Secluded and absolute prolific artistic production at the Millay Colony for the Arts
This past April I had the pleasure of spending exactly 26 days living in semi-solitude with uninterrupted studio time in the pastoral Austerlitz landscape, tucked far into east New York state at the Massachusetts border, a short drive from the majestic Berkshires with six other incredibly talented creative residents: Gessy Alvarez, prose and fiction writer, Patrick Downes, poet and fiction writer, Sophia Lin, fiction writer, Alex Mar, filmmaker and non-fiction writer, Adam Keleman, screenwriter and filmmaker, and Larry Krone, visual artist and musician.
The Millay Colony for the Arts is the former grounds and residence of great American poet and playwright, St. Vincent Edna Millay, known just as much for her unusual lifestyle as much as for her extraordinary work as an artist. She was one of only three women who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. While I was in residence I started reading Savage Beauty, a considerably dogeared, obviously many times read through, apparently loved books at the residency; a biography of Millay, skillfully written by writer, Nancy Milford. The book’s spine was broken, the cover deteriorating, but all the pages were intact and I loved reading it. In my short time at the residency, I only pulled off reading a shabby fourth of the book, unlike my ambitious colleague, Alex Mar, who I believe hungrily got halfway through. I’m such a slow reader! Its on my list of books to read now, but having said that, I’m afraid I’ll have to buy it electronically. Even if it is a beloved book and intoxicating story, owing to the fact that it’s a fat and heavy book, I’ll give into convenient technology. I’m trying not to accumulate more weight in belongings. With my moving record of four countries, 9 cities, and 35 apartments in almost 20 years, I am tired of moving all my stuff around and losing property in dreadful freak accidents. I have assumed the life of a monk, so to speak. I try not to collect, despite coming from a family of happy hoarders.
The Milly Colony grounds feel lofty, full and vibrant, though only stretching out seven acres. It is surrounded by the delightful Harvey Mountain State Forest. When one is not working furiously in one’s studio, the area provides charming trails for hiking and contemplation. The estate consist of the former grand house where Edna St. Vincent Millay lived from 1925 until her death in 1950, the austere shed studio where Millay, herself, used to work, the rustic Steepletop barn, and the newer main house, where the administration office is located, as well as common spaces and three working spaces. These ateliers are suitable for a writer, visual artist, and a musician. I settled in well in the old country barn, renovated to hold four residents, our living quarters on the ground floor with studios overhead. Since 1974, 2,000 artists, writers, and composers from the US and abroad have been coming to create at the Millay Colony for the Arts, after Millay’s sister, Norma Millay Ellis, founded the residency in 1973.
For many reasons, my residency stay at the Millay Colony for the Arts has been the most prolific, in terms of artistic production and concentrated work. I attribute that to not only the bucolic and remote country landscape, which accords one lonely hikes, clear blue skies and muddy roads, but also the sheer lack of human interaction for my 26 days while in residence. I was convinced when I was first awarded the residency, that it would be far too short to get much done, in view of the almost two months I spent at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire last year. However, I found, in these working conditions, in near isolation, that the not quite a month long stay was perfect, in such a sublime, unpopulated, and rural location. There are far less distractions with daily encounters with other humans on the grounds. Millay maintains a small office staff, chef, maintenance, and housekeeper, but I rarely saw any of them on a daily basis. That said, all were attentive and easy to access, especially Calliope, the Residency Director, a.k.a. our pack leader, by leaving notes in the kitchen or sending quick emails.
From M-F dinner was served daily at 6:00pm, and it was a lovely respite from working all day in forced seclusion, filled with lively witty conversation, a drink of wine, and welcome companionship and supportive encouragement. In addition, handling living with only six other colonists with their colorful and exuberant personalities was a snap, unlike other residencies I’ve experienced with 30+ participants, whose volatile moods could impact one’s own productive state of mind. We were very lucky, I believe – to have gotten on so well with each other and I look forward to our anticipated reunion in New York next year.
We had to fend for our own breakfast and lunch, but there were often leftovers from the night before, so cooking for ourselves was not a hassle at all. Not having a set meal schedule gave us all freedom to eat when we pleased, and most of us grabbed something quick before we stole away to our studios to work for the day. I often saw people in the kitchen, but everyone was lost in his/her own thoughts and work, and I relished the time to keep my focus and push forward. We all knew our high spirited social time would be during our wonderful homemade meals in the evening.
At the weekends, Chef Donna had off, and it was up to us to make and feed ourselves. Twice a week, we would turn in our list of desired groceries, which then would magically all show up and be in our refrigerator! Every weekend I anticipated another delicious meal from one of the residents. We all took turns and cooked together. Pizza, fried rice, lasagna, hamburgers! My contribution was Korean tacos. Larry’s pizza was so delicious, we implored him to make it twice! Residents are blessed to be able to borrow a car to take short trips into Chatham, to visit the quaint bookstore, the second hand shop, or get one’s fix at the wine shop, where residents get a 10% discount. I think we must have gone to the wine shop twice a week! I made a few field trips out to OMI Sculpture Park, the very strange and surreal Taconic sculpture park, and MassMoca in North Adams.
While in residence, I finished editing a music video, wrote a performance, prepared an artist talk, and worked on some drawings for a work in progress zine. The days felt very long at Millay, and I awoke without the alarm clock between 6-8am everyday. My morning timetable was for the most part unchanging. I had a cereal and milk with a cup of coffee in my studio and I threw myself into the practice. I took lunch earlier than usual, around 11:30am, and then went to work for another hour or so before my daily nap. Sometimes in the afternoon I would take a break to walk the trails or read a novel, but before dinner, I managed to do my yoga practice, which sustains my creative energy for the long haul. Despite the tranquility, I continued to feel an urgency in my work, which I ascribe to the ever present ambitious drive of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Regardless of the fact, she’s been gone for 63 years now, her spirit remains a palpable element of the Colony.