Spirit of the woods

Simon Akam experiences the calm of an artists’ retreat in upstate New York with an impressive visito

The gateway stood in the woods outside Saratoga Springs. It was still before dawn, and lanterns burned on the stanchions that marked the end of the drive, flickering out over the snow. I turned in, trudging between the pines until the ploughed road passed a frozen, moat-like lake and switchbacked up a low bluff. As I reached the crest of the escarpment, a great house appeared through the trees, a sprawling pile of battleship-grey stone and bay windows. I knew then that I had reached the Yaddo mansion, the art house at the core of the most celebrated creative retreat on the American continent.

Artists’ colonies are peculiar institutions, but if any has come to define the breed it is Yaddo, a 400-acre estate in upstate New York. The list of those who have worked there reads like a roll-call of 20th-century American culture, and in particular literature. Truman Capote, Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen were all Yaddo men, and there is a long history of British involvement, too. Alan Hollinghurst worked on The Line of Beauty deep in the New York woods. Ted Hughes also sojourned there with the troubled poet Sylvia Plath, who wrote that she had never in her life felt so peaceful.

However, of all the stories conceived at Yaddo, perhaps the most tragic is that of its foundation. In 1881 the American financier Spencer Trask and his wife, Katrina, bought the estate and in 1891 they began building the current house, modelled upon Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. They hoped to make a home for their family, but it was not to be, as all of their four sons and daughters died. Heartbroken, Katrina decided that Yaddo, childless and scoured with sorrow, would instead become a retreat for creative work. She died in 1922, 13 years after her husband, but their dream came to fruition. The first artists arrived in 1926, and since then nearly 5,500 have come in search of space and time.

For all these writers, painters and musicians, who stay at the Yaddo colony for five weeks each on average, the application process is rigorous and competitive. I was a weekend interloper, however, and so my approach to Yaddo was more straightforward. In deep midwinter, I travelled 160 miles from New York City to Saratoga Springs, watching the drifts deepen by the roadside, and lodged at a Victorian pension near to the racecourses that are the town’s main attraction. Then, early the next morning, in weather cold enough to brittle steel and chafe bare skin, I walked out past the snow-covered furlongs to see dawn at the colony.

The gardens of the estate are open to the public year round, but I was fortunate enough to have arranged a tour of the mansion itself, which is usually closed to prying eyes. Frozen and numb-toed after floundering through banks of snow, I entered at the back porch and passed into a saloon furnished with cane chairs and a breakfasting composer. My guide explained that in winter the cost of heating the draughty halls of the house is prohibitive, and so only a small wing is used. Nevertheless, she took me inside to see the closed quarters, and we passed through a vast wooden door lagged with insulating carpet into a place of freezing grandeur. In the halls, beneath the Tiffany stained glass, the furniture was hibernating beneath dust sheets, but the heavy Victorian aesthetic of red walls and dark wood was still intact.

In an archive in one of the outbuildings beyond the mansion, I rooted around in an index of foxed and typewritten cards until I found those for Hughes and Plath. Both were dated 1959, and in Hughes’s case the Massachusetts address had been corrected in later longhand to read simply “Faber & Faber, London”.

Sensing my interest, my guide took me out once more and we traipsed further into the woods to West House, where Plath and Hughes had been billeted. There, snow was seeping on to the veranda beneath a marble nymph. I stood and gazed into a closed sitting room, trying to reimagine.

As I left the colony to lie beneath its winter mantle of snow, I knew that I had seen an extraordinary place. Nevertheless, thrilling as the ghosts of dead poets were, I was still keen to know the role of Yaddo in the work of living artists. And so, back in New York, I arranged to visit six of the colony’s recent guests in their studios in Williamsburg. This neighbourhood of Brooklyn lies across the East River from Manhattan and its towers, and has long lured those in search of studio space in the city.

On a day of brilliant winter sun, I scurried up post-industrial stairways and entered heavy metal warehouse doors, and found rich pickings: four painters, David Brody, James Esber, Jane Fine and Louise Belcourt, the photographer Stacy Greene, and Joshua Fried, who described himself as a composer but admitted his work “looked and smelled like performance art”. Each had a different take on the Yaddo experience, from the privilege of working without distraction to the logistical challenges of transporting canvases and painting materials.

All six artists also shared a clear passion for their work, but Fried, bespectacled and shaven-headed, was certainly the loudest. In a small studio in his apartment, he produced an extraordinary show, sampling a snippet of New York radio and then manipulating it electronically into a percussive wall of sound.

As the walls throbbed during Fried’s one-man performance, I wondered briefly how he could have worked at Yaddo without disturbing the sacrosanct quiet. Then I remembered that while he had stayed in the mansion, he had been content to funnel his work into headphones. Later, as I took the L subway train away from the vegan cafeterias and ironic facial hair arrangements of Williamsburg, I thought how, in many ways, Fried’s modus operandi symbolised all that I had seen of the colony – a place where individual creativity is championed, but not at the expense of community.

Yaddo, PO Box 395, Saratoga Springs, New York. More information: www.yaddo.org

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