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Artist Residencies in the 21st Century

Where the Mind can Breathe

By Elga Wimmer

The BODY. The Watermill Center Summer Benefit, 2023 Evelyn Dugan, Taut Nature. Photo by Maria Baranova Suzuki.

Artist residencies are popping up like mushrooms everywhere, often competing with long-standing institutions. Nestled in the rolling hills and medieval towns overlooking vineyards, acres of landscaped grounds, and pristine beach areas, these new centers of creativity for artists offer a welcome respite from the shared studios, noisy cities, and fierce competition of the art market that have come to define the artist experience. Here we take a look at local artist residencies in Upstate New York and Long Island, as well as internationally, in the remote Asti area of Italy and as far away as Kenya, on the beaches of Dakar. Art Omi was one of the first artist residencies I visited with John Weber, a board member and prominent New York art dealer and gallery owner in the 1990s. With relatively few artists at the time, you could actually get to know each artist and discover some of the great talents of tomorrow while, in the after-hours, dancing the night away at a two-story open red barn, a refurbished dairy farm that still houses most of the studios today.

Lia Porto, artist-in-residence, and visitor Annina Nosei at Art Omi. Photo by Elga Wimmer

The artists, from different disciplines, countries, and backgrounds, shared meals, exchanged ideas, collaborated on projects, and attended workshops, all while participating in a shared, art-driven daily life. The residency was founded in 1992 by Francis Greenburger, a real estate developer, literary agent, and art enthusiast. Greenburger wanted to connect with artists beyond the gallery and museum experience to gain first-hand experience and possibly collect artwork at the source being made by tomorrow’s rising stars. Greenburger was also very interested in writers in the literary sense, as his father was a literary agent. The residency expanded to include residencies for writers, musicians, architects, and dancers, with a park for sculpture and architecture added to the sixty-acre property in Columbia County, the Berkshires, and the Albany area. The breathtaking beauty and serenity of the area remind me of the idyllic regions of Bavaria and Austria, with charming village names such as Kinderhook and Germantown. A particularly outstanding group of artists took part in this year’s Art Omi with the help of grants. For example, Oscar Debs, originally from Lebanon, is a recipient of the Francis J. Greenburger Fellowship for Mitigating Religious and Ethnic Conflict. During his Art Omi residency, he worked with the concept of the arc at the intersection between two carbon torches in a motion picture projection.

Altynai Osmoeva, "Dinar: Bread is Gold", hanging sculpture, handmade flatbreads (7 pieces), gold foil, and felt Collection Art Omi, 2023, photo by Altynai Osnoeva.

Sandra Carol Lapage, of Brazil, a Pollock Krasner Foundation and Repaint History Artist Fund grant recipient, repurposed aluminum trays and empty coffee capsules to create large floating sculptures, reminiscent of Cai Quo Quiang’s Phenix, made from garbage from construction sites in China.

Altynai Osmoeva, of Kyrgyzstan, a grant recipient of the Larkin Dawn Fellowship, questions how historical tradition and cultural heritage can translate into the present day and how the women of her country were highly regarded for achieving a perfect circle with handcrafted plates and rolling dough for bread. Upon entering the grounds of the prestigious Watermill Center’s 31st summer benefit this year, visitors were directed where to go by the Bear character from Robert Wilson’s adaptation of the surrealist play, UBU. Indeed, one needs directions, as the Watermill Center comprises some ten acres of landscaped grounds, a sculpture collection, 20,000 square feet of multi purpose interiors with artist residencies, a theater production archive, a library and outdoor stages. This clever, playful gesture set the tone for the event, right from the start.

The Watermill Center was founded 1992 by Robert Wilson as a laboratory for the arts. Performance artists come from all over the world to make art in its residences. Stemming from a strong association with performance, the 2023 Annual Summer Benefit centered on the role of the body in art making (The Body). On the way to the main building, lit by glowing torches that competed with the sunset, cast bronze sculptures by American Liz Glynn (The Myth of Singularity), a Watermill Center resident in 2022, lined the pathway, appearing like guardians of Dante’s Inferno, or a darker version of the Bourgeois of Calais by Rodin.

These were followed by Afra Al Dhaheri’s (Abu Dhabi) organic sculpture made of thick threads, growing out of a tree, forming big petals of wool on the grass (Tangle, Untwist, Rewind — Sweat for Years to Come). Climbing up stairs to the main building, the visitor encounters performance artist Leah Merojević (South London. based in Berlin) staging a dance performance called The Second Body – created by Ola Maciejewska (Poland, France) - half-nude, winding around, gliding on and encircling a large melting piece of ice in an open space in the center of the main building. This led to a large open area, covered in gravel, where a police-car with sirens on, is seen being dismembered by several local mechanics, hand drills and sparks flying. Performance artist Regina Jose Galindo (Guatemala), who orchestrated this provocative performance, first sat in the car, then later stood in the midst of its dismembered car parts strewn onto the gravel around her, thereby reducing this iconic image of the ubiquitous police car to less than the sum of its parts. Galindo is known for her politically involved body art since being featured in the Venice Biennial in 2001, for which she was awarded the Golden Lion for Best Young Artist in 2005. She focuses on human rights issues and reflects on social, political, and cultural violence that has affected and still affects her native Guatemala. On a lighter note, several dancers from different companies, not artists-in-residence, paid homage to Simone Forti, performing four of her works, incorporating elements of free jazz, with dancers seemingly bumping into each other in an organic flow of movements that was mesmerizing and hypnotic. (Re)Create Residency, founded in 2007 by New York art lawyer and patron of the arts, Gale Elston, stands out for its unique location in the town of Castelnuovo, set in the Asti region of Italy, which dates back to 1000 AD. The medieval castle fortress, from which the town derives its namesake, as well as the surrounding vineyards, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The wine culture has shaped the breathtaking landscape over centuries. This residency is unique in that, while encouraging artists to contemplate and explore, the participating artists are not obliged to create artwork specifically during their residency. In the summer of 2022, Ken Hiratsuka (New York) created a site-specific work, painting a circular mandala-like figure directly onto the stones of the residency terrace in blue and pink colors reflecting the sky. His partner, dancer and choreographer Gloria McLean, made a choreography for herself and a younger dancer, Shipra Saraogi, in response to the surroundings—a wonderful view of the rolling hills covered in vineyards, with castles in the distance—and Hiratsuka’s mystical floor painting.

Richard Humann (New York), also an artist-in-residence in 2022, created a sculpture in the form of a birdhouse using very minimalist language. The sculpture, which sits atop a pole out in nature, is outfitted with speakers that project domestic noises, such as a squeaky door hinge, the sound of steps on stairs, and typical kitchen noises. The work relates to communication, perceptions of home life, and the dichotomy of all sentient, social creatures. During her 2022 (Re)Create Residency, Olga Kisseleva (France) continued to develop her Eden project, titled Eden (Re)Create. The artist has for many years worked on the communication of vegetable species through molecular emission. While such communication has been established between trees of the same species, it can also be attributed to different living organisms, notably insects and animals, including, of course, humans. With the help of modern technology, the Eden project transforms encrypted communication into a comprehensive and open network. In Eden (Re)Create, Kisseleva establishes communication among regional vineyards with others in France, such as in Nizza, Grinzane, and Cavour. She also works with white poplar trees in nearby Guarene (Parco d’Arte Sandretto Re Rebaudengo) and connects these with the white poplars in Babyn Yar (Kiev, Ukraine), referencing historical turmoil. Here Kisseleva has created a memory garden by connecting the poplars in Guarene with their poplar brothers in war-torn Ukraine, an artistic gesture of healing through the language of nature.

Courtesy 2019 Kehinde Wiley, Black l Rock, Senegal, photo by Mamadou Gomis.

The artist residency in the Senegal capital, Dakar, is called Black | Rock. Senegal is the brainchild of Los Angeles-born artist Kehinde Wiley, who currently resides in New York and Beijing. Wiley is known for his naturalistic portraits, most notably for his 2018 presidential portrait of Barack Obama hanging in the National Portrait Gallery. At the age of 19, Wiley traveled via Dakar to Nigeria, where he met his estranged father and experienced a life-changing emotional connection to his African heritage. Some twenty-five years later, in 2014, Wiley founded the artist residency, Black | Rock Senegal, as an upscale haven for artists with all the comfort and amenities of a luxury resort, replete with a status-conferring infinity pool overlooking the Atlantic seaside in Dakar. The residency takes its name from the black volcanic pebbles native to the region. The Black | Rock complex, designed by Senegalese architect Abib Djenne, stands in stark contrast to the dusty roads of the surrounding area dotted with bare, half-built housing blocks and includes an opulent residence for Wiley, three apartments with adjacent studio spaces for visiting artists, as well as a spa, gym, library, and professional chef kitchen. Dakar is home to an abundance of young local talent, including artists, architects, fashion designers, filmmakers, musicians, and writers. Inspiration is everywhere, from music to dance to local customs. On the other hand, contemplative silence and quiet time for research and artistic creation can be found inside the spacious artist studios and in the landscape, largely defined by the Atlantic coast. Kehinde Wiley got his first break as an artist-in-residence himself at the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York. This experience—gaining visibility and meeting other artists, curators, and writers—would inspire him to create his own artist residency, following his success as an artist. In its near decade-long run so far, Black | Rock boasts an impressive alumni of artists who have gone on to success in the art world. To name a few: Leonard Pongo (Belgium/Kongo) works in installation, photography, textiles, and video; Pamela Castro (Brazil) works in paintings; Enam Gbewongo (London) works in textiles and performance; Adrian L. Burrell (Oakland, CA) works as a multimedia storyteller; Katherina Olschbaur (Austria, US, California) works in drawings and paintings. The Dakar Biennial 2022 (founded in 1989) showed many of the past residents of Black Rock.

Performer The Bear from UBU @Watermill Center, photo by Elga Wimmer

Barbara Hoffman (art lawyer), artists Coco Fusco, and Elia Alba at the Watermill Center Summer Benefit photo

Dancers at Watermill Center Benefit 2023, choreography by Simone Fonti, photo by Elga Wimmer©

Today’s artist residencies are the new "schools" or "movements" of earlier times, places where artistic endeavor is nurtured. Where once the Cedar Tavern in New York or the Café de Flore in Paris served as a gathering point where artists of all backgrounds could meet, exchange ideas, and get inspiration, the proliferation of artist-in-residence programs around the world has taken this need for a human touch, making that essential connection, to a whole new level.

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