8 artist residencies to make you seriously regret your summer plans

Be jealous — very, very jealous — of the Canadian artists who've done them.

Be jealous — very, very jealous — of the Canadian artists who've done them

Reach out and grab these opportunities? (Holly M. Chang)

What are artist residencies? That's all spelled out for you in this episode of Art 101. But there's a few topics that don't get much consideration in that tidy explainer vid — namely, who are the lucky jerks who get to escape their basement studios in Lloydminster or wherever so they can explore islands and medieval castles and volcanic fields...because art.

At any given time, you'll find Canadians at artist residencies all over the world, and we tracked down eight of them.

In the last few months, they've lived and worked in places bound to stoke your wanderlust. Even if you'll never in a million years apply for a Canada Council grant, you'll want to see where they've been.

NES Artist Residency, Iceland

Iceland! One of Holly M. Chang's photographs from her time at NES. (Courtesy of Holly M. Chang)

Who's there?

In April, just as the days were stretching to their absolute longest, Toronto artist Holly M. Chang arrived for a month-long stay. "I really wanted to focus on doing photography," she says. "I thought it would be an interesting challenge to be so isolated."

Location, location, location

You'll find NES in Skagaströnd, a fishing village on the northwest coast of the country. "Basically, it's a very isolated town," says Chang. "It's off the Ring Road, which is the main road in Iceland, so it is really far, far away." (It's a four-hour journey from Reykjavik, according to their website.) And the landscape is wild and varied: mountains, hot springs, geysers — and the ocean, obviously. "I was really interested in being closer to nature, and it was just such a beautiful scenic space," says Chang, who photographed all those sights. "You can go for walks all the time and be connected."

Life stuff, work stuff

Visiting artists all share the same studio space, says Chang, and they live off-site in the village. "I think the residency cost around 700 Euros for the month, which is pretty close to having a studio and an apartment in Toronto," she laughs. (Chang was able to swing the time away because she's a student on a gap year between degrees.) But unlike being back in the city, the place has an atmosphere of "total isolation."

"There was nothing there. The place we all hung out at was the gas station," she says. "It was that isolated. So you really, really have to focus on your work because there's nothing else to focus on."

Why's it worth the trip?

"It's probably one of the greatest experiences I've ever had. I will always cherish it," she says. "It was just really incredible to be working in such a beautiful space and to be completely just focused on my practice — like, no distractions."

"I think what I've taken away from there is just to be more patient and to work slowly and you don't have to rush things. You can take your time to think — just be mindful."

Glenfiddich Artists-in-Residence Program, Scotland

From Marla Hlady's Instagram: "Studio backyard ... sort of." (Instagram/@marlahlady)

Who's there?

Toronto-based artists Christof Migone and Marla Hlady are the Canadian winners of the 2019 Glenfiddich Artist-in-Residence Prize, which gives international artists three months to live and work on the famed distillery's grounds in the Scottish Highlands. The duo has been collaborating since 2015, and as Migone tells CBC Arts, they're currently working on several pieces "based on the material we've gathered while here."

Location, location, location

You may remember this residency from a very special episode of Art 101or this video of Jon Sasaki building (and crashing) a plane.

Since 2002, more than 150 visual artists from around the world have come to Dufftown, Scotland to create something inspired by the locale. And no, they don't all make art about whisky.

Writes Migone, who's been there with Hlady since May: "The setting is pretty unique. We are living right on the distillery grounds. It's a strange mix — equal parts picturesque and pastoral mixed with machinic and industrial."

Life stuff, work stuff

Valued at roughly $20,000, the prize covers just about everything you could need — from airfare to production budget — and residents are provided with their own furnished cottages on the distillery site, lodgings that are spacious enough to accommodate couch-surfing friends and family (according to the Glenfiddich website). Migone and Hlady are this year's Canadian delegates, and their current neighbours are artists from all over: Australia, Taiwan, India, Scotland, South Korea, the States. The distillery has a gallery, too, where residents' work is shown. Migone says that he and Hlady will be featured during the first round of exhibitions at the end of July.

Why's it worth the trip?

Migone says that the residency's good reputation set it apart. The artists' past collaborations have explored the nature of sound, so the thing that's fascinated them most is Dufftown's cornucopia of noise, from the burbling of the Robbie Dhu Spring to the mechanical din of the bottling plant. 

Rabbit Island, United States

Home sweet tiny home. The cabin on Rabbit Island. (Facebook/@Rabbitislandfoundation)

Who's there?

Colin Lyons and only Colin Lyons. Technically, the Windsor-born artist doesn't arrive until August, but he'll be spending his three-week residency all by himself as the only living human on dry land.

Location, location, location

Rabbit Island isn't just a name. It's an island, for sure — a speck of untouched forest, less than a square kilometre in size, that's situated on the Michigan side of Lake Superior.

Life stuff, work stuff

"I work as a professor, I've got kids at home. This is going to be totally, totally different than what I'm used to!" laughs Lyons.

For starters: he'll be living almost entirely off the land. "From what they've told me, anyway, part of your day is spent just with the subsistence side of things: fishing, foraging, that kind of thing," he says, and he's been studying his forager's guidebook to prevent an Into the Wild-style tragedy.

He'll have shelter: a cabin and a studio — and the latter, he says, happens to feature a sauna. "That will be quite nice." There's an outhouse and few solar panels to generate power. "Basically, that's it. They've set it up so that it's a nice place to stay, even if it's as bare bones as possible," and the program is open to both artists and scientists interested in researching environmental topics.

Planning, and packing, for the residency comes with one additional challenge: anything that's made on the island needs to be taken with him when he's done. "Usually I make these big, almost architectural sized site-specific installations," he says. "So here I have to think very small, and think what can I do with less material basically."

Why's it worth the trip?

Some people want a little alone time. Others really, really need it. In Lyons's case, he's developing a new project (The Laboratory of Everlasting Solutions). The work's going to be about geoengineering (so, theories for reducing solar radiation or greenhouse gases, for example — where scientists play puppetmaster with Earth's climate systems.) And Lyons plans to approach the subject through the eyes of a sort of loner alchemist. "Rabbit Island really seemed like the place to start [the project]. It's a way of getting in character."

"Developing this project, I need a hermetic period," he says. "And this is basically the only residency out there, as far as I know, where that's possible."

Rucka, Latvia

For what it's worth, Kristine arrived too early in the season to see the horses, but here is a picture of them anyway. (Facebook/@Rucka)

Who's there?

Toronto-based artist Kristine Mifsud first arrived in April. "I didn't have a specific project/proposal when I applied," she writes, but after a month at Rucka, she'd thrown herself into researching micrometeorites — a project that brought her back for a repeat visit not long before we reached her.

Location, location, location

Rucka's located in Cesis. It's a small town ("A very small town,"writes Mifsud). But it's not far from Riga, Latvia's capital city, which can be a bonus for residents seeking out culture. "You can go to openings, meet artists, etc.," she writes.

As for Rucka itself, Mifsud describes the building as an old manor house that's just five minutes away from the centre of town. Going off their Facebook page, there are ponies and baby sheep frolicking in the field outside, which seems like a majorly adorable bonus."The house is surrounded by trees and greenspace. They have a beehive, and if you're lucky you will get to taste very local honey!"

Life stuff, work stuff

Here's how Mifsud describes the living/working space: "It has 10 bedrooms that each have space to work, but it also has large common spaces, a library and a wet darkroom." 

"They also look for artists with community/social/ecological aspects to their work, which was in tune with my practice." 

Why's it worth the trip?

"I look for residencies that have no fees, and generally that means Europe," Mifsud writes. Beyond the financial perks, she says Rucka's welcoming vibe makes it unique. "It's in a very special little town that despite its size maintains a vibrant cultural scene. Local people want to engage and learn about the residents work."

Rupert, Lithuania

Rupert in Vilnius, Lithuania. (Facebook/@Rupertvilnius)

Who's there?

We reached Joshua Schwebel, a Canadian conceptual artist living in Berlin, just after he'd finished a two-month stay. He came to Rupert for a research project that he hopes to pick up again next year on a return visit.

Location, location, location

Rupert itself is an art and education facility in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. That's where residents get to live and work, and the building is right on the Neris River. The website talks up "peaceful fields" and forests that can be found within swift distance. "The city can be reached by bus or by bike path through the forest," Schwebel writes. (Oh, yeah — residents are provided with bikes.) "The whole city is so green, and the bike route is quite magical." 

Life stuff, work stuff

Residents stay in private live/work studios. Schwebel says they look out over that previously mentioned forest, and artists have access to a few shared spaces, too: a reading room, a conference room, a kitchen. "The studios are very tranquil spaces," he writes, and he notes that the building itself is shared with some creative start-up companies. (So FYI: according to Schwebel, residents have to share the kitchen with their "tech bro" neighbours.)

Why's it worth the trip?

For Schwebel, the setting offered some time to reflect and recharge. "In my daily life, I work at a bar by night to supplement my income," he writes. At Rupert, he could devote himself to research  or exploring the forest — or, frankly, just recharging. "Having less stress and feeling healthier leads to longer term transformations in my practice, and a continued ability to survive as an artist."

He talks up the networking aspect of the program, too. "Artists from all over the world are connected to Vilnius by way of Rupert," he writes. "Through the Rupert curators I was introduced to other curators in the city. Having held residencies in many institutions around the world, I found that people working in contemporary art at all levels in Vilnius were exceptionally open, curious and generous in a way that larger or more established art centres lack. I met some great and inspiring people."

Skopelos Foundation for the Arts, Greece

Heather's studio at Skopelos. (Courtesy of Heather Goodchild)

Who's there?

Toronto's Heather Goodchild spent two weeks on this Aegean island — the picture of summer wanderlust if ever there was one. Drawn by its natural beauty and ancient history, she was there to make paintings and pottery.

Location, location, location

As Greek island paradises go, Skopelos is apparently the greenest, thanks to its forests of olive and pine trees. But there are plenty of blue seaside vistas, too. And thanks to the residency's hilltop location, artists get an eyeful. According to the foundation's website, the printmaking and ceramic studios have views of the Aegean Sea. 

Life stuff, work stuff

The residency puts a focus on a particular set of art practices: painting, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics. And while there, artists work from the foundation's studio — a space Goodchild describes as "open air and purpose-built, looking out on the ocean with a north light." As for accommodations, they're not included, though the foundation has a list of recommended rentals nearby. Goodchild says she wound up going the Airbnb route.

Why's it worth the trip?

"I enjoyed the atmosphere of the town," Goodchild writes, and she says that during her off-season stay, the streets were marvellously deserted. "[It] provided me with a wonderful meditative experience."

Skopelos became the backdrop for the paintings she made while there. Still-lifes were her focus: scenes depicting ceramic vessels, the same ones she crafted at the residency. 

La Macina di San Cresci, Italy

Uma working in the garden studio. (Courtesy of Uma Viswanathan)

Who's there?

A visit in 2018 left Montreal-based artist Uma Viswanathan utterly enchanted, so she signed up to do it all over again. (She got home from that three-week stay shortly before we reached out to her.)

Location, location, location

Based about 30 kilometres south of Florence in the town of Greve in Chianti, this artist residency occupies a 10th century church. That detail's cool, but really, it's all about the views. Vineyards, olive groves, farmhouses and castles: if you want to wake up every day to a classic Tuscan landscape, La Macina di San Cresci's got it.

Work stuff, life stuff

Artists live and work out of the same building. It houses plenty of "spacious indoor studios," says Viswanathan, but it sounds like the garden studio is the most choice spot. "I found it to be a peaceful yet invigorating place, and during a typical day I would hear birdsong, the sounds of workers in the surrounding vineyards and the occasional walking group of tourists."

What made the trip worth it?

Beyond that postcard view, Viswanathan says La Macina di San Cresci provided a perfect blend of what she needed out of an artist residency: "ample time and space to create artwork in an inspiring setting, while also getting to know the place, the local people and fellow visiting artists."

The directors really encourage visiting artists to be social, she says, and they host regular events (artist talks, for example) that bring in the public. The locals actually inspired her latest project, an animated documentary about life in the area. "During my first visit, I loved absorbing the atmosphere and meeting some of the local community," she says. "During my second visit, I began to work on it."

Kent Harrison Arts Council, Harrison Hot Springs, B.C.

Can you spot Aileen? Her homebase is in the photo. That's it hiding in the trees in the bottom right. (Courtesy of Aileen Penner)

Who's there?

Usually based out of Victoria, Aileen Penner's an artist/writer who signed up for the Kent Harrison Arts Council's year-long residency. She's already survived the fall and winter, and now, she's learning what tourist season is like in this Fraser Valley resort town. "A typical day is — gosh, nothing's really typical," she laughs. "But basically you have all this time to create work and the idea is that you have your own solo show in June." (Here's some more info on that exhibition, We Hold Our Grief in the Lungs. It's on through June 30 at the arts council's Ranger Station Art Gallery.)

Location, location, location

Obviously, there are hot springs there — just one reason why this B.C. village has been a long-time holiday destination. Penner's digs at The Kent Harrison Arts Council have her right on the lakefront. "It's kind of an end of the road location — like, the road ends and there's a lake and that's the end of the road!" she laughs. "That's where the gallery is," which is also home to her living/working space. "It's pretty lonely in the winter, but it definitely comes alive in the summer, which I'm now starting to realize as the tourists arrive with their motorboats."

Life stuff, work stuff

"It's really close to nature and it's very quiet and you can get a lot of work done," says Penner. "This residency in particular you get to live in a two bedroom apartment with your studio above the gallery and your job is basically to work in the gallery on the weekends." She leads regular community workshops there, too. "That's the exchange: I get to live there rent free. And it's an amazing, amazing residency for that."

Being able to swing a full year residency can require some sacrifice. In Penner's case, for example, she had to give up an apartment back in Victoria. She had to move all her stuff to Harrison Hot Springs, too. (The accommodation comes unfurnished.) To cover living expenses, she takes occasional jobs as a set decorator for film and TV productions. "Some people teach one day a week and do other kind of things to make money — but really, for a change, for an artist, it's amazing to have zero pressure to pay the rent. That is huge, huge, huge."

Why's it worth the trip?

"What attracted me to this residency in particular is the location on the lake and the isolation and that it was a year long," says Penner. "It's been kind of great to have time and space where I don't have a lot of interruptions. It's perfect for introverts like me."


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.