A Creative Retreat in Sweet Briar

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on January 27, 2002

It takes time and space to create art, and both ingredients can be difficult to come by in our modern world. So sometimes it just makes sense to leave the modern world.

Writers, composers, and visual artists can do just that through fellowship residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), a retreat located far from the madding crowd on a former dairy farm in Amherst County.

It’s still a farm, just one of a different sort today—where seeds of creativity are sewn and ideas harvested. Carvings and sculptures wind along the curving gravel road leading to the lodge and studios, clusters of animated artists discuss their work under the trees, and contemplative individuals armed with notebooks stroll the grounds for inspiration.

Sheila Gulley Pleasants, an administrator who lives on-site with her sculptor husband, says the focus of the VCCA is to support artists while they’re creating by offering solitude, among other things. “We provide the valuable creative time that allows the public to have these works of art.”

The nonprofit center (funded primarily through private sources) was founded in 1970 after the Virginia Commission for the Arts determined such a facility would bolster cultural opportunities in the commonwealth. Elizabeth Langhorne, a writer from Charlottesville, coordinated the effort.

“She drove the process to reality,” says Sara Goodwin, director of development.

The idea seemed dead in the water early on, when fire destroyed the 19th-century mansion housing the artists, but Langhorne arranged to have the artists be able to both sleep and work in their studios (converted horse stables) while a modern residence was built on the site of the old. (The VCCA leases the property for $1 per year from nearby Sweet Briar College.)

“Not a single person cancelled, and the VCCA did not shut down for a single day,” Pleasants says proudly.

Acceptance at the artist colony is competitive. Applications are reviewed by professionals and ranked according to accomplishments and/or perceived promise. The 30 percent to 40 percent selected may reside at the center for up to three months, paying a daily stipend (currently $30) if finances permit. Generally, 24 residents can be found there at any given time.

Being relieved of daily obligations such as cooking and cleaning and being surrounded by other creative professionals often allow the fellows to accomplish more than they might at home.

“It’s total freedom,” says Silvelin von Scanzoni, a painter from New York who has stayed at the VCCA several times. “You have the feeling that no one is going to bolt in (the studio).”

Scanzoni says the pastoral setting also inspires her work.

“If this were in the middle of a city, I wouldn’t feel as creative. I need to see space. The mountains and landscape have a tremendous influence on what I do. This place absolutely fits my artistic needs,” she says.

Fellow artists also share a strong sense of support.

“You feel psychologically safe here, which is the best state of mind from which to take creative risks,” says Patricia Chao, a writer from New York.

While the VCCA hosts artists literally from around the world, members also strive to serve the local community. In addition to focusing on their own work, some visit area grade schools to discuss their art forms with students.

Betty Glass, who teaches sixth-grade at Amherst Middle School, hosted three VCCA authors in her classroom last year. “When a professional writer tells the students about their own editing process and maybe shows some examples of work before and after, it’s more effective than when I stand up there and talk about it. The students did some super writing after working with these authors.”

Last year, the VCCA took this concept even further. Anthony Kelley, a composer, spent the bulk of his summer residency working with area youth interested in music. That fall, he and the Sweet Briar Orchestra performed the students’ original compositions in a gala concert at the college.

“This concert was just so awesome in that you could see federal funding, through the NEA for instance, coming down and impacting local communities,” Goodwin says. “That was truly a gift.”

Which is exactly how many artists describe their time at the center.