to be able to meet a couple of the visual artists currently in residence:  Chris McEvoy from Oswego, NY and Colleen Garibaldi from Washington, DC.Both were preparing for an upcoming show and brimming over with enthusiasm. It's not often you get a glimpse into that very personal creative space with each still distilling down their ideas, experimenting with the direction they are taking their work and paint still wet on their canvas. 

To take a look at both their work please visit their websites:

With such a creative and unique place we wanted to come up with an equally creative lot for their auction and curated a special suite of gemstones for the highest bidder to win - but it doesn't stop there. This is just the beginning, as we will work with the winner to create a completely bespoke item of 18K gold jewellery encompassing these stones. They will be involved in each step so that the piece is exactly to their taste and size. 

To view the entire package, please go to: (password: "unlocktherocks") 
If you're interested in placing a remote bid, please call VCCA by 5:00PM on Friday, April 28th.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Guest Blog: Elizabeth Bradford in Auvillar

Staring at a stucco wall struck by sunlight, covered in vines, I find myself beside a river, beneath a hill, in the agricultural belly of France. It’s a rare opportunity to briefly live and work in this warm light, surrounded by a thousand kinds of patina. For a month I have a residency at Moulin à Nef in Auvillar. It is the French outpost of the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. VCCA is one of the midwives who delivered me into my current state as an artist. The opportunity to live and work in their community for the first time was a watershed. I am hoping that Moulin à Nef rolls over me in as powerful a way.

My studio is tall and wide with 6 foot windows and mottled walls stained a pale jade. I have suffered all the vagaries of travel in the last five days with canceled flights, lost luggage and bad rental car contracts. The first thing I plugged into an outlet blew a fuse and then I turned around and slipped on a throw rug. Five days after leaving home, I’m still wearing the same outfit, and trying to figure out how to be an artist in the absence of my materials. Somewhere in Boston, or maybe Madrid, there is a hard shell golf case filled with stretcher bars and canvas, and every color of the rainbow. And I am here, disjointed as though missing my beloved. Aimless and lost.

My son challenged me, upon saying goodbye, to pretend I was on Mars— to loose all the familiar bonds, including, he said, the bond to the self I know. I’m beginning to think that there is some divine plan at work to divorce me from my supplies and plunge me into some deeper mining. Yesterday I prowled the Super Marché for kids’ art supplies and came out with some too pale, too tiny markers and pencils. I spent the afternoon by the river making marks, pushing the inadequate materials to speak. It was a challenging and stimulating exercise with a kind of odd, fresh success.

My first night here, we residents and the directors enjoyed a two hour dinner talking about our lives as artists. I said something about how handy it can be to be creative, and how, as a teacher in secondary school, I discovered there was no budget for supplies so I taught my students to paint using discarded house paint donated by Lowes, on pieces of packing cardboard. The directors were in the midst of installing Ikea cabinets in a pantry, and set the packing cardboard aside to be recycled. I asked if I might have it to work with.

In the early hours of the morning I had a vivid dream. Long and elaborate, and completely remembered, it bore powerful images of home. Someone from my past came for a visit and spent the night, sleeping bolt upright in an armchair. In the studio that dream is feeling very close to the bone, and is being expressed in cardboard.

My favorite line, in all the poetry I have ever read, may be the line from Mary Oliver, “You do not have to be good.” Oh, really? What a relief. Words to live by.

As the first born southern daughter of a first born southern daughter going back seven generations of first born daughters, I have some deeply embedded notions about how good I must always be. So today, I revolt and cut cardboard at random, allow that it does not have to be good. If I am lucky I can reach inside and pull forward the mysteries of that dream.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Hanno Ahrens, 1954-2016

Swing, Boat, Table

What Hanno made of wood this year:
a swing, a boat, a table.

He doesn’t believe he’s made art this year;
the swing, the boat, the table

are objects he made to invite those he loves
to sit down.

Not objects people in rooms walk around,
regard in boredom or awe while locked at the knee–

a few vaguely yearning to float to the sea,
break bread with friends, rise through the air–

a few vaguely yearning–and not knowing why–
to sit in a tree.

                                    –Elizabeth Seydel Morgan

I remember Hanno Ahrens as larger than life: tall, commanding, and generous. He was a no-nonsense guy who lived large and his wood sculpture filled that large space. His work was also commanding, yet elegant, deeply in tune with its material, and perfectly proportioned. In “Swing, Boat, Table”, VCCA Fellow, poet Elizabeth Seydel Morgan captures the power of Hanno’s work. It spoke to us, even when we didn’t know we were listening.

I learned today that Hanno died last spring. I remember the many springtimes he drove up the hill at Mt. San Angelo in his truck, its bed full of tools and timber, ready to work in the studio. He came for a residency, but he also came to visit his daughter Dana who lived up the road in Charlottesville with her mother. Dana was the same age as my daughters, and Julia and Eleanor were Dana’s companions in the days before or near the end of Hanno’s residencies. The girls would play in the fields. They were the “nature girls” and Hanno was their guide.

Hanno built a beautiful boat by hand and sent the girls floating off on Sweet Briar Lake.  He dove into the water to grab a snapping turtle by its tail.  He filled his t-shirt with crawfish that he would later cook over an open fire. He ate seedpods off the coffey tree and once skinned a snake right before their wide eyes. 

After years of adventurous visits and four residencies at VCCA, Hanno and Dana moved to the wilds of Northern California and built a life there. Our communication was sporadic, but he still felt like a presence in my world. The note I received today immediately brought him closer than he’d been in years.  The world feels diminished now that I know he’s not in it.

-Sheila Gulley Pleasants

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Theresa Antonellis One Breath One Line

“I invented the one breath, one line method during my last year of graduate school,” says Theresa Antonellis referring to her unusual drawing process. “I wanted to find a way to synthesize everything I was thinking and learning before I started my MFA.” For many years prior, Theresa taught yoga and massage both of which involve a lot of breath work. Finding herself in the pressure cooker-environment of graduate school, she wanted to incorporate the two calming disciplines into her practice. That’s when she started experimenting with breath-generated mark making. “I was making marks based on the range of motion in my arm, and I came to settle on this very controlled one breath, one line and range of motion in the wrist or the arm plus the length of the drawing implement.“

At VCCA, Theresa was working on a series of line drawings made with a ballpoint pen and larger works made with oakgall ink on Japanese paper. The work shares an affinity, but the effect is quite different.  

The smaller works are tighter, more controlled. To produce them, Theresa starts at the center of the page, drawing lines from the top down. After four or five lines, she flips the image around and works in the opposite direction so that the drawing emanates from the center. Each line is made on the exhale. When she stops, she has to rest her pen to inhale and gather her focus. While she’s doing this, the ballpoint pen is resting on the page. A little puddle forms as the paper absorbs ink, creating a little dot at the end of each line. The visual embodiment of her technique, the dots tell us that’s where she paused to take her next breath. They also add a visually interesting flourish to the lines, both tempering and accenting their verticality.

Theresa has a set of rules that govern the drawings: the lines can’t touch, but they have to be as close together as possible and as straight as possible. Theresa is as interested in the resulting negative space as she is in the lines she draws. “I really enjoy that kind of white space that shows up between the lines and it becomes its own pattern. Every line is a reaction to the previous line and I feel like breath is like that. Every breath, while it may be the same length, is a reaction to the depth or the shallowness of the previous breath and the lines express that.

“During the process the pen will run into little imperfections in the paper, or my hand will express an imperfection in its range of motion and that shows up as a blip. I’ll accept that blip and I’ll continue and almost exaggerate it until it’s worked out of the image. I’ll push it out of the image much like one would massage a knot out of a muscle.“ This narrowing and widening of the space between the lines infuses the work with a rhythm and produces the effect of light and shadow.

Theresa uses the same spare language as Minimalism, but without the hermetic coolness of that genre. With the one breath, one line drawings, she has breathed soul into the work with the hand (and breath) of the artist clearly revealed.

The oakgall ink pieces involve the same approach. Because they’re bigger, instead of using just the range of motion in the wrist, she’s using the range of motion in the entire arm. “I dip the brush into the ink and make one full line on one exhale. They’re going to be as straight as possible, but there’s going to be some variation within them. And I copy that variation, so I allow that variation to be copied as I work it out.”

Made from crushed oakgalls, which are round nut-like growths that oak trees produce to protect themselves from the eggs of nonstinging wasps laid in their leaf stems. Oakgall ink dates back to the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages, it was used in illuminated manuscripts and many of our important civic documents were written in oakgall ink.

To make the ink, boiling water is poured over crushed oakgall and left to sit over night. The next day, ferrous sulfate is added causing a chemical reaction. (In ancient times they used rust or some bit of rusty hardware.) The solution is no longer a tea; it is now a permanent dye. Initially, the ink has a midnight blue, deep purple cast, which darkens as it ages. The addition of gum Arabic emulsifies the liquid making it less watery.

Like many Fellows, Theresa feels that one of the points of a residency is to experiment, to push yourself to do something you wouldn’t normally do, so she brought a set of colored pencils with her to VCCA. Using the pencils she created a series of freehand circles in grid, selecting the colors based on a random set of rules. She wanted to represent as many colors as possible, without automatically going for her favorite colors. She also made a second grid in more neutral hues. The work is her response to the intense focus that her line drawings require. Here, she’s not really focused on the breath, but on producing a perfect circle with the gestural mark—a discipline of a different sort.

“I’m very interested in perception, this breathable boundary between what we are thinking about inside and what shows up outside. So I’m drawing these circles, which look pretty perfect to me. I haven’t measured them with a compass. But, so what is perfect? Can I draw a perfect circle? No, but I can draw a nearly perfect circle and doing this makes me feel really good. I like the idea of drawing something that is physically in me and expressing that outwardly. And then there’s the idea of what does it take to perceive something? Some of these are barely coming off the page and others are much more delineated, much more detailed. I like the idea of the eye falling on the image and the moment it begins to see the image emerging from the page.”

When not working on her art, Theresa teaches art history at Slippery Rock University, Pennsylvania where she also runs the Martha Gault Art Gallery.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

O Taste and See: Writing the Senses in Deep France Workshop Open for Applicants!

What better place to write poetry than Southwest France? Auvillar is a jewel of a village, one of France’s “100 most beautiful villages.” Truly, there’s nothing that’s not poetry in our village. As the light strikes it, the Garonne changes its appearance every time you look. The food is unbeatable, the wine is superb, the people are friendly. Oh yes, we write some poetry, too! 

This is our 9th year and many of our poets have published the poetry they’ve written in the workshop. Afternoon demos in French cooking and photography add resonance to our workshop title, “O Taste and See: Writing the Senses in Deep France.” Workshop leader, Dr. Marilyn Kallet, Nancy Moore Goslee Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is the author of 17 books, including The Love That Moves Me, poetry from Black Widow Press. To contact Marilyn Kallet:

Friday, January 27, 2017

Etchings 2017

Attention Composers! 

Here’s your chance to work with composers Raphaël Cendo and Philippe Leroux and premiere a new work with the Ecce Ensemble. This year's Etchings program takes place from June 26th to July 3rd, 2017. For more information and to apply:

VCCA Fellow John Aylward, began the Etchings Festival in 2009, collaborating with VCCA at its Moulin à Nef Studio Center in Auvillar, France. VCCA's wish to have an international program that would further its mission of arts advocacy combined with John’s desire to create a positive environment for young emerging composers, where they would develop their craft through honest, frank interactions with each other. In a hyperactive Internet culture, it is more and more a unique experience to retreat to a quiet place to cultivate your art in a community of other passionate artists. To be influenced by such a community while being mentored by some of the great composers of our time and some of the best interpreters of modern music: that’s what the Etchings Festival provides.  

Concerts at the festival take place in a 14th Century chapel, renovated and acoustically sublime. The village of Auvillar is deeply invested in the arts, and villagers come from across the countryside to attend festival concerts. Auvillar is on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route and so often traveling pilgrims will attend festival events.

Participant composers meet each morning for private lessons and each afternoon for masterclasses where guests share their music and critique participant work. In the evening, the village is alive with activity; you can sample delicious food and wine from local vineyards. 

The fellows who study at Etchings come from around the world, traveling from as far as far away as Singapore and Argentina. The level of teaching is as high as any major international festival, but with the intimacy that allows for great attention and consideration to be given to each fellow. And fellows know they will receive an expert performance of their work: the ensemble rehearses each day with each fellow, resulting in stellar performances and lasting collaborations.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Goldfarb Family Fund Fellowship Recipient Mako Yoshikawa

This year’s Goldfarb Family Fund Fellowship recipient was acclaimed novelist and Emerson College creative writing professor Mako Yoshikawa, who has recently expanded her practice beyond fiction. Established in 2000 through the generosity of writer, literary agent and former VCCA Board member Ronald Goldfarb, the fund sponsors a fully funded two-week fellowship and is given annually to the top creative non-fiction applicant. This residency is awarded each year during the fall scheduling period.

While at VCCA, Mako worked on a memoir about her father. Begun shortly after his death in 2010, she has been working steadily on it ever since. She is now nearing the end, wrapping up the final chapter and about to begin the editing process.

“It has been a real journey to write such a personal piece and also to learn a new genre. Writing a memoir is such a different experience from writing novels. I like being accountable and having this emotional honesty.” While at VCCA, Mako met another Fellow, also from Cambridge, MA, at work on her own memoir. It turns out the two memoirs are very similar. “We’re both delving into family histories and we had many wonderful discussions. My father and mother were both Japanese—very Japanese. They moved to the U.S. in their twenties and a lot the memoir deals with race and nationality; the other Fellow, Dolores Johnson, is also writing about race. That was such an unexpected gift. Our conversations were so productive for my work." 

Mako’s father kept his Japanese passport and nationality all his life. “I think of my parents as accidental immigrants. Despite a stable and eminent position in the U.S., there was always this idea they would go back.” They did return when Mako was in second grade, but Mako and her mother and sisters all hated it and they came back to America after two years.

A brilliant physicist, Mako’s father was also bipolar. After a prestigious fellowship at MIT, he went on to teach and work at Princeton, the “temple of physics.” His field was fusion energy. According to Mako, it was a dream position. At the time, fusion energy seemed very plausible. Her father was a major figure in the field, but because of his mental condition, he alienated a lot of people. Eventually, his career, marriage to her mother and relationship with Mako and her sisters derailed. “It’s a really complicated story that I had wanted to write about for a really long time, but I couldn’t while he was alive.” Adding to the complication was the fact that after Mako’s parents divorced when Mako was a teenager, she rarely saw her father. They would occasionally exchange cards and once every five years or so they would meet. Her mother remarried and Mako became very close to her stepfather. When Mako got married in 2010, she wanted him rather than her biological father to walk her down the aisle. So she didn’t invite her father to the wedding. When he died the day before, she was filled with guilt.

At his memorial service, his colleagues talked about how wonderful he was citing his idealism, his generosity. “I felt stirred and proud and all those things and I also felt guilty about our relationship. I now believe they were whitewashing him in that way that one does in a eulogy. But hearing it, I thought I have to learn who my father is.”

Mako has written two novels One Hundred and One Ways (1999) and Once Removed (2003). For the first one, Mako drew on family history. “A lot of stories about my grandmother and my great-grandmother (whom I turned into my grandmother) in that novel, and my mother’s life too, are woven into the story. I’m writing about the same things in the memoir as well except of course without the veneer of 'fiction.' It's been interesting to revisit the same events in this other genre.”

Mako’s mother, to whom she is very close, is also a writer. She’s been very helpful, serving as a sounding board and corroborating facts. “Memory is unreliable and there is this kind of self-doubt that happens. My mother’s really great; she tells me all these family stories and she also says she doesn’t have to read the memoir, which is a relief because it’s hard to write about someone when you know they’re going to read it. I often send her things to check on so I think of it as a collaborative work.”

The process of exploring family history has been challenging. “Some of it’s been so painful. It’s been freeing too, but hard. And messy. I think I have a grasp on something that happened in the past and then I think more about it, it transmutes, transforming into something else and I realize I hadn’t really understood it.”

While working on the memoir Mako has published five essays. “This has been really helpful because I’ve gotten feedback and the essays have served to break the ice, which is crucial. You feel so vulnerable writing a memoir, recounting something that actually happened and where the “I” is actually me."

“Residencies are so valuable. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by people who want to do nothing more than work. There’s a great quote, I think it's usually attributed to Noel Coward: ‘Work is more fun than fun.’ Not many people think like that. Artists feel this way and it’s so inspiring to be surrounded by those sorts of people in a place that honors that and which makes it possible.”