In the fast-paced world we live in, endless errands, innumerable emails and relentless to-do lists demand our attention. But finding time to break away every now and again to unwind is crucial if we want to keep growing as artists. One way to unwind and renew is through artist retreats and workshops.
Stepping back from the demands of everyday life can inspire leaps in creativity. And artist retreats help us not only to enhance our artistry but also work on ourselves, too.
Away From It All
In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust’s great tome about the creative life, memory is a key theme. And reflection is presented as a necessity for art. The often deplorable Baron de Charlus wisely castigates the narrator, who is restless to leave.
There are experiences missed in always rushing and advantages in taking time, in being present. The narrator is young and won’t heed this advice for many pages and years; but the advice remains, waiting for the stillness that will recognize its value.
Artists need time to withdraw from the hustle of life in order to attend to the needs of the creative voice within. That time apart provides the platform for individual ideas that lead to new artistic visions.
Artist Retreats: Space and Time
Artist retreats began to appear at the turn of the 19th century, as if in response to the growing urban centers, the rumble of industry and the increasing pace of life. In 1900, the German poet Rainer Marie Rilke wrote “How large the eyes become here!” upon his arrival at Worpswede, the artists’ colony founded in the German town of that name only a year earlier.
That same year, the now-famous artists’ residency Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York, declared its mission to provide “rest and refreshment [for] authors, painters, sculptors, musicians and other artists both men and women.” These retreats offer a quiet space for artists to do their work without the demands of even so much as cooking a meal. Able to think only about their particular pursuit, artists have the freedom to explore without mundane constraints.
Black Mountain College offers another model for retreat. Founded in 1933 on the holistic educational principles of John Dewey, which emphasize democracy, a generation of artists developed there, including Josef and Anni Albers, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, and Cy Twombly. Feeding off one another’s conversations and schemes, few ever wanted to graduate. Their relationships and shared projects inspired works for decades.
Artist Workshops: Change and Exploration
Destination workshops can offer a similar opportunity to work on projects and hear the ideas of other committed artists over meals and drinks. A novel environment allows different perspectives to arise. New friends with similar passions provide support. An instructor helps guide ideas to life.
A week or two in Italy or a few days in a nearby community can invigorate creative channels dried by daily toil. A change of air refreshes, while a different altitude or latitude reveals new qualities of light. The chance to get away allows the eyes to widen and review what is possible.
For some, a seasonal or annual refuge is necessary. As people meet and connect at workshops, they form communities and encourage one another. They often insist upon a regular retreat; some groups have reunited for decades.
Both the location and the participants protect the artistic spirit against the demands of daily life that make that spirit easy to ignore. Other artists may find they prefer solitude and seek out retreats that foster introspection and quiet reflection.
Artist Solitude: Quiet and Focus
The creative voyage, however, need not require a trip. The spirit of retreat is there when we carve time to be alone. Whether in the studio or on a walk, time apart fosters the energy and drive to produce work.
To insist upon a period away from the requests of others — from the hassles and strains in the turmoil of tasks and jobs — is a challenge because of the commitment it entails on the artist’s life. Others may not understand, and their responses feel belittling. But the walls of the studio become thicker with time and criticisms less meaningful.
The slow and steady work accumulates. Projects grow. Skills develop. Persistence permits us to become present.
Gift To Oneself
The concept of retreat stems both etymologically and spiritually from the need to pull back. No doubt, this is the first and most valuable understanding, but I also like to think of the word as an opportunity to gift oneself again: to re-treat. When the world is a bother, a quiet refuge to make art is better than ice cream.
Artist retreats, therefore, can fill a spiritual need while also permitting a personal indulgence, revealing that only through tending to the self can artists produce the work they offer the world. It may be five minutes, five hours or five days, but only through retreat can someone stop rushing to the next thing and take the personal time necessary to arrive as an artist.
A version of this article written by C.J. Kent first appeared in Artists Magazine. Subscribe today.
Learn more about the new Artists Network artist retreats taking place this year: the Meditations on Drawing retreat in Newburyport, Massachusetts, May 31 through June 3; and the Retreat to Tuscany in Spannocchia, Italy, Sept. 16-22.