I’m just back from Snow Farm, and I’ve got so much to share about my week in western Massachusetts.
I took the train up from DC and really enjoyed the journey; I thought it would be tedious to be on a train for almost eight hours, but I was pretty exhausted and enjoyed having the time to just veg out before arriving at Snow Farm for the week.
I headed north last week for a class with Rebecca Ringquist, whose work I’ve admired for about a year now. This was my first serious art retreat and I was blown away by how different it was from my retreat experiences at Squam. Having an entire week to focus on one thing was a gift; it really allowed me to dive deep into the medium and connect with it in a way that’s hard to pull off in a one-day class.
I actually didn’t know I could become immersed in sewing or painting this way; prior to this workshop I’d only felt that kind of immersion in my writing. Surprisingly, I was rocking out pretty hard with my embroidered pieces by mid-week. There we were at midnight on Wednesday – the new Frightened Rabbit album, some mild headbanging and my hoop and needles. It was epic. Great, powerful creative energy; I felt wild with it for a while.
I wish every artist I took classes from was as professional a teacher as Rebecca; she’s got a superb ability to lay out a class and keep it on track. I was shocked at the amount of ground we were able to cover each day. It’s tough to think of a way to describe the coursework she took us through, but in a nutshell, we translated drawing exercises into embroidery exercises, and in the process learned to think of the needle and thread as a pencil or pen. It’s a tough alchemy to describe, but when I did embroidered work previously, I was very pattern and stitch focused. In this course I felt I was able to be much more expressive, and although I have a powerful mental block where drawing is concerned, the drawing exercises really helped me push through it and find lines in my work that I liked. I’d like to carry that momentum forward with an Art League class this winter; for a while I’ve been feeling that my inability to sketch out my ideas is holding back my creative development, and I think a drawing class will help with that.
Snow Farm itself is a beautiful campus. The studio space allotted to our class was expansive, with a room for hand sewing and a room for machine sewing. Our studio was in the oldest building on the property, a 1757 farmhouse, and I loved working in a space with such a sense of history behind it. We often worked in the studios together after class ended; my classmate Jill put on some sweet music each night, and we listened to it and sewed and talked together late into the evening, all of us tired but too into what we were doing to stop working. It actually kind of reminded me of college in a lot of ways. For example, this moment:
That’s me about a decade ago, pulling an all-nighter to assemble a completely extracurricular room-size series of wall hangings for an unauthorized library installation that seriously pissed off almost the entire faculty body of my department. I hung it up in our primary study space and the students were too busy trying to figure it out to focus on their declensions, so it didn’t stay hung up long. While it did, though, it looked pretty badass. So, it was like that. A whole lot of effort, push it to the limit effort, full-immersion effort, just to suit myself. My favorite, and a way of working that I haven’t had the energy for in a really long time, so it felt great to come home to it again. And in a seriously wicked studio space, with tons of room to fling supplies everywhere.
I worked on three pieces while I was there; the first two were blind contour drawing exercises, one done directly on fabric the way those exercises are usually done and then sewn over, and one more of a loose interpretation where we embroidered following the contour of an object.
The third was meant to just be an exercise in loosening up and playing around with my sewing machine, but once we got to alphabets on Thursday, I found that I’d created the perfect background for some text play, so I added some words to it – please and thank you, which in my head were a play on gratitude, asking and taking in romantic relationships – probably not something that translates well on the piece, though I do think some mild anger comes across in the red lettering of the thank you. I’m adding an acorn to it, which is totally not related to my original concept at all; I just like acorns. (Snort, giggle, etc. I love “I just like acorns” as an artist statement for this piece.) Jill actually drew the acorn arrangement for me, and then I changed some of the acorns around, so I like the idea of adding an image that was a collaborative activity with a classmate.
This was the piece I got the most response to, which is interesting to me but not totally surprising. The larger pieces are a lot more in-progress just due to their scale, so though I have a whole map in my head for where I’m going with them, they don’t necessarily look exciting to others when they’re not finished. And the little one’s colors and letter shapes interact well – plus, “please and thank you”? Extremely open to interpretation. I like how it could mean lots of different things to different people. Messages that can grow beyond their original intent are one of my favorite things in all kinds of artworks.
We had Wednesday afternoon off, and while most of us stayed in the studio to work, Jill and I decided to take a trip over to Shelburne Falls to see the glacial potholes and flower bridge. We left after lunch and took a detour by an antique stove repair shop – amazing stoves, we were fascinated. Jill scored an amazing price on possibly the largest inkle loom I’ve ever seen; the shopowner told us it came from a local business that had closed thirty years ago, and when it closed, all the inventory was locked up inside for decades until the building got reclaimed. Thus the loom was still in its original box, with its original starter yarn, all of it in shockingly perfect shape. I’m glad she got there before me because I have no idea how I’d have gotten it onto the train home. From there, snacking on some salt and vinegar chips donated by a friend of Jill’s, we went on to Shelburne Falls.
Once there we found one of the best used bookstores I’ve ever been in, and our plans to explore the town at a nice slow pace fell by the wayside. Instead we spent two delicious hours poring over the shop’s various elderly field guide manuals, looking for volumes with good drawings of plants to use in embroidery tracings. I found a great book on weeds in winter and some eccentric books for my growing mythology collection, including a collection of creepy and slightly theologically confused gypsy folktales. The woman working the counter couldn’t have been nicer – I wish I lived in the area, I would go to this shop all the time. After the shop, we walked over the flower bridge and saw the boulders, with a brief detour by Molly Cantor pottery; adorable pieces and an interesting technique. It was a lovely afternoon and a great break from working non-stop.
Snow Farm does host evening activities, but I found it pretty much impossible to tear myself away from my work long enough to participate in them. I was also having a weirdly antisocial week – I had a big work contract prior to Snow Farm, and after I close a project I’m always a little bit squirrely for a while afterwards while I relearn how to talk to people who aren’t clients or other engineers. So it was nice to be able to immerse myself in my artwork and not feel the pressure to make it to the evening programs.
On the last day I did go with Jill and Polly to a creative re-use store in Easthampton that was so photogenically awesome I’m planning a separate post on it, just so I can share more photos with y’all. And on the last night several of us got together to have a bonfire; one of the guys in the woodworking class got it started, and then we roasted apples and told jokes around the fire to close out the week. The warmth of the fire against the cold night air was biting and fabulous and the roasted apple smell? Incredible. I’ve always been kind of scared of fire; as a kid I had a preoccupation that our house would burn down and take all my books with it (what can I say, I was into archival preservation even as a kid), but as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate how much fun it can be to light stuff on fire… in a very controlled manner. It was a great way to end the week.
Some notes on the Snow Farm experience:
When I was planning my trip, there wasn’t much out there on what the experience would be like. If you’ve come across this post searching for information about Snow Farm, I have some tips for you.
– There’s a section in the planning documents they send that recommends bringing your own pillow, bathrobe and slippers. This sounds way high maintenance, but it is not. Bringing a real pillow is actually important. I never thought I’d ever meet a pillow so flat that I’d wish I had travelled with my own, but the Snow Farm pillow was like sleeping on a hand towel. You’re going to want a genuine-article pillow from your own personal home. The bathrooms are communal and the walkways are open air; you can walk there from your room barefoot, but you might wish you had slippers. The bathrobe is just for cosiness. If I had to pick one of the three, were I to go back again? The pillow, hands down.
– It’s worth springing for a single room if you’re on the fence about it. Our session was very small so many of us had singles; I can’t imagine staying in one of those rooms with a stranger. They’re pretty spartan – very little furniture, very small space. The rooms do have space heaters, while we’re dancing around the subject of what the rooms are like.
– I took Amtrak and Valley Transporter to Snow Farm and it worked out great. The Valley Transporter drivers are extremely prompt, friendly and professional. That said, I think I’d take a rental car so I could get off campus at will if I came back and the money was there in the budget for a rental car. The campus itself is pretty small and the surrounding areas are interesting, especially for a city girl like me who doesn’t see much small town life these days. I would have regretted it if I hadn’t been able to leave campus to explore all week.