From the outside, Westport looks like a typical suburban community. A bit more McMansion-y now than in years past, but a suburb nonetheless.
Gone, we think, is much of the “artists’ colony” vibe that made this place special back in the day.
But there are still plenty of studios, tucked away in basements, cottages and carriage houses. A lot of art still goes on behind closed doors.
Sometimes, that art takes extra-special form. Alert “06880” reader David Meth recently forwarded a post from HowlRound, an artists’ blog. In it, actor/ singer/dancer/puppeteer Emma Wiseman writes:
I grew up an hour outside New York City in Westport, Connecticut. The house I lived in my whole life was built in the 1930s on several hundred acres of land bought by John Dorr, a wealthy mechanical engineer, and his wife Nell, a photographer whose work was included in the 1955 landmark exhibition The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art. The Dorrs were attracted to the vibrant arts community that existed in Westport in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Today Westport has one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States. A hedge fund responsible for $120 billion of the world’s money is nestled in the woods there….The Dorrs’ land was long ago divided into 2-acre chunks that can barely fit the mansions built on them.
In this gilded environment, my family has always been slightly out of place. We inherited Nell and John Dorr’s offbeat cottage from my grandfather, who came to town in the ‘60s to serve on the faculty of The Famous Writers School, a wildly popular — and ultimately controversial — correspondence course.
Though now winterized and expanded, our house is one of a dwindling number of non-mansions on the street. My parents, too, are unusual in that they have both made lives for themselves in the arts, and while they haven’t seen the financial success of many of their fellow townsfolk, I think they would argue that they are spiritually rich.
I was lucky enough to be (spiritually) supported by my parents as I struck out for New York after college to pursue a life in the theater. One of the things that keeps me in the Big Apple — despite soul-crushing rent and constant questioning of a sustainable artistic life — is the proximity of that support, both spiritual and physical. The house is for me now not only a place to see family, but also to write, to make giant puppets in the yard, to generally spread out. I have begun to think of my house as a legitimate artistic resource.
Recently, my parents and I decided to experiment with sharing that resource, thinking other artists might also benefit from the opportunity to get away and spread out. We invited 2 dear friends of mine to stay for a week-long, makeshift residency. Each individual artist, myself included, would have a bed, a desk, and a door to close. We would all have dinner together, but the rest of the day was ours. The 3 of us were working in different disciplines: screenwriting, puppetry, and visual art.
The arts house on West Branch.
A residency is an opportunity for a young artist to come face-to-face with his or her process in a vacuum. While ours was a pretty casual enterprise, being alone in a room with your thoughts for 5 days straight is incredibly daunting. It is also a privilege, and we were all excited. Instead of squeezing art-making in around the margins of our New York City work lives, we had a chance to view it as an actual job.
There were no showing or performance requirements for the “West Branch Residency,” as we called it. We all came with our own private plans and goals for the week, and were under no obligations to share them, or even accomplish them. The point was just to give this side of our lives our undivided attention.
While all 3 of us got a lot out of our time alone, I was surprised at how non-monastic the experience felt. As the week went on we started organically congregating in the kitchen at the same time in the afternoon.
A shared table for artists.
It might sound like we ran away from our responsibilities, but I think we stopped feeling as if we were under the gun. One of the residents spoke to me about feeling constantly burdened by a vague feeling of guilt that I think affects many artists; the “art” we always think we should be making but have no time for follows us around like a storm cloud. During our week together that guilt was alleviated somewhat; a new normal was created in which everyone was confronting their own personal storm cloud. The social moments between the 3 of us were evidence that we had let go of some of that ongoing artistic anxiety.
Recognizing your own community of artists and making space for that community to grow together is just as much the responsibility of an artist as the creation of individual work. I am lucky enough to have access to a physical space outside the city, which is an amazing resource to be able to share. If we cultivate a broader understanding of what our “work” really is, we can all create space and opportunities for one another, whether they be large or small, in the city or out.
My dad described Westport in the ‘30s to me as a “romantic refuge” for New York City artists. It’s a less hospitable place for the creative class nowadays, just as New York City is, but artists will always be welcome at our house.