Pulitzer winners and others reflect on Doris Leeper's 20-year-old oasis for the arts
Most dreamers merely long for a little razzle-dazzle relief from a hoi-polloi existence. A few, though, dream of possibilities beyond those of common hours and personal gain. Artist and environmentalist Doris Leeper is one of the latter.
In 1977, Leeper was an artist-in-residence at the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"I noticed there was not a whole lot of community among all those folks," she says "and wondered what would happen if they could work in a interdisciplinary way, in a natural environment that carried a sense of remoteness and energy."
She already knew where: some wild acreage in the environs of New Smyrna Beach, a town she fell in love with during a college break decades earlier. She knew what: a cluster of studios so integrated with the environment that it would seem they had litterally been seeded alongside the water oak, yellow jasmine and myrtle. She also knew who: contemporary art's crème-de-la-crème, invited from diverse disciplines to come and share their skills and wisdom with emerging artists.
Twenty years old this month, and nestled in a lush wilderness on New Smyrna Beach's Turnbull Bay, is the reality, a remarkable haven of 67 acres and 16 buildings - The Atlantic Center for the Arts.
With persuasion driven by passion, conviction and immovable determination, Doris Leeper first convinced Howard Klein, now director of artists and repertory for New World Records and then director of arts programming for the Rockefeller Foundation, to provide seed money for her fledgling center.
Since then more than 200 luminaries of 20th-century art have settled in for a few weeks at a time as master artists-in-residence. A few from the pantheon: Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright Edward Albee; Pulitzer Prize winning author Allen Drury; Brown Dance Company dancer and choreographer Trisher Brown; composer and Eastman School of Music Professor Emeritus Sam Adler; Pulitzer Prize winning poet Richard Howard; John Corigliano whose opera "The Ghosts of Versailles" was partly conceived at the center and premiered at the Metropolitan Opera; and celebrity and dance photographer Jack Mitchell whose portrait of John and Yoko was people magazine's cover following the death of Lennon.
Turning from U.S. 1 onto the sand road that leads to the center is like driving out of an advertising billboard and into a John Bartram sketch, so alive is the eastern estuary of Turnbull Bay with wildlife.
The next turn is onto the serpentine trail of the center proper, where the complex unfolds gradually, it's glass and cedar-clad buildings connected by a boardwalk laid through indigenous woods, yet separated in spatial seclusion.
Invited residents are chosen by a national council of artists and art administrators, which convenes once a year "to recommend artists they feel are of the caliber to invite as master artists," says Suzanne Fetscher, the center's executive director. There are a half-dozen annual residencies, with master artists expected to hand-pick a group of beginning or mid-career artists in their discipline to mentor during their stay. Would-be "associates," as the mentored individuals are known, check the annual posting for the names and focus of masters with whom they'd like to work, and must file an application that includes a statement of purpose.
In the center's reception area, a gallery wall displays a series ofJjack Mitchell's powerful black-and-white portraits of past master residents.
"I did a dance photography residency in '83. The project had a major impact on my life," Mitchell says. "I've done so much dance work in which I changed some ot the world's best choreographers' work to adapt it to photography that I thought I should take a stab at creating something of my own, so I brought in 11 young dancers from all over Florida.
"I created a dance based on sea imagery. The objective was to make a dance picture which would suggest a certain continuity in theme and movement style that would be consistent.
"It worked very well. I called it 'Sea Duet,' 30 images reading left to right. John Corigliano was music resident at the time, and one of his associates wrote a piece of music for it."
The now well-known piece was eventually transferred to video. It has been shown at choreography workshops and is part of the New York Public Library's dance collection at Lincoln Center.
The photographer, a native of New Smyrna, was so happy with its growing reputation as an artist's colony that following his residency he ended 45 years of living in New York City to move back. Now a member of the center's national council, Mitchell notes some changes since his residency 14 years ago.
"It's a much smoother operation now, departmentalized - everybody does their thing. Then it was a bit, uh, rustic - no quarters for the associates, who had to stay with townspeople. Of course, folks loved that because they got to know a bunch of interesting people. Now with living quarters, it's better for the artists, who can more easily focus on themselves. "
Importantly, he says the center's positive influence on the community continues.
"In the initial years it was thought to be elitist, but that went by the wayside pretty quickly, especially because of Harris House, which works directly with young people and is the main connection with the community. It's one of the best things that ever happened to New Smyrna and one of the reasons I moved back here."
In 1996, among other events, Harris House held book-making sessions where children wrote and illustrated handmade books. Art exhibits ranged from quilt art to swamp and cityscapes. Concerts in local elementary schools introduced children to the esoteria of Shamisen and Shakuhachi.
The concerts particularly pleased another former master artist who also now lives in New Smrna - Karel Husa, whose String Quartet No. 3 received the 1969 Pulitzer Prize.
Husa, born in Czechoslovakia, studied at Prague Conservatory and the Acadamy of Music and received diplomas from the Paris National Conservatory and the Ecole normale de Musique. He is associate member of the Royal Belgian Acadamy of Arts and Sciences, and his Music for Prague 1968 is part of the modern repertory with over 7,000 performances worldwide.
When he arrived for his Atlantic Center residency in 1993, he had just completed a concerto commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. "I came to this beautiful, natural place and spent a real joyful time playing music, listening, reading scores. Seeing the beautiful south country and the ocean was a revelation to me, and staying here alone was very refreshing. When my wife came to visit at the last. I remember saying that I hoped she would not look at some condo to buy. That's what happened, though. Thanks to Atlantic Center, I became Floridean.
"This community is very much one for the artist. That the small children can hear music that they do not know, different from what they ever hear, is marvelous. This place is not usual, in that regard."
During his residency, Husa discovered that one of the composers was a former student of his at Cornell University 20 years earlier. "For those weeks there wasn't any collaborative work, but we were like ants running on the boardwalks - working, talking, giving impression. I still correspond with some of the composers. Composers usually don't write too much; I'm the exception."
So is writer and Middlesberg College professor Shelby Herron, a Guggenheim Fellow and author of 10 novels, who, more than most master artists, has kept tabs on her 1995 associates.
"Among the writers I had in my workshop, I'd say half were on their way to publishing a novel. So, I have followed them, have been working with them. I think you do that at a workshop - you make an intensive rapport with the writers.
"I liked being plugged into the community, of not feeling like a tourist - the local grocery store, a nice restaurant. I went into Winter Park and gave a reading at an arts gathering; someone gave a reception in their home, occasions like that."
During a residency, Herron says, some master artists do not find time to work on personal projects. "To me, in a way, it was like a retreat, but I had conferences almost every day. I was there to work with a lot of other writers, after all. So I only took a small, one-shot, completable piece - a book review for the Chicago Tribune. "
Some artists, though, have a project that lends itself to, and can be augmented by, their associates' involvement.
Vocalist and composer Joan LaBarbara, hailed by the San Francisco Examiner as "one of the great vocal virtuosas of our time" is one. LaBarbara saw her 1993 residency to develop what she calls a sound world, "vocal textures that I could do with multiple, live voices."
A sound world is not easy to define. Essentially, the teritory of voice is expanded beyond conventional parameters, to include issuing multiple sounds simultaneously in different keys. Think of a single voice singing a three note chord. LaBarbara has mastered such techniques, and can change or combine timbre and color at will.
"Being 'away' in an environment where I could work without invasion of psychic space, in an exotic circumstance, was amazing, and also made possible break-through work on my husbands holocaust opera, 'Jacob's Room.'"
Some former master artists not only serve on the national council as a means of continuing support and connection; they also are generous with their art. Composer, conductor and pianist, Lucas Foss, a resident in 1991, is not only a council member - he created "Fanfare for Atlantic Center of the Arts," which will premiere at this month's dedication of additions to the Leeper Studio Complex.
Foss, who studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and Yale School of Music among others, was the youngest composer, at 23, to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, and later received a Fulbright Fellowship. He is today conductor laureate of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and composer-in-residence at the Tanglewood Festival. Elected to the American Acadamy of Arts and Letters, he is recognized as a major contributor to modern American music.
In the midst of such an illustrious career, however, he considers his time at and continuing interest in Atlantic Center special - "because the center is exceedingly idealistic," he says. "Everybody is not self-serving, but devoted to the arts and to young artists. I went there with no other prupose but to work for the young; that was my idea."
Yet, as important as the nearly cloistered work environment of the center is to visiting artists, the character of the work-a-day world at the other end of the road that leads to the retreat holds its own sway. Residents clearly respect the spectacular talent that comes to town, and treats them like homefolk. The artists respond in kind, and it is the resulting dynamic, as much as patron support, presentations and performances, that nourishes a quiet symbiosis.
For some resident artists, that aspect is a major memory. In particular, for Alfred Leslie. It has been written that acclaimed contemporary visual artist Alfred Leslie produces pictures that belong to no province - not realism, not portraiture, but to the tradition of great painting. His self-portrait, considered a breakthrough in "new realism," is owned by the Whitney Museum. In the brooding bohemia of the 1950s and the shake-em-up '60s, as a painter and film-maker, Leslie incited change. His minimalist paintings - which pared traditional realism and used only greys to depict bodies in relief - did more than push the envelope of change.
A sociable man, Leslie opened his studio to film screenings, performances and parties. That sociability is reflected in how New Smyrna struck him.
"I liked it very much and understand the whole nature of the economy. The local shops were wonderful, the people so concerned about my needs. I remember especially a drug store, where I had ciopies made. So distinctive a place" - Little Drug Store, in business ofr 75 years - "there is only one place like it. I also did business with the wonderful local lumber yard. I'd encourage my students to make frames and stretches for themselves and the people at the yard would go to great lengths to help them choose their wood. For entertainment I would stop by the lovely shops and the library - the librarian was exceedingly helpful.
Leslie's highest accolades, though, are reserved for the Center, which he calls "as truly a utopian place as possible...
"They are exemplary in how they relate to the community. It is a beautiful mix for a master to be someplace where you can give back to society as well as pass on information ot another generation of artists."
Roxie Thomas is a current recipient of such sharing. A visual artist who teaches sculpture, ceramics and drawing at Sarasota's ringling School of Art and Design, she is a second-time associate at Atlantic Center.
"The first thing I had to do was to get out of the memory of when I was here before and get into the present. The philisophical focus is different. Then, it was collaboration. This one's about me, my work, being able to get it out."
The artist has completed an interpretive series based on women in the Bible; she is now focusing on the women in Shakespeare's works. "Artists in a teaching mode or [otherwise] involved, need a place to slip between realities. I come with no expectations, knowing that somehow what I need is going to be there."
Thomas' master artist-in-residence is sculptor Heide Fasnacht, a recipient of myriad awards, including a Gugenheim, three Yaddo fellowships and an Edward Albee Foundation grant. Her work has shown in numerous one-person and group exhibitions throughout the country incuding Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art and the Sculpture Center in New York.
Fasnacht says " Here, I'm interested in working with people developmentally, as individuals. If someone wants to make a change or evaluation, we'll talk about that rather than force them to collaborate or make some big change. I'm focusing both on my work and theirs, and we seem to have a nice dialogue, not so much about the work than about issues present in the contemporary art world."
Working at the center, Fasnacht says, can present interesting situations.
"Visual artists have to have a lot of stuff. To realize that something was left at home can originally seem thwarting, but it forces solutions, and that can be a very helpful process.
"I don't think the associates are here to have me be their teacher, buit their colleague, and this place is really conducive to thinking about work, for all of us.";; Another current associate, Julliard-trained Trumpeter Sy Platt, came to focus on composition, "to compose music where the written aspect is the basis, rather than improvisation." It is a pursuit put on hold for nearly three decades, after Platt quit playing with bebop, jazz, Dixieland and Big Band groups to teach music to college students. ;; He is working with resident master Donald Martino, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who taught at the Third Street Music School Settlement in New York; at Princeton, Yale and Tanglewood, and was composition department chair for 10 years at the New England Conservatory of Music. He recently retired as professor emeritus of music from Harvard. Martino's awards includes two Fullbright scholarships, three Guggenheim awards and the 1974 Pulitzer Prize in music for his chamber work, Notturno. ;; "This place is glorious," Martino says of Atlantic Center. "All my associates are on Cloud Nine, talking about the creative process, our works, our industry's ups and downs, It's an opportunity to just be musicians.
"One is clearly conversant with the kind of music I write, others are into a completely different style, some just out of graduate school. One has hardly written any music but wants to and is a fine performer. I thought I'd put them together and see what happens. It's wonderful, all these different points of view. "
Master artists are allowed only one residency but associate artists may apply repeatedly. Writer Bud Johnson is in New Smryna for the sixth time.
During his last stay, the former journalist and long-time assistant to the Milwaukee Mayor focused on fiction with Shelby Herron; a short story that resultedly won first place in the Wisconsin Writers Association competition. Now, Johnson is studying poetry, with Pulitzer Prize-winner Carolyn Kizer.
Kizer has penned eight books of poetry and translations and taught in universities including Stanford, Princeton and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1985 she won the Pulitzer Prize for "YIN: New Poems". She likes to teach translation, but since she and her group of associates have no second language in common, she decided they would translate a 1912 Greek play into contemporary American speech.
Kizer especially enjoys being with young people - "by which I mean anyone under 50. They keep me in touch with language."
Indeed, it was a roomfull of mutual admiration at Kizer's recent reading at Java Jabbers Coffee House in Orlando. Even when she read a poem written to her husband about a love that has last longer than the age of most of her audience, the listeners were rapt. It was not quite the Village, but the lights were dim, her voice near husky and her eyes backing up the wise words of her verse:
".As much as I want to gather a lifetime thrift and craft, my cunning skills tied in a knot for you, there's only this useless happiness as gift."
Such a public reading further typifies Atlantic Center's desire to spotlight its visiting masters during hteir stay in the communities outside the center.
"Atlantic Center is very generous in sharing their artists and resources," says Susan Rosoff, curator of education at the Orlando Museum of Art. "We've had several of the masters lecture here during their residency. Some have had works in our museum exhibit." Moreover, this summer Harris House will enrol kids in a project that includes a visit to the museum's upcoming "Imperial Tombs of China" show.
It was a big part of Dorris Leeper's dream - to share the reality with a lot of people. She has. Now she says, almost maternally, "The program is coming along at such a wonderful pace, generating its own momentum."
Leaving the sanctuary - for that is what Atlantic Center for the Arts is, literaly and figuratively - a most unusual musical moment occurs. The cadence-keeper is a palliated woodpecker; a mockingbird carries the melody, as a muorning dove adds a soft, pure tenor. Suddenly, flitting among them, soaring above the copper roofs and timber beams of studios, come the perfect silver tomes of a flautist's scale, welcoming the muses of mourning.