A Meditation on Artists’ Residencies, a Dune Shack and the Twilight Zone
Sometimes I find myself scrolling Instagram on a dark day in February or March, just wondering what it would be like to make art in a lighthouse…or in Robert Rauschenberg’s old fishing shack…or in a Florida swamp…or in a small RV in a Utah ghost town…or on an island in Italy. Artists’ residencies are a nice thing to dream about when you feel stuck or in a rut and when life is wearing you down with mundane pressures. Sure, there are the big ones like MacDowell and Yaddo, but those are uber-competitive and hard to get into. There are so many other off-the-beaten-path secret outposts that will happily allow a creative person to try on their lifestyle for a bit. As an artist, it’s so helpful to get out of dodge now and then and hit the road for new sights and sounds.
Residencies vary from big to small and urban to rural, but the wildest and strangest one I ever attended was a very off-the-grid dune shack in Provincetown. I applied one long gray winter when I was stuck at home during yet another snowstorm with my young child. I was looking for something practical and close, that would allow you to go for just one week.
I was accepted to the dune shack program for one week in July on the Dune-y border of Provincetown and Truro (the fabled hometown of Edward Hopper). The shack I was assigned was called ‘Ray Wells,’ but others were named whimsical things like ‘Thalassa’ and ‘Euphoria.’ These small homemade structures were maintained by the Peaked Hill Trust (pronounced “Peek-Id”) and were designated as a part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Many of the dune shacks were made in the 1930s and were repurposed Coast Guard sheds or cobbled together from shipwreck driftwood in a hodgepodge fashion. I’m convinced that I got in partly because my application statement was a macho flex about how unbothered I’d be by ticks, mice, roof leaks, and the lack of electricity. In other words, I wouldn’t be a big city baby.
When I arrived in town, a man picked me up in a leviathan of a truck with partially deflated tires to haul me and my stuff out to the shack over the sand roads that crisscrossed the dunescape. As we bumped and bobbed along, my shack rose up like a spindly brown spider held high up off the sand by tall wooden support legs. Most shacks were tiny, but Ray Wells was surprisingly big. My driver helped me inside and I learned from him that it had been enlarged in stages around a much smaller Coast Guard shack. The original shack was still there, preserved in the middle of the structure, with all its original cedar shingles attached. One could still open its front door too, except now it was the door to the bedroom. On the wrap-around sun porch were wall-to-wall windows that looked out over the endlessly beige landscape and opened upwards, hooking to the ceiling with eye hooks.
Once my dune chauffeur left, I found myself utterly alone. The binder on a table said to call 911 in the event of an emergency and “give coordinates.” Nary, a soul, was spied walking down to the nearby beach. The shoreline was littered with every shell, fish skull, and marine vertebrae you could think of because no beachcomber ever combed there.
As the days of the week wore on, I fetched water from a well that one had to pump by hand, trudging up and down a deep hill of sand. The sand was so hot that one had to wear socks with sandals to avoid getting burned. By day, I would wander the endless dunes like a kind of Lawrence of Arabia in my sock sandals, marveling at the strange sand mountains all around me. Some of them would have caved-in tops that looked like moon craters (parabolic dunes) and some rose up one-story tall like cylinders with a sprinkling of plants on the top. There were wild dune roses and twisty scrub pines perched atop sand mounds too. Everything was thriving in this strange sandy world.
I became so used to being on my own that one day, I discovered that I had wandered down to the beach …in my nightgown. And I found myself wondering, ‘Is this how insanity starts?’
A break in my isolation would come once a day when a dune buggy would sputter by, stuffed to the brim with tourists eager to see the shacks. As they bounced past, pointing and staring, I would hide away from the windows, scuttling back into the darkness like a beetle. There were no curtains, and I felt a little like a specimen on display. But then, in the second half of the week, I discovered, to my amazement, that I had come full circle. I found myself craning my neck and waiting for them by the windows, longing to see another human person for even just a few moments.
The lack of people sightings was in direct contrast to the abundant sightings of animals that made their home on the dunes. There was a single white-footed dune mouse living in the shack that had grown bold with squatter’s rights. Every night these bombastic and aggressive squeaks would echo throughout the blackness as I lay there in my bed, terrified. During the day, down at the seashore, there were so many seals bobbing in the shallows, that one would have had to say “Excuse me” to go swimming. At a certain time in the afternoon, they would all begin their hoarse barking and shoot out of the sea and plop down on an exposed sandbar in a process called “hauling.” This huge mound of seal flesh would rise from the waves, flapping their tails and making the loudest racket of pure seal joy.
When the last day came, a French lady named Geneviève came in the lumbering dune truck to fetch me and scolded me for being too soft-hearted to trap the mouse. As we trundled slowly back to civilization, I wondered idly if I would ever apply to return. Most of me balked at outhouse-living again, but there was something profound about being the last person on Earth for a week: To find oneself the sole representative of a species and still dare to make art anyway.
I tell my dune-y tale because, too often, we assume that all residencies are expensive, hard to get into, and month-long. There’s a residency out there for everyone, and a perfect fit might only be a search bar away. Some programs are finally heeding the need for shorter 1-2 week stays for artists with jobs and or small kids. Anyone could sneak away for a week, right? We may feel more comfortable working in our home studios, but it’s healthy for our practice to change it up sometimes too,
In the book Wired to Create, authors Carolyn Gregoire and Scott Barry Kaufman talk about how being in a new environment can generate new ideas and “force us to rethink our most deeply ingrained beliefs about the world and our place in it.” They go on to say that if “habit and convention are the killers of creativity, then it’s the unfamiliar that gives birth to great ideas and innovation. We know that habit and banality can seriously hamper creative thoughts. After all, how do we make new connections out of what is stale and uninspiring? And what’s new, novel, and unusual can help us hatch our most inventive ideas? As research has shown, creativity benefits from an outsider’s mindset.”
And speaking of the new, novel, and unusual, last New Year’s Day, I was watching the Twilight Zone marathon, as one does. The episode “The After Hours” came on and was about a group of mannequins (stored on the 9th floor of a department store) that takes turns leaving to become real flesh and blood people for a month. One mannequin named Marcia White was out and about on her month-long tour but completely forgot that she was a mannequin and overstayed her time by one day. Vaguely confused and disoriented, she winds up back at the store looking for a golden thimble. The other mannequins try to jog her memory until finally, Marcia remembers and agrees to submit to being a store mannequin again: “I’m sorry. I forgot. When you’re on the outside, everything seems so normal.”
For me, this episode is about the beautiful, invigorating escape that a residency can offer: the joy of escaping a life of routine and obligation to live a different, more carefree kind of life on “the outside.” To feel “normal” in the sense that we can embody our authentic artistic selves. Like Marcia, wouldn’t it be great to swap the things we have to do for the things we want to do and be allowed to do that? To take a break from hauling ourselves onto the sandbar of our day job where no one really knows we’re an artist. Or to hang up our butler’s livery and leave behind the cooking, laundry, and childcare for a bit to wear the same sweatshirt for two weeks in a row and stay up all night working?
Once in a while, let’s let ourselves take the elevator down from the 9th floor and step out into the twilight sun of our dreaming, creative minds. Why not play hooky from the store a time or two and check out some technicolor sights and sounds not yet imagined?
In the words of Marcia, wouldn’t it be “Ever so much fun?”
About the writer: Amy Talluto is a multimedia artist working in painting, sculpture and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece can be listened to as an audio essay in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts. Amy Talluto’s monthly column “Whisperings from the Wormhole” will bring you artist-to-artist pep talks with topics ranging from self-doubt to artists who make work in their kitchens.