Creatives are not commonly known for lacking great ideas. However the monotony of routine, deadlines and uninspiring projects, coupled with eluded motivation and increasing fatigue can often lead to the extinguishing of our creative spark. In these circumstances, everyone has their own methods of reinvigoration.
When we heard that Image Source photographer Roberto Westbrook had stayed in an artists residency in Virgina for two weeks to achieve exactly this, we had to get in touch to find out more.
How did you first hear about this kind of enterprise?
I was aware of Artist Residencies from hearing other artists talk about them, but I had never thought to apply to one. My wife, who is a writer, learned about this residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA), and encouraged me to apply. I had to write a very short project proposal, share a few examples of my work and get two recommendations.
Where was the artists residency, and how long were you there?
The Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA) is located in Amherst, Virginia which is in the heart of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. It used to be a farm so it’s far from any distractions. I was there about two weeks.
What was your original motivation for staying there?
I had gotten to a point where it was difficult for me to think about shooting work without thinking about the commercial value of the photos. I would have an idea and I would think to myself would this sell as stock or would it help get me assignments. It’s a dangerous way to think about your work, as it can suck out the creativity. I saw this residency as a way to get away and work on imagery that had no end client or ulterior motive. In short, it was a chance to recharge and explore.
What did you do on a day-to-day basis?
I spent the first two or three days getting set up in the studio and exploring the area by car. One of my goals was to print the new work I was shooting so I brought along an Epson R1900. I set up the printer profiles and tested new papers. This can be a real time suck. I drove around scouting locations for landscape photos and also just meeting people and talking to them. I also worked on some images I had shot in China and had not had a chance to work on. Once I felt settled in, I tried to shoot every day. I got into a pattern of shooting, editing and scouting. I did a lot of Photoshop. I spent hours on some images, which is more than I would ever spend at home. It was liberating to have time to just experiment with the density and color palette of certain images. I got a lot better at compositing images. Meals were always at a scheduled time, so I would break up the computer time with lunch with the residents. I occasionally worked after dinner, but I tried to use that time to hang out with other residents or do some reading.
Were the other artists mainly photographers?
The residents were real a mix of artists. They were mostly painters and writers. There were also two composers, a mixed media artist, a documentary filmmaker and a playwright. A lot of them were from New York, but there was also a painter from San Francisco and another from Germany. I was the only photographer. Everyone was really nice and we would hang out after dinner and have a few drinks. Nothing too crazy, although I have heard other residencies can get rowdy. It really varies by location and the residents at that moment. A really nice tradition at this residency was to do open studios before you leave to share the work you had created. It was really inspiring to see and hear what people were working on.
Was any equipment made available to you to help you achieve your goals?
This residency provided a studio space and a darkroom. No strobes, computers, etc. You have to bring your own tools. I think that’s pretty common. They did have a projector for sharing work at the open studio. That was nice. They have an affiliation with a local college which gave me access to their library.
At the end of your stay, had you completed what you set out to do?
The project I proposed completely changed direction. I had wanted to work on shooting nudes and landscapes and composting them in Photoshop. Once I arrived, I decided that I would not be able to find the kind of talent I had in mind. I chose to work on two portrait series and a series of landscapes at night. I made portraits of some of the artists around me and I started a portrait series of local residents I met. The landscape series, “Grazing at Night” was accepted to a juried show at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and is on view through the end of April. My broader goal was to create new work and stretch my boundaries a bit. I think I did that.
Would you stay in an artists residency again?
Yeah, definitely. I would love to do one per year. It’s such a great opportunity.
Have you since built on any relationships you made during your stay?
Sure. I recently collaborated on an Art Commission with the composer Faye Chiao. We proposed a digital projection of my photos set to an original composition of hers. Our proposal was not selected, but I think we are going to move forward with the idea and pursue other opportunities together.
Would you recommend this type of activity to other artists, or is it something best reserved for a particular type of individual?
I would recommend this to anyone. Artists are a diverse bunch. You make this experience what you want. Some artists were more reclusive and focused on work while others embraced the social aspect and spent a lot of time with other artists. One thing I learned from talking to other artists that have done many residencies is that each one is a little different. Some are known for their partying. Some have a reputation as being very cliquey (is that a word?). Some are known for great food and being almost spa-like. It really varies. Another thing I learned is that the residencies seem to be most competitive in the summer. If you are applying for your first time, try any season but summer to increase your chances of being selected.
For more information, visit Roberto’s website.