Artists gather at the Marble House

Lara Palmquist usually works in a cabin without electricity, but on this sweltering afternoon she has set up a standing desk and a balance board in a quiet, spare studio room.

She is beginning work on a novel set in Svalbard, in Norway, researching threads in the story that revolve around environmental science and her background in biology.

Up the hill, Kira Nam Greene has covered another studio wall with bright squares and painted patterns inspired partly by the architecture of this place: a broad gabled house made of marble quarried on the land behind it.

Palmquist and Greene spent three weeks in July as artists in residence at the Marble House in Dorset, Vt. Eight artists at a time share residencies from from May to October, said Sarah Walko, director of arts programming.

A program that opened gently three summers ago has expanded rapidly, bringing in visual artists, dancers, musicians and writers, creative people from many backgrounds and parts of the world. And this summer they are reaching out to the community.

The artists cook their evening meals with food from the gardens, beehives and chicken coop on wheels. They visit local museums and farmers markets. And they give public talks, performances and open studios on Tuesday nights.

Beyond that simple structure, they are free to work and to wander, Walko said. They live in the marble house itself. The quarry’s owner built the original house about 1820 with his own stone, and in 1915 the journalist, writer and diplomat Edwin Lefèvre added an extension and formal gardens with a fountain, steps, planters, benches and colonnade.

Higher on the hill, 48 acres encompass farm gardens and barns, studio buildings and a stone-lined pool with water deep green from the marble.

Trails cross an upper meadow with “I dwell in possibility” written in birch poles against the sky, a line from Emily Dickinson made part of an installation by a former resident, Kathy Bruce.

And still higher, tumbled, massive stone blocks mark the old quarry, with a natural pool for fish and turtles, and a marble cabin National Geographic built here as part of their “Building Wild” series.

The artists sometimes gather here on warm nights, Walko said, around a massive marble table with a metal fire bowl.

This historic summer home and wild and cultivated land, this blend of art and agriculture, belongs to Danielle Epstein, who co-founded the Marble House Project with Dina Schapiro. (They are now president and treasurer of the board.)

“It was a 25-year dream of Danielle’s to start a residency program,” Walko said.

Epstein is also an artist and had an intense experience in a residency program as a young woman.

“I wholeheartedly like the salon idea,” she said, “and I’ve done it all my life — people coming to dinner, artists talking together. This is an expansion.”

At the end of this year more than 150 artists will have lived and worked here, she said.

They will also have worked on the land. The artists can plant and learn tasks in the garden, Walko said, and much of what they eat here grows here. Marble House has two bee colonies and 14 chickens. Among the garden beds she pointed out squash, tomatoes, pumpkins, wildflowers for the bees, eggplant and peppers, garlic and kale, carrots and potatoes.

This summer, under Tina Cohen, director of sustainable agriculture and horticulture, the Marble House is offering cooking workshops working with whatever is ripe in the garden.

And the artists have picked herbs and cooked for the group, walked on the trails, gone running on the back roads and worked at their own pace.

Palmquist welcomed the freedom in an atmosphere that let her work grow organically.

“I can let it be messy,” she said.

She was just starting her novel, with no pressure to present, no one asking to see her early drafts. She could reach and risk and get close to the material, she said. She could pay attention to associations and resonances. She had space and freedom for wool-gathering and weaving, and with a novel so rough and so much in the stage of experimenting, she needed that room to breathe.

“It’s rare to be able to sink in,” she said. “When I come up from work, for a moment I have to recalibrate being in this world, and that’s wonderful.”

She routinely writes in longhand until the final draft, paying attention to rhythm and sounds of the words. Here she could talk about her work with residents, clarifying information absorbed over a day of research. She has not often spent time in writing workshops, she said, and the experience of working in a close community of creative people is new to her.

“It feels like a found family,” she said. “We listen to each other speak, and in speaking about it we refine our work.”

She found it helpful to talk with people who will let her work through ideas without flooding her with suggestions — someone also deep in a project who can relate.

“I have so much motivation to tell this story,” she said, “and I want to keep the urgency to say it on the page. If I tell people what I’m going to do taps into that urgency.”

Greene agreed, she felt a strong connection with a group of people who wanted her to succeed.

“The meals are important,” Palmquist said. “I like that we cook them together. It’s something we create, and it’s done every night — done and enjoyed. It’s a complement to larger projects that require endurance. I’m surprised how sustaining that has been.”

Greene has also enjoyed these warm communal dinners.The people she met here are accomplished, articulate and generous, she said, and she enjoyed talking with them and understanding their art practices — composers, writers, playwrights all adjusting to a new space and new ways of working.

In her studio she had formed bright patterns like a mosaic of stencils, and paint has dripped in bright colors down the wall. The marble planters in the formal gardens have inspired some of these shapes, she said, with their geometric symmetry and fabulous monsters. She designed her own creatures in that style. And the house itself has inspired more.

She had never seen brick or marble used like this, she said — rectangular stone in the newer part of the house and rougher-cut stone in the older part, which looked free-hand to her, not at all planned, just built it as it was built.

She also planned to add natural elements, ferns and flowers.

Her recent work often incorporates wall drawings, she said. She is drawn to images that invoke women’s lives and desires, like still-lifes of rounded fruit and patterns in wall paper, and to decorative art forms that have historically stayed in the margins in Western art.

In the past, wall-paper designers were considered crafters, not artists, she said. In the U.S., since the 1970s, a growing movement has brought many crafts into the world of fine art — glass, woodworking, ceramics. She would like to be part of that movement.

She is interested in patterns, she said, and the cultural influences they reveal. She lives in New York City and came to the U.S. from Korea, and as an immigrant living here she is drawn to explore cultures influencing each other.

European artisans in the 18th-century designed wall papers with fancy flower motifs and sent their drawings to crafters in India and China to embroider them. The Asian artists and artisans would quietly add in their own designs, and the European designers would adopt those elements them in their own new patterns.

This mixing of cultures feels familiar in the way she lives here, she said; in the city she has friends from many places. And the mix of disciplines and art backgrounds at the Marble House enlivened her work, as the place itself has done.

“It has been so wonderful here — a paradise,” she said.

She has a studio in Brooklyn, in an industrial part of the city, and in Vermont she relaxed into long days walking around the gardens and taking photographs, shaping new patterns inspired by plants and swimming in the marble pool — she needs a lot of light, so working in her studio under the lamps can get hot on a thundery day.

“I don’t want to leave,” she said.

 

This story first ran in the Hill country Observer — my thanks to editor Fred Daley. In the photo at the top, an artist’s bicycle waits outside the main house, which was originally built from marble quarried at the site. Photo by Kate Abbott

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