Settling into a new place for a short time reminds me to slow down and pay attention, and that’s one of the reasons I’m interested in participating in artist residencies. I spent last week and will continue through the next week as a guest at Cedar Point Biological Station, a former Girl Scout camp that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln purchased in the mid-1970s and has used as a biological station since then. For a few years, artists have been added to the mix of classes, research projects and naturalist training workshops that meet here every summer.
While I’ve started many paintings on paper and have spent part of each day working in the lab-space-turned-studio, I’ve also spent a fair bit of time just watching the grasses and flowers, the American pelicans on the lake, the cardinals and finches and turkeys visiting the feeders, the lizards and butterflies and dragonflies that flit across the trails. The skies are vast and ever-changing. Last night lightning flashed across the lake while above me I could see stars and the Milky Way against blue-black sky.
Rob Walker begins his book The Art of Noticing with this passage: “Pay attention,” Susan Sontag once advised a young audience; she was speaking of the creative process, but also of living. “It’s all about paying attention. It’s all about taking in as much of what’s out there as you can, and not letting the excuses and the dreariness of some of the obligations you’ll soon be incurring narrow your lives. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others, It makes you eager. Stay eager.”
Slipping away for a short time from my everyday routine helps me recalibrate and then return with more attention and eagerness. It’s one reason such a trip is so restorative. The paintings I make during my stay may not turn out to be anything more than exercises and experiments, but for me they’re only a small part of why I’m here. Having the time and space to really slow down, sometimes just stopping to watch the play of light on grasses and flowers, or to appreciate the lizard or butterfly accompanying me on the trail, or to look up at the variation of cloud shapes, shades of blue, the light of millions of stars are much better reasons. And they’ll remind me to do the same thing back home.