The stereotype goes that artists don’t play well with others. Whether or not that’s true, long hours spent in your own sweet company are a must for anyone trying to produce creative work. Of course, there’s something to be said for collaboration and getting inspiration from other people. Great artists steal, etc. But even if we agree that nothing is original, the general consensus goes that you can’t create in the midst of millions of distractions.
So use that time you have on your own right now and kick off your career:
Georgia O’Keeffe at Ghost Ranch, August 1968.
There’s plenty of evidence to back this up. On one hand, you have the notorious big-city scenes: New York in the 70s, Paris in the 20s. But many artists, especially later in life, have quit the city to live in relative isolation. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden might be the textbook example, but plenty of visual artists have struck out on their own, too. After ten years in New York, Agnes Martin packed her pickup truck and drove away, never to return. When her husband died, Georgia O’Keeffe moved permanently into her remote ranch in New Mexico. In his later life, Goya holed up in his Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man) and painted the walls black.
But, according to The New York Times Style Magazine, at least, the age of the artist recluse is over. Even if you’re not famous enough to call forth the paps each time you leave the house, our culture is all about being seen, not hiding out. As Harmony Korine once said in an interview, the cool thing when he was growing up was to be able to disappear: run away where no one—parents, teachers—knew where you were. But now, only a decade or two later, everyone’s a hoe for views, likes and follows.
Tracey Emin, Naked Photos: Life Model Goes Mad (1996).
The scales might be tipping, but there are still plenty of ways to create a little solitude when you need it without permanently going off the grid. By going on a temporary artist solo retreat, you can have your silence and ‘Gram it too. Sometimes this solitude is in itself part publicity stunt. For example, Joseph Beuys lived in a gallery for seven days for a performance called I Like America and America Likes Me. He was alone with only a wild coyote for a companion.
Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974).
Two decades later, Tracey Emin spent two weeks locked in a gallery, hashing out her relationship with painting, wearing nothing but her birthday suit. She not only reconciled with painting but developed a whole new style. Of course, it might have been easier to focus on her art without a coyote to worry about, but who can say?
In the summer of 1971, Adrian Piper holed up in her apartment to fast, do yoga and read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. When she felt her sense of self slipping away, she took mirror selfies, as one does when contemplating oblivion. The photos became her series Food for the Spirit. Decades later, she pulled the ultimate disappearing act and left the US forever to live in Berlin, a decision explained in her new autobiography, Escape to Berlin.
Even Marina Abramović, one of the most public artists of our time, has disappeared on many a spiritual quest throughout her life, from living with aboriginal people in the central Siberian desert for five years and going on “so many retreats in the jungle with the Tibetan monks.”
Marina Abramović on her spiritual journey through Brazil, captured in Marina Abramović in Brazil.
If fasting or hanging out with coyotes sounds a little extreme for you, don’t worry. We’re not sending you off into the jungles of Tibet empty-handed (Unless that’s your thing, then go for it, and please take pictures.).
But for those of you who just want a little peace and quiet to get in touch with your inner muse, keep reading to discover how to throw your own artist solo retreat.
PS: artists’ residencies are also a great option, but they require lots of prep work in advance. If you’re trying to get away, like, now, here’s your guide to a DIY retreat.
The trickiest bit is deciding where to go. Most of us don’t have an empty scenic, remote cabin sitting around to escape to whenever we choose. Especially during these days, we are kinda limited 🙂
Bali is never a bad idea.
If you’ve got a little cash in your pocket, then Airbnb is a great way to get a change of scenery, whether you’re going across the world or just across the street (these days…). The best part is that you can pick out exactly what type of space you’re looking for, from the location to the layout. Want a cabin on a quiet country road with more cows than cars? No problem. An urban studio with lots of light? Gotchu. A tiny hut with no electricity on a rock in the middle of the sea? Done and done.
Pro tip: if you’ve currently got $3.14 in your account, rent out your own place to pay for your rental.
Got a bougie friend who’s going on vacation soon or more likely – can’t return to his/her place these days? You’re in luck. Humbly offer your house-sitting (or dog-sitting, or plant-sitting) services in exchange for room and board. Obviously, there’s not as much flexibility involved as with Airbnb, but it’s free, and beggars (i.e., artist) can’t be choosers.
Even better, call up all your trust fund baby friends from art school and shamelessly volunteer to stay in one of their empty apartments for a week or two. The only downside is you probably can’t make that body-print mural you’ve been dreaming of, unless you put down a lot newspapers. But even then, risky business. You might think you redecorated the place, but they might not appreciate cerulean blue splotches on their $14,000 carpet.
Hair painting à la Janine Antoni’s Loving Care (1993) may be out of the question.
As another option, take to Craigslist, Reddit, Facebook, IG, or whichever social media site you deem the least sketchy and find someone to swap places with, The Holiday style.
Juno Calypso, The Honeymoon Suite (2015).
This might be the least appealing option, as freedom and space will both be much more limited. But if you’re a hard-core room service girl, the pros might outweigh the cons.
If you can find a hotel that fits your artistic purposes, all the better. In 2015, Juno Calypso checked into the honeymoon suite at a gloriously kitschy hotel in Pennsylvania for a week. Out of the experience came her photo series, The Honeymoon Suite, a sugary-sweet domestic nightmare somewhere between Twin Peaks and I Love Lucy.
Adrian Piper, Food for the Spirit (1971).
Who says you have to go anywhere to go off the grid? There’s no time and place like here and now to get back in touch with yourself. Escaping to a new locale might be a helpful catalyst to shutting off distractions and tuning in, but it’s not strictly necessary. After all, what you’re looking for is yourself—your mind and your creativity, right? All you really need to do, then, is cut yourself off from distractions enough to hear what’s already there. Your next artist retreat could just mean clearing your schedule, stocking up on food and art supplies, and telling your friends you’ll be ignoring their calls for the next 10 days.
If you’re looking for solitude, this only really works if you already live alone. Otherwise, it might be a little awkward explaining to your roommates, friends or family that you need them to disappear for a couple weeks. But even a room onf one’s own, à la Virginia Woolf, could be more than enough. Just explain to your cohabiters what’s going down; they might even be nice enough to slide you food through the door and peek in once a day to make sure you’re still alive and relatively sane. That’s what friends are for!
Packing for a life changing, self-imposed period of solitude can be intimidating. We’re here to help.
A toothbrush. You want to leave with a stunning new body of work, not four cavities.
Food. We recommend pre-making or buying whatever food your creative exertion will require so you’re fully stocked and don’t need to worry about cooking the whole time you’re on your retreat. Otherwises, if you’re within delivery range, Postmates is always an option. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person who finds cooking soothing, it might be the breather you need between intense art-making sessions. In that case, bring groceries, or arrange for someone to deliver them.
A journal. To flesh out ideas and document your experience for your memoir or biopic.
Pens and pencils for the journal. We love Muji’s 0.5 black gel pens, but warning: once you try them, you’ll never use another pen again in your life. Be careful out there.
Reading material. Here, you want to be deliberate. Don’t bring your entire collection of Harry Potter, unless you want this to turn into a reading retreat. Reflect carefully over the direction you envision for this retreat and select reading material accordingly. Make a list of 10 books that have changed your life, even if it was 20 years ago. You might get something totally fresh out of revisiting them now. Otherwise, poetry and spiritual books are a safe bet.
Incense. If you’re a little witchy, this is a must. Sage and palo santo are supposed to be especially potent for cleansing energy. Burn some at the start of your retreat create a little ritual for yourself. And if you’re coming into a new space, you obviously don’t want any bad vibes lingering, killing yours.
Mind-altering substances of choice. Or not. This is a totally personal decision, and we’re not here to preach. Whatever you use to get the creative juices flowing, whether it’s dank kush or pranayama, you do you.
A music-playing device of choice. This could be your laptop and a good speaker (although you might want to leave your laptop at home, more on that later). You could also go old-school and bust out your boom box and CDs, or even tapes or records. That way, no Internet connection is required, but reflecting carefully on what tunes you want to be accompanied by on your mystical art journey beforehand is. Or if you play the flute, the guitar, the ukulele, the sitar, or even the triangle, more power to you.
Your vibiest outfits. If you’re someone who’s affected by the clothes they wear, this becomes all the more important. Whatever makes you feel like whatever version of yourself you want to feel like when you make your art, bring that. For specific suggestions, check out our “Style Report: What Artists Wear In The Studio.”
Your phone. To be kept off, or at least on airplane mode, but on hand in case of emergencies. On the other hand, if you have a landline where you’re going, consider leaving your phone at home. It might seem extreme, but isn’t that kind of the point?
Your tech, as much as possible. Bringing your laptop might seem like a logical and innocent move—research!—but be careful. The chances of you wasting the whole week watching Desperate Housewives are reduced 100% if you don’t have a laptop on hand. Since the whole point of the retreat is to be alone with your thoughts, try to plan to have as few distractions as possible in the form of TV, iPads, pagers, smart washing machines, Tamagotchis…
Your pets. Unless there is some artistic purpose or logistical necessity for his presence, your rabbit Swiffer can stay at home. You wouldn’t want to put him at risk of getting caught in the crossfires of some delirious experiment you dream up as you feel your sense of self slipping away from self-imposed solitary confinement, now would you?
Outside work, or anything that will remind you of outside commitments or distractions. This is pretty self-explanatory; when you’re trying to create your magnum opus, it doesn’t help to have a pile of laundry or your tax forms sitting in the corner. Take care of housekeeping before you leave so nothing is pulling your mind out of the zone.
Make art, obviously.
Images via Huxley-Parlour, Christie’s, WikiArt, i-D, AOL, Art of Body Motion, Nowness, MoMA, Awol-junkee.