Spotlight on a New WV Artist Residency Program
foundation | September 26, 2016
On a 400-acre, former family apple farm just outside the little town of Shanghai, WV in the Eastern Panhandle, John Labovitz and Susanna Battin run the North Mountain Residency each summer. The now two-year-old residency program welcomes artists of many stripes, working at every stage of their career. Artists are selected during an open application process held each winter, and each selected artist is invited for a three-week stay that next summer, including private living and studio space in a three-story home. During their stay, artists are given free reign over the property, and encouraged to explore the old orchards, a pond, and forests of oaks, maples, and sycamores.
Susanna reached out to the team at the foundation recently with a request to be connected to more West Virginia-based artists for this burgeoning residency program. We asked John and Susanna to share about themselves and the program here.
Tamarack Foundation for the Arts: Please share your backgrounds, and how did you arrive at the idea of starting the North Mountain Residency?
John Labovitz: I’ve flitted between various media, mostly triangulating between photography, printmaking, and typography, with some computer programming thrown in. Just before I was born, in the mid-1960s, my grandparents bought the apple farm where the residency is now located. I spent my youth exploring its woods and fields, and then moved to the west coast for about 25 years. In 2012, while working on a photo-documentary project about letterpress printing, I spent a couple of months at the farm and realized that it could make a great studio/retreat space for myself. My next thought was, well…if I was building studio spaces anyway, why not invite out my other artist friends? I’d had some experience doing residencies myself, and found them to be a remarkably useful tool/experience for pushing my work forward — both in process and product. I realized I could put the vision into action by starting small, using whatever housing and infrastructure was already on the property. I did a pilot program in 2015, after which Susanna came on, and we began officially as North Mountain Residency in 2016.
Susanna Battin: I usually live and work in LA, but will continue to come to WV to help facilitate and activate the space and direction of North Mountain. Last year, I was here as a resident artist during the pilot program. John and I began sharing ideas and inspirations for how to really make the residency work, and act beyond the normal ‘time and space’ model. This included ideas about site-specific practices that could happen in response to the environment and culture of the area. At the time I was researching and writing about the American canon of Land Art — those practices that engaged with notions of land-ownership and conceptions of nature resonated strongly with me. While on site I made a sculptural piece situated at the axis point of four distinct land boundaries that took the form of a very tall stile — a piece of vernacular architecture that I encountered for the first time here at the horse pasture. I was taken by the place and the value of offering a residency to other artists, particularly those that are underserved, so I jumped on board.
TFA: Which kinds of artists do you work with? And what are some examples of projects that artists have worked on while in residency?
SB: We are actively trying to build connections with artists local to our region, and with those who might not normally apply for an artist residency. We especially welcome applications from artists who have not been in formal or institutionalized schooling; artists from West Virginia; artists of color; female artists in technological fields; those who identify as LGBTQ, indigenous, immigrant; and reflect a broad range of ages. In terms of disciplines, we work with visual artists, writers, sound and performance-based artists, artists who are working conceptually. Often times our residency serves as a site for conducting research and it is helpful because it provides context for artists who want to give meaningful attention to an experiment, a geographic or cultural location, or a certain text.
We recently hosted writer, Rose Himber Howse, who came to NMT to develop her novel that is set in a landscape very close to the one we’re in. She was able to spend concentrated hours writing on site (her favorite spot was on the deck which faces Back Creek Valley) while she also deepened her research in the novel’s setting. A good portion of her story takes place inside a rock quarry in the region. We made a group field trip to the Inwood Quarry (they were awesomely gracious and welcoming), improvised an interview with the quarry employees, and toured around their site, which was incredibly helpful to Rose’s process.
TFA: What role do you play in helping artists bring these projects to fruition?
SB: The most basic artist residency model usually offers artists dedicated time and studio space that is outside their normal day-to-day. We provide that kind of time and space, but also provide support in the research endeavours that artists may have. That includes building connections to local resources and community, sharing sources of inspiration from our library, and engaging in a critical dialogue with artists to work through ideas and experiments. We also aim to provide the artists with good documentation and write detailed statements of their work made on site, which we share on our news page and to social media. We offer constructive feedback to every artist who submits an application — so applicants know our values better and can also gauge what this type of artist residency is looking for.
TFA: What kind of community is created or encouraged among the residents?
SB: We’re still very small; at present we host two artists at a time, in sessions of about three weeks each. We’re generally both on site as well, so the community is built between the four of us to varying degrees. For next season, we’re planning an outdoor ‘field’ studio, so we may be able to host more artists at a single time, which will be very exciting. Different artists bring different social dynamics to the table so the community is always changing and active. We try to encourage an engaging dialogue about each artist’s work, and support them through experiments that they may not otherwise make. Much of their time on site is about risk-taking in one’s practice. What we can provide is a safe space for that to happen, without fear of failure or critical presentation of a final product. This makes for a supportive and focused residency dynamic. We also teach simple breadmaking skills and provide the bread flour! We’ve consider renaming ourselves ‘North Mountain Artist Breadsidency’.
TFA: Why do you want to have an artist residency in West Virginia? And how do you see the residents interacting with the community surrounding the residency?
JL: The most obvious answer is because we had access to land in West Virginia, and not elsewhere. But as apparently the only artist residency in the state, it’s exciting to be able to bring the residency model here, while thinking really intentionally about how the project interacts with the land and culture we’re a part of. We don’t want to be an island, or even a retreat; rather, we’re interested in what it means to weave art-making into the space and vice versa.
Community interaction is always a work in progress. We are quite rural, being off a small road on a mountain in a fairly unpopulated valley, so bringing artists into the surrounding community is something we have to plan for. Interestingly, all but one of this year’s artists arrived without a car, and so spent a lot of their time onsite. We actively reach out to interesting people, organizations, and events in the area, and help residents with access such as going on field trips. We’re making friends with local artists, arts organizations, and universities to possibly collaborate in future exhibitions, performances, and programming. What we’re trying to do is create residency opportunities outside the usual art/residency context — for example, what if we connected a river conservation group with a visiting artist in a creative partnership?
TFA: Is there anything else that you would like to share?
SB: We’re hosting North Mountain’s first open house on Saturday, October 1st! We’d love to invite anyone who is curious and close to the Berkeley County area to come over and share –there will be bread! We are curious to hear from local artists about their practices and needs, especially as we begin our thinking about programming for the 2017 season. We’ll be doing a short presentation about NMT, taking a site tour over stream and hill, celebrating the opening of a touring exhibition by LA-based artist Joe Parmer called the Kitchen Rock Show, and will be joined by Atlanta-native songwriter Eliot Eidelman in live performance. Please write us for details at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The foundation team will be keeping in touch with John and Susanna and bringing more details on this residency as the next application cycle approaches. Applications will be accepted for the next summer residency season beginning in early 2017. Sign up for the North Mountain Residency email list (see bottom of page) to be notified when the application process opens, and learn more about the residency on the North Mountain Residency website.