Clear mountain air, the frisson of danger (would there be bears? cougars? elk?) and three weeks to write … this is what I went to the Banff Centre for on a Leighton Artists’ Colony residency. That, and the food. While I’ve always found retreats productive, worrying about day to day necessities – such as cooking – can be distracting. At the Banff Centre, Colony residents are not obliged to do anything except their work – in my case, beginning to put my first collection together – although there is an active arts scene to participate in if they want to.
The nine studios which form the Colony – each designed by a different architect specifically for writers, visual artists or musicians – are truly unique. They are comfy and fully equipped with kitchenette and bathroom – although you don’t sleep there, staying instead in the hotel-style accommodation on-site where you can access the many other facilities including restaurant, bar, swimming pool and library. Part of the wall of my studio – a circular timber building – was glass and looked out onto my own forest view (the studios are positioned so you don’t see the others). Most mornings, there were deer to watch and, as I got the coffee brewing, there’s no doubt that it felt idyllic, that this kind of scenery helps you work – it’s almost a form of gratitude.
A new location seems to help in seeing – and hearing – your work more clearly: it refreshes the ear and the internal critic. Sometimes a course is useful – I’d found Arvon courses, for example, with their structured intensity, good for thinking about how to reorganise life around a different kind of rhythm, more conducive to creativity. But to undertake a residency such as at Banff, you do need to have a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve, as well being self-supporting and self-sustaining. Inevitably, there are ups and downs when you are this immersed in your work, but the group of artists at any one time at the Colony usually make friends – as we did – so there was always someone to meet with and unwind. I also planned what I did each day so no matter how things were progressing, I always knew what I was going to do next.
This was definitely the beginning of a process, not the end, and although I came home with a first draft of my manuscript, the work didn’t stop there. But the time at Banff was crucial. Some residents go there to start something new, some rework projects, some are there to mull things over. All these aims are supported by the environment, though the process, day to day, may be different. And that process continues once you leave, with immediate results for some, perhaps a change of perspective for others.
For me, this residency was also an important step in taking myself seriously as a writer (I was excited to see that after I vacated my studio, Les Murray was moving in). And when I left, I felt more like a writer – whatever that may mean. It was the end of winter but still cold and snowing again, just as it had the day I arrived. Standing in that snow, I felt more authentic, more centred. And, oh yes, well fed – in every sense.
See www.banffcentre.ca for more information.