The first thing I noticed when turning into the long, narrow, winding driveway to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts were the cows. Cows in the field, cows sitting along the roadside, cows sitting…in the road.
I swerved around that cow and got the message. You’re a visitor. Respect that.
Yesterday – my Day Seven – we got several inches of snow. I watched the flakes fall from my home away from home, which was once a corn crib, now all dressed up and converted to Artist Studio W5. W5 is a chocolate brown building with a slanted room and skylights. Inside is a desk, an ergonomic chair, a book case, a rocking chair, a couple of lamps, and a bed. My first day, snooping around, I found a set of Christmas lights in the desk. I immediately hung them up. I also moved the desk. We’re told to make ourselves at home.
There’s a row of corkboard along the long side walls. I hung drawing paper there so I could work on a Three-Act Storyboard. I’m still in Act One, but I have seven days left. There’s also a wooden plaque, painted white, hanging near the door. It’s where artists who have used the studio sign their names and dates of residency when they leave. I peruse it when I stand to take a break. I’ve also stolen a few names from it for characters, I admit. I was thrilled to recognize the names of two writer friends. I was also thrilled when I read “Alice McDermott” written there.
Plaid café curtains hang on the row of windows that look out past the Barn, where most of the studios are housed, except for a couple of Artist Cottages and converted farm structures, like mine. I see past a tangle of leafless trees and rickety wooden fence to a rolling field of cows. Three of them stand near the gate, all day, rain, shine or snow. The hay is delivered to that gate. Every morning, I take a break and watch them have breakfast. Sometimes I go near the fence for a closer look. When I do, they watch me watch them.
I’ve nicknamed my studio The Ark. It’s a safe haven, warm and dry, bright with my Christmas lights, and outside I see not a single dove finding land, but three cows that live off the land. All day, they stand around and eat. All day, here, I sit around and write.
Well, not all day. I do stop for meals. Breakfast at the Residence Hall, a dorm-like building a quarter mile up the road from the Barn is quiet. Most of us swoop in for coffee the moment the nice lady with the sweet southern Virginia accent puts out the pots. Midday, lunch is delivered to the Barn dining room, which is small. We do our own dishes, but that’s all. Food is cooked for us, served for us, cleaned up for us. At lunch, some of us stay for a break to chat. Some grab a sandwich and run back to the studio.
There are rules at the Barn and the surrounding cottages and studios. No loud music or talking. No interrupting other artists. No eating food that’s not yours. No leaving doors open so wildlife can crawl in. The ambiance is quiet, respectful. We stay out of each other’s way while we create.
Not at dinner. Back at the Residence, at the stroke of six, we gather for a buffet that’s always scrumptious. I’ve had homemade hazelnut torte with strawberries, twice, for dessert. That’s the level of scrumptious. We talk about the day and our productivity for the day. Some days, everyone is buzzy and bright. We all seem to have good days on the same day. Other days, ask someone “How was your day?” and the response is, “I wanted to slit my wrists.”
My first day, I wrote fourteen pages. New pages.
During dinner, someone might clink a glass and announce a reading or a performance or an open studio. I’ve heard four authors read so far—two novelists, a short story artist, and a poet. I’m scheduled to read with a new poet friend on Wednesday.
Last night, one of the composers shared work he’d created the week he’d been here. We sprawled across comfy sofas while he introduced two pieces. One he said he wrote about a person recovering from a serious illness. The first part was diagnosis, the second hope for recovery. As he played, I closed my eyes and pictured the character I’m writing about—who has a serious illness. Listening to his notes, I could see her face clearly for the first time. Scenes from my story, some of which I have yet to write, appeared under my closed eyelids.
Later, talking about his work and how he visualizes objects, colors, people, he played a quick succession of notes. “’To me,’ he said, ‘that’s the color aquamarine.’”
After his performance, a small group of us gathered to watch the season 2 end of Downton Abbey. We sat long into the night discussing character growth and story arcs and women’s roles then and now.
I have seven days left in The Ark. Being here, I’ve touched onto things I already know: that I love cows and that I can hammer out a bunch of pages when I am gifted with good light, good food, and solitude.
I’ve also learned things, not the least of which is the sound of aquamarine.
More next week.
*This residency was funded by a fellowship from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation*