By J. Matthew Thomas
Originally printed in Taos News, Thursday, May 13, 2021
Artist residencies: Be there now
Take a deep breath. Slowly inhale…one, two, three. Slowly exhale. Settle into your body. Now, I want you to imagine a time and space where you are free to be creative. If you had all the time and money you needed, where would you want to be to conceive that new series, start that new book, finish that painting?
The artist retreat, more formally called the artist residency, provides the space and time for artists to focus on their creative endeavors. For me, in a residency I’m able to give myself permission to just make art. Robbie Steinbach shares, “When you are at home, you get caught up in the daily whirl of housework, walking the dog, and having dinner with the family. While these may be good activities, they make it too easy to put art aside, especially if you are beginning new work that requires uninterrupted time in which to develop.”
The ability to shut off the outside world, to stop time and disappear into a studio may seem like an impossibility; but there are different ways to make that space and important things to consider in planning your escape.
Is it solitude you’re seeking? Or are you looking for social interaction and collaboration? Residencies come in all different shapes and sizes. In Taos, the Wurlitzer Foundation, one of the oldest residencies in the United States, has provided a space for artists to find solitude. Executive Director Nic Knight explained that Helene Wurlitzer wanted to “provide artists with an environment free from the distractions and responsibilities inherent in everyday life that often prevent them from accomplishing their creative goals.” The Wurlitzer’s three-month residency provides artists with a place to live and space to create. Artists are free to do whatever they wish; an artist can sleep the whole time if that is what is needed.
Compare that with the Vermont Studio Center. Getting my feet wet with my first residency experience, I was a little overwhelmed with the number of people (upwards of 50) and the amount of activities that were taking place, from nightly artists talks to regular studio visits. Taos-based artist Allan Packer, who has completed a number of residencies locally, as well as in France and Canada, enjoys the opportunity to meet other artists, who learn and grow from each other. “A community develops, particularly in the longer programs that provides a lifetime of dialogue between artists. A network is seeded that continues to grow producing opportunities to spread ideas and concepts of individuals and groups as a whole.”
The structure of residencies can vary as much as their location. In researching opportunities on platforms like Alliance of Artists Communities, Res Artis, or CaFÉ (Call for Entry), you’re asked to consider things like size, urban or rural locales, available tools and studio space, or if there is a form of public presentation expected of you.
Creating time and space for yourself is probably the No. 1 reason to attend a residency. “I seek out residencies to have an opportunity to have space where I can freely create my work,” explains local painter DeAnna Suazo. “With residencies, not only am I given space to compose my artwork, but I’m also given the opportunity to travel and explore different locations, to brainstorm ideas for new compositions, to continue researching topics related to my art practice and be inspired by my surroundings.”
And then there is the application process, which can be a daunting task. Each residency asks for something just a little different, so have both your short and long artist statement available; a broad selection of portfolio images; and some clear ideas for the goals of your stay. The folks at Herekeke Arts Center, in Lama, provided some advice for the application process: “There is so much out there. We are looking to see if you are understanding the environment we provide. Really read through what the residency is offering and see if there is a match.”
While you may have the privilege to take some time off from work and family, one can’t dismiss the financial costs. Andrea Hanley, chief curator at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, advises: “The costs of a residency includes whether there are fees required, but also direct costs to you including meals, materials, and transportation.” Hanley continues, “Consider indirect costs as well, like your loss of income, or whether you’re maintaining a home while you are a way. Most artists I’ve talked to ask where they can go for free. My short answer is nothing is free. Any residency will cost you something as an individual.”
Applications, schedules, costs… you may be asking yourself, can’t I just sit here in my studio and make some art? We do live in a place that artists travel to for their retreats. There is nothing stopping you from creating your own.
Zoe Zimmerman, a local photographer, offers up this parting thought: “I have been tempted by artist residencies, but on further thought I ask myself, what do they provide? Studio space, uninterrupted time to work, a beautiful setting, other artists to engage with. That sounds much like my basic paradigm in Taos. My life is what I covet: a nonstop artist’s residency.”
Matthew Thomas is an artist, architect, curator, and executive director of The Paseo Project. His residencies include Arteles, Santa Fe Art Institute, Art Farm, StudioWorks/Tides Institute, and a long weekend in his studio.