April 23: One of the calendar’s red-letter days, at least for those who like sonnets and plays written in blank verse. Also, mythic saints who were dragon-slayers.
It’s taken me some time to post here again, partly because from day one of my residency at Ledig House I began writing and have hardly stopped since. Hitting a lull, I’ll pause long enough to say at least a few things about being here. The colony is situated on perhaps 300 acres of rolling land, with meadows, woods, and magnificent vistas toward the Catskills. We’re about twenty-five minutes from Hudson, New York, where I lived for two years, so I’m familiar with the environs. Besides Hudson, there are the nearby towns of Kinderhook and Chatham, charming upstate villages colonized by New Yorkers who like the country.
Ledig House consists of a handsome Italianate Victorian house, where meals and social life take place, and two outbuildings where residents have their rooms. There are about seven or eight residents at a time (plus the Ledig House Director, D.W. Gibson, on weekends). Shortly after I arrived Amy Waldman (American journalist and fiction writer) and David Machado (Portuguese fiction writer) completed their residency and left. The group is now comprised of Chloe Aridjis (Mexican fiction writer who writes in English), Christian Haller (German-language Swiss novelist), Abiye Teklemariam (Ethiopian journalist and essayist), Dy Plambeck (Danish fiction writer), Lee Tulloch (Australian fiction writer), and Lara Vapnyar (Russian-American fiction-writer who writes in English). Oh, and your blogger. In a few days we expect to be joined by new residents, and the process continues over the next weeks, with some leaving as others arrive. I didn’t in advance know any of the current guest writers, though I had met Chloe’s father about ten years ago, when he attended a reading I gave at the Casa Lam in Mexico City. Homero Aridjis is a distinguished poet and prose writer who now lives in Paris, serving as Mexico's delegate to UNESCO. He was for many years the head of International PEN and also the ambassador to the Netherlands. Chloe’s first novel is set in Berlin where she lived for a time. One reason she writes in English is that her mother Betty Aridjis (whom I also nce met in New York) is American; and so Chloe spoke English from childhood up, along with Spanish. Then, too, English is nowadays the global lingua franca, providing access to a huge readership if you can use it.
Lee Tulloch lived in New York City for many years, so we belong to the automatic freemasonry of former Gothamites, with shared points of reference such as the East Village (where some of her fiction is set) and SoHo. She’s now working on a novel set in the Hollywood of the 20s and 30s. Because I’m curious about Australia and would like to visit there (invitations welcome) she gives me insights into its geography, politics, and culture. Thank you, Lee! Then, as a result of his seriousness and knowledge of literature in several languages, Christian Haller creates around him an aura of respect; and I hope his novels will soon be translated into English. Dy Plambeck began as a poet but she now writes novels, including one set, surprisingly enough, in Texas. But then some of Apollinaire’s poems take place in the Lone Star State, so why not? Dy’s boyfriend Meds had dinner with us two nights ago and after dinner accompanied himself on guitar while singing Neil Young songs; this, with a perfect reproduction of Young’s accent, but, more to the point, an agile, tuneful voice. Because I have been close to other Russians who became American citizens, I feel a familiar affinity with Lara Vapnyar (who has the same accent as other expatriate Russians I know). She is reticent and prefers working quietly in her room to colony social life, but even so makes a distinct impression. We all feel quite spoiled, I think, when we compare our lives to Abiye Megenta’s. Abiye has been jailed several times in Ethiopia on account of articles he has published about the present government. He says convictions led to only short-term sentences and plays down the inconvenience of it all, but still. When Ledig House residents gave a reading in Hudson, two weeks ago, he presented an article composed in excellent English—again, a useful lingua franca for those whose language is Amharic. (If you google Ledig House, you'll find more complete information about the colony and its current residents.)
Later in the season, writers will be succeeded by visual artists, and one appealing aspect of Ledig House/Art Omi (the colony’s complete name) is that the grounds are dotted with dozens of art works, most of them on a monumental scale. During my hikes, I think I’ve now seen all of them. They range from satiric pieces like Steven Rolf Kroeger’s Toaster, an Oldenburgian VW bus whose roof has been been opened to admit a giant slice of bread, to works of Platonic austerity like Beverly Pepper’s minimalist Corten steel tetrahedron (four-sided pyramid) with a tetrahedronal space cut inside it. (Ms. Pepper has a famous daughter, the poet Jorie Graham, who publishes under her married name.) Also, I like the three monumental female heads in matte white plexiglass that rise from a meadow near the Visitor’s Center, like those huge statues on Easter Island. But these are works by Philip Grausman, whom I once met in the late seventies at his studio in Connecticut. His wife is the choreographer Martha Clark, and some of the faces of the sculptures resemble her. I like as well works by Willard Boepple and Tarik Currhimboy, but probably my favorite single sculpture here is one titled Valledor, by Forrest Myers, which consists of two intersecting cubes outlined in aluminum and balanced on their angles. Viewed from different sides and at varying distances, the work presents an array of complex silhouettes. The interplay of negative and implied positive space provides a sort of jungle-gym for the spatial imagination; and perhaps we could as well lend a human sense to the purely abstract intersection of two cubic forms. I don’t know the meaning of the title, though it sounds like a Spanish place-name.
Walking is my favorite exercise, so I’ve ranged far afield from the main house so as to enjoy the woods, ponds, and streams on or near the estate. Early spring is the ideal time to be here. Close to the house there are daffodils, squilla, and narcissus, and farther on the familiar cadmium yellow of forsythia. In swampy areas of the woods, skunk cabbages are now unfurling, and I’ve seen shadblow, marsh marigolds, trillium, clumps of wild chives, and the small white flowers of bloodroot. The ferment of early spring is in the air, and, though we’ve had sunny days, it has remained generally chilly, so the flowering trees are still holding off.
Working in an artist colony has a monastic aspect, for sure. But I’ve stayed in many over the past two decades (the Djerassi Foundation, the Rockefeller Center at Bellagio, the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts) and have a theory about colonies and the artistic process. The first thing they do is plunge you back into childhood, a time when food and shelter are taken care of by someone else. Needless to say, that situation stimulates creativity, the carefree, inventive sense of play that children all have. What’s more, you get to meet other resident “children,” companions in the playful exploration involved in making art. But then, as weeks pass, residents “mature.” They see their colleagues begin to leave, a process that has the poignant tinge of mortality. As the date of your own departure comes closer, something autumnal enters the mind, even if your stay is booked for one of the spring months. The prospect of the coming expulsion from Eden is its own kind of stimulus. I guess my point is that an artist’s residency can be experienced as the microcosm of an entire life. Ars longa, vita brevis, according to the old Latin tag. I'm at the midpoint of my stay. Time to get back to work.