Sunday, 18 November 2012
A Studio in the Woods
A Studio in the Woods is located over the hills, where the seven dwarfs dwell, or so it seems, even though there are hardly any hills at all in Louisiana. On the half-hour or so drive from New Orleans I cross the long, busy, hill-like Crescent City Connection to the other side of the Mississippi, then hang a right, then left onto General de Gaulle Boulevard through the urban sprawl of the West Bank, then across another tall, curving bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway to a deserted road following one of the generous bends of the Mississippi at the foot of the levee, which, as can be seen on a map, is really shaped like an eyelet here. The road ends in front of the gates of the Audubon Center for Research. Just a few yards before that a weathered sign points right to the overgrown driveway to the Studio in the Woods.
Set into the woods there is a light and airy wooden house with a spacious, screened-in porch. The Studio’s coordinator Cammie Prewitt-Hill welcomes me in flip-flops and a long skirt. We step into a large kitchen with windows on three sides, leading into an exuberant, inviting living room and an office space in the back. I say: This looks like somebody’s house. Cammie says: Well, it is.
And here is how: In 1968 Joe and Lucianne Carmichael had just fallen in love and would sometimes come to this spot to have a picnic, until they were lucky enough to acquire a piece of property here. Besides their “regular” jobs they were both artists—she works in clay, he in wood—and so they gradually built a house, finished in 1977, using the materials found in the surrounding forest and elsewhere. He made a long wooden table for the porch; she made the tiles for the floor. They created a small pond in the backyard, but left the thicket almost untouched, viewing it as inspiration for their work, because they had also built artist’s studios for themselves. They invited school classes on field trips and sometimes granted informal artists' residencies and held workshops.
In 1998 they began looking for a benevolent landlord. In December of 2004 they transferred A Studio in the Woods to the auspices of Tulane University in New Orleans, where it is part of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research. Environmental curator Dave Baker also works at the studio, observing and managing the natural environment, removing Chinese privet for one, which is threatening to overgrow the entire South.
Since 2003 the Studio in the Woods has been offering residencies for artists, after Katrina and Rita mostly restorative stays for artists affected by the storms, among them the composer and musician Michael White. In the documentary The Sound of the Storm he describes how, having lost almost everything in the storm, his stay at the Studio got him back to work. Every year the Studio offers five-week residencies to artists of different fields: sculptors, painters, writers, filmmakers, musicians, etc.
A few days before my visit the young jazz folk singer-songwriter Sarah Quintana from New Orleans had just started her residency. Cammie told us how the whole jury had been immediately mesmerized by the music she submitted. Certainly influenced by her life in France, where she has her fans too, her music is made up of unusual tunes and a lot of space and time. She financed her first album The World Has Changed by crowdfunding.
Sarah explained how she absorbs the sounds of nature, how they make her porous and receptive, how at home she feels surrounded by raccoons, armadillos, and animals of the woods, how the fertile Mississippi inspires her. The Mississippi, she said, is angry with us for the environmental problems we cause. She calls the river “she,” which may have to do with her sad, beautiful song “Mama Mississippi:” Sarah Quintana playing her grandmother’s coffee cup. Listen to it here! Her album featuring the songs written at the Studio in the Woods is scheduled for release in December, The Delta Demitasse.
Industrial noise sort of set the scene for my visit, wafting over from the levee: squealing, squeaking, creaking, pounding sounds, ship and port noises, sounds I remember from when I lived in Donaldsonville right by the Mississippi river. When I climbed up onto the levee later on, I saw them lying there, gigantic ocean freighters, perhaps lying at anchor, one after another, in this completely unromantic riverscape. So the Studio in the Woods is not just a natural oasis for the artist’s soul, but a place where art and reality connect, where the idyll is set off by Chinese privet and industry, where one can be out in nature and yet not out of time.
At the end of my visit I had a brief conversation with Lucianne Carmichael, and she said I should apply for a residency there. Will do, gladly.