Friday, May 8, 2009

Flopping around

I'm hoping to apply for an arts residency next year, which is a bit like the art equivalent of a retreat: one goes to a different place which may be more or less well equipped for your particular arts practice in the hope that the experience of 'difference' will inspire one to new heights of artistic achievement. And in the way of spiritual/religious retreats, arts residencies come with different levels of external involvement. Places such as Penland in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, USA provide full workshop facilities and a thriving community of artists and students where residents come for years at a time to develop their skills and be inspired by the people and the landscape. Other residencies may offer little more than basic accommodation and may be so solitary that the resident artist sees no-one else for the duration of their stay.

I've been on what you might loosely term 'spiritual' residencies in the sense that I was once a regular visitor to Marygate on Lindisfarne, off the Northumberland coast of north eastern England. I started going in my early 20's because I knew a woman called Deb who was training to be an Anglican chaplain and she used to go and thought it would be good for me, too. The first couple of times I went I stayed in Marygate House, which was a communal house but thereafter I stayed at Cambridge House and took silent retreats. My days were spent thinking and walking around the island, and building paths by hauling shingles up from the beach and laying them - my way of paying for my stay as I had no actual money.

I look back on my stays there with great affection. I was at once needy and wary, and it was great being held to the heart of a community of people with whom I had no kinship and yet who cared about me, while at the same time being free to do whatever it was I needed to do. At the same time I found it very confrontational in that I was left to be with myself, which wasn't always easy. And that's the thing: I need a lot of personal space but at the same time I find it quite difficult to be alone with myself.

I'm remembering this at the moment because my dearly beloved husband is away - for only a short time, this time - and I'm finding it hard to get into my work! Partly there's residual tiredness from a couple of weeks of fighting off the germs that are thriving in the condusive atmosphere of the new term at school and the temperature changes of this time of year. Partly there's a lot of residual mess that's silted up around the house during a couple of heavy weeks of hard work. And partly it's because of the unaccustomed silences in the house: I crave silence, peace and quiet when everyone's around but if you leave me alone I get twitchy! It's good to remind myself that this is what I do: it's not new, I've seen it before, I know what to do... and that is to ignore the silence and get on with things; make plans and don't get swallowed up by the spaces in between things. So I've made a list of art-related challenges, resolved to ignore the mess and not waste time tidying things up, and decided to get to bed early tonight! On that note, bon nuit et dormez-bien.


  1. Funny you wrote about retreats. I've been thinking about just that very thing this week. A couple of times, during summer break, I attended an art teacher's retreat in the Blue Ridge Mntns. of Virginia. It was absolutely the best experience I have ever had as an artist. What absolute joy to just plunge into our work and not have to worry about any of the peripherals of life. I've been looking around on the internet trying to find something similar for a week this summer. I may end up renting a cabin for a week alone. Anyway, good luck with your quest. If you do this, I want to hear all the details. jan

  2. Yes, this is an interesting business, this need for large amounts of personal space and then the anxiety being alone creates. I've always felt that I was not a true loner and neither am I a true "people person". I'm lucky my partner is similar, as was my father, so I can see how it works for others.
    On the subject of artists residencies, I always remember one of my lecturers saying that you go in to them thinking they're going to be about making art, but really they are about being alone in an unfamiliar place. I was amazed and delighted to find out that others found the experience as challenging as I did.
    Looking forward to hearing what type of residency you decide to go for.


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