Wellspring House: On Having a Retreat Of One’s Own -The Toast

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Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 1.22.36 PMMoses went up the mountaintop for inspiration. But many of us writerly/painterly women go to Wellspring House—well, so do some guys, but mainly not. Mainly, it’s women. Mainly it’s women who need to get away from their houses, their spouses, their children, their jobs. Mainly it’s women who—despite the relative affordability of the retreat—are middle-class, middle-aged, and white. Of the roughly 1500 visitors (some repeat) over a fifteen-year period, most who find their way to Wellspring House hail from New York City, Boston, or the immediate surrounding area of western Massachusetts. But there really are some men (Boooo – Ed.), and there are international folks—from Singapore, Australia, the UK, the Netherlands—as well as rich folks, poor folks, and people of color. It’s billed as a retreat for writers and artists, but we’re not talking the Millay or MacDowell colonies. It’s not Yaddo or Kripalu or Omega. It’s not Paris in the 1920s or New York in the 1940s. In some ways, it’s closer to Woodstock sans music. This big old house that was once a big old barn (built in the 1800s as a carriage house for the Belding family) was owned by a farmer who shared living space with his livestock. It took a retired English professor (Preston Browning) and his architect wife (Ann Hutt Browning) to transform this dilapidated carriage-house-cum-menagerie into a house of dreams.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 1.24.00 PMIt can be blisteringly hot in summer and numbingly cold in the winters. But there’s culture, art, history, and inspiration in every dusty nook and cranny. There are hummingbirds and frogs, a treasure trove of books and journals, not to mention what is carted in by the odd assortment of writers and artists who have found their way to this unobtrusive bit of paradise nestled in the hill towns east of the Berkshires.

Like so many towns in rural America, Ashfield has a striking history as a town known for its essential oils, and you can still find patches of peppermint among the rocks moistened by the waterfall from Ashfield Lake. Its tree-lined roads (sugar maple trees, planted in the 1800s) charm the Wellspring House visitor, who can walk to fetch her groceries, swim in the lake, get her exercise, and find her inspiration. It’s a beautiful town that still has thirty working farms.

Wellspring House is an artist’s and writer’s residence in which nothing—except for the occasional sharing of work—is scheduled, and that sharing is by choice. People are free to write in their rooms or in the communal spaces, which include a large living room exploding with tomes and artwork, an upstairs library, and a sun porch—and, outside the house, a field, a patio, a Japanese garden, and several porches. Generally, there is a respectful air of quiet, though the kitchen area is communal, with baskets for each of the residents: one for the refrigerator, and the other for the pantry. There are markets within walking distance, along with a lake, and a generally charming town, rich with history. 

What really seems to distinguish this retreat from others is the intentional low cost, the presence of a familial culture, and—as one of the residents, Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, has so neatly placed it—a “supportive, creative, and noncompetitive” atmosphere. Flitterman-Lewis, who wrote of To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema and is a founding editor of Camera Obscura (journal of feminism and film theory), is one of the few women interviewed to have met Ann, who created and executed the design for the transformation of the building.

“Ann was a visionary,” Preston Browning recalls, speaking of his wife of more than fifty years. “She had a vision of how Wellspring House would be—it was literally overnight!”

A poet as well as an architect, Ann wrote in her study, and when she passed away after a long illness, her study became the sixth room. Now that room is occupied by Hetty Startup, Preston’s recently hired part-time assistant and a professor of architectural history. Each of the other upstairs rooms—all named for a different New England writer—has a bed, desk, lamps, and bureau, as well as a sample of its namesake’s literature: Dickinson’s poems; Thoreau’s journals; Alcott’s biography; Hawthorne’s fiction; Wheatley’s poems. There is also a book in every room  for residents to leave a few words about their stay. It’s tempting to read what others write as one forms one’s own ideas of what to leave behind. Generally the residents wax poetic, speak of the lovely, nurturing, tranquil atmosphere—and many address their thoughts to Ann, as well as to Preston. 

“I feel Ann’s absence,” Sandy says, “as much as I feel her presence.” Sandy remembers Ann as someone who took great interest in what the residents were working on, and she attributes part of the inspiration of Wellspring House to the fact that writers are entering the house and culture of a literary family, dedicated to social action in addition to literature and art. “What I’ve found about this place is that it’s very inspiring in a low-key kind of way. Everywhere you look there’s something suggestive, because of the way it’s filled with books and cluttered with plant life and objet, but it’s a very homelike atmosphere, and I don’t imagine other writing retreats are like this.”

Sandy first came to Wellspring House in 2008 to accompany her husband, Joel Lewis, a poet. “At Wellspring House, you can have both—communality and privacy. There’s a sort of revolving group of people, sometimes compatible, sometimes everyone on their own.” She says this is especially good for women: “Women need the escape from the responsibility of family and kids. The husband drops her off, and she’s got a week to do her writing, a room of one’s own.”

Sandy Flitterman-Lewis examines why the nonjudgmental atmosphere at Wellspring House might appeal to women. “It’s noncompetitive; they can do their own work, not feel they’re up against some standard or competition. I don’t think men think about it in quite the same way. Men just do their work.” She adds that at Wellspring House, it’s not about your list of accomplishments; it’s about the seriousness of the writer. “You can be serious about a cookbook. Children’s books. Wellspring House is conducive to academic writing.” In addition to her scholarly writing, Sandy also likes to paint with watercolors while she is in residence. 

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(Watercolor painting by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, photographed by Hetty Startup)

I had gone up to stay for a week with the intention of writing something about Wellspring House. It would be my eighth visit, or thereabouts. By then the roses were half-eaten by beetles, and there were as many men as women. A woman there who kept to herself, a well-published memoirist, would leave early. Preston had her books on his coffee table. Residents often leave copies of their books for him—books of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Some who come to Wellspring House are famous, and some are not. But we are all here to face the blank page. 

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 1.28.59 PM (photo of dining residents by Hetty Startup)

It was the serendipitous nature of life that spontaneously ended the discussion around the communal picnic table on my first evening. “Would you like to join me? I’m grilling,” one woman said, with her veggies already cut up, and before you knew it, we were all out there together.

People come to Wellspring House sometimes by word of mouth—often by way of the Internet, often simply because it’s affordable—and their intention is to write, to spend long hours in front of a computer, taking breaks to get a cup of coffee or take a walk or swim. There’s something here, and when we come, we can take it with us without diminishing the supply. Some transfusion, transmutation, and transformation is taking place right here, where the cellphone don’t shine.

“Came here with no expectations,” Shelley Feinerman remarks, who happened to meet the daughter of her Queens College drawing professor, who was “quite influential” in her career. “The price was right.” Seven years ago, Shelley, a New Yorker, and Shola Friedensohn, a Bostonian, had discovered Wellspring House independent of one another. After their first meeting, they became friends and arranged to meet each summer thereafter. Together they paint on the sun porch, enjoy the transquility of Wellspring House, and take advantage of the organic shopping not far away in Shelburne Falls. “Oh yes, you can burp with impunity here,” Shelley adds.

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(Photographs of Shelley [R] and Shola [L] on the sun porch)

Jocelyn Cullety, a fiction writer who teaches at Truman State University in Missouri, notes that most of the other residencies for which writers can get grants demand longer stays. In addition to the quiet, Cullety appreciates Wellspring House for supporting shorter stays at lower rates,“which means mothers can get away to write.” She explains, “My work wouldn’t have had the space it is has had without Wellspring. I have done my most significant writing there. [The] flexibility for the chance weekend…or (like last summer) a week at a time at intervals has been essential to my fiction manuscript.”

Regarding the question of whether Wellspring House is more conducive to women writers and artists, Peggy Klineman, an abstract visual artist from New York, says she just doesn’t see men “doing communal living situations to write or to do artwork. They seem to be more solitary—why? Seems to be the case, no reason.”

Heather Atwood, who has a long history with Wellspring House, writes a syndicated food column for the Gloucester Times. Heather feels that Wellspring House “definitely works better for women…in spite of the legend of Thoreau, [women] actually are much more comfortable with quiet and solitude than men. But there’s also the social component to Wellspring that is so idiosyncratic. We flutter carefully around each other, ever aware of each person’s quest—to quiet the noise in our heads.”

This is the essential question, I suppose—are women more communal than men in our working habits? Or are we often so bogged down in housekeeping that we need to be physically transported out of our homes in order to serve our artistic endeavors? Are we drawn in droves to Wellspring House because art is something one cannot manage by multitasking? These are all worthwhile questions, but I would like to think it’s more important, more interesting, more honest to ask than to answer. 

I first came to Wellspring House for two weeks after my first year as a doctoral candidate at Ohio University. I had returned to school thirty years after getting my MFA from Iowa. My eleven-year-old daughter would be at a music camp in Vermont. Before this, I had never attended a writer’s retreat. I wasn’t looking for instruction or support or even friendship. I was looking for time. Time away.

I remember feeling overcome by the unassuming manner, almost monastic in nature; the aesthetics of the architecture, reflecting simplicity, utility and boldness of colors—greens and blues and yellows, along with the art work largely that of south and central America; the well-endowed assortment of literature, including current literary journals. The simplicity of the life, the proximity to nature, the expanse of time, the lack of obligations, the respect for others and for the artistic endeavor itself permeated the walls—it really felt as if I could feel the intention of the place. All of this, along with something else, harder to pin down, conspired to give me a singular clarity of focus and a willingness to sit for long hours, as well as to explore. In the end, I would be astounded by the sheer volume of work that I managed to accomplish. I would discover that I was not alone. And although this has never been my main purpose in going up to Wellspring House, I would also make friends with accomplished writers and artists who happened to be women.

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(Photograph of an artist’s rendering of the Dickinson room paired with a photograph of the actual Dickinson room)

It’s safe to say that her first residency at Wellspring House marked a change in poet Karen Skolfield’s career. Thinking she would reshuffle her poems and send out a book of poems for contests, she found herself writing new poems instead. “I never pulled out the manuscript,” she said. Her regimen? “I woke every morning, made coffee, and sat on the porch and wrote. Once I got too hungry, breakfast. More writing. A hike. More writing. By the evening I was pretty tired of writing, and I’d make a more elaborate dinner, chat with the other residents.” A few weeks later, her manuscript won First Book Award at Zone 3 Press.

“I’ve been to Wellspring three more times, and every time I think I’m going to do something besides writing—update a website, or do something related to the business side of writing. Instead, I just write.” Karen agrees that there’s something about Wellspring House that renders it especially appealing to women: “I wonder if it’s because Preston is such a social justice advocate and has long grappled with and written about many social issues—or because I’m at a time in my life when the friendship of women, the camaraderie of women in general and women writers in particular, has become especially important.” 

Heather Atwood especially cherishes the quiet. “Quiet is Wellspring House’s unique complexion, its personal and most powerful voice,” she says. “When I’m home checking off lists, and think about Wellspring, I think about this quiet. I anticipate it when I make the drive west to Ashfield, and ready myself to meet it as I pull into town.

“The quiet has nothing to do with the number of guests, the season, a sun-filled morning or a blizzard raging outside. It is not a lonely, empty quiet, but the product of lushness, of fullness, and warmth. I have been at Wellspring House when every room was full. The faucet ran in the communal kitchen and dishes clattered all day and night long, as rounds of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, cups of tea, pots of coffee, and ramen got cooked and assembled in each of the 24 hours, but everyone was cloaked in that quiet. It’s as if we’re all wrapped in moving blankets, protecting us from bumping up too close to each other’s thoughts.”

“Geography probably accounts for much of the quiet, the way the house sits on basin-like field, the front protected from the street by a row of hemlocks, woods rising up steeply in the rear. Then again, books line 70% of Wellspring walls. Thackeray, Thesaurus, and The Oxford English Dictionaries have their own kind of quiet, a library quiet….”

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(A writer’s comment, from a page in the guestbook of the Henry David Thoreau room) 

Preston often reads the guest books and sometimes feels embarrassed by the praise. “Dozens of times,” he says, “I read someone saying she’s gotten more work done in two weeks than in the past two years! Maybe an exaggeration. Certainly part of what draws people back again is the quiet. And the beauty; many people fall in love with the town. A charming town, the lake in summer—and interesting people. And that’s another thing that draws people. Fellow residents, they find that oftentimes, they really enjoy other writers and visual artists who are here, and friendships are made.” 

The 85-year-old proprietor himself  “can’t imagine being anywhere else and doing anything else” than serving as director of Wellspring House.“It’s been some of the best years of my life.”

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(Photograph of Preston reading We Wanted to be Writers)

Geri Lipschultz's most recent publications include stories anthologized in Spuyten Duyvil's The Wreckage of Reason II, and Pearson's Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Her one-woman show was produced in NYC by Woodie King, Jr.

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