Elmendorf retreat forges relationships, fosters creativity
The historic Elmendorf Farm in Lexington hosted nine Transylvania faculty and local artists for a creative retreat organized by English professor Kremena Todorova and art professor Kurt Gohde in August.
The weeklong retreat was designed to give artists time away from their lives to work on any pieces they wanted to create with a community of other artists.
“The idea is to have time to make work without being distracted by laundry and children and dogs,” Gohde said. “The only requirement was drinks at 7 each night and dinner afterwards.”
“It’s a time to reenergize,” Todorova said. “If that means you go and do absolutely nothing but sleep and listen to the radio, that’s fine. We were insistent on lack of accountability in a positive way. It was not a product-oriented retreat.”
This year was the second retreat and the first to be a full week. The idea came from discussions between Todorova, Gohde, Kenan visiting writer Richard Taylor, and writing, rhetoric, and communication instructor Martha Gehringer. The group was in communication with Nana Lampton, who owns the farm and wanted to start some kind of artist residency with Transylvania. After trying a weekend retreat in 2011, Gohde and Todorova decided to extend it to a week and had a good idea of what it would look like.
Other participants were physics professor Jamie Day, Spanish professor Jeremy Paden, psychology professor Meg Upchurch, German professor Steve Naumann, poet Eric Sutherland, visual artist and owner of Third Street Stuff Pat Gerhard, and visual artist and musician John Lackey.
A typical day saw the participants get up whenever they wanted, work on their art or relax in the morning, eat lunch, keep working, then get together for drinks at 7 p.m. and dinner at 7:30. Each day, two of the artists would be on dinner duty and cook for everyone else.
“Depending on how ambitious they were, they would start cooking anywhere from 10 in the morning, which Jeremy Paden did—he made pasta from scratch—to 5:30,” Todorova said. “Inevitably when people were cooking, others would come and hang around, so the kitchen became a focal point for people. It turned out to be a great way to build community.”
That community was an important aspect of the retreat, especially with such a loose “schedule.”
“There were plenty of common spaces to work, but some people worked on their own, and we didn’t see them until dinner,” Gohde said. “It made the interaction at dinner even better, because people who needed their alone time had a full day of it.”
Several people, though, worked together during the day. One of the houses has a large porch with a wooden table on it, and it became a place for people to chat and share their art while they worked.
“Jamie Day was carving, and Jeremy Paden was writing poems, and Kurt was working on an album cover for the band Vandeveer,” said Todorova. “I was working on two drawings—they were the first drawings I’d done in years. It was fun to share and work and be in a community that way.
“It felt a lot to me like graduate school where there was more time for that kind of work as opposed to now when we have full teaching schedules, and I’m in my office a lot and don’t interact with my colleagues as much.”
An interesting aspect of the retreat is that Gohde was the only faculty member who teaches art. The others were professors from a variety of disciplines who do creative work in their own time. Upchurch did creative writing, and one evening at dinner, the participants decided to have a time to share some of their work. Upchurch read the poetry she’d been working on, and it was received so well that it encouraged her to participate in her first poetry reading in September.
The professors are currently planning an open reading and exhibition for the participants to share the work they did on the Elmendorf retreat.
“A number of people started work there or worked on something there that has been published,” Todorova said. “We want people to know more about the initiative, so we’ll find a way to have the participants show their work.”
Another benefit is that it spread the Transylvania brand to local artists and eventually to people who will hear about Transylvania through the retreat and those artists.
“Like any professional work, the goal is to have Transylvania’s name said in a good way in the community,” Gohde said. “The artists that were involved this year had nothing but praise for the experience and for Transylvania. They were very grateful. For people who aren’t part of an academic institution, this type of thing is really unusual and forges lasting relationships within the creative community.”
The professors hope to open the retreat up to Transylvania alumni who are doing creative work, which is another way to build community and make connections. If you are interested in participating in the retreat, email Todorova at firstname.lastname@example.org or Gohde at email@example.com.