The Vermont Studio Center, located along the banks of the Gihon River in Johnson, bills itself as the largest international writers’ and artists’ residency program in the country.
But it's also uniquely Vermont. Since its founding 35 years ago, the center has set aside a week in the spring where it shuts out the rest of the world and invites more than 50 Vermonters to stay for a week and work.
“It’s an expression of our deep gratitude for our place in Vermont,” said Gary Clark, a writer who is the studio center’s executive director. “We hope to create a neutral continuum where people can connect with the part of them that was born to write and make things.”
Vermont Artists Week culminated May 5 with a three-hour open studio tour. Artists adorned their spaces with the works they’d labored over, giving the public a fleeting glimpse of what they accomplished and a suggestion of how they did it.
And then, ephemeral as a sandcastle, the art was packed up and the Vermonters retreated back to their corners of the state, likely with plenty of new friends’ contact information.
The Vermont Studio Center was founded in 1984 by Jon Gregg, Fred Osborne and Louise von Weise. Its mission is “to provide studio residencies in an inclusive, international community, honoring creative work as the communication of spirit through form.”
That’s the big difference during Vermont Artists Week — the global flavor isn’t there. But everything else is.
The center is one of the largest property owners in the village of Johnson, without about 30 buildings acquired over time, all of them within walking distance of the Red Mill on Pearl Street, the beating heart of the center.
These buildings house painting and writing studios, photography darkrooms, a sculpture shop and a print shop. There’s a 24-hour meditation house, a yoga studio, lecture hall and eight resident housing buildings. The Red Mill houses the dining hall, which is part of the Vermont Fresh Network.
The buildings blend in perfectly with the Johnson downtown, save for the small green and white signs indicating they’re part of the center.
The studio center provides offers both solitude and solidarity, a place where artists and writers can take a month off and live in a purposeful community within a community. It’s not an enclave on a hill or up in the woods, but a small village with a river flowing — roaring, this time of the year — and a mountain range flanking the south side of town, making cellphone coverage spotty.
“People here get up, eat, and go to work, just like everyone in this town,” Clark said. It just so happens that the residents’ workplaces have easels, kilns and writing desks in them.
Clark said Vermont Artists Week comes at a subsidized, highly discounted rate. All of the artists have to live in Vermont, and the application process is nearly as competitive as the other residencies the rest of the year — 58 Vermonters were residents this year, culled from more than 2,000 applications.
In a typical year, the center receives about 5,000 applications for four-week residencies that average just over 50 artists.
In this small state, the Vermont-only week provides arguably the most practical networking and friend-making opportunities of any of the studio center’s residencies. You might not even have to dial the area code to ring up a new friend.
This local residency offers Green Mountain Staters a chance to get away from whatever it is they would be doing for a week in their normal lives. No kids, partners, pets, cars, bosses, housework, none of that. Just a river, a mountain and population of 50-something other like-minded people.
“Here, they have a gap in their lives, where it’s new all over again,” Clark said. “It’s about stepping out of your life for a brief time.”