Anything but Plain (WA)

My desk is in the forefont and Jason’s desk is farther down.

As the capstone to my participation in the Cascadia Residency this year, I and four other artists stayed in a beautiful riverside retreat center in Eastern Washington called the Grunewald Guild. We experienced warm, mild weather, created art, took restorative breaks in hammocks, and gathered around fresh meals that were prepared for us. We worked hard, really!

It was a true residency—we didn’t have to worry about cleaning or cooking or chores. We showed up to make art and the rest was taken care of.

Hammock!

I set up my studio in an old schoolhouse that had been converted to an art library. It had an amazing vibe and was washed in gorgeous natural light all day. Yeah, I just used the term “amazing vibe.” I must have been hanging out with artists!

I shared studio space with Jason, who was working with twine and white primer and sculpting it.

Chatting with Jason in our studio.

My own project was drafting two new short stories. The first story gave me trouble until I realized that my two main characters needed a rich backstory that connected them to each other. This particular piece is a murder mystery set in a prison inside a fantasy world. (It’s part of the Two-Tone universe, for those of you who have read my stuff). Once I realized that my “investigator” character had, twenty years prior, been a teacher to the prison’s warden but had to dismiss the warden for being unfit to pursue a career with him, I’d set the stage for a power play between former master and former pupil that had flipped over so that the pupil now bore all the power and the master held none.

It took me roughly a day-and-a-half of struggling, frustrated that I couldn’t begin fleshing out my scenes right away, but I think the added time of prep-work was worth it. In the process of building these notes on character history, my warden also changed from male to female (no, not like the Jurassic Park dinosaurs) and this made things more interesting.

Workin’ at a standing desk that I made out of a low bookshelf.

Our days during the residency were tranquil but industrious. On two occasions we did studio visits, taking a walk through the spaces where each artist was working. We artists gave an overview of how we did our work and explained our particular projects in greater depth.

On a related note—I’ve recently been discovering the joy of experiencing art (visual, musical, literary, etc) by an artist who I personally know. This lends additional complexity and empathy to an experience I would otherwise have no context for. When I know the artist, I see her story in her work and I a can genuinely rejoice when her work successfully hits the mark.

Collaborations and relationships are the bonus that you can never plan on for residencies like this. I had a chance to collaborate with Aaron, an extremely talented musician. We combined some spoken word pieces of mine with his piano accompaniment. There was a great amount of improvisation and performance to our piece. I am slowly absorbing the possibility that my writing will continue to ask this of me—theater and reading/performing in front of people…but that’s a post for another time.

Me and Aaron!

The short pieces that I read with Aaron were four reimaginings of Psalm 23. The collection was titled I Lack Nothing. Four readers performed it in March 2018. They did a really good job. Watch the recorded performance of I Lack Nothing. (Approx run time 15 minutes.)

I Lack Nothing was my culminating project for the Cascadia Residency. In February 2018 read Darkness to Light, a narrative about my family’s journey through miscarriage (very raw and heavy) as part of an Ash Wednesday service. A few weeks later I directed the reading of I Lack Nothing and followed that up with a workshop on how to write modern-day psalms pertaining to our personal lives.

The cast from I Lack Nothing.

Psalm-Writing class.

Teaching the Psalm-Writing class.

Some ideas are presently percolating in my head for how fiction stories might find a place among the church community. Right now, I’m chewing on the idea of dramatizing scenes from the story, to be performed in conjunction with a sermon series that shares topics/themes with the fiction.

The “dramas” would be short a means of introducing or supporting the sermon and would also serve as “teasers” for the longer work of fiction. It’s obviously still in the conceptual stage, but this is an example of how the Cascadia Residency has taught me to think about the intersections between art (writing, in my case) and church (the community of Sanctuary CRC Church in Seattle, in my case).

And then there’s friendship. No matter how busy and frustrated my life is, there are moments when my heart stands still, caught by surprise, because someone has reached toward me, hoping to connect, to know me and be known by me. That’s when I glimpse beyond the person or the artist or the colleague, to see the soul beyond. Time stands still for a breath and I smile at this offer of friendship. Late-night games were played, phone numbers exchanged, collaborations considered, selfies snapped, and hope for the future was sown tenderly during those days in Plain, WA.

Me, Colleen, and Amy on the river steps

I’m so grateful to the Cascadia Residency for providing this opportunity, to Sanctuary Church for partnering with me, to the Fuller staff and my fellow artists for creating a community where my wild kids were loved and welcome, a place where I felt safe enough to cry. I’m grateful to the Grunewald Guild for creating a loving and lovely sacred space for making art.

My family came out for part of my residency!

My son and his new friend, Amy.

She would like to drive, already.

A huge shout-out to my mom, my husband, my friend Heather, Shannon, Amy, Jason, and everyone else who lent me a hand and spend hours and hours with my kids so that they could both by “out of Mommy’s hair” but still have a chance to see some of me while I was away from home.

Thank you, Jesus, for the road ahead and the life to fill with more art, memories, and community.

Onward!

About Elise

Elise Stephens began her career in writing at age six, illustrating her own story books and concocting wild adventures. Stephens counts authors Neil Gaiman, C.S. Lewis, and Margaret Atwood among her literary mentors, and has studied under Orson Scott Card. She dreams often of finding new ways to weave timeless truths into her stories. Her novels include Moonlight and Oranges (2011), Forecast (2013), and Guardian of the Gold Breathers (2015), a finalist for the INDIEFAB Book of the Year. She lives in Seattle with her family. Follow her on Twitter @elisestephens and Author Elise Stephens on Facebook.

Comments

Anything but Plain (WA) — 4 Comments

  1. Hi Elise,
    What a wonderful opportunity. Thank you for sharing about it. I love to see all the arts intergrated and appreciated, especially within the church, so I like the sound of what you feel might be up ahead.
    Lots of love from us both,
    Sarah & Nabil

    • Thank you, Sarah and Nabil! You have long been among my earliest supporters and encouragers! Also, Genevieve often naps beneath the quilt you made for George. It continues to shed love on my babies!

  2. Fantastic, Elise, to see you move forward with writing and family and faith. Good stuff. What a great path you’re on.

    • Thank you, Susan! There are times when it feels so hard to move forward on all three–that some feel they must be sacrificed for others, so when there are moments when they can come together in harmony (and boy does it take a lot of work!) I feel deeply blessed!

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