Behind Every Strong… Arts Colony

By Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

“It’s like… it’s like,” I said to my faraway friend over our crackling cell phone connection, struggling to find a succinct way to describe what my life had been like since I’d left Boston. Then the answer struck me. “It’s like having an old-fashioned wife.”

For two weeks, someone else had cooked my meals, cleaned my room, and provided me with a beautiful studio nestled deep in the woods. I had no chores, no daily tasks, none of the small responsibilities that distract me from writing at home, even without children. My only job—similar, I imagine, to that of the long-ago cloistered intellectual husband who would retire to his warm-wooded study to think and work while his wife tended to the household—was to think, and dream, and write. And I still had three weeks left to go.

I was at an arts colony, a place where writers and other artists come to leave their daily lives behind and focus simply on the work of creation. There are more such places in the United States than you might think, and it turns out that women are responsible for creating many of them. The MacDowell Colony, the very first colony in the United States and the one arguably credited with the popularity of the model, was founded by Marion MacDowell, who fought to provide her husband, the composer Edward MacDowell, with time to work. She built him a private studio in the woods and brought him lunch each day in a picnic basket, leaving it discretely at the studio door so as not to interrupt his work. Over a hundred years later, the Colony still retains the tradition of the lunch basket slid across the studio doorstep so the artist may work uninterrupted, as Marion intended.

The poet Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s sister, Norma Millay Ellis, turned Edna’s estate into a colony after her death. Mary Lee Crovatt established Hambridge to honor her artist husband’s memory. The poet Alice Judson Hayes created the Ragdale Foundation, an arts colony in Illinois. The wife of financier Spencer Trask, Katrina Trask, was instrumental in turning their New York country estate into Yaddo after their children’s death. And Hedgebrook, a colony on a small island off the coast of Washington state, was founded by not one but two women, who devoted the colony they created strictly to supporting the work of women—women who might ordinarily be supporting the needs of husbands and children.

Maybe, I’ve come to think, it took women to understand the need to provide artists a chance to get away from life because it’s women who’ve historically been most silenced from their work by life, expected to tend to the small daily demands life brings. Tillie Olsen, a writer who herself didn’t turn to writing and publishing in full stride until her mid-forties, when her children were grown, observed this silencing with eloquence and urgency in a 1962 essay appropriately titled “Silences,” published in abbreviated form in Harper’s in 1965 and now in a reprinted essay collection that shares its title with the essay. “In the twenty years I bore and reared my children,” she wrote, “ [and] usually had to work on a paid job as well, the simplest circumstances for creation did not exist.”

A gift of uninterrupted months to write (courtesy of an arts foundation) brought Olsen back to the page and brought all of us the gift of the story-worlds she created. More organizations now exist to provide this kind of time, and while it can be hard to get away, there are often creative solutions that can help. For women and men, too, writers who wish for uninterrupted time to work, here are a few tips and things to consider:

  • If you can get the time off from work, don’t assume money will preclude you from going. Grants do exist and may defray lost wages, travels costs, or additional childcare. Look for resources like The Barbara Deming Fund (no website, but an online search will bring you to the address to write to for an application), which provides grants to women writers, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which specifically supports writers with families. Check the archives of Mira’s List, a reliable source of funding opportunities for artists of all types, to find more.

  • Another option is to see if a colony located near your home will let you work out a part-time stay. I know anecdotally of at least two writers who did this, visiting their families twice a week during their residencies, and I know of many more who’ve left briefly to teach. It’s not unheard of and it never hurts to ask—ideally before you apply. Also, don’t forget that while some colonies operate on one-month stays, many others allow for stays of as short as two weeks or even just one week. Figure out what’s doable for your family and your work life. Res Artis and the Alliance of Artists Communities  are good places to start researching colonies. Check the archives of Mira’s List (link above) and the Poets & Writers conference and residency classifieds, too.

  • In general (and as you’d expect), fully funded colonies are more competitive to get into than ones that charge a per diem, and the summer (when many academics are on break) is the most competitive season. But even colonies that aren’t fully funded are heavily subsidized. If you afford to pay the nominal fee, don’t rule them out.

  • When writing your application, don’t forget about the personal statement. The written work is paramount, of course, and it should be as strong as you can make it. But that’s a given—like telling a pole vaulter she should jump high. The reality is that your sample of strong writing is going to go up against other examples of strong writing, and at the end of the day, the statement in which you explain to the committee why your work matters and what you’d do with the gift of time may help sway them in your favor. Don’t skimp on this.

  • And, finally, when you do get into a colony, here’s the single most useful piece of advice anyone at a colony has ever given me, courtesy of a veteran during my very first stay: Understand that there will be an adjustment period as your subconscious slowly stretches to take in this new workspace and all this new time. Relax. Trust yourself. The words will come.

About the Author See other articles by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich
by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

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