As I ramble down the one-lane road toward Highway 29 in Amherst, Virginia, it is impossible to miss the sign "the real world" - simple lettering on a blue cloud background, perhaps painted by one of the many artists-in-residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. This is my third artist residency , the previous two in Kentucky and Georgia; each a unique experience. How so?
Here at VCCA there are an average of 30 artists-in-residence at a time; private rooms with shared bath are in a 1970s-era dormitory that also houses communal spaces and the dining room where two of three meals are served. Lunch is conveyed to a kitchen in the Normandy-style barn that has numerous studios so that fellows - as the artists-in-residence are referred to - barely need to interrupt the day's work. Each studio is outfitted with a bed for naps or overnight sleeping or creative musing. To say that I am spoiled after 10 days here is an understatement.
What is common to each residency is the tradition of leaving one's autograph on a studio wall or door frame. Here at VCCA, I overhear one fellow effusing about her assignment to the studio where Cheryl Strayed once sat and wrote. In my studio, VA9, it appears that installation artist Bryant Holsenbeck was the latest occupant in July 2016, but I count no less than 58 names dating to 2010 on the door frame. Later, I discover a wall ledge in the back of the studio where I glimpse behind a section of peeling white paper yet more autographs. The accretion of artistic energy is palpable in all 500 square feet, from the skylight to the paint-dappled floor, and as of October 4, 2016, there are now 59 signatures on the door frame of VA9.
Writers and visual artists alike make each studio their own: moving furniture, orienting a desk toward the east or west, taping protective plastic to the walls. For VA9, it is an uncluttering in order to create space for a new Japanese-paper immersive installation, "Refugium: lily pad." But it is premature to assign a title to this work. I have come here to explore the lily pad, to see where it takes me. Long hours in the studio behind closed doors - fellows may only enter upon invitation - without daily distractions and with the support of the VCCA staff, are the perfect ingredients for a productive and insightful experience.
And then there are the evenings. On the night of the first presidential debate, all of the fellows gather around the sole TV set. night two poets, Lara Payne and Hilde Weisert, give a reading in the studio of visual artist Miriam Morsel Nathan. night a hallway is transformed into a salon with readings by two fiction writers, followed by a performance by a music theorist. evening is an unplanned event - a tornado warning forcing the fellows and staff to congregate in the dormitory's basement, followed with another reading by two fiction writers and a poet. I am introduced to new terminology: conflation, and epigenetics. With the ebb and flow of artists-in-residence arriving and departing (some from as far away as Germany and Austria), there is no lack of stimulation.
By week's end, my one-layer lily pads are now two-layered and suspended cloud-like from the overhead fishnet armature. Other suspended lily pads hover above the floor in small clusters. The open studio windows provide just the right amount of subtle air movement; the lily pads rotate in constant slow motion. During the afternoon hours on Monday, October 3, there is a steady flow of fellows and VCCA staff arriving at VA9 (at my invitation) to experience the installation. Down the hall in VA7, painter Janet Burke has also opened wide her studio doors. Among the responses to "Refugium: lily pad" are: "It's like being under water and on top of the water," "It's like walking a labyrinth," and "It's like being in a dream." Perhaps my favorite response is from a German artist (in his language the lily pad is called a "sea rose") who purses his lips and throws an air kiss toward the installation: "The aesthetic is just right."
My artist residency at VCCA is just right. The bucolic Virginia countryside, the artistic camaraderie, and the lily pad have all taken me to a new place. morning, October 4, with a gentle sigh, I prepare to re-enter the "real world" as my car rattles over the cow grate - the sound signaling a return to life as I knew it before entering the grounds of VCCA. And yet anew.