Seaside provides cultural inspiration for distinguished artists-in-residence by Wendy O. Dixon
Creative types sometimes need a change of scenery to nurture their artistry. The natural beauty of the gentle coastline of Northwest Florida — as well as the inspirational treasure that is Seaside — seduces artists, poets, novelists, musicians, playwrights and composers from all over. Each winter, Seaside plays host to a spectrum of artists, who can immerse themselves in their work.
Escape to Create (E2C), a temporary artist residency program, is the only such residency of its kind in the Florida Gulf region, and has welcomed artists to 30A since 1993.
Seaside provides a unique setting for this multidisciplinary residential retreat. Founded as a meaningful component of Seaside’s civic life, E2C has gained national attention for its impact on the local community and in the creative lives of the artists. And while the fortunate few who are awarded a spot in the program share their talents, they add to the thriving cultural flavor of Seaside, drawing audiences from all over North Florida.
The heart of the Escape To Create experience is the gift of time and place to artists fully engaged in creative ideas, says Marsha Dowler, president of the board. Housed in private cottages donated in support of their projects, artists enjoy complete immersion in their work balanced with opportunities for cross-disciplinary dialogue in an intimate group setting.
“We own no studio, nor practice room for the musicians,” Dowler says. “We just start with the intent to create this experience for artists every year. Houses are different every year, artists are different every year. And we find that for the artists who respond to this, that’s what they are really seeking—the permission to fully surrender to their art.”
Area restaurants and markets provide E2C’s weekly “soup kitchen,” a tradition that brings the group of no more than eight artists together in the casual intimacy of a private home. E2C artists are celebrated in programs and salons produced as community service. Readings, performances, lectures, and exhibits take place in the intimate venues, each distinguished for architectural design. Educational outreach brings a larger world to schools located in an underserved county. And just a short stroll away, the beauty of the Gulf of Mexico is a constant source of creative inspiration, reflection, and renewal.
For many of the artists, the change in atmosphere has produced a surge in productivity.
Comedy playwright Rich Orloff, from New York City, shares his sidesplitting take on the battle of the sexes during his reading held at the REP Theatre. Though he doesn’t require new material for his play, his time spent at Seaside helps him become more productive. “It’s a beautiful, inspiring environment,” he says, just coming in after a walk on the beach. “It’s so quiet and easy to be here. It clears my head, which allows for creative thoughts. I’m getting a lot more work done here than if I were in New York.”
With fewer distractions and a relaxing atmosphere, the artists can take advantage of a more flexible work schedule, and make time for a swim, bike ride, yoga session or even the treasured, but elusive sleep. “I haven’t set the alarm since I’ve been here,” Orloff laughs. “Last night, at 10 o’clock I was relaxed, but not sleepy so I got more work done.”
Musicians Jeff Freling and Erin McGrane, the antique pop duo known as Victor & Penny, along with singer-songwriter Kyle Carey, perform lighthearted musical delights during their stay at Seaside. McGrane and Freling enjoy a bike ride through the neighborhood streets, where the hospitable weather is a joyous departure from the frigid February days in Kansas City.
“I’ve struggled a little about the need to rest and the desire to work,” McGrane says. “But we’ve got a whole month to find our rhythm. We tour a lot, so for us to be in one place for a month is relaxing and restful.”
Dowler acknowledges that it seems counter-intuitive to remove structure when trying to work. “But what we find is that this allows them the freedom to surrender to their craft,” she says. “I think that artists find that their productivity is nothing they could predict, it’s so far beyond what they could do before.”
Spending time with the other artists is helpful, too, says McGrane. “That’s been fun, meeting everyone, and meeting artists who understand our anti-social tendencies,” she says. “I’ve been doing voiceover work in the recording station we set up in the house and am happy as a clam. Having all the tools is a nice gift.”
Heidi Pitre, a visual artist from Hattiesburg, Miss., is completing a portfolio based on the female nude and contributing a commission of one of her highly prized pet portraits in a fundraising effort benefiting Alaqua Animal Refuge, a local animal rescue sanctuary. She says the month she spends here is necessary for her to focus on and improve her craft. “I’ve been raising kids and husbands my whole life, so now I’ve decided to take it more seriously,” she says. Describing her intensely hued oil painting depicting a woman setting a mousetrap, she recalls the inspiration behind the series of paintings featuring strong women. “When the sink broke I had to fix it myself; so this represents a woman who can fix anything,” she says. “She has this tool I invented that is half paintbrush, half blowtorch.”
Pitre, who earned a bachelor of fine arts from the University of New Orleans, has been drawing since five years old, but found that lately the daily duties of life have been distracting. E2C has allowed her to focus on nothing but her artwork. “Not just the immersion, but the un-interruption of daily life,” she says. “Here I have nothing to do but paint.”
Pitre says the generosity of the board members and the homeowners is invaluable and appreciated. “This is changing some of the decisions and plans to move forward in my career,” she says. “It allows me to produce better works of art, as well as more in quantity.”
Dowler sees the program as a benefit for everyone in Seaside, including those temporary residents. “We are accumulating a list of distinguished artists here,” she says. “The collective body of work that bubbled out of this experience is something that this community takes a lot of pride in. It’s a legacy, not just for the community but for all our artists.”
To learn more about the Escape to Create artists-in-residence, visit Escape to Create online.