Time, Company, and Creativity
Attending an artist residency as a Solo Mom
The best part of my first (and so far, only) writing retreat was the pickles. Elizabeth, Molly, and the pickles.
Afternoons before I had to report to the dining hall and help with serving, and after most of the day staring at a computer screen—clicking, erasing, and pacing—was over, the pair of women writers and I would meet. There were two bars in the tiny town: one was a wings place, and the other was a pizza place. We preferred the wings place and their happy hour special of fried pickles.
It was March in Vermont, but it was not spring. We wore boots crusted with two solid inches of salt, the river was frozen, and the windows of the wings place would steam over as we sat inside, talking of writing books, finishing projects—and about our lives.
We were writers, but we were also wives (Molly and Elizabeth) and moms (Elizabeth) and Solo Moms (me). We had met and we were able to meet every day for two weeks because of a residency for writers and artists: the Vermont Studio Center (VSC) had brought us together.
Nestled in the tiny, former mill town of Johnson, Vermont, VSC is one of the largest residencies for writers and visual artists. Visual artists outnumber the writers and there are more facilities for the making of visual art—a print shop, sculpture building, and studio after studio with slanted light—while there is only one comfortable and quiet river-view building for the writers.
But I chose VSC for my residency specifically because I wanted to meet these visual artists. Painting, especially street art, is a huge influence on my writing (my next book, a novella called The Protectors, has a graffiti artist character). I’m always most inspired by people creating different kinds of work.
That’s one of the reasons to do a residency: not just for the time to create—though we know, as Solo Moms, how huge and precious the gift of time is and how rare it is to have uninterrupted time—but also to meet other creators.
I had already made my own retreat of sorts. After dropping my son off with his father for a holiday visit last year, I decided to stop overnight in a new place. Maybe the change of scenery would help me transition to my brief alone time, I thought. I booked a hotel, cheaply at the last minute. And I did get a lot of writing done—in fact, I wrote most of The Protectors there.
But I was alone; and it was lonely.
At my residency at VSC, I was alone a lot too—alone in my writing studio and at night in my beautiful bedroom with bay windows and piles of cozy quilts. But I was also surrounded by people when I chose to be: primarily other women, other moms. We chatted about our creative work, always. But we also had serious discussions about the unique challenges of fitting our work in around family, of succeeding despite sexism and unsupportive or absent partners.
I chose my residency for the other artists—and for the location. I had attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, and felt renewed and centered by the mountains; that’s a landscape that feeds my creativity.
But there are also residencies in the woods, the hills of Upstate New York, and on working cattle ranches.
Most artists’ and writers’ residencies require an application fee, even for scholarships, and this can be prohibitive. VSC offers more than 100 scholarships, including one for women writers before their first book (this scholarship actually includes a child-care stipend), as well as work-study, which is what I did, serving in the kitchen part-time. I loved the work, and I made some close friends in the kitchen. While almost all residencies offer some scholarships or work-study, these can be quite competitive.
Some residencies are inflexible with time, with many lasting a month. That’s difficult for a parent to do, especially a Solo Mom. VSC is one of a handful of programs that are sensitive to this and began offering two-week residencies, as one staff member explained to me, specifically to allow parent-artists to attend. And, in fact, all of the short-term residents I met at my residency were parents (or about to be—one painter had a baby on the way).
More residencies started to recognize that you don’t stop being an artist when you become a parent (some artists, myself included, believe your work gets better—more urgent). Hedgebrook is extremely notable in this regard. A residency only for women, the program even does the laundry of participants, believing all their time should be devoted to the making of art.
Only one residency that I came across in my research, The Santa Fe Art Institute allows participants to bring their families with them. But one writer is trying to change that. Kelly Morse, a poet, nonfiction writer, and mom, is working on a creating a residency for parents only, where participants can bring their children and benefit from on-site day care. Right now, it’s just a dream in the early stages of planning.
But if anyone can make it work, and make it work in the face of incredible odds, it’s a mom.
And here’s a great post with more advice about how and why to do a residency as a mother. Wishing you the time and space to create.
Alison Stine, ESME’s Showcase Writing Curator, is the author of the young-adult novel Supervision, three books of poetry, and numerous essays. A Solo Mom, she lives with her son in the foothills of Appalachia. You can follow her on Twitter at @AlisonStine.
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