Creative Colony on the Moors’ Edge

by: Dean Geddes

Tucked away down a narrow, winding dirt road in the middle moors is a quiet, sprawling, seven-acre estate with a barn and a pond surrounded by protected open space. You would never know from the outside, but since 2002 it has been a creative mecca, where scores of up-and-coming artists have come from across the country to create screenplays, songs, films and photographs.

These all-expenses-paid pilgrimages, which typically last three to four weeks, are hosted and funded by the Almanack Arts Colony and the Nantucket Screenwriters Colony, a pair of nonprofit organizations that share use of the property.

Photography Colony participants Leah Wilson, Tom Remp, Bill Hoenk and Brian Sager this spring.

The idea is to provide emerging artists with a space that is distraction-free so they can focus all their energy on their work.

“For me as a young writer, it was transformative,” said filmmaker Chase Palmer, who attended the Screenwriters Colony in 2003, and whose credits include the screenplay for Stephen King’s “It.”

“I was living in Brooklyn and I felt like for the first time people took me seriously and because of it I was ultimately able to finish a script that really started my professional writing career.”

Each night there is a group dinner for the residents. The meal, catered by a private chef, is the only obligation they have. The rest of the time they are free to explore the island, work and create.

“They make it impossible not to write. Having a month with every need taken care of, with fellow writers in a beautiful place, it ruins you,” said 2004 Screenwriters Colony alum Ben Robbins.

“It happens every year. People leave and they go through a two-month to six-year mourning period.”

Although the residents are free to work on their own, when you get a group of artists in the same field together, they often gravitate toward each other and collaborate.

“You’re with strangers, but strangers who are dedicated and excited about the same art form that you are,” Palmer said.

“Everybody is coming to it from different experience levels and points of view. We would watch movies every night and argue about what we liked, didn’t like, we would read each other’s work and help each other along.”

Both the Screenwriters Colony and the Arts Colony seek out artists who are just starting to hit their stride in their particular field. Often they are relatively young, with most participants in their 20s and 30s.

“We’re looking for those people who are in the beginning stages of a career that is already promising,” Almanack Arts Colony director Callie Kever said. “They have a little bit of work behind them and they’re going to come in and really benefit from this opportunity.”

John S. Johnson founded the Screenwriters Colony in 2002. Out of its success, he and his sister India Blake used the same model to found the Arts Colony 12 years later. Officially separate entities, the two organizations share many similarities and often complement each other.

“The best way to think of (the Arts Colony) is as a spin-off of the Screenwriters Colony,” Kever said. “John wanted to make use of this property on a more year-round basis so he partnered with his sister.”

The first group selected to take part in the Arts Colony in 2014 was Manual Cinema, a shadow-puppet troupe out of Chicago. Since their initial visit, the Arts Colony has commissioned the group to return and create separate short films. The most recent, a story involving the history of Nantucket, will premiere next summer.

“They have such a creative way of telling stories in a non-traditional sense,” Kever said. “We’re floored by their ability to bring these stories to life without the traditional use of language and actions. They really push the envelope in that way.”

In the spring of 2016, the Almanack Arts Colony shifted its focus to music, hosting its first Songwriters Colony. First-year alumni were Jade Castrinos, formerly of indie folk act Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros; British singer-songwriter Mark Stoney; Australian electronica musician Johnny Mackay; Danish songwriter and record producer Rasmus Bille Bähncke; Los Angeles-based record producer and engineer R. Walt Vincent and producer Rob Kleiner. It hosted additional sessions in 2017 and 2018.

“Its a group of four singer/songwriters and two mentors every year,” Kever said. “They don’t know each other before they arrive and they have nothing in common and they’ve gone on to collaborate on songs together and go on tour together. We’ve introduced so many artists to each other and they’ve gone on to become lifelong friends, and they remain part of the Almanack Arts Colony family.”

Being a part of that family affords the opportunity to come back and work for brief informal sessions if the house is free. Past participants can also help decide who the next group of incoming artists will be. The Arts Colony relies heavily on input from alumni as well as guest creative directors, like Nanci Walker at the Songwriters Colony, in determining who to invite.

This April the Arts Colony debuted a new program, the Photography Colony, with three photographers from off-island joining up with three local photographers. In the future, the plan is to also include students from the high school who have shown an interest in photography.

“It ended up being a nine-day colony which is short for us and it took place over the schools’ April vacation so it didn’t happen this year, but (having students participate) is definitely a goal we are committed to,” Kever said.

Because the theme of the Photography Colony was “Waking Up,” it took place in the spring. Future colonies will also be scheduled depending on the theme, so they could happen any time from April through December, Kever said.

Aside from offering a retreat to off-island creative types, the Arts Colony is also focused on community engagement, and this summer hosted a series of concerts on the property featuring alumni as well as island artists. It also hosts an annual fundraising bocce tournament in August featuring live bluegrass music and food. Because the majority of funding for both endeavors comes from underwriting and grants, Kever said they are able to have reasonable ticket prices and open their events up to everyone.

“We intentionally keep our ticket prices low for bocce and our concerts, because we want to be able to offer creative experiences to the whole community at an affordable price,” she said.

Dean Geddes is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.