After 10 Days of Hard Work at the Hermitage, Suddenly, the Play Wrote Itself!

In February 2011, the directors of the theater production company Phantom Limb, Jessica Grindstaff and husband Erik Sanko, came to the Hermitage exhausted after their successful run of 69° South at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Their work has been described as a series of dynamic tableaux vivants, narrative installations in motion that meld theatrical performance, puppetry, photography and film with unconventional original music. 69° South was a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet inspired by Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition.

Jessica and Freya at the Hermitage

In February 2011, the directors of the theater production company Phantom Limb, Jessica Grindstaff and husband Erik Sanko, came to the Hermitage exhausted after their successful run of 69° South at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Their work has been described as a series of dynamic tableaux vivants, narrative installations in motion that meld theatrical performance, puppetry, photography and film with unconventional original music. 69° South was a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet inspired by Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition.

Three months later at a sunset dinner on the beach to welcome them back for the second part of their residency, they surprised us with a bottle of champagne and an announcement. We had the privilege to be the first to hear their news (even before they told their own parents). Jessica was three months pregnant. Now they are back again with their daughter Freya, a true daughter of the Hermitage, as part of the Hermitage’s new family residency program.

While here for the third time they are writing the second of a trilogy that started with 69° South. The piece, Memory Rings, uses the oldest living tree in the world as the center of its narrative.

“The trilogy is united by the theme of ecology and the human relationship with nature through poetry and image. We are exploring the psychology of a collective future using history, legacy, and cultural memory,” said Erik.

They returned to the Hermitage following a residence at Harvard with global warming expert Dan Schrag, head of the Harvard Center for the Environment. Dr. Schrag had been impressed by their work because it moves people into the topic in a way they aren’t used to. Their plays touch audiences at an emotional level with a refreshing absence of the usual didactic lecturing.

Erik described audience reactions as unconscious at first. Then the slow burn of realization sets in. He and Jessica see attitudes change when they tour places like the Midwest where people are not yet convinced to take action on global warming. “Art has the ability to help people see the long arc of 40 to 80 years it may take to recover from climate change,” he explained.

They each have beautiful studios in New York City but they say their work benefits from the open mindedness and wide horizons that come with a place like the Hermitage where there are no expectations, no obligations, and the only distractions are the sea and nature (which is what their play is about).

Jessica said “After 10 days of hard work on Memory Rings at the Hermitage, suddenly, the play wrote itself!”

69° South

Learn more about PhantomLimbCompany.com

Poems written at the Hermitage will be read at Bookstore 1

Hermitage Fellow Robert Cording will read poems written at, and some inspired by the Hermitage Artist Retreat along with poems from his new book “Walking with Ruskin” at Bookstore 1 on Thursday, March 10 at 6:00pm. (1359 Main Street, Sarasota)

Robert CordingHermitage Fellow Robert Cording will read poems written at, and some inspired by the Hermitage Artist Retreat along with poems from his new book “Walking with Ruskin” at Bookstore 1 on Thursday, March 10 at 6:00pm. (1359 Main Street, Sarasota)

Remembering Romulus

Young artists literally sat at his feet here at the Hermitage.

While at the Hermitage, Romulus wrote about another Hermitage Fellow, writer and scientist, Meg Lowman in his play, The Flower Gatherer.
We shouldn’t have favorites, but here at the Hermitage, we can’t help ourselves. Sadly, one of our favorite artists died yesterday. Romulus Linney, a father of American playwriting, spent a month with us two years ago. Over a hundred people lined the beach, entranced and delighted as Romulus read one of his Appalachian plays. But when the crowd was gone, Romulus was at his best. Young artists, composers and writers literally sat at his feet here at the Hermitage. He shared a lifetime of wisdom filtered through his brilliant mind. How lucky we were to be in his presence.

Literary Oasis in the Heartland

I spent a few days in America’s heartland recently and returned home thoroughly impressed. Two people serving on the Hermitage National Artist Advisory Committee live in Iowa City. Another two Hermitage Fellows live in Iowa City. And the Carver Center is one of the premier research clinics for macular degeneration (which I do not yet have but which runs deeply up my mother’s side of the family). These were my reasons for showing up in Iowa City. Besides, I was invited. And not only is Iowa City the home of the internationally renowned Writing Workship and the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa, but Iowa City (population about 68,000) has been designated by UNESCO as one of three “Cities of Literature” in the world. It is mecca for readers and writers.

I stayed with Hermitage National Committee-member Christopher Merrill and his lovely family, wife Lisa and daughters Hana and Abbie and they couldn’t have been more gracious. And while there, I got to see writers Chris Offutt, a National Committee member whom I had not met face-to-face, and Hermitage Fellow Steve Kuusisto (who will be returning in January).

And I visited the Prairie Lights bookstore, one of the few remaining great independent book stores in the US and met its co-owner Jan Weissmiller, a Workshop graduate herself and award-winning poet. The net result of three days in this literary oasis, talking books, plays, writing and reading, is a renewed and revitalized love of it all. Christopher convinced me to work on a play that has been languishing in the back room of my brain for years, and I have started reading fiction with new enthusiasm. But then again, isn’t an oasis all about renewal and refreshment?

NPR Marketplace on Commissioning Art

Last night National Public Radio’s Marketplace broadcast an interesting segment about members of the general public commissioning works of art. This is exactly what we do annually through the Greenfield Prize at the Hermitage Artist Retreat.

Last night National Public Radio’s Marketplace broadcast an interesting segment about members of the general public commissioning works of art. This is exactly what we do annually through the Greenfield Prize at the Hermitage Artist Retreat. Thanks to Brad Goddard, VP over at PNC Wealth Management for bringing it to our attention.

Listen to the Broadcast

A Festival of Firsts

There’s a new and exciting artistic breeze blowing in Sarasota County and it’s moving in like a front from the north, pushing out the heavy, stagnant air ahead of it. I was first aware of it a couple years ago as the new, young artistic leaders in our community began realizing a different vision for our major organizations. Then last year, with the success of the inaugural Ringling International Art Festival, the “breeze” began to freshen. Here’s the thing – the community seems to be developing a taste for new work, and for those of us who work at providing the community with its artistic content, this is very exciting news indeed.

There’s a new and exciting artistic breeze blowing in Sarasota County and it’s moving in like a front from the north, pushing out the heavy, stagnant air ahead of it. I was first aware of it a couple years ago as the new, young artistic leaders in our community began realizing a different vision for our major organizations. Then last year, with the success of the inaugural Ringling International Art Festival, the “breeze” began to freshen. Here’s the thing – the community seems to be developing a taste for new work, and for those of us who work at providing the community with its artistic content, this is very exciting news indeed.

As a board member of the Sarasota County Arts Council, I’ve been appointed to an advisory committee to the Sarasota County Board of County Commissioners charged with developing an annual festival in collaboration with Lord Consulting of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The festival funding is to be seeded with a one-time “windfall” $1 million, earmarked for the Arts that appeared when the County adjusted its accounting process for the Tourist Development funds (meaning the “bed tax.”) Since the notion of the festival grew from a series of meetings with the Sarasota County cultural community, the festival has to end up representing, benefiting and showcasing the cultural community’s breadth and richness. And since the festival’s funding comes from tourist money, it must have the ability to attract an audience from beyond Sarasota County. This has been the challenge. But just last week we stumbled upon an organizing concept for the festival that has exciting implications for us all, including the Hermitage.

Tentatively named the “Festival of Firsts,” the festival will be organized around the concept of “premieres.” The festival work may be world premieres, newly commissioned work, American premieres, Florida premieres – but most importantly, for 3-4 days, Sarasota County’s cultural community will be performing and exhibiting work that the general public has never seen before. Some of that work will be by highly respected creators who attract world-wide attention and the cultural tourists who want to be the first to see it. And it all seems to feed into the new-found interest in new work growing in our community.

The reason this is so meaningful to the Hermitage is that, well, new work is what we do. Major artists come to us from all over the world just to make new work. With the advent of the Greenfield Prize at the Hermitage Artist Retreat, we are commissioning new work from major creators annually. This work is being created here at the Hermitage, and seeing its first audiences in Sarasota County in the spring and always in collaboration with one of our fine artistic organizations. It’s also the same time of year that we hold the Greenfield dinner and bring celebrated artists to the community to give a major speech about their art. In 2012, when it seems most likely that the festival will begin, the Hermitage will be hosting the premiere exhibition of a new work by one of America’s most important new visual artists, Sanford Biggers. At the same time, Artistic Director Ian Webb and the Sarasota Ballet would like to premiere a new work by internationally-respected choreographer Mathew Bourne. And at the Greenfield dinner that year, we will also be announcing the commissioning of a new work of music to premiere in 2014. Add on a new play or two, a new piece of music, and we have the core for something really exciting happening. It could even give rise to interesting restaurant ideas from the “Sarasota Originals” during the festival. Perhaps a showcase of new homes can coordinate, too.

While there are still many obstacles to overcome and decisions to be made, the concept is fertile and will hopefully grow and evolve. It’s not difficult to “see” how it could work. And that vision is exciting enough to push us through the obstacles. In its heyday, the Humana Festival at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville attracted the world-wide press who wrote about the new plays that were premiered. A special festival weekend filled Louisville hotels and restaurants with theatre fans looking to be the first to see new plays, many of which later ended up on Broadway or in regional theaters, or on film. The Louisville restaurants created special festival menus. It was a big deal, and I attended the festival for many years. Our Festival of Firsts, premiering new work in many art forms, could be a big deal too – a very big deal. Let us know what you think.

A Visit To Anderson Ranch

I made a visit to the Anderson Ranch Art Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado while on vacation in July. Anderson Ranch is a sister artist community located on 4.5 beautiful acres just outside of Aspen that focus almost exclusively on the visual arts. Unlike the Hermitage, Anderson Ranch offers a myriad of classes in everything from painting to sculpture to ceramics (with more than 10 kilns of all sizes) to new media, and wood. In addition, they provide about 38 residencies per year for some of the world’s most accomplished artists. It is just a great place to work.

I made a visit to the Anderson Ranch Art Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado while on vacation in July. Anderson Ranch is a sister artist community located on 4.5 beautiful acres just outside of Aspen that focus almost exclusively on the visual arts. Unlike the Hermitage, Anderson Ranch offers a myriad of classes in everything from painting to sculpture to ceramics (with more than 10 kilns of all sizes) to new media, and wood. In addition, they provide about 38 residencies per year for some of the world’s most accomplished artists. It is just a great place to work. 

I also got to spend time with the Ranch’s new executive director, Barbara Bloemink who had been on the job about a month but who had clearly settled right into her work. We had a great conversation about the differences between the Hermitage and Anderson Ranch (which are many) and we began to explore opportunities for collaboration between our organizations. While we parted without anything specific, we committed to finding opportunities in the near future.

The Anderson Ranch Art Center is open and very accommodating to visitors on their campus (also unlike the Hermitage) and I encourage anyone finding themselves in the area to go for a visit, their cafeteria is open to the public during the summer. Or go to take a class. While some of the world’s best visual artists go there to work, you don’t have to be a world-class artist to take a class. If you want to spend a week honing your painting technique, or your sculptural eye, or working in “new media,” it’s all possible there. And it’s possible in the most beautiful of settings, and among the most stimulating of colleagues. It’s a great organization. Click HERE to go to their website.