I set an intention over the last couple of years to create space and time for my artistic endeavors. One of the ways I invested in myself was in applying for an artist in residency program at Oak Spring Garden Foundation based in Upperville, Virginia. I’ve never been to an artist in residency before, a whole new world to me. But when I read through the description after seeing Janisse Ray post about her experience as a writer in residence at this place, I had to!
It was as though someone had collaged all my favorite things into one artistic masterpiece. Even though my chances seemed slim for this competitive and prestigious opportunity, I had to apply. Low and behold in the fall of 2021 I received an email to welcome me into the residency program! I was accepted! I squealed, danced, spun around in circles and jumped up and down!! It seemed so far away, a mid August 2022 trip, but now I’m here!!
I had to strategize this extended getaway, work wise and on the homestead. Months of well laid out plans week by week to ensure all the things I do for the small but mighty Working Food were in good shape for me to be gone. I am grateful for a supportive and amazing staff and board. I am here, and they are handling my departure hopefully with ease. Mike shouldn’t have any work travel, so Okra and Huxley are in good hands, although I miss dog snuggles like crazy.
I arrived on August 14, amazingly with no major travel glitches. The two enormous, just under 50pound checked bags each stuffed to the brim with art supplies and personal stuff for a 5 week stay made it with me. Since arriving I have truly felt overwhelmed with gratitude and joy, and feel spoiled by the universe for the opportunity to be here. The weather has been spectacularly perfect as we ease into the late summer and early fall season. I’ve escaped one of the hottest and hardest months in Florida.
My first evening here I wandered the trails barefoot, said hello to familiars and greeted new to me beings. Hello pokeweed and lambsquarters, goldenrod, fleabane and thistle! Hello mockingbird, gold finch and monarch! Barefoot walking to feel the plants and soil, and nibbling on local plants feels like a good way to get to know a place and settle in.
Oak Spring Garden Foundation is in rural Virginia, only about 45 minutes from DC. It’s pretty quiet and peaceful, but there are numerous planes in the airspace, and there is a military bunker thing on the mountainside that’s an emergency spot for the President and presumably other important things, as I’ve been seeing funky military aircraft going back and forth. It’s mostly open plains between the Blue Ridge and Bull Run Mountain Ranges, which makes for a stunning backdrop on both the East and West views.
The estate here is that of the late Rachel “Bunny” and Paul Mellon, very wealthy philanthropists who amassed quite a collection of rare and commissioned works of art, books, jewelry, race horses and so on. Bunny Mellon was particularly inspired by gardening of various styles and influences, and curated a stunning landscape here of formal gardens. Multiple restored and quaint buildings include housing for staff and visitors, an old school house for communal meals and gathering, converted horse stalls that now house conference spaces and dorms, an incredible library (more on that later), gallery, formal gardens, onsite farm and more. It’s hard to imagine the lifestyle and wealth that allows for collections of such incredible things. But I’m grateful that Bunny Mellon was able to put things in motion before her death at age 103 in 2014, so the Foundation could share their vast treasures with the artist community.
Public workshops and education, access to the library, artist residencies and fellowships have been designed to allow those pursuing artistic adventures related to plants, and plant conservationists to gather, be inspired, create, learn, and share back their work with Oak Spring. The onsite farm and education garden (Rokeby Farm) is newer, and produces food for the community through CSA shares, feeding the onsite residents, and donating many thousands of pounds to the local food pantry. They’ve initiated conservation efforts including the restoration of prairies through reduced mowing, planting trees and native plants, putting up birdhouses and more.
I feel absolutely spoiled rotten by the amazingness thus far of being surrounded by so many beautiful beings.
Three days per week, we are treated to a meal prepared by their chef Jason. He uses a lot of the farm produce from right across the road. A few days a week we can volunteer at either the farm or the formal gardens if we want to. My first few days here I’ve already spent several hours with the farm crew, as you might imagine! I brought my work clothes and my own pair of Felco clippers, prepared. I’ll probably do that a couple times a week to stay nimble and learn from other farmers how they do things.
Part of the farm operation is the Bioconservation Cultural Farm which has an education garden and a newly emerging seed saving operation with a focus on Appalachian heritage crops. The education garden provides raw materials for residents and workshop attendees. Various dye plants like indigo and Hopi Red Dye amaranth are used onsite for creative endeavors, as are many other plants for pressing, sketching, painting and more. My first volunteer day we harvested a bunch of Japanese indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) and then put it in a giant tub to ferment. I’ll be here long enough to actually see the dyeing process to the end…I think! I’ve been snipping sprigs and snapping photos of many plants I’d like to draw or press on evening walks.
We have a bike if we want to pedal around, but so far I’ve been mostly walking the extensive mowed trails through the pastures and on the country roads to get around. I walk about 3- 5 miles a day. Walking lets me really experience the land. Like Sphinx moths at dusk, dipping their long proboscis into four o’clocks and lilies; a praying mantis patiently stalking prey from the underside of a mint leaf; the thistles still in bloom but also going to seed, and the goldfinches joyfully bouncing about them gathering food; the crows here making delightful sounds I’ve never heard, I suppose a Virginia dialect I’m not familiar with; a roosting swallowtail butterfly settling in at dusk overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountain range; a fox scurrying between the rock walls; and the faint smells each dewy morning of a skunk that had issues with someone the previous night.
I share a lovely house with one other artist, Lorena. I have my own upstairs bedroom, bathroom, and sitting room – where I am now writing this and looking outside the open windows hearing the morning crickets and birds. Adjacent to the house is Lorena’s studio and mine- we each have our own which is good, especially since she does photography and film and needs the room dark as can be, and I’ve got all the windows open for as much light as possible! All the other artists in our cohort (6 total) also have their own studios. I could do most of my work in this sitting room if I wanted to, but having the option to be a bit messy and not worrying about ink or paint dropping on nice furniture is good.
I’ve mostly been getting settled and acquainted, going on tours of the facilities and landscape so we know how and where and who all the parts work around here. It’s also been nice to not feel any pressure of time since we are here for so long, so each moment doesn’t feel wasted even if I’m not being productive. I need to embrace this feeling more in my daily life!
Now that most of our tours of the landscape are done, I can settle in and start creating, while also continuing to explore all the nooks and crannies of this place. I have a list of ideas I’d like to pursue, but am not committed to anything. I’ve already added ideas to the list, having been inspired by critters and plants here since the very first day. I’d like to finish up my series of paintings for the Heritage Crop project I’ve been commissioned for. 31/42 crops have already been submitted so I’d like to knock out this last batch and get going on the other ideas.
Still pinching myself that I’m here!