- The Age of the Artist
The place hasn't changed much—still the spicy odor of boxwood at the entryway. The house where we eat and sleep still motel-like but brimming with artwork and books like no motel. It's spring. Pear and apple trees are blossoming; grass is growing. Grazing cows ignore me as I tramp past them over the grounds of what was once a working dairy farm but is now, and has been for decades, an artists' colony at the foot of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.
I have been coming here for twenty years—though I haven't been back for nine, which seems impossible. I come here for the same reasons most of the other artists do—to work undisturbed by phones, jobs, chores, friends and family, to hear my voice, the way it sounds when it is not drowned out by other voices.
When I first came here I was in my late twenties, a grown up woman I thought. I was sure I soon would be well published and wealthy, well traveled. Already I had lived in Manhattan, in a building F. Scott Fitzgerald once inhabited, and in Berkeley where I moved the day Nixon resigned; I'd rented in the Springs, near Jackson Pollock's place. And I imagined my life unfurling in every exotic locale. I did not plan to marry like those ordinary, if beautiful, Sweet Briar College girls across the road. I intended to sleep with every sort of man I could—for the texture this experience would give my life, and my art.
Each time I came to the colony I knew I would make friendships that would last forever. And I arrived, always, knowing there would be an affair. I slept with painters, composers, writers, sculptors, with men my age and men in their forties and fifties—ages I could not then imagine ever reaching. Secretly I envied poets and painters their mediums—canvases and colors and stanzas—the scent of turpentine on their fingers, the rhythms of [End Page 101] their words. And more secretly still, I wondered if men preferred these women to a writer with mere paragraphs. But I never confessed my envy. No one did. We talked of comradeship, of our commitment to art, and to each other.
Some days I took a break from work to jog along the blue spine of those mountains. Some nights instead of working we gathered to look at or listen to each others' work and later partied in each other's studios, drinking to excess, dancing, singing, passing out, sometimes waking to sunlight streaming through those tall windows. Once a stunning painter—a married woman who was having a fling with a handsome writer—sculpted papier-mâché casts of all the young women's torsos and hung these from her studio ceiling. She invited the others in to admire our forms. Part of our art, and our artlessness, was this craving for admiration, longing, awe, and although I was admiring of others' work, I know finally I was most entranced by my own body—of work and flesh.
One year I was writing a novel—certain its publication would promise a lifetime of financial comfort. An angry composer from Chicago worked in a studio across the hall from mine. We didn't like each other; he was brutishly cool, I was outgoing, warm. I envied him his stingy solitude, but I couldn't admit that, not even to myself.
One night the composer and I met in the hallway as each of us was walking towards the shared kitchen. Noticing he was flushed and wild eyed, I commented. He said it was inspiration. I said it looked more like illness. Looking back I'm amazed at my intuition since I remember myself as having been so tightly entwined in my own needs and desires. But turning suddenly maternal, I convinced him to climb into my car, and by the time we had driven down the hill, into the world beyond the gates of our hideaway, he was shivering. I wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and sped along winding, hilly roads...