Unique residency program is a haven for budding artists 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 through Escape to Create (E2C), a unique artist-in-residence program founded by Seaside’s cultural pioneers as a program of the Seaside Institute and a core element of town-making. 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 through Escape to Create (E2C), a unique artist-in-residence program founded by Seaside’s cultural pioneers as a program of the Seaside Institute and a core element of town-making. “It’s so rare in this world,” says Marsha Dowler, president of the Board for E2C. “Where else do your neighbors and friends open their homes for artists and their friends to come work on their art? The entire community — the homeowners, financial contributors, the partnership with the Seaside Repertory Theatre (REP) as a fellow non-profit and our merchants — all elements of the community come together to offer this year after year. It’s a humbling experience, but such a privilege to bring together and connect them to what these artists bring.”
First as community volunteer and then as a 12-year board member of the Seaside Institute and director of the program, Dowler has played a key role in promoting Seaside as a vibrant cultural community through guiding Escape to Create’s emergence as the nationally recognized artist residency it is today.
“In the late 1980s and early ’90s, there were few art galleries in the area, no theater or film outlets, and a fledgling bookstore,” Dowler says. “During these early years, as many as 12 artists — composers, painters, writers, photographers, architectural scholars, etc. — would be invited to spend the month of January in a new town that didn’t even exist yet on Rand McNally maps.”
By the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009, the overwhelming success of Seaside as the model for New Urbanist communities and sustainable place-making had long been the core mission of the institute, and only E2C remained as an arts program. Dowler recognized a shrinking arts budget provided unexpected opportunity for E2C to expand its cultural footprint as a 501c3, making it eligible for grants and tax-deductible contributions.
To maximize its efficiency and the necessary reliance on the generosity of Seaside homeowners who donate their off-season rental cottages as artist housing, Dowler expanded the residency to two month-long sessions with fewer artists who are selected through a rigorous application process with stringent review by a panel of distinguished E2C alums. Dowler and Escape to Create co-director Karen Holland resigned their positions at the institute to devote themselves to launching E2C as a leading non-profit residency. Seasiders Cathy Toole and Jane Crews, author/writer Lynn Nesmith and educational advocate Sherry Londe of Destin comprise the dedicated team that makes up the volunteer board.
E2C has gained national attention for its impact on the local community and in the creative lives of the artists. In 2010, E2C was selected as one of only five U.S. models of emerging residencies in the U.S. by the Alliance for Artist Communities, an international arts and culture research organization. Escape was cited for its role in connecting artist to community through the intrinsic value of its philanthropic multi-disciplinary residency, its purpose in advancing appreciation for the role of artist in shaping community, and its record of service through educational outreach. “This was a defining moment for me,” Dowler says, “to recognize the legacy Escape To Create represents to Seaside and to the world.”
The program is designed for artists who are emerging or in mid-career. To apply, artists must submit a work proposal that defines the creative work they would accomplish during their stay. The second component is a community service proposal out of which the cultural programming is created. Third is educational outreach proposal. “Educational outreach brings a larger world to schools located in an underserved county,” Dowler says, noting that the artists visit schools in Walton County. “They’re here to not only work on their projects, they’re seeking to make contributions. Over the years I’ve witnessed lives being transformed in front of you, for the artists, teachers and students.”
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. “For example, a writer will give a reading,” Dowler says. “A musician will give a concert, an architect will give a lecture and a presentation.”
The heart of the Escape To Create experience is the gift of time and place to artists fully engaged in creative ideas, says Dowler. 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, artist 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.
This January alone, Escape To Create and Seaside homeowners hosted an Academy Award and BAFTA nominated documentary filmmaker; a leading folk singer-songwriter from Canada; a leading actor and director from London; a gifted emerging choreographer who created the first dance film in response to Seaside’s unique architecture; a painter mapping the fragile beauty of the Gulf and the rare Dune Lakes as part of her worldwide Waterplaces Project; and an early career fiction writer whose literary power predicts huge potential. “To bring these artists into the schools and colleges throughout Walton County is an incredible opportunity to impact change and transform lives. And to showcase such unique talent onstage at The REP attracts a mature cultural audience to our community in contrast to the exciting summer programming The REP offers seasonal visitors,” Dowler says.
Yet the influence of Escape To Create extends well into the summer season. The hugely popular illusionist and performance artist Jeanette Andrews will return to Seaside in May for her second engagement, bringing to The REP a new magic show developed during her 2014 Escape to Create residency.
So after almost a quarter century, what is next for E2C? Thanks to the continued support of Seaside homeowners in providing artist housing and the fundraising efforts of its board, Escape To Create will award its first Fellowships in 2016. “We want to continue to identify and support impactful environmental projects like the Elam Stoltzfus 2014 Dune Lakes Film and take a more targeted look at our investment in the arts for the benefit of our artists and our host community.”
To find out more about the writers, scholars, filmmakers, musicians and other artists participating in the Escape to Create program, visit Escape2Create.org/artists. Editor’s Note: Marsha Dowler contributed to this article.
Editor’s Note: Marsha Dowler contributed to this article.
Visit Escape to Create online.