Origami Artists, Figure Drawing Class, and Karaoke: The Art of Getting of Into Writing Residences by Kathleen Willard

I am writing this at the Vermont Studio Center, an artist/writer’s residency in Johnson, Vermont. For the last month, I have been focusing on my artistic life and my writing life without the turbulence or disturbance of the world I normally occupy. I have told my extended family I am on radio silence, off the grid, and whatever issues are swirling around the outside world are not important to me for the month of April.

I admit it—I am being selfish during my month long residency at Vermont Studio Center. I am out of communication with everyone except my husband, as he is left alone to keep the home fires burning. My husband, Stephen, always encourages me to take flight and leave the quiet of my studio. His satisfaction is that every time I leave Fort Collins,  I return home with manuscripts edited, many new poems written and the writing community I build on the road. He loves that I am energized, on fire and newly engaged in my poetry.

From attending residencies, I have fashioned an online community of artists and writers from New York, New Mexico, Vermont, California, and South Carolina that sustain me as a poet. We have gone on retreats, organized a reunions in New York City, San Diego and Santa Fe. I have traveled to the Azores to visit a new friend and organized a writing workshop on a blog called the Barrio Alto Review. We stay in touch and keep track of each other’s writing and personal lives.

During my first residency in 2013 at Vermont Studio Center, I connected with artist Sarah Nolan, who created a series of mixed media pieces of monsters based on my series of end-of-days poetry written at a furious and rather scary pace. Sarah and I would talk at meals about what we were doing in our studios, and both became wildly inspired by each other’s work. We had an art show at The Red Mill Dining Hall at VSC featuring my poetry and her artistic response with a series of over the top mixed media pieces. It was my first art show. We are continuing our art/poetry collaborations and I will visit her in New York this fall.

At that same residency, I met Ross Chaney, artist and Sundance Native Film Producing Fellow. I am part of his team and we are working on a short coming-of–age film currently titled Severe Storm Warning depicting his childhood on the Osage Reservation and have plans to work on a feature film. Ross challenged me to write the screenplay like a poem, a request that unnerved me.

I first wrote a series of narrative poems, and during my April 2015 Vermont Studio Center residency, I completed the screenplay. This is my first ever screenplay and I am excited to know that it will become a film. I am now a producer of this film and we plan on shooting in July 2016. None of these connections or projects would have been possible if I stayed at home and worked in my studio.

For my April 2015 residency, I attend the Figure Drawing class on a regular basis, drawing both from male and female models. This is my first-ever drawing experience. From attending these sessions, I have filled one and half sketchbooks with drawings and written many love poems to my husband, as I miss his particular figure. In addition to the screenplay, I have written many other poems and figured out how to re-order the poems in my manuscript, World With End, as it is currently titled. I incited the entire community to write haiku for International Haiku Day, and displayed 60 haiku during Open Studio. Open Studio nights are magical nights when all artists open their studios so we can see what has been created. In April, the writers joined this tradition as the artists were curious about our process.

Residencies are all about face-to-face communication with like-minded people. Sixty artists and writers are in residence in this very small Johnson, Vermont town each month. We are from all over the United States and the world. We would never have crossed paths unless we came to Vermont Studio Center. We each have our own room and writing or art studio and are principally here to engage in the production of our own work, but community meals insure that we will talk to each other, inspire each other and awe each other.

As we share our work, a magic community forms. Vermont Studio Center mimics the Johnson Woolen Mills, a textile factory has been making red and black plaid outdoor gear since 1842 in Johnson, Vermont.  Vermont Studio Center occupies many historic mill buildings and other structures. The artists and writers at Vermont Studio Center are the new factory workers and our product is art and writing.

The production of writing and art goes on around the clock. I have been up at dawn writing this essay and last night, lights were on at the art studios past 3 A.M. At 5 A.M, someone stirs upstairs to get to the studio. I work the morning shift, eat an early breakfast and off to the studio. Others are nocturnal and work all night long.

We do step away from our work to have fun. We have had tea parties hosted by South Korean origami artist Sok, Song, bonfires despite the freezing cold  and snowy weather, rousting karaoke sessions on Saturdays at the Downtown Bar in Johnson and dancing till 2 A.M., mad thrift shopping excursions at the local church, buying lots of poetry and art books from the fabulous bookstore Ebenezer Books,  antiquing (I bought egg cups shaped like a duck and a rabbit and an album of tintypes, which I think is from one family), maple sugar tasting and maple sugar purchasing and impromptu field trips to Burlington, to hardware stores for art supplies, or to the Bread and Puppet Theatre Museum.

I am making a shout out to all women writers to pursue time away from their normal lives, to apply to a residency, and to experience the luxury of writing at all hours of the day, of being so productive that is borders on mania, of  being in a place that will put them into an incredible mode of production. When you finally pack up your computer and go home, you will realize this uninterrupted block of time has allowed you to produce an abundance of work you could have never completed in the middle of your very busy life. Your family will survive your absence and you will be nourished as a writer in brave new ways.

All women’s articles end with how to advice. So,

How To Apply for a Residency: 

  • Do research and find a residency that fits your personality. There are many. Check out Poets and Writers Magazine for listings. The most comprehensive list of residencies can be found on the following websites: Transarts and ResArtis. Google them. Read the entries carefully because some of the residencies seem more like advertisements for bed and breakfasts with artists as their target market. Read between the lines.
  • Many residencies are no cost to the writer, but many charge for the residency.
  • Make a list of residencies you wish to attend and the deadlines for submission. Download their applications and study them.
  • Work on the applications long before the deadlines as they ask for samples of your work, an artist statement, a plan of what you hope to accomplish while in residence and letters of recommendation. This work is hard to complete at the last minute.
  • Don’t be scared off by the cost of the residencies. Many have fellowships, scholarships and work-study opportunities to help pay for or defray costs.
  • Start an artist residency fund like our foremothers who squirreled away pin money or egg money so that when you do get accepted, you are prepared. Call the fund the Egg Money Artist Residency Fund after all those farm woman who hoarded the funds made from tending their flocks of chickens
  • Grant write. Explore this mostly untapped resource. This also requires advanced research and writing.
  • Crowdfund. Many artists at Vermont Studio Center launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to pay for their residency. Kickstarter funds artist/writers projects and they make the process easy to do. There are other crowdfunding sites. Do a quick Google search, roll up your sleeves and begin.
  • Apply for the Colorado Creative Industries Career Advancement Award. They help fund competitive residencies, will send you to a conference to give a paper, and help you develop your writing career. I am at Vermont Studio Center this April because of this grant, and my career is thriving in incredible and unpredictable ways.
  • When you finally arrive at your residency, expect to do more work than you ever imagined. You will be wildly inspired and nurtured. You will meet people who understand the struggles and the joys of being creative. I recently asked an artist who attended a two-week session at VSC about her experience. She said, “In two weeks, I completed two months’ worth of work.” And now that I am home, rested, sleeping normally, I would have to say she is correct. In one month, I completed four months’ worth of work. You do the math. Residencies are worth it.
  • Send me a post card if you do get into a writer’s residency at 1114 W. Mountain Avenue, Fort Collins, CO 80521. I will be curious about your work and the time you bravely carved out for yourself and your writing.
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