Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Yaddo Artist Colony

If to pray is to focus on that which is important, which is larger than oneself and has meaning, then Yaddo is a place of prayer. –- Zia Haider Rahman

Located in Saratoga Springs, New York, Yaddo is one of the oldest and most established artist colonies in the country, and it looks the part. Located on the old Trask family estate, the retreat's main building was once upon a time the family's 55-room mansion, dubbed Yaddo (to rhyme with shadow) by one of the Trask children. Sadly, all four children died prematurely, and in 1900 the family turned the property into an artist community.
 
Yaddo has been host to a who’s who of 20th-century (and contemporary) artists, especially iconic writers. Everyone from James Baldwin to David Foster Wallace has spent time in residency there. Collectively, Yaddo artists have won 66 Pulitzer Prizes, 27 MacArthur Fellowships, 61 National Book Awards, 24 National Book Critics Circle Awards, 108 Rome Prizes, 49 Whiting Writers' Awards, and a Nobel Prize (Saul Bellow).
 
Recently Yaddo was designated a National Historic Landmark. In honor of this singular honor, we asked some of the many artists (and a couple of administrators) who have found inspiration and, even more important, time to make their artwork at the retreat to share what Yaddo means to them.
 
Young Jean Lee, playwright and performance artist
 
As an artist, you’re used to being treated as if your work doesn’t matter. At Yaddo, the act of artistic creation is nurtured, cherished, and treated with the utmost respect. Yaddo feeds artists on every level. 
 
Leslie Youngblood, writer
 
I think to most writers and most artists, we’ve always considered Yaddo a historic landmark. Most of my mentors or people that I’ve admired in the writing world have been at Yaddo, so to me, it’s always been a historic place that I have strived to attend. To know that James Baldwin was there, Langston Hughes--as far as I’m concerned from an African-American perspective--is just really phenomenal. James Baldwin--I actually stayed where he stayed!”  
 
Zia Haider Rahman, writer 
 
To speak of tradition seems antithetical to the artistic disposition. But good traditions make a difference. I wrote most of my novel, In the Light of What We Know, over several stays at Yaddo. Yaddo's seclusion helps. The silence and space can only focus the mind. And then there's the fact that you're relieved of practical concerns, such as preparing meals. Nothing of the quotidian need interrupt you. But there's something else, something harder to measure yet quite possibly more important than everything else. Entering the grounds on arrival, I have always been overcome by a sense of history, not specific facts but a rich atmosphere lowering over its lakes and pathways, under the gravity of the great art of writers who now stand over new residents as benevolent spirits. I have always produced more work in a day at Yaddo than in any metropolitan month. And better work, with insights yielded only by unencumbered concentration. There will always be time for the cares of the world, for earning one’s daily bread--Lord knows it’s difficult to make a living from writing fiction--but in upstate New York, in the wooded broken light between river and mountain, those cares may wait. If to pray is to focus on that which is important, which is larger than oneself and has meaning, then Yaddo is a place of prayer.
 
Gregory Sale, artist and educator
 
I arrived with my list and set to work. And as I settled in, I became aware of a more pressing personal need to replenish creatively and find a counterbalance for some of the logistical and emotional demands of my art practice in recent years. I have been working with incarcerated men and women and their families, and victims’ families, criminal justice workers, faith-based service providers, politicians, journalists; the stakes are high. Last fall and winter, I led an artistic and social investigation with ten men on death row in Nashville, Tennessee. 
  
Before the residency, I hadn’t realized how much I needed this balance. I felt in my body, a sensation of being grounded differently, which became an opportunity for deep reflection.  From that space I was able to tinker with some materials for a video installation and a book that are important aspects of my current work. I could not have reached such a depth of experience while immersed in my daily life in Arizona. There’s an urgency with my work that I actively embrace. I don’t seem to remember how much I need to be away from time to time and have some distance. 
 
Elaina Richardson, president, Yaddo
 
Since our founding in 1900, we’ve been blessed with a remarkably simple mission--to give the gift of time and space to artists in order to further their creative process by allowing them to work without interruption in a supportive community. Flash forward to today, and that’s still what we do, but now we operate in a deeply changed landscape, where--thankfully--residency opportunities have increased dramatically for contemporary artists, but paradoxically financial support for individual artists (of all kinds) has diminished radically. Thus the role of a place such as Yaddo in the ecology of artistic production has shifted. In order to explore optimum conditions for the 21st-century artist and writer we recently completed a Facilities Master Plan, giving us an opportunity to understand where we are, have a vision of what we need, and the financial wherewithal to realize that vision. It’s been an exciting process, that has led us to understand that in building our future we will also preserve our storied past and guarantee that promise of time and space, community and support, for at least another hundred years.
 
Ira Sachs, filmmaker
 
I learned so much at Yaddo that I have spent the five years since my time there trying to replicate my experience. Not the solitude, or the food, or the trees and the lakes, or the spacious living in which I was able to work. But the community I found there; that’s what has turned out to be most life-changing to me. At Yaddo, you are thrust into an artistic community in which--for many of us for the first time--artists across generations and across disciplines are given the chance to interact. In our daily life, in our highly professionalized artistic worlds, we live among our own, writers with writers, filmmakers with filmmakers, and on and on. But at Yaddo, suddenly I found myself talking for hours to a poet struggling with a single word, or a painter encountering her blank canvas. That the poet was also of the generation who served in Vietnam, and the painter on her way to Burning Man was just as significant. The sharing of stories, of lives, lived across time and history. And so in the wake of Yaddo, I became a community organizer, founding two arts organizations--Queer/Art/Film and Queer/Art/Mentorship--that attempt to mirror the multi-disciplinary, multi-generational experiences I had at Yaddo. My time in Saratoga Springs taught me something I will never forget. As artists, each of us is fighting very singular battles, but also very similar ones. We are stronger when we learn from each other, and let the world in all its variation of experience in. 
 
Janice Y.K. Lee, writer
 
Time and space may seem like the name of a scientific documentary but they signify the gifts that Yaddo bestows upon its residents. In an increasingly crowded world of technology, helicopter-parenting and 24-hour work days, the idea that an artist beset by all the above can escape to a wooded retreat in upstate New York is nothing short of magical. Add to that a community of like-minded individuals intent on serious work and some play, plus an atmosphere that has been infused with the cumulative efforts of artists past, and you have a wholly irreplaceable and unreproducible place.
 
Let's spend a moment thinking about what it means that artists such as Philip Roth, Sylvia Plath, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Clyfford Still spent time working in cabins and walking the trails of Yaddo. Their work, their ideas and dreams, have somehow floated into the ether and are present today in the history and institutional DNA of the colony. The contemporary artists working there today are acutely aware of the history and provenance of Yaddo and it informs their ambition and work.
 
My time at Yaddo represents a time when I can break away from the regular patterns of my life and float, freely, in an idyllic and idealistic space where all that matters are my ideas and how I can get them to work on the page. Then, I am able to break for a swim, a walk, dinner. This residency, this temporary break in the time and space continuum of my life, is truly incredible.  
 
David Rakowski, composer
 
For me, a residency at Yaddo represents a unique mixture of solitude and community. We go, of course, to take advantage of that most valuable gift, the gift of unencumbered time: time to work, time to make mistakes, time to try out different things, time to let your head clear and focus on the project at hand. All the thinking, all the hypotheticals for your piece, all the conceptual fitting together happens very fast for me at Yaddo. And when it doesn't, there is a beautiful wooded path to walk, which is usually good for clearing out any fog that has started clotting my mind. Time feels virtually infinite at Yaddo.
 
It is also inspiring being part of the community of artists who are resident with you. They are all at the top of their fields; all of them have unique ways of approaching their own work. When other composers, or poets, or playwrights, or visual artists share their work, I often find resonances in my own work; sometimes recognizing those resonances can lead me to discover a different path in what I am working on. Several times, I have forged relationships at Yaddo that have led to collaborations after the residency is over.
 
And when work has been so intense that the brain is exhausted, there is the opportunity to spend a whole afternoon in the Lyrical Ballad bookstore in downtown Saratoga Springs. That will clear both your mind and your bank account.
 
Joseph Keckler, singer, writer, and performance artist
 
First of all, to be invited to spend time at Yaddo is validating to an artist. My first residency meant my being benevolently swept from a vague and meager bohemian existence--and the dingy urban nook in which it was taking place--and delivered at the foot of a fantastic gothic mansion in the woods, where giants of the 20th century once roamed and hatched masterpieces. To be trusted with the time and space to develop my work at such a storied institution felt affirming, to say the least.  Of course, it can be rather intimidating--or intoxicating--to think about the canonical artists who slept and toiled in the very rooms that one is doing the same. But this history can give one a sense of possibility and, more importantly, lineage. It can also provide one, periodically, with humbling reality checks. “Now, how does this thing I just dashed off truly compare with 'Appalachian Spring' and 'Ariel?'” Yaddo places living artists in intimate quarters with their predecessors, and, at the same time, introduces contemporary artists to one another. Despite my efforts to labor in solitude, I became acquainted and very fond of many of the other colonists, some of whom are now important collaborators and friends. Conversations that begin at the dinner table sometimes ripple out into the world. In this way, Yaddo is not only a time-honored institution, but also a hub of contemporary exchange.
 
Rachel Shteir, writer
 
Yaddo has meant many different things to me because I have been there at many different times in my life. One thing it has meant throughout is the chance to live and create for a little while in a dream, a utopia, a rich community of writers and artists that doesn't exist on the outside. Yaddo has given me a chance to work in peace for what always seems like too short a time.
 
The fact that Yaddo exists in a physically beautiful site and is staffed by enormously able and caring people working to take care of all the things that interrupt you (here I am talking about from the mundane to the serious, from making your lunch to relationships) is an extraordinary comfort in a world largely indifferent to the needs of artists and writers.
 
The first time I went, when I was 25, Yaddo gave me an idea of who I was as an artist. As someone wiser than I said much later, I did not know how to pace myself as a creator. I had to learn. 
 
Later, Yaddo has been a place of respite from the marketplace at a time when there is a lot of pressure to write in a certain way, to do certain projects in certain ways. It has been a place to reflect and also to dare.
 
It is a luxury but, of course, it is a necessity.  
 
Mike Albo, writer and performer
 
In the nattering city, I juggle freelance work with performing and writing and trying to find time to see friends and plays and readings and have a relationship that matters and build a career...all this while attempting to feel confident in myself as an artist...like I am on the "right path." But I seem to only have time to eat broccoli over the sink before running out to a show. I say "I'm so busy!" way too much. I think I thought that being "busy" meant you were a professional and legitimate and on the right path. So when I came to Yaddo that first summer several years ago, I suddenly realized I forgot two crucial things in my creative life: space and time. I was suddenly in this peaceful, beautiful, mysterious mansion with time--lots of it--to work, and space--both physical and mental--to follow my thoughts and carve that path. Every visit I make to Yaddo, I complete things I would have never been able to back in my blurry city existence. (I am always doing five projects at once and can't tell you how great it is to simply have an empty room with clean flat surfaces around to make piles and organize all the scraps and notes and lines I write down on the subway.) But also, the visits I have made to Yaddo have been hugely crucial for me in less tangible ways. Yaddo has helped me create a voice, vision, and a sense of grounded-ness as an artist. It has helped me know I am on the right path. I can say, with confidence: I am a writer and performer and that is what I am here on this planet to do. Yaddo is a powerful place. Maybe it's the mix of pine needles and old Edmund Wilson books and the ghost of Carson McCullers. 
 
Caitlin Strokosch, Executive Director, Alliance of Artists Communities
 
Yaddo’s significance as a National Historic Landmark is more than as a place. Yaddo is a landmark of ideas and a steward of our culturalheritage, expanding the organization’s reach far beyond the extraordinary property itself. As a model within the field of artist residencies for morethan a century, Yaddo is a critical force in supporting the advancement of creative work that is essential to human progress.
 
Leslie Jamison, writer
 
When I showed up for a month’s residency at Yaddo, I was working at a bakery in a Midwestern college town--rolling and decorating sugar cookies, pulling shots of espresso, mopping the floors--and it was wonderful to have an environment that honored writing as hard work in its own right. I’d also just gone through the publication of my first book, a novel that hardly sold, and back home I was feeling distracted by the ways in which that publication had begun to feel like a failure. Yaddo was a space where I got off the internet, stopped checking my reviews, and got deep into working on another book; reclaiming the act of writing itself and reclaiming myself from a kind of clutching, obsessive focus on the professional aspects of my art. 
 
Which is to say: my residency didn’t just grant me temporary respite from the logistics of my life, it also granted me respite from my own obsessive fixations. It offered me the chance to reconnect with the flush and excitement of imagining a world and beginning to build it on the page--that heady, sustaining rush that feels so far away from ruthlessly refreshing the browser for a better Amazon number. I had the space to let my imagination stretch its legs and take a stroll. I wasn’t just working in hour-long blocks; I could let an idea evolve over the course of a day or a week, see where it went. That was invaluable. 
 
There’s a lot of noise in the contemporary world: everything from Twitter feeds to anxious spouses. A lot of this noise is actually quite lovely, and utterly essential. But a residency offers a moment of pause from all that--a chance to hear yourself think, a clearing that connects back to all the other artists who have ever dwelled in it. It’s an incredible gift.
 
Nathan Barr, composer
 
In the summer of 2009, my father and I shared a residency at Yaddo together and became the first father-son team in its history to do so. The visit was particularly special for me because it brought to life the vivid stories of his own residencies when I was a child: the artists, the passionate dinnertime conversations, the impromptu recitals and poetry readings, and the mansion, a meandering web of bedrooms and hallways where artists sequestered themselves during the days with the sole purpose of creating. Most intriguing, my father spoke of how a residency at Yaddo was the ultimate way to shut out the noise and distraction of the modern world, and bring a laser-like focus to his craft. And so we visited together for two weeks in June with the hope of making some progress on an opera project we had been discussing for years. My father worked at the libretto in the mansion, while I pounded away at an upright piano in a composer’s cabin in the woods. Occasionally, music from the stone tower--also a composer’s workshop--would waft through the woods, reminding me that I was not alone out there. Come dinnertime, I would find myself seated between a painter and a novelist one evening, between a choreographer and a poet the next. The conversations always felt fresh and exciting, and a day’s writer’s block would be washed away by dessert. Knowing that great artists like Aaron Copland and John Cheever had also struggled under these eaves didn’t hurt. I am proud to have become a small part of Yaddo’s great history, and hope to return.
 
Michael Snediker, writer
 
As much as “time-honored” rightly conveys the venerability of a place that has surely nourished more artists than ought be possible, Yaddo’s relation to time strikes me as less passively staid, more surprisingly dazzled, than “honored,” per se. Time is more alive at Yaddo than any place I’ve ever been, an ecosystem whose élan woos the art into being that in turn replenishes it. Or to switch the terms of comparison, bringing possibility to a place already buzzing with generations of possibility feels like anteing chips into an inexhaustible kitty. Yaddo is time-honored, yes, but it’s also galvanizingly time-sensitive, time-dappled: like the sun across the magnificent gold carpet of the mansion’s grand hall, the moon falling through our long allées of pine. Before coming to Yaddo, I couldn’t have fully appreciated what other artists gratefully describe as the space’s gift of time. But along the lines of the gift of food versus the gift of Proust’s madeleines, or the gift of jewelry versus the gift of Elizabeth Taylor’s Bulgari emeralds, there’s time and then there’s time. It’s not just that Yaddo gives time that the banal busyness of living otherwise seems to squander; the time it gives is itself inimitably ennobling, enabling, invigorating. I think I might be in love with Yaddo time the way Saratoga’s first visitors were in love with its water. One of the things our National Landmark designation protects is this pristine quality of time--what T.S. Eliot, in a not altogether different context, more ponderously calls tradition--that feeds the present, past, and future alike like an ancient, invisible spring. 
 
Mike Doughty, performance artist
 
There really is a palpable amount of breathing room to the working day when I’m at Yaddo. You have to depart your life for a little while to go there, and that conscious choice, as well as the environment, and things like the strange, gleeful ornateness of the Yaddo mansion, somehow makes it both profoundly calming and adventurous.
 
I write songs for a living, so, naturally, there are pressures of commerce. That can be a myopic state. I’m very much in favor of commerce, but it serves the work, as opposed to the other way around. There is a freeing that happens in the studio there.
 
Last time I was at Yaddo I felt that I was being lazy. I brought a lot of music to listen to--old ethnographic recordings from the 1920s--and spent a lot of time with it. I knew I’d come up with some good stuff, but didn’t feel especially productive--until I looked at what I’d come up with: 21 songs in five and a half weeks.
 
The best part for me is the other artists there--especially the exposure to other disciplines. My world can be pretty homogenous, just musicians. The dinners are really wonderful. That baroque, baronly dining room is uniquely merry and fascinating.
 
I’ve also seen Yaddo have a galvanizing effect on the young artists I’ve met there. I always meet a few people in their twenties who are still bartending, or otherwise scraping by while they start their careers. And they’re mixing with Pulitzer winners in the dining room. One time a young writer was making a half-joke about how he didn’t know how he ended up there, and an ancient, legendary playwright jabbed his finger at him: “You’re here because you earned it. You belong here, and don’t you forget it.”
 
Rick Moody, writer
 
The Trask family, whose idea it was to make Yaddo a refuge for artists and writers in perpetuity, could not have known exactly how inimical to the ongoing practice of the imagination the digital 21st century would come to be. Now, as in the early twentieth century, when the plans for Yaddo were first dreamed into being, nothing is as useful for novel writing, for example, as some time in an institution like Yaddo. The quiet, the surroundings, and the decades of history of good work give the place a magical aura. These days, that magic is even more important than when I first went there, in the early 1990s. Now, with the cell phones and the wireless internet, it becomes ever rarer to find a place where patience and support for creative work are available in such abundance. At every important juncture in my career, I have returned to Yaddo to refresh my practice. I simply couldn't have done the work I have done without it.  
 
Charles Bock, writer
 
The first time I attended Yaddo, I was in my late twenties and didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. Not even halfway into a book that would take me another half a decade to finish. I didn’t actually get in, to tell the truth, but was on the wait list. I got a letter telling me that a space was available, and this was a huge event , let me tell you it meant a break from being third-shift proofreader, and that I could sublet my apartment for a bit and earn some bread that way. It meant a break from my [not that great] real life so that I could write around the clock at the famous writer place.
 
I remember how formidable that dinner table was the first night, I was so honored to be there that I was too scared to speak.  Honestly, just being in the library, surrounded by books from writers who’d been residents, was intimidating.  I remember it was the middle of the winter and the mansion was closed at the time, but during that stay they took us on a tour and I had someone take a photo of me jumping near the stairwell, aping a famous photo of Truman Capote on the grounds. I also remember that I had at least one important conversation about plot and character with a dramatist who was there adapting his play into a major motion picture. His agency sent him a huge holiday gift basket and he shared some while I picked his brain. Let’s be real. There was no reason for me to know or talk with that man other way. To this day I appreciate him taking me seriously. One other memory: during that first week a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist sat at the head of the table and regaled us with what it was like to dine at the White House.
 
That first residency made me feel like there might be a place for me at the table; I might actually have a chance at doing what I wanted to do with my life.  
 
This was a while ago. I’ve since done a lot of my important writing at Yaddo. There’s no way of overstating just what the time and space means to a creative life, what this kind of support means in a world where, honestly, writers and artists must exist between the cracks in the sidewalk. Of course, it’s more than just time. More than just carrots in the lunchbox.
 
In the Yaddo mansion, in front of a room of artists and writers and composers, with my voice wavering and tears blocking my view, I read out loud, for the first time, pages based on my late wife and her struggles with cancer. This was the safe place where that could happen.
 
No matter at what stage of your artistic career, or where you are in your life, when Yaddo opens its arms to you, you are home.
 
If you liked this artist community story, you might like our interview with Mala Iqbal about her time at the Fine Arts Work Center and with Caroline Mak about her time at Elsewhere Collaborative.

 

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