Get Thee to an Artist Residency! Advice from an “Expert”

I’m an artist residency whore. My friends know this and I am not ashamed. I hope to continue my whoring ways until the day I die, that’s how fond of the residency experience I am.

Residencies come in all shapes and sizes. Some limit whom they accept (Hedgebrook is for women writers, for example) but most welcome all artists, at all stages of their careers, and several are open to academics and scientists as well. Some are more like vacation spots and require that you pay to attend, others politely suggest you make a nominal contribution, many are a free ride and some may  grant you a travel or hardship stipend. Some residencies are designed so that you’re roughing it in the great outdoors and some pamper you to no end. Most are somewhere in between.

At some places you have to cook and shop for yourself, at others you have a master chef making every meal for you and staff serving it to you. And again, some places are somewhere in between. I’m writing this at Playa Summer Lake Artist Residency, where they cook one dinner a week for the residents and offer an often filling snack-meal at 5pm Tuesday through Friday, and the rest of the meals you make yourself. However, Playa maintains an impressively stocked pantry that invites pillaging by hungry artists. It’s full of organic goodies, local produce, some healthy already prepared food, and fresh eggs laid by their own chickens. (I had some of these for lunch the other day and boy were they delicious.) You don’t have to leave the compound to shop for food.

“David,” I can hear you saying, “food, I get it. Give me another good reason to apply to one of these places?”

Jeez, you’re impatient! Okay, here are ten reasons.

You need to focus on your work.
My studio at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, 2009

These places offer distractionless time. It’s not like my life is ordinarily that complicated, but even so, it is full of mundane stuff that causes stress and sucks up time I’d rather use making stuff. At a residency, you just need to think about whatever project you’re working on. Sometimes you have to think about what to make for dinner, but that’s not so bad.

You need to get off the Internet.

Most residencies have limited Internet access, and though this sometimes seems inconvenient while you’re there, it’s a godsend. Honestly, there’s no reason for me to be on the Internet for more than an hour a day. But at home, I squander a lot of time online doing who knows what.

You need to stop watching cable/Hulu/YouTube/Netflix streaming, etc.

Take a break from all that visual and aural stimulation. I find I read more at these places. I will also just sit in a chair and think, something I rarely seem to do in my real life. Curiously, at this residency, I’m not listening to much music.

You need to meet some interesting and exciting people.

If you like having artists as friends, then go, go, go. Oh sure, there will probably be someone there you’d like to punch in the head, and sometimes there are pissing contests, but mostly the people are generous, accepting, and supportive.

My studio at the MacDowell Colony, 2010.
You need to get into nature.

Most residencies are nestled in a spectacular natural setting. Do your thing, have some lunch, go for hike, go back to doing your thing. Sounds like a great day, right? I find I fall into a circadian rhythm at these places, going to sleep earlier and waking up earlier. This morning I watched the sunrise. At one point I was becoming impatient: it was pretty and all, but I was ready for the big guy to come up from behind the mountain. “Come on, already!” I thought. And then I laughed at how absurd that was. I can’t rush the sun, I relearned. I think when we’re in our hyperhectic real lives, we forget how to laugh at our absurdities. Being in nature has a way of putting us in place.

You need some new stimulating reading, viewing, listening material.

Sitting around with your fellow residents, discussions will arise that reference books, films, paintings, music, etc., that are unfamiliar to you. You will come away with a nice list of art to explore.

You need to be in a safe place where you can do something out of your comfort zone.

Before I went to a residency, I never played guitar for anyone. Encouraged by my people, I took part in a music salon night, and there’s been no turning back. Here at Playa, I may write a poem. I’m also growing a beard. (Actually, it’s more like I’m not shaving.)

You need to shake your groove thing.

Big art studios + night time = dance parties. Though this is also largely dependent on the group you’re with, should they occur be prepared to work it on out doing the twist, the funky chicken, the robot and whatever else your body tells you to do.

You need some romance in your life.

I’ve heard this happens sometimes.

You need to add a line on your CV.

Some residencies look better on your resume than others, and I’m not sure how impressive even those look, but it doesn’t hurt when you’re applying for grants or other residencies.

You need to step up your table tennis game.

Ping pong is a staple at artist residencies. I find after a game or ten I’m re-focused and ready to go back to work.

And what if you’re not an artist? Well then make some stuff and apply. What are you waiting for?

Questions? Comments?

Some places to find out about artist residencies:



[Cross posted on]

The Year in Review, Part 2

What were the most viewed posts on the A Life’s Work blog? Glad you asked.

The list is a little misleading, because some posts have been up for a lot longer than others, and so naturally will have more views. Still, a few posts are telling, like 2 and 13,  which lit up the stats because they were so timely.

  1. Paolo Soleri at Dome House: A Clip
  2. “The definition of life has just expanded”
  3. Unquantifiability of a Place, Part 1: A Clip
  4. The Redwoods: A Longer Clip
  5. Images from the MacDowell Colony
  6. It Was 50 Years Ago Today: A Clip
  7. This Post Is For You, Gearheads! (by Andy Bowley)
  8. Hardest/Easiest Work Environments So Far in 2010 (by Andy Bowley)
  9. Thank You
  10. About the Filmmaker
  11. Mike Disfarmer and A Life’s Work
  12. 10 Ways to Support A Life’s Work
  13. Top 10 Gospel Christmas Songs (by Robert Darden)
  14. Sunset and Sunrise in Arcosanti, AZ: 24 Hours Amidst a Sea of Arcology (by Niall David)
  15. SETI’s Jill Tarter on Gender Bias in the 1950s: A Clip

Apparently, you like clips (1, 3, 4, 6, 15) and you like guest bloggers (7, 8, 13, 14). You also like to be thanked or you like to Google names (9) and you like photos taken at a mysterious artist residency (5).

Why should you care? Because I want to make this blog an interesting experience for you, Dear Reader. And this is one way of figuring out how to do that. But the best way is if you actually tell me. So go ahead, tell me! What do you like? What would you like to see more of? Less of? What would you like that isn’t up there?

And what were my favorite posts? Well, they’re all my children, so I don’t have favorites. But I would add to the above list these (in no particular order):

I like guest bloggers, too (2, 4, 5, and 6). If you’d like to be one, contact me and we’ll work something out.

I also like posts that generate comments, whether that’s on the blog or Facebook or my personal e-mail. So drop me a line.

And Happy New Year. All the best to you and yours in 2011.

The Year in Review, Part 1

I took the advice of my friend Jenn Chen and reflected on 2010. Here then, with a focus on A Life’s Work, the year’s accomplishments.

February and March: Worked on the film at The MacDowell Colony.
April: Shot follow-up interview with Robert Darden in Waco, Texas.
June: Footage from A Life’s Work shown at World Science Festival.
July: Shot follow-up interview with Paolo Soleri.
August: Shot Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains, California. Production over!
September: Worked on the film at Blue Mountain Center; A Life’s Work at Independent Film Project.

And then there were the grant proposals submitted, and 111 posts written for the blog and the cajoling of the guest bloggers who wrote 11 awesome posts.

Had you told me at the end of 2009 this was what I was going to get done in 2010, I would have laughed in your general direction.

I recommend this reflection exercise. (Looking back is only half of it, you also look forward. Visit Jenn’s blog, Typecraft, for the whole magilla.) I found it put the past year in perspective and made me realize that I can get a lot done in the coming one.

Happy Birthday, Blog!

On June 20, 2009, I uploaded the first post on this blog.

Highlights since then? Interviewed the fourth subject twice. Incorporated him into the sample at VCCA,  laid out the framework for the rest of the film at the MacDowell Colony.

Highlights on the blog? Great comments from you, readers! Especially nice to read comments from Jill Tarter of SETI and Robert Darden of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. A wonderful exchange on the value of artist residencies with Suny Monk, Executive Director of VCCA. Big gold stars to frequent commenters Haroon Butt and Jane Waggoner Deschner. Two contests, two separate winners.

I’m looking forward to the upcoming year and the exciting events and the posts they will inspire. Some things to look forward to: at least two more contests, more reports from another artist residency (thank you, BMC), a conversation/interview with another documentary filmmaker, and  guest bloggers. (If you’re interested in writing a post, contact me. The only condition is it has to be related to A Life’s Work in some way, thematically or to the subjects. E-mail me; I’m sure we can come up with something.)

So, to quote a notorious New York City mayor, “How am I doing?” What would you like to see here? What would you like to see more of, or less of? What can I do better? Seriously, tell me.

The Stats
Posts (including this one): 98.
Comments: 165
Video from A Life’s Work: 25 minutes and 42 seconds. That’s 1,542 seconds, or 36,971 frames.
Spams vaporized: 1,242
Total Views: 3,563*
Badly bruised finger tips: 1

* This does not include the first month of the blog’s existence, when it was at a different URL.

Photo: The filmmaker’s eldest brother, Joe, and their father, Jersey Joe, celebrating Joe’s fourth birthday. Taken by unknown, 1956.

A Filmmaker’s Progress

MacDowell Colony

My residency at the MacDowell Colony ended March 19. So did I accomplish what I had hoped to accomplish?

My worn out map of the MacDowell Colony.

Yes and no. I selected the sit down content for the remaining two-thirds of the film. I erred on the long side, including whatever I thought may be used even if it was redundant, and I didn’t do much fine cutting. I read through the transcripts of these selex (don’t ask me why editors spell it this way, they just do) and jotted down an image wish list. Mostly this list was based on my first impression—or rather, my first impression in this context; I’ve read the entire transcript many times but not as an edited entity. (They are very different experiences.) I did spend more time on the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project sections because shooting resumes in Waco, TX soon.

What I did not do is weave the storylines together. That’s a colossal task, since the options are practically infinite. If I had two more weeks I would have started down this road.

Other work: revised a couple of short stories. Made a conceptual piece of art and accompanying video that was won by a reader of this blog, and yes, honed my skills in the sport of kings, ping pong. I was frequently trounced by Yotam, Jerome, Alex, and Matt, but managed to hold my own against the rest. My doubles record was much more impressive than singles.

Big giant thanks to everyone at MacDowell–staff and artists–for their support. It was because of you that I had a productive and unforgettable six weeks.

Music, or How to Stay Sane in the Studio

It’s easy to go batty when you spend day after day holed up in the studio. I’m not complaining, it’s a great problem to have, but I definitely need to make time in my day to do something other than work. When I’m stuck, or when I want to break up the monotony, or when I want to procrastinate, I pick up my guitar for a few minutes. It’s a wonderful reset button.

Here’s what’s been on heavy rotation in my studio at the MacDowell Colony:

My guitar makes itself at home in the MacDowell Colony’s New Hampshire studio.

Bowie, Ziggy Stardust and Rebel Rebel (bossa, Seu Jorge version)

Galaxie 500, Oblivious and Tugboat

Jens Lekman, Tram No. 7 to Heaven

Neil Young, Cinnamon Girl and Cortez the Killer

Beatles, Every Little Thing

Villa Lobos, Prelude Nos. 2, 3, & 4

Satie, Gymnopedies No. 1

Tarrega, Lagrima and Adelita

Logy, Partita A-moll

(You can hear me playing some of the classical pieces on the Music page.)

I’ve also fallen in with a few musicians, Alex the nonfiction writing uke player, Cindy the painter banjo player, and Christian the poet guitarist. We play mostly old school country. I kind of follow.

(Cover photo by Peter LaMastro.)

We Have a Winner!

Congratulations to Haroon B. for correctly answering the four questions. He wins snowball, an original work of art and an accompanying film, both by me.

Here are the answers.

1. “The impossible just takes longer.”  David Milarch after the redwood expedition.
2. Frank Lloyd Wright liked the floor of Paolo Soleri’s Dome House.
3. Lawrence Kansas Centron Productions (Young America Films Presents) produced Why Study Home Economics.
4. Sweet Little Jesus Boy by Mahalia Jackson was the  album that captured the imagination of gospel music advocate Robert Darden when he was a child.