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Artist Retreat – A Recipe for Success

I have just returned from a weeklong artist retreat I shared with three friends at High Ridge Gardens near Charlotte, North Carolina. It was wonderful!

Several years ago I attended a talk by master artist Mary Erickson, and she had mentioned that artists are welcome to stay in the guest house on her large acreage near Charlotte, North Carolina. For a long time I had thought about going by myself for a week, having in the past taken marvelously inspiring and productive solo “art-vacations” in Nova Scotia and in Maine. I ended up inviting three artists to come with me to North Carolina for a week, three women for whom I have great respect as goal-driven emerging artists and as caring, sharing people: Brenda Osborne, Heather Clements, and Brenda Pinnick.

The first day, arrival at our artist retreat: Brenda O., Joan, Heather, and Sally the Goat. Heather’s photo.

Last fall Heather wrote about a solo residency that she gave herself in the mountains of North Georgia. Her personal creativity had dried up when a series of losses occurred in her life, beginning with Hurricane Michael in October, 2018, which devastated her community, damaging every single home, many beyond repair, and mowing down almost all of the mighty oaks in her neighborhood, one crashing into her house. Since the storm and until her trip last fall, Heather had been making a living teaching workshops and classes. Her trip last fall jump-started her personal production of art again. Reading it, I thought about inviting her to come with me on my artist retreat in North Carolina.

I had met Heather Clements many years ago. My fast-growing pool service business had my nose to the grindstone. The recession of 2007 brought that fast growth to a screeching halt, and that gave me time to look up and see what else was going on. I found out that Colleen Duffley was offering weekly Wednesday evening figure drawing sessions at her gallery, Studio B, in Alys Beach, Florida. Colleen invited Heather Clements to instruct the participants. Life drawing was one of my two areas of emphasis for my art degree, and I was thrilled for the opportunity to dust off my pencils, and to be guided by someone with as much command of the figure as Heather has.

I met Brenda Pinnick when I gave myself a trip to New Zealand to celebrate my retirement. Plein Air Magazine offers an annual Publisher’s Invitational trip overseas to tour, paint, and to experience the culture and cuisine, and in 2017 the destination was New Zealand. I think I only talked to Brenda a few times on that trip, but since then I have followed her on Facebook. She is incredibly productive, a wonderful plein air painter, her work easily competitive with some of the better artists I’ve seen. Brenda completed an artist residency for Blue Ridge Mountains Arts Alliance last fall.

Of the three, I probably know Brenda Osborne the best. Brenda served as the chair of our committee that arranged member art exhibitions for the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County where I live, and she also was the office manager for my business. A couple of years ago, shortly after I sold the business, Brenda sold me her car and took off sailing the eastern seaboard with her husband and her art supplies. Plein Air Magazine online wrote a story about her (https://www.outdoorpainter.com/itinerant-painter-on-the-waves/). Over the past year we have been getting together every month or two for progress reports as we work on our art goals.

So these three self-motivated and residency-experienced artists came to mind when I thought about including others on this artist retreat. Being self-motivated and residency-experienced turned out to be the recipe for success for our artist retreat.

I had had a busy year. I was the artist-in-residence for the 2019 Forgotten Coast en Plein Air last spring, one of the highlights of my life so far, combining my love of nature and natural science with my love of painting. I poured a lot of energy into it, so it was an intense endeavor, and highly rewarding. For the rest of the year, I worked on a theme of clouds and waves, my first effort at painting large canvases in studio, in preparation for a solo exhibit of 20 paintings this-coming spring. The trip to North Carolina was to be a concentrated break away from home, my personal intention being to paint en plein air (outdoors, in open air) the whole time I was there. 

When I invited the two Brendas and Heather, the only structure I suggested was for each person to be in charge of a couple of dinners, with breakfast and lunch on our own, and that we would review and critique each other’s work after dinner each night. I left it to everyone to decide how much and what and when and where they wanted to paint or study or just relax. Mary’s sitting room has a whole wall full of art books from floor to ceiling, and the house has numerous paintings of her own and also by other wonderful artists, so there was plenty to study indoors too. Outdoors there were birds everywhere, and Mary has several feeders near the house which bring the birds close. I loved watching the birds, especially the male cardinals with their flashy red feathers contrasted against the golds and tinted grays of winter. A short walk past the pond and up the hill, there were two horses, Cherokee and Angel, and Sally the goat. Inspiration was plentiful. And if that wasn’t enough, the surrounding countryside and town nearby provided scenic charm. Plus Mary opened her studio to us, which allowed for more controlled study and also was a respite from occasional weather challenges. The furthest we ventured was to the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge, about 20 miles from the house.

As it turned out, our artist retreat was more pleasantly social than I had envisioned. We all were early risers so we shared coffee time in the morning, and we bumped into each other throughout the day, sometimes sharing rides on a 4-wheeled cart called a Gator. Great conversations with a whole lot of laughter and an occasional tear, delicious food, and a shared motivation to become better artists, made for a wonderful, largely unstructured week of growth. Leaving the husbands at home probably increased our art production by at least double.

Mary Erickson offers her guesthouse through Airbnb (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/29588179?s=67&shared_item_type=1&virality_entry_point=1&sharer_id=59163127) for $50 per person per night, plus fees. But for artists she offers it in exchange for donations, and the suggested donation is only $25 per person per night, plus the cleaning fee. To reach her for this donation rate, go to her website (http://www.maryericksonart.com) and go to her “Contact” page. For more information on the property or to make a donation to support her offering the property as an artist retreat and bird sanctuary, go to http://highridgegardens.org.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so enjoy these I am posting of the grounds and of each artists study, many of them sketches or incomplete works in progress. Message me if you are interested in owning any of the artists’ paintings shown here.

Heather posted about our adventures and created a video of the grounds with a snippet of her working, as well as writing about the experience, on her Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/posts/33153770?fbclid=IwAR2naGDG8GT9trnuDMO8bOtZSB1PxTBxlsrDEsyIUWH06LYNqUSHT2eyAyc. (I have a cameo appearance in which my scowl makes plein air painting look much less fun than it actually is, ha!)

Below are some photos of us and the farm.


Brenda Osborne worked on a couple of exercises in John Pototschnik’s book on mixing color in oils, as well as painting en plein air. Brenda Osborne’s website is https://brendaosborneart.com.


Brenda Pinnick painted on property and also ventured out into the nearby community. Brenda Pinnick’s website is https://brendapinnick.com. She used oil paint.


Heather practiced drawing and watercolor on this trip. Heather Clements’ website is https://www.heatherclementsart.com


I suffered from over-choice, so many beautiful and interesting scenes on the farm. It was greener than I had expected, and the weather was mostly good, so I never got the snow scene I was hoping for. But we did have some nice, atmospheric, gray days. These are my oil paintings, all but one painted on the property at High Ridge Gardens. This page, of course, is my website, https://joanvienot.com.

As an artist, there is something different about being away from home that makes it worth missing one’s cats, dog, and family. Being away for short periods allows for concentrated focus. At High Ridge Gardens, it helped that the house had no TV. Whether solo or with others, I am convinced that an artist retreat gives me a little catapult forward in my journey as an artist. Many thanks to Mary Erickson for offering her beautiful property for such an affordable suggested donation!

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