Artists and Creative Residencies (Part 1)

I recently returned from a month long winter residency in Bamfield, BC. This was the result of a collaboration between Bamfield residents Nancy Hendry and Steve Clarke, and Music By the Sea. In case you haven’t heard of this place, Bamfield is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited in Canada. Developed by Chris Donison, Music By the Sea is an exciting project which includes a summer festival, artist residencies, music education and community outreach.

My next few posts will be a reflection on creative residencies and my experience in Bamfield.

The Purpose of Residencies

Artists take advantage of creative residencies for many reasons – to practice, compose, rehearse, network, or a combination of all these. The main reason though, relates to my favourite dichotomy – to explore structure and freedom.

Residencies offer artists a clean slate, an opportunity to discover (or rediscover) what variables optimize their creative capacities and overall well being. Artists can free themselves of the habits that define their circumstances at home. They can start over. Rebuild. Redefine.

Exploring Structure and Freedom

Artists are offered a brand new equilibrium between structure and freedom. Ideally, they also have the power to manipulate these variables at will. For example, suppose circumstances at home restrict an artist to practicing between 11am and 4pm. An ideal residence could support practicing at any and all hours. Through this process of discovery, the artist may realize that her best work is done first thing in the morning, after drinking some pulp-free orange juice, while hearing birds sing and experiencing the smell of low tide.

This seems trivial, but these are the factors that could be crucial to an artist’s work and well being. It’s not just the orange juice that she discovers, it’s the ritual of drinking the orange juice at a certain time of day, before carrying out a certain activity. Further, when she returns home, hopefully she has learned that it isn’t necessarily orange juice that she needs, (maybe orange juice isn’t even available at home!), but some kind of ritual to start her day and prepare her creative faculties.

I say “well being” because work and art are only part of the picture. Residencies are also opportunities to explore lifestyle, not just the creative process. Working and living are intimately linked. An ideal residence, then, can support a diverse range of lifestyles and give artists the freedom to explore them.

For example, we often hear people complain about being connected to the Internet. Our lives are structured such that email, social networking and StumbleUpon result in many wasted hours that could be more beneficially dedicated to our work. During an ideal residency, artists have the option to disconnect, or at least explore their relationship with the Internet. Being totally disconnected may cause anxiety. However, restricting herself to only checking email in the morning may be a perfect ritual to starting her day and doing good work.

The point is that during a residency, the artist has the freedom to figure this out. The same can be said for health, nutrition, social activities, hobbies, and other things that contribute to a lifestyle.

The Ideal Residence vs. The Ideal Artist

I’ve made reference to an “ideal residency,” where artists have the ultimate freedom to explore and manipulate their circumstances. Of course, this doesn’t exist. There will always be variables outside an artist’s control.

Further, an artist will face unique variables depending on local circumstances. A residency in Banff would be much different than a residency in Bamfield. Not necessarily better, just different.

But this is part of the novelty of being an artist-in-residence. Each locale provides unique circumstances and challenges to the artist who wants to live and work there. This can be exciting for the artist, who may discover new structures once taken for granted. It can also be exciting for the local hosts, who get to witness creative solutions to structures they take for granted.

If artists are searching for the “ideal residence,” residencies should be searching for the “ideal artist” – someone who can adapt and restructure to any circumstances. Of course, this doesn’t exist either. The point is that these endeavors are partnerships. Successful residencies require trust, understanding and patience between artists and their hosts.

Returning Home

Residencies aren’t permanent and can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Depending on the purpose of the residency, an artist may return home with a new composition, or new repertoire. These things are more tangible than some of the deeper benefits that can be gained.

Hopefully, the artist can also return home with some principles to guide her life and work. This can be difficult because routines and rituals established in Bamfield, may not translate when living in Toronto.

But as I mentioned earlier, it may not be the orange juice that’s important to her creative endeavors, but having some kind of morning ritual. Realizing this can mean the difference between a residency lasting two months, and a residency lasting a lifetime.

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