It’s a chipmunk world, and I’m just living in it. At the Byrdcliffe Colony in Woodstock where I’m doing a month-long residency, the animals have it: with their rust-colored coats, those cute chipmunks ripple through the grass like glints of bright copper; cats (domestics named Celeste and Bob) strut across the lawn at night, their Day-Glo eyes reflecting the glare of my necessary flashlight. There are animals I haven’t seen yet—rumored deer sightings bump against the fact of roaming bears and coyotes; take a walk and you’ll experience startling crashes as squirrels play dive bomber in dry leaves. You don’t need an alarm clock: the birds encourage an early rising, their harmonics complimented by cricket chirps and the scrape of flies, wasps, bees and mosquitoes against my bedroom window screens. Through it all the sound of wind rustled leaves prevails, a keen as calming as rainfall.
I’ve been given a gift, the opportunity to focus on writing in an environment divorced from the haunts of Manhattan. So far, it’s been a pleasure, a lovely balance between work, reading, solitude, and social interaction with the other artists participating in the June cycle. Can’t say I’ve experienced the minor, but frequent crises of confidence, questioning and obstacles I’ve accepted as someone who tries to produce words worth reading as a resident of NYC. Here, everything has been reduced to the essentials: for me, that’s contacting your subject emotionally, and distilling it technically, through words, sentences and paragraphs. Not that that’s simple by any means (certain struggles remain part of the devil’s pact all artists have with their work); but with the absence of distractions—actual ones, and those I manage to conjure in my Rubic’s cube called a brain—well, things certainly feel simpler, clearer in ways that defy description.
Did I just call myself an artist? Last evening a lively discussion took place on the porch of the house some of us share about what defines art, artistry—what separates it from the chaff, blah, blah, blah. The quality of work, the persistence with which one pursues it can be a defining factor, but being here reminds me how much environment counts. Context is all sometimes: I can assure you that most of the time it’s a leap for me to think of myself as nothing more than modestly smart. But here, the swirl of conversation is inspiring; it catches you up, and awakens opinions, ideas you never thought were part of you. This is what it means to be part of an artist community, a participant in the ongoing conversation not only about art, but the world. How remarkable it is to be surrounded day after day by fertile minds that alternately challenge and confirm one’s notions about…well, everything. I wake up mornings and shake my head incredulously: I’m one of them—we’re all deep in the shit of making sense of our lives, our times, through an artistic medium. Places like Byrdcliffe validate that process, and I’m intrigued to see how long its invigorating effects last beyond my stay. For now, I bask in gratitude and envy the actual animals who curl around my existence. These graceful creatures simply are; the ease with which they go about their lives make them the true keepers of this warming flame.