The mere concept of an artist residency might sound ridiculous: The artist takes a week or more out of her already-idyllic-seeming life to go to a special place, probably someplace pastoral and tranquil, lush green, full of wildlife and ponds and life-changing sunrises, where she gets to turn off her phone for days and take walks and just think and reflect and create some art when the muse strikes.
All this for someone who gets to, say, paint for a living, while the rest of us push papers or study spreadsheets, wrangle grade-schoolers, wait tables or tend registers.
It’s a notion not lost on artist Crystal Hartman. “Isn’t it great that you get to be an artist and you get to draw and go to your studio? Isn’t that enough?” she asked rhetorically.
But ask an artist who has done a residency and you’ll likely hear about transformation, rejuvenation and inspiration. So much so, they’ll say, that anyone who loves art and understands the importance of supporting the arts and artists should also value and support artist residencies.
Hartman will join Susan Reed and Elizabeth Kinahan from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at Willowtail Springs Nature Preserve and Education Center in Mancos for “Three Artists Working.” The trio will be working on, discussing and selling their art to benefit Willowtail and its artist-in-residency program.
Peggy and Lee Cloy, owners of the Springs bed-and-breakfast, started the nonprofit nature preserve and education center about three years ago with a focus on the artist residency program through a partnership with Durango Arts Center, this in addition to residencies Willowtail sponsors itself. Combined, the preserve accepts about 12 artist residents a year. A private donor has offered to match any funds up to $10,000 raised by Sept. 30, said Willowtail Project Coordinator Merritt Winkler. The organization is also partnering with Kay Phelps, an education professor at Fort Lewis College, to work on professional development programs that integrate art and science curricula.
Hartman and Kinahan, both former Willowtail residents, espoused the value and positive effects their residencies had on their work. While some might have the idea of a working artist as someone who paints and draws all day, what goes unseen is that they’re often simultaneously business owners, selling and promoting their work, bogged down with the same routines and burdens as the rest of us – returning calls, answering emails, paying bills. A residency affords the artist unencumbered time they otherwise might not have.
“What happens there is you explore ideas or projects that have always been on the back burner because they’re not vital to what has to get done today,” Kinahan said. “You’re kind of just creating a space for yourself to grow as an artist. Growth really takes place in a concentrated way. You grow quick.”
Hartman agreed, saying that while she loves her studio but a change of routine and location was beneficial.
“I needed to dive in, to dig in, to not be distracted by other deadlines ,” she said. “It’s refreshing, and it lets your mind and your voice grow. You’re being influenced by different things, by different surroundings and different people.”
What made their time valuable was not merely being at a residency but Willowtail itself. Located on 60 acres about 35 minutes west of Durango and a few miles north of U.S. 160, the property boasts three distinct ecosystems: meadows, piñon and juniper forests and a lake. Winkler said the Cloys have made great efforts to maintain, restore and preserve the land at Willowtail, including single-handedly saving thousands of piñions and junipers from the ips beetle.
For Hartman, being at Willowtail not only relaxed and focused her, it actually had a direct effect on her work. Coming into her residency, she had planned to build on her interest in pollinators through a series of bee drawings she described as “tight, super-detailed, black-and-white bees.”
Things began to change on her first morning at Willowtail, when Lee Cloy took her on a tour of the property and pointed out trees that housed wild honeybees. Up to that point, her involvement with bees had been theoretical and abstract, through scientific books and news articles.
Visiting the wild bees every day and seeing how they make their honeycombs in trees ignited her imagination. She became less obsessed with Monsanto and pesticides (two suspected culprits in widespread bee die-offs called “colony collapse”) and more open to the inspiration from the bees themselves.
The results were dramatic. Instead of the tight, detailed, black and white drawings, Hartman began producing flowing, vibrant, washy bee-themed scrolls and made 10 during her stay.
“Pretty instantly, I just felt so calm there that I was able to create a completely new body of work,” she said.
The inspiration continued after Willowtail. Until then, Hartman had been using petroleum-based wax to carve her jewelry castings. She has since switched to beeswax and loves the beauty of the wax and the way it feels and moves. She has even begun collaborating with bees, placing her carvings into hives so the bees can carve on top of them.
“What happened for me was a small interest in something grew, and I was able to study and have a foundation of understanding, and that’s trickling into many aspects of my life,” she said.
And that is the goal of an artist residency, Kinahan said, to turn off our devices and the noise of the world, to be in a place that rejuvenates the spirit and has lasting effects long after the residency ends. And not just for artists. Anyone could benefit from such an experience, even for one day, she said.
“The people that could go out there and benefit from two hours sitting by the lake or two hours walking in the woods,” Kinahan said. “Just the way that it affects you and soothes you is really rare and special.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. David Holub is the Arts & Entertainment editor for The Durango Herald.