Why Should an Artist Seek Out a Residency?

The concept artist residency is synonymous with “space and time.” Residencies are founded on the belief that at some point during an artist’s career she or he may have neither the desired space nor required time to create. While every artist might agree that there are not enough hours in the day to do his or her work, whether full-time or stealing moments, there are more reasons to take advantage of a residency besides simply seizing time and space.

Through hosting eighty-four artists per year at The League Residency at Vyt, I have identified commonalities in the motivations, reasons, and goals of resident artists. If you’re thinking of being an artist-in-residence, perhaps you will find your thoughts aligned with one of the following approaches or you may gain a broader perspective of what a residency may offer you.

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With our postmodern lives of all-access, up-to-the-minute availability, a residency can become an island of refuge within the turbulent waves of constant attention. Punctuating the social media screenscape are pastel-hued motivational memes encouraging the viewer to make time for you. These memes hint that “me time” may amount to just a few precious minutes in the day to revitalize yourself. But the cultivation of one’s art-self is best accomplished when combined with intensive production in the studio. As Picasso is believed to have said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”  So if you were thinking an artist residency is a rose-colored, cozy art-vacation; take your sketchbook and book a cruise. An effective residency isn’t so much a creative retreat (“art camp”) as it is a retreat to create (“art work”).

“I came to further explore fabric dye and batik printing within my painting.  However, I had a ceramics studio at my disposal; a happy coincidence seeing that my dissertation explored the relationship between making pots and making paintings. The residency allowed me to physically experience the relation between the two, after having thought about it in such depth. Throwing pots in the morning and starting to understand the centered, delicate contact required to will objects into being, this sensitivity, this muscle memory then spilled into afternoons of painting. Running the different processes alongside one another for a month created a sort of symbiosis, where the techniques polluted one another, each influencing the other.” – Aimee Parrott, November 2014 (photo courtesy of the artist)
“I came to further explore fabric dye and batik printing within my painting.  However, I had a ceramics studio at my disposal; a happy coincidence seeing that my dissertation explored the relationship between making pots and making paintings. The residency allowed me to physically experience the relation between the two, after having thought about it in such depth. Throwing pots in the morning and starting to understand the centered, delicate contact required to will objects into being, this sensitivity, this muscle memory then spilled into afternoons of painting. Running the different processes alongside one another for a month created a sort of symbiosis, where the techniques polluted one another, each influencing the other.” – Aimee Parrott, November 2014 (photo courtesy of the artist)
“I wanted to figure out the broad strokes of a large scale projection scrim installation so that I could continue on it in smaller parts at home.  It was enormously helpful to have the space to map out all the layers to scale and delve into the slow meditative process of hand-sewing each scrim. I simultaneously enjoyed exploring intimately-scaled works in drawing and sculpture that extended my interest in the play of light, shadow, reflection and translucency of different materials." - Carole Kim, March 2014
“I wanted to figure out the broad strokes of a large scale projection scrim installation so that I could continue on it in smaller parts at home.  It was enormously helpful to have the space to map out all the layers to scale and delve into the slow meditative process of hand-sewing each scrim. I simultaneously enjoyed exploring intimately-scaled works in drawing and sculpture that extended my interest in the play of light, shadow, reflection and translucency of different materials.” – Carole Kim, March 2014

What Might an Artist Expect to Do During a Residency?

One way to use a residency is to think of it as an opportunity to expand. While your project might be, for all intents and purposes, the same as what you’re currently doing in your studio, your time in residence can provide an environment in which you magnify your practice. Bust into bigger canvases. Add more art-making hours to your day. Build up a series of works. Hone a supplementary skill.

Some artists use a residency to pursue a medium or concept unrelated to their usual work. A residency can offer a safe place to investigate something for a limited time, kind of like going camping: venture out of your usual environment to experience the wild and unknown, knowing you will come back home. It’s refreshing, but maybe a little scary, too. Sometimes it’s a sculptor who comes to do landscape painting, a painter who throws pots, or a digital animator who wants to weld. Each time, the artist has discovered that the exploration into another medium reinforced something that was already woven into in his or her work.

Another approach to a residency could be to use it as a place to sift through multiple ideas by laying them out in a neutral space. Clarify a mishmash of concepts by letting them all flow out of you with no judgment, barrier, or pressure. Then, cluster similar things together to distill themes. Through various iterations, the most effective form of an idea can be brought to light. This approach is often used by artists who sense a subtle thread connecting multiple bodies or mediums of their work, but may feel they’ve been focusing too singularly on a certain type of work or subject matter to see it.

Mostly though, an artist-in-residence may table the time-drains that compromise creative headspace. Vyt alumnus Ramiro Davaro-Comas (May 2013) wanted his residency “to have a comfortable stay with only the distractions I allow myself to have.” I have heard my colleagues habitually exhort each other about keeping their commitment to create, and designating their studio-spaces as sacred. Underneath their passionate encouragements, I hear an underlying tone that commitment and space always be available and sustainable long-term. But life gets in the way, priorities always shift, right? You might need a shot in the arm to resuscitate your practice. It could be even a “reaffirmation of vows” reminding you of what you love.  Even if you return to an unsanctified space or a half-hearted pledge to (continue to) make work, the effort you’ve devoted to your livelihood while in residence will be a lifeline to keep your artmaking alive.

“My goal was to make a lot of work and flush some visual riddles out of my system. I appreciated how much freedom I was granted. I wanted to set a new standard for myself in terms of productivity and focus, and I think I succeeded in that.” – Rachel Libeskind, March 2014
“My goal was to make a lot of work and flush some visual riddles out of my system. I appreciated how much freedom I was granted. I wanted to set a new standard for myself in terms of productivity and focus, and I think I succeeded in that.” – Rachel Libeskind, March 2014
“I was planning on painting during my residency but was pleased to find that I had access to a press. I had been wanting to make some monotype prints so this was remarkably serendipitous. I learned a lot about my painting by making monotype prints. I'm still "unpacking" these ideas but will be thinking about them as I move forward in my studio practice.” – Andrew Fish, March 2015
“I was planning on painting during my residency but was pleased to find that I had access to a press. I had been wanting to make some monotype prints so this was remarkably serendipitous. I learned a lot about my painting by making monotype prints. I’m still “unpacking” these ideas but will be thinking about them as I move forward in my studio practice.” – Andrew Fish, March 2015

How can artists transition effectively into a residency?

There are a couple of kinds of residents—those who are briefly stepping out of their world to do a residency and those whose world is residencies. The artists who travel from residencies one after another are frequently “in-between” things. For example, they might be moving from one life event to the next, looking to release from quotidian responsibilities to pursue a serendipitous path, or detaching from the weight of critical engagement before returning to their community. Through diverse experiences, a “career resident” has often identified efficient ways to get what they need out of a residency. They have their practice packed and ready to go. For those artists whom residencies are not a frequent extension of their studio, it might be a bigger transition between worlds.

“I’ve done about 10 residencies as a full-time artist; they’re a space to work and negotiate the challenges between interferences and focus. Having a home base in NYC, residencies are my way to “find studio space” and jump into various opportunities, so I need to be free to take a risk. As I look back on the residencies I’ve done, I see a pattern: they’re where I expect breakthroughs in my work because there’s less outside pressure. The network of peers I’ve gotten from residency-hopping has led to a dynamic community: my friends are my resources. After doing a few different kinds of residencies (long term, short term, few people, interdisciplinary, etc.) I’ve learned how to identify situations that will work for me, and to purge what doesn’t. This has built my confidence, both to move more decisively in my work and also as a professional.” – Esteban del Valle, November 2015
“I’ve done about 10 residencies as a full-time artist; they’re a space to work and negotiate the challenges between interferences and focus. Having a home base in NYC, residencies are my way to “find studio space” and jump into various opportunities, so I need to be free to take a risk. As I look back on the residencies I’ve done, I see a pattern: they’re where I expect breakthroughs in my work because there’s less outside pressure. The network of peers I’ve gotten from residency-hopping has led to a dynamic community: my friends are my resources. After doing a few different kinds of residencies (long term, short term, few people, interdisciplinary, etc.) I’ve learned how to identify situations that will work for me, and to purge what doesn’t. This has built my confidence, both to move more decisively in my work and also as a professional.” – Esteban del Valle, November 2015

A typical residency session has an invisible arc, regardless of how long the session is. At the beginning, there is a settling period: you’re getting used to the space.  There are a number of “get-to-know-you” moments with the facilities, staff and your fellow residents. You’re waking up from your regular regime… and this diversion from your norms (even if you’re super-excited to get started) can sometimes add up to wasted time. To maximize the first week, ensure that you have everything you need to get on track right away, and are aware of your residency’s schedule and programming.

Another aspect I have repeatedly seen amongst resident artists comes from the enhanced awareness of their own productivity – most find their peak effectivity halfway through the session, and seem surprised. But note: those who have a touchpoint on the moments in the day when they know they’re productive are most industrious. Examine your work day and ask yourself when you feel excited about your potential to “do things:” 8-10a after your morning coffee? 5-8p as the day gets quieter? 9p-2a when the darkness focuses your vision? Knowing when your system is primed will help you take advantage of your circadian creativity when you most need it.

“As a single parent, head of household, and a professor, the only way I get work done is through residencies. It’s essential for professional development, too. Some friends hesitate to do a residency because of the transition from one studio to the next, or the "prep work." If my first idea for work I want to do changes, I prepare for that by packing some of every medium I have. I also use modern day conveniences (ordering supplies online) so there’s no worry: this summer I went to a residency thinking I’d just draw but was inspired to start painting - I ran out of paint twice, but just overnighted more paint so there was never a day I was held back on working.” – Joan Ryan (and friend, L), August 2014
“As a single parent, head of household, and a professor, the only way I get work done is through residencies. It’s essential for professional development, too. Some friends hesitate to do a residency because of the transition from one studio to the next, or the “prep work.” If my first idea for work I want to do changes, I prepare for that by packing some of every medium I have. I also use modern day conveniences (ordering supplies online) so there’s no worry: this summer I went to a residency thinking I’d just draw but was inspired to start painting – I ran out of paint twice, but just overnighted more paint so there was never a day I was held back on working.” – Joan Ryan (and friend, L), August 2014
“Residencies provide a vaccine for the artist whose work may feel automatic, resigned, or static. I see a residency as an intermission from my regular studio practice: I leave my work-in-progress in my permanent studio and start from scratch. On residency, your studio starts bare, absent the personal context that is piled knee-high in most permanent artists’ studios. This void can be a truly serene place to start fresh, free of thematic cross-chatter and the judgmental looks from last year’s paintings. Residencies give you the opportunity to explore your art in a fresh context.” – Isaac Mann, February 2012, December 2014  
“Residencies provide a vaccine for the artist whose work may feel automatic, resigned, or static. I see a residency as an intermission from my regular studio practice: I leave my work-in-progress in my permanent studio and start from scratch. On residency, your studio starts bare, absent the personal context that is piled knee-high in most permanent artists’ studios. This void can be a truly serene place to start fresh, free of thematic cross-chatter and the judgmental looks from last year’s paintings. Residencies give you the opportunity to explore your art in a fresh context.” – Isaac Mann, February 2012, December 2014

The rest of the session may take shape like this: Somewhere in the middle, you’ve become comfortable with your progress, and then you’ve come to a plateau. The first couple of inroads you’ve made might have diverted, or maybe they were just warm-ups. And now you can sense your potential on the horizon, but you’re not sure how to get there. This is right about the time when studio visits can be invigorating, or a drink with a new friend can offer insights. Take a day off and give your eyes some other stimuli… And then, you break through. You run with it, it’s all coming together and just as you’re reaching your stride, it’s time to go. Now take this energy and harness it in your gut to propel you when you return home.

Working at a residency program has also inspired me in my own studio practice. (It’s sometimes a kick in the pants, too). It is stimulating to witness the growth of our artists-in-residence. That constant enthusiasm buoys both staff and resident. Each month, I watch artists – eyes keen with determination – engaging themselves with their vision. Then, at the end of their session, they see themselves embodying more potential than they had imagined. They’ve set out to accomplish their goals, discovering more of themselves, their world, and each other along the way.

 

The League Residency at Vyt is a proud member of the Alliance of Artists Communities and ResArtis. Special thanks to LINEA Editor Stephanie Cassidy for her questions about doing a residency. Charis J. Carmichael Braun is an artist and arts administrator in the Hudson Valley.

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