Monday, March 24, 2014

Residency Report: Can Serrat, Spain

Residency Report is an ongoing series of posts from artists undertaking creative residencies with their families. Find out about programs that support artists with kids, and see how other artist-parents balance the residency experience.
Christa Donner shares the experience of a dual residency with her husband, accompanied by their young daughter, at Can Serrat in Spain.

This fall my husband Andrew and I undertook a dual artist residency with our two-year-old daughter along at Can Serrat, one of a handful of international programs that supports artists with families. Unlike the residencies I'd participated in before, Can Serrat is not free: there is a modest residency fee for each person - half off for children - and travel is not covered,  so we had to seek outside funding. Our work there was supported by Faculty Enrichment Grants awarded through the college where we both teach, as well as a Support Stipend through Can Serrat itself.
Can Serrat is located in El Bruc, a tiny Catalonian village that’s about an hour’s bus ride from Barcelona, which we visited several times. The living areas, studio space, piano/performance space, and a basic printshop are all situated in a former sixteenth-century farmhouse. So it's an old building, and previous Can Serrat artists we knew described the place to us as "rustic." To parents with small children, it's important to note that this term encompasses many things, some of which are wonderful (stone arches, decorative frescos, hanging grapevines), and some of which mean keeping a close eye on the kids (crumbling masonry, stinky and loosely-covered sewer holes, clouds of mosquitoes). That said, the staff made every effort to make our time there comfortable, setting us up in the largest bedroom and even a good crib with plenty of bedding.

communal meals served outdoors in warmer weather
a shared studio space overlooking the courtyard
Residency at Can Serrat includes breakfast and a big home-cooked dinner shared with all the residents six nights a week. Lunches and Sunday dinners offered time to try out local foods on our own. It can be a relief for any focused artist not to have to think about what to make for dinner every night. For us it was even more so, as we arrived during the height of our allergy-prone two year old’s picky toddler phase, and Karine managed to work with that challenge, along with everyone else's culinary needs, amazingly well. 

Since both of us needed studio time, we took turns watching our daughter during the day, getting in four-hour shifts on either side of her midday nap and then coming together for dinner and conversation with our fellow residents. This wound up being more complicated than we'd anticipated: even after jet lag the time difference really changed the usual sleep schedule, but after about a week we finally sorted out a system that worked for us. The large shared studio space is divided up between residents, and everyone meets to stake out table/wall space during the first few days. The studio walls are all plaster, so bring a good staple gun or plenty of removable sticky stuff if you want to hang anything on the walls.

The unique geography around Can Serrat is part of what makes it so attractive to artists: the residency is halfway up the Montserrat mountains, which are fascinatingly lumpy and tubular and magical to explore. You can get dramatic views of them from anywhere in town, or make a day trip to visit the monastery and a really great little art museum at the very top. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of hiking involved in El Bruc, even if you just need to get something at the grocery store. We hadn’t thought to bring along a baby carrier for our active two-year-old, but later wished we had: the lightweight stroller we brought wasn’t so useful on steep gravel roads. Our daughter loved the excuse to explore and climb the hills on foot, even if it was sometimes verrrry slow.
Christa Donner, 'Colony', gouache, ink and cut paper in two locations

The end of the residency felt like a beginning more than a conclusion: without the pressure to exhibit finished work, I was able to treat my time in Spain as an exploratory research mission. I left Can Serrat with stacks of small drawings, and a suitcase packed with field recordings,  video footage, reference images, fresh ideas and new information. This rich archive of material is now feeding much larger multimedia projects in my Chicago studio.

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Christa Donner reimagines the human / animal body through a range of media including large-scale drawing, printmaking, digital animation, and small-press publication. Her process often incorporates public projects and collaborations around narratives of bodily experience. Donner's work is exhibited internationally, including projects for the Museum Bellerive (Zurich, Switzerland); Horst-Janssen Museum (Oldenberg, Germany); Kravets-Wehby Gallery (New York, USA); BankART NYK (Yokohama, Japan); Chiaki Kamikawa Contemporary Art (Paphos, Cyprus); the ANTI Festival of Contemporary Art (Kuopio, Finland); and the Centro Columbo Americano (Medellin, Colombia).

Sharing a Family Residency Between Two Artist-Parents

a shared studio table at a previous residency
Residency Report is an ongoing series of posts from artists who've undertaken creative residencies with their families. Find out about programs that support artists with kids, and see how other artist-parents balance the residency experience.

Christa Donner shares the experience of a dual residency with her husband, accompanied by their young daughter, at Can Serrat in Spain.

My husband Andrew and I are both working artists. Participating in residency programs is something that has been important in each of our practices, and though our processes are quite different, we gain a lot from the focused conversation and occasional collaboration that happens when we think and make together. Needless to say, that situation got more complicated once we became parents. We set about researching international programs that would allow the three of us to live and work together at the same time, and finally found one that seemed a good fit for our needs. It's not easy to find a residency where you're both invited at the same time, which may mean opting for a fee-based program and seeking outside funding. For a range of residencies that support artists raising kids, visit the CR Resources page.

The special challenge of a two-parent residency, as in everyday life, is how to productively divide up family time versus studio time... and while you’re at it remember to connect as a functioning couple. Having recently returned from just such an endeavor, I humbly share the following thoughts and some useful tips:

Jet Lag? Arrive Early if You Can.

Since we were spending a month abroad, the last thing we wanted was to spend our first week of residency time adjusting to the seven-hour time change with a toddler... especially since we’d be in close quarters with other artists. Instead we flew across the ocean several days early to acclimate to the new situation.

jet lag is easier with someone else's toys
If you happen to have a friend with extra space where you're going, consider a relaxed visit before the residency starts. We didn't know anyone there, but rented a lovely and inexpensive apartment from a family who happened to have a similarly-aged child (bonus: cool toys) and adjusted to the dazed afternoons and midnight wakeup calls that way. Having a kitchen takes a lot of the stress out of mealtimes in a new place, and is so much cheaper than living out of hotels and restaurants. If you’ll be traveling near any major city, there are plenty of apartment rental sites out there: try Air BnB and filter your search for “kid friendly” options, or Children-Friendly Vacation Rentals. This experience also prompted us to consider possibilities for home + studio swapping with artist families in other cities, in lieu of a formal residency structure.

Expect to Reconfigure

Needless to say, if you can find and afford local childcare or an age-appropriate program for your kids during a residency, absolutely do. That wasn't an option for us this time around, but we still found ways to make it work.

Before leaving for the residency, we planned to divide up our day as we often do at home: one of us would get up early with our daughter in the morning and watch her til noon, then the other would take over after her post-lunch nap. Two four-hour blocks seemed pretty straightforward. Done.

Of course that’s not how it worked out: our early-riser daughter miraculously started waking up two hours later in the day and taking much longer naps, which meant some serious reconfiguring to keep things fair. And though I often take the morning shift at home, I worked much better in the afternoons overseas. We wound up taking turns on alternate days, which worked out fine most of the time. Whatever your plan, sit down again to discuss it after the first week there and adjust as needed.

All Together Now
a Barcelona playground surrounded by cafes
For the first week of the residency, as soon as our daughter went to bed my partner and I grabbed our laptops to catch up on email and news. After that our only interaction was the occasional grunt of annoyance at something on the screen. Of course this happens at home, but the urgency to squeeze in productive studio time can make a shared residency tough on relationships. Since we rarely overlapped except for mealtimes, it wasn’t long before we felt completely disconnected and totally irritated with each other.

One of the tradeoffs of doing a residency with your family along is that, well, you need to make some time to be a family. In our particular situation, we decided to adjust our schedules and computer time: we fit in what we could during the day, and in the evening, office hours were over. Just turning off our separate screens of distraction worked wonders. Weekends, which we’d been treating as just more work days, we re-designated for family time. This helped all of us connect beyond stressful meals or bedtime battles, and the break was important for our creative work, too.

Leave the Toys at Home (…most of them anyway)

Packing for any long trip with a small child gets heavy really fast.  For the sake of our backs and our baggage, we brought very few books and toys. This might seem obvious, but bringing less stuff was great for all of us, and made for some natural extensions from family time into creative practice:

  • Playground = studio: Every town we were in, no matter how tiny or large, offered
    homemade toys inspire new forms in the studio
    interesting public playspaces that made me rethink our relationships to playgrounds. Sometimes they feature adult exercise equipment, too. These proved to be a great place to consider the body, geology and biology, language and motion.

  • Investigate:  Like parenting, exploring a new place always reminds me to see, smell, taste, touch and listen with curiosity and attention. Our daughter initiated collections of pebbles and other small found things, and enthusiastically contributed to field recordings of local sounds. Whether you’re in the city or the countryside, you'll spend a lot of time just getting to know the new environment. This tends to feed your practice even while you're caring for your child, in fact especially so: they'll always notice things you won't on your own.

  • Make It Up: With less toys, residencies get more creative for kids too. When the weather kept us indoors we followed the example of some fellow artist-friends and made our own awesome little toys out of boxes and food packaging.  A bunch of little blue tiles lying around turned out to be perfect for toddler stacking and building. We  used our imaginations more. Great fun and less waste. These forms have resurfaced at home and in the studio.

Reach Out


If you’re part of a program with other artists it can be all too easy to retreat into a comfortable family island within the larger community… but then you’ll miss out on the studio dialogue, cultural
impromptu concert with artists in the residency kitchen
insights, networking opportunities and friendships that make multi-artist residencies worth doing. Getting to know your colleagues also helps lower the stress level when your kid throws a tantrum at dinner, or when you need to ask for some quiet at bedtime. If you share meals and/or studios in a common space, some of this may happen organically. We sometimes took turns going on field trips with other residents, giving each of us the chance to make friends, hike, and explore the area on a level we just couldn’t pull off with the whole family along.

Working together in the same residency program isn't for everyone, but was worthwhile for us. Some parents opt to take turns doing residencies instead, while others wait it out until the kids are much older. Have you ever done a residency with your family? What other strategies or tips would you recommend? Share your comments below ... and get in touch with Cultural ReProducers if you'd like to contribute a Residency Report of your own.

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Christa Donner reimagines the human / animal body through a range of media including large-scale drawing, printmaking, digital animation, and small-press publication. Her process often incorporates public projects and collaborations around narratives of bodily experience. Donner's work is exhibited internationally, including projects for the Museum Bellerive (Zurich, Switzerland); Horst-Janssen Museum (Oldenberg, Germany); Kravets-Wehby Gallery (New York, USA); BankART NYK (Yokohama, Japan); Chiaki Kamikawa Contemporary Art (Paphos, Cyprus); the ANTI Festival of Contemporary Art (Kuopio, Finland); and the Centro Columbo Americano (Medellin, Colombia).

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

CR Event Series Report: In Conversation with Ghost Nature

Cultural ReProducers + Gallery 400 = gallery conversation + kid parade!
On March first, Cultural ReProducers officially kicked off our new Event Series, teaming up with Gallery 400 to present a lively dialogue between biologist + artist Andrew Yang and selected artists featured in the exhibition Ghost Nature: Jeremy Bolen, Robert Burnier, Assaf Evron and Heidi Norton.

Despite the freezing weather outside the event drew around 30 participants for a dynamic conversation about growth and decay, creative experimentation, the natural world and the complexities of art-science collaboration, with audience members (and the occasional infant) jumping into the fray to offer their own perspectives and pose questions.

In a nearby room, a great bunch of childcare workers helped kids put together noisemakers and costumes in response to the natural phenomena in the show, and at the end of the hour led them into the gallery for a little parade of imaginary animals, signalling the start of an all-ages reception and more great conversations.

Cultural ReProducers artists Christa Donner and Selina Trepp are currently meeting with arts institutions throughout the city to plan the next events, which has been a creative adventure in itself! Stay tuned for more events very soon, and if there's a particular artist, institution or event you'd like to see us program in the future, please be in touch!
Jeremy Bolen (far left) and Robert Burnier

The Cultural ReProducers Event Series is a roaming series of lectures, performances, and other events designed to allow parents with small children participate more actively in the art community. These curated weekend morning events include free on-site childcare and intergenerational receptions.

Our goal is twofold: to give parents and their kids the chance to participate as critical members of the arts community, and to inspire cultural institutions to better serve artists and audiences, providing positive models for future programming. This project is made possible through support from the Propeller Fund.

Cultural ReProducers + Gallery 400, photos by Dan Bitney