Welcome back to my ongoing multi-part interview with the proprietors of La Muse Artists’ Retreat in southwestern France, John Fanning and Kerry Eielson. For the last couple of posts, we’ve been talking about the financial aspects of getting to a writing retreat, so this time around, we’re going to get even more practical in our focus: what occurs at a formal retreat on a day-to-day basis?
We join the conversation already in progress.
Anne: Having been in residence at La Muse for two different three-week residency sessions, basically because I was being so productive that I refused to leave when the first one ended, I got to see first-hand the ENORMOUS amount of work involved in getting the retreat ready for new residents. Having arrived to find everything in apple-pie order, as Louisa May Alcott liked to say, I was genuinely stunned at the flurry of activity.
Over and above intersession clean-up and prep, what’s actually involved in keeping a writing retreat going on a quotidian basis?
Kerry: Enough so that after all that dreaming, we work more hours here than we did in NYC and still have very little time to write!
Anne: What’s a day of running an artists’ retreat like?
Kerry: Processing applications takes about two hours a day. Once people are accepted and committed to coming, helping them get here can represent a lot of time. The barter residency has its application process and schedule; running barter projects underway takes three full days a week.
Kerry: We host and enjoy current attendees at La Muse. We take care of people’s wishes and needs daily.
John: We offer a limited local transportation service, so there’s a lot of driving around.
Anne: That’s something that many first-time retreatants don’t consider, but artists’ retreat tend to be in the middle of nowhere. That’s part of their charm, of course, but if a writer doesn’t plan on bringing a car — which can drive up the cost of a retreat by quite a bit, if it’s a rental — getting around can be pretty problematic. I sprained my ankle fairly soon after I arrived, so I never made the hour-long trek down the mountain to the nearest village with a grocery store, but other residents did. So I, for one, was very grateful that you did offer a transportation service, so I could do my shopping while I wasn’t walking so well.
Kerry: Most months, we work on hosting an art show or some other cultural event for our attendees and our neighbors; in 2008, we hosted 8 events. We hope to host two this year, at least.
John: The house is 450 square meters on three levels with two gardens, the maintenance of which is a full-time job.
Because at times we don’t have enough room in the house, we coordinate rentals of neighboring cottages to attendees, sometimesl who want to come with their families. When families come with their children, we arrange for childcare during their stay.
Kerry: And then, there’s all that cleaning… and gathering wood once a week from the forest for our four wood burning stoves which burn around the clock from October through April. So, we are busy.
John: You can say that again.
Anne: Not to mention organizing book swaps amongst the residents, taking us on the occasional field trip, and organizing other bits of occasional communal jollity.
I’m very interested in the practicalities, since the day-to-day business of getting fed, obtaining good sleep, and dealing with all of the million other concrete details involved in being comfortable can make an immense difference in how productive a writer is on retreat. A beautiful environment and/or adequate physical facilities are helpful, of course, but not always enough, in my experience.
But we’re talking about your experience here, not mine. What else is involved to encourage writers and other artists to be productive on retreat?
Kerry: There’s general maintenance (replacing blown light bulbs or the odd repairs or computer help, and doing what we can to help people be more comfortable and productive—whether they want to move their desk closer to the window or have a different chair.
Anne: I have distinct recollections of having made both requests. In fact, I’m relatively certain that I asked John to rearrange a fair amount of furniture.
John: Usually, in the first week, attendees have a lot of needs but after a couple of days, after the jet lag, they really start to settle in and then talk comes around to their projects and how they’re doing as opposed to blown light bulbs or where to get eggs from the locals.
Anne: Yes, let’s talk eggs for a moment, since I have some very pleasurable recollections of scrambling some of your neighbor’s freshly-laid duck eggs. Some retreats provide food for attendees, but La Muse does not. How do attendees feed themselves? How well does the communal kitchen work out?
Kerry: People cook and eat for themselves. 98% of people love it like that as it makes their retreat more of a communal one. Some people like other people to make food for them and some people like to do that for them, but again, we are not an institution.
Anne: I notice that you have a clothesline — which attendees also use. How on earth do you do all of the laundry between retreat sessions when the weather’s not nice?
Kerry: We have been very lucky to have mostly dry weather between stays and when it’s not nice, we drape sheets and towels over every radiator in the house. Worst case scenario, we use our dryer.
Anne: I was there in both spring and summer weather, and everyone got their laundry done just fine. But while we’re on the subject of weather, what’s it like at La Muse in the fall and winter?
Kerry: Fall is sunny and warm but with colder nights. Winter is mild but manages to feel cold. It never really goes below 7 degrees Celsius. That said, the weather has seemed totally unpredictable, so I hate to put anything out there in terms of expectations. I’ll just say we have four seasons, and it’s beautiful here no matter what, and the house is comfortable no matter what.
Anne: I’m sensing that I may have diverted the conversation before you finished telling me about a retreat-running day.
Kerry: We also have conversations with most attendees about their projects at least once during a retreat. Sometimes people have personal issues they struggle with, so we do what we can to provide support. We also meet with everyone socially at least once a week.
This daily interaction is one of our greatest pleasures. It can be very time-intensive, depending on the group. We try to arrange introductions with local artists when there may be the potential for an exchange of some kind. We arrange for French lessons, or just conversation exchange. Everyone needs something, most days.
Anne: Even in the face of that frankly daunting list of tasks you’ve just mentioned, my impression is that, if anything, you’ve been expanding your efforts on behalf of La Muse and the larger artists’ community over time. Is that accurate? How has your vision evolved in the years since you first opened the retreat?
Kerry: We’ve stayed very true to the original concept but have developed a community-based angle as well. We started our non-profit for local cultural activities, and to be able to create more fellowships — another development since the beginning.
Anne: That ties into the dream you were telling us about last time: trying to bring La Muse to the point where writers and artists can attend for free. It’s such a beautiful idea; I hope to see you realize it.
Tell us more about La Muse’s nonprofit. People can deduct contributions to it, right?
John: Basically, any donations made to the non-profit — it’s called “L’Association ‘La Muse’ pour la creation et la culture en Montagne Noire et Cabardes” — are completely tax deductable. An association in France functions much like a 501(c)(3) in the States. It’s due to a convention that was passed on the first of July all the way back in 1901, where two or more people operating a non-profit-making organization call themselves an “Association Loi 1901”.
Anne: You’ve got to hand it to the French when it comes to naming things straightforwardly. I was forever asking the locals what that group of crumbling medieval towers was called, and the name would turn out to be something like Las Tours.
John: It took a lot of time to get it up and running due to all the paperwork, which is par for the course in La France, but we really foresee it having great benefits for La Muse, as ideally we would like every attendee that comes here to come for free. We haven’t employed a fundraiser yet but we are a member of the Alliance of Artists Communities in Rhode Island and are doing what we can to get our mission out there to potential donors so that we can make La Muse a free retreat, much like foundations like Yaddo.
Like I said earlier. ideally we would like to invite every attendee to La Muse as a fellow or residency attached to an institution or donor so they don’t feel weighed down by the financial weight of getting away. Our mission has always been to make a space for creative people and the best way to do that would to be to offer it for free. Also, it isn’t just now that we’re doing this. Students and graduates have been coming to us from Foras Feasa in Ireland and the writing programs of universities such as Iowa and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the States for years.
We want to grow that side of La Muse, but we need help to do so. We need the donations to get people here.
Kerry: We’re also reaching out more to our community not just because we love our neighbors and are grateful to have been welcomed by them, but also because many of them are artists and writers. Our attendees appreciate having a taste of local life, and we try to facilitate exchanges between our neighbors whenever possible, whether by inviting attendees to local events, or sending them to the neighbors for fresh eggs, or for a massage or a hiking guide—you name it.
Anne: We were talking about that earlier: although so many artists’ retreats are located in beautiful environments, they tend to be isolated enough from their neighbors that, other than the weather and the types of trees, spending a month at one might not be all that different than spending a month at another. Experienced retreaters compare amenities, of course, but as someone who has attended many retreats, a lot of them blur together in retrospect.
I find it rather hard to imagine that happening with La Muse, though. Where else, for instance, was I going to see the locals playing giant bagpipes made our of goats?
Kerry: On an internal level, we’ve streamlined things since the beginning too, when it was more informal. We added the art studios. We are working on a new retreat calendar; rather than focus solely on longer retreats we’re trying to accommodate people who can only get away for two weeks.
Anne: Really? Not a lot of retreats offer stays that short; that would be helpful for working writers. Not to mention ones with kids!
Kerry: The 2010 calendar will have two-week retreats during months when there are university breaks, as well as our current three-week retreats. That way, people can come for two weeks, three weeks, two two-week retreats, a three-week retreat, etc. Some people stay for up to six months. In other words, people can tailor the length of their stay but keep to an arrival and departure schedule that won’t create a lot of upheaval for other attendees.
Anne: But the normal retreat time is three weeks, right? At many retreats, it’s a month. Why did you settle on three weeks?
Kerry: Our focus is to provide a place in which people can really crank on their projects, make some real progress. We believe that with the time it takes to settle in and with the inevitable socializing and days to read and relax, a person really needs about three weeks in order to get any real work done.
Anne: That’s true, but I know that in my case, it takes me a few days to settle in at the beginning, as well as a few days to get back to real-world mode at the end. So I had always assumed that most retreats arrange month-long (or longer) residencies, assuming that the three weeks you mentioned will fall somewhere in the middle of it.
Kerry: We used to have four-week retreats, and the last week seemed to be a listless one. As well, people often just can’t get away for four weeks. So we changed it to three.
John: Previous attendees told us three weeks would be better than four as they found it hard to get four weeks off from their day jobs or away from the kids or other responsibilities.
Anne: Speaking of time away from other responsibilities, I don’t want to run over-long, so let’s break here for the day.
Happy weekend, everyone, and keep up the good work!