The creative process requires periods of intense concentration; interaction and feedback; and relaxation and renewal. Our Interim Trip to the Writers' Colony in Eureka Springs, Arkansas provided all three.
Whether pursuing the literary, visual, performance, or culinary arts, we brought our creativity and our imagination, along with an unstarted or unfinished project, to the Writers’ Colony where we work in a “salon” atmosphere that combines group work (e.g. journaling and discussions) with solitude. Several hours each day are devoted to independent work during which students are free to read, write, compose, design, sketch, film, paint, cook, sing, sew, take photographs.
Inspiration comes from the environment as well as from teacher/peer feedback as we explore the historic town, just a pleasant five-minute walk away. Located in the heart of the Arkansas Appalachian Mountains, Eureka Springs (nicknamed “Little Switzerland”) offers art galleries, Victorian homes, and world-class restaurants. We can see the Christ of the Ozarks (a seven-story statue overlooking the town created by Emmett Sullivan, one of the sculptors of Mount Rushmore) and tour The Crescent Hotel (one of America's most haunted hotels and featured on numerous national television programs for its paranormal activities). The trip culminates when each participant shares his or her creative work.
Nate Gee, my colleague in the Upper School English Department, was my co-chaperone. He led all of the journaling sessions and oversaw the set-up of meals. Sometimes he made pancakes out of leftover mashed potatoes or taught students how to make scrambled eggs or grilled cheese sandwiches.
Mr. Gee worked his way through college in a variety of restaurants back in the 90’s, in Oxford, Mississippi. After gaining more experience, he became head baker at a local restaurant then worked for a few years after getting his B.A. He also became part of a community of talented southern chefs. He went back to school a few years later to get his M.A., then moved to New Orleans to teach high school English from 2001-2012. One of his proudest moments was helping to open Clancy’s, an iconic Uptown New Orleans Creole Restaurant, with friends after Hurricane Katrina. They staffed their restaurant with head chefs from unopened, storm-ravaged restaurants and out-of-work school teachers helped to prep and wash dishes. During his time in New Orleans, he taught summer school cooking classes to teenagers and developed a curriculum that helped them to develop knife skills, an understanding of essential ingredients, menu formation, and shopping within a budget.
At the Colony, Mr. Gee stays in the Culinary Suite and is willing to teach those who are interested in cooking things like strawberry shortcake or macaroons. Above all, Mr. Gee is passionate about creating and maintaining a sane balance between the individual work associated with the projects underway and the creation of a supportive, inspiring, and inclusive community of learners.
On the long bus ride, the kids opted to play “Truth or Truth” for hours and hours rather than watch movies. They tried to make their questions to each other as philosophical as possible (e.g. What type of art has the least value?) but they also asked things like “What’s been hardest for you in high school?” and “Who is the most intimidating student/teacher?” Seth taught everyone a card game and Sarah told silly fortunes. Meghan and Elle played the game of Life on an app. I kept track of weird place names and signs such as Toad Suck Park; Whole Hog Café; and Pickles Gap Cycle Shack.
At the Colony, everyone settles into their spaces and into their work. You could find the students playing their instruments in their rooms and on the deck; writing, drawing and painting at the big communal dining table or in a nook in front of a big window that looks out at the woods.
While there, I worked on the rough draft of the 7-page lesson plan that I was invited to contribute to an upcoming NCTE edited book tentatively titled Developing Contemporary Literacies through Sports: A Guide for the English Classroom.
Mr. Gee worked on his cooking and a new art he has started to learn this year: woodcarving. "I try to model for the students that I am a novice at some art, not just finessing my cooking skills."
In such a relaxed and free-spirited atmosphere, this is nonetheless, Mr. Gee notes, "quite an educational trip since each student generates a project and reflects on his or her work through writing prompts and conferences. The town is also an artist’s refuge, and the colony experience allows us to inspire each other but also to relate to each others' struggles to grow or perfect our skills."
So what did the students accomplish in the week they were there?
At the closing program:
- Grace LaFrentz '17 played “Csardas” (a gypsy piece) on her violin, a very difficult piece that she has been working on since last April.
- Seth Watring '15 read a monologue from an original one-act play written as his Capstone project; it juxtaposes capitalism and communism.
- Elle Noller '16 presented a series of unfinished items all of which went awry in some way. She showed us random sketches, drawings, knitting, and cooking. She wins the prize for embracing and learning from “failure.”
- Meghan Matje '16 asked Seth to read from her story. She revised a piece that she started on this same Interim retreat last year and she did so by incorporating parts of something that she wrote a long time ago.
- Michael Thie '15 played “Reverie” on acoustic guitar, an original composition about the fluidity and color of dreams that he started a year ago and finished in the last two weeks.
- Himica Kalra '16 showed two pieces of art. The first of a sunset was unfinished; she gave up on it. Instead, she focused on the second, a drawing that used gel medium for the background. Based on a photograph, it features Himica and her brother in a moment that captures their relationship at its best.
- Hannah Johnson '16 also showed two works of art: portrait paintings of Zowie, her Boston terrier; and Zeus, her Harlequin Great Dane.
- Fiona Campbell '17 read aloud two poems, “First Kiss, Last Kiss,” about her grandparents; and “Arizona Skies,” about a blissful moment experienced at the Writers’ Colony this week.
- Mariam Hassoun '16 showed her Middle Eastern inspired art, a drawing of a camel and a calligraphic painting of the word “Allah” in Arabic.
- Lauren Richardson '16 performed “Cough Syrup” by Young the Giant on her guitar and sang it to us. Then she shared the drawing that she made of a photo that she took on the first night here.
- Carina Kuczynski ’15 shared her “breadth” piece for her AP Art portfolio: a black and white drawing of her eye. The eye is all colors of the rainbow while the tears are only cool colors.
- Miranda Ward '15 played flute accompanied by Sarah Harbaugh '15 on the piano (Concerto in E Minor by Saverio Mercadante).
- Sarah Harbaugh '15 shared a drawing that she made of her cat and ended the evening by singing one of the pieces that she will perform at upcoming auditions and competitions.
Photos by Mariam Hassoun '16 and The Writers' Colony.