“One thing I found, sitting very still in the woods,” said poet Benjamin Alan Morris, “is that it trains your senses to pick up on things that you would never otherwise observe — you really see how each organism has its temperament and its personality.”
As Morris explained, a poet can benefit from quiet time outdoors. For him, a time spent in a retreat resulted in a soon-to-be-published book of poetry, Ecotone. But, in today’s busy world, how can writers and artists and musicians do that? How can they find a place to sit quietly, surrounded by nature?
Happily, for Morris, and for us in New Orleans, A Studio in the Woods — where Morris was in residence — is located on the West Bank, the lower coast of Algiers, right on the river. The vision of the late Lucianne Carmichael and her husband Joe Carmichael, this magical spot welcomes creative souls to regenerate, gather new inspiration, and, in the process, enrich us all by their creative output.
While the Carmichaels both made art (she worked in clay, he did wood-working), it may have been their shared interest in public education that brought them to realize that their Algiers property (just under eight acres of hardwood bottomland forest) could be a special classroom, blending art and nature in an inspiring mix. With space available in buildings constructed from older construction remnants on the land along the river, the Carmichaels began welcoming artists to stay at the site, and have others come for instruction and revitalization. Today, Joe Carmichael still lives on-site and welcomes the new residents and those who visit for programs and classes.
Lucianne had been principal of an innovative elementary school, McDonogh 15 in the French Quarter. As a young child in Canada she had loved the woods and lakes, and she had always been creative with her hands. Both Carmichaels regularly showed their crafts (they won a Contemporary Craft award in 1992 at Jazz Fest), and when they bought the Algiers property they began hosting craft shows there. Artists arrived for visits, and in 2001, the Carmichaels set up A Studio in the Woods as a nonprofit retreat. Eventually they donated the program to Tulane University. Tulane can now offer faculty support to the artists in residence.
Dr. Michael White remembers his first residency there in 2003: “My charge was to compose. In that first residency, it was the power of nature, the river, creation.”
“When I was in a creative mood, it was hard to stop. Joe and Lucianne would leave meals on the stove and I could warm them up when I was ready. I had no sense of time, I never watched a clock. I ate when I was hungry, but when I was in a creative mood I might have missed a few meals,” he laughed. “I ended up writing a dozen songs, and the Basin Street Records album Dancing in the Sky came out in 2004.” (Check YouTube to hear some cuts.)
White’s second residency was after Katrina. “I was physically and emotionally exhausted- it was a way to get in touch with nature, bring things back into a different realm where thing were calm and normal.” The resulting album, Blue Crescent, includes a song White played in the HBO TV show Tremé, “Dark Sunshine.”
A constant presence at A Studio in the Woods is Managing Director Ama Rogan, once a McDonogh 15 student, and a fine arts graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design.
At the moment Rogan is focusing on raising funds. “We have space for two artists at a time, and we are aiming to build a writer’s cabin,” she said. Artists also get funding to document their works, and there is programming for children and day visitors. “David Baker, our environmental curator, keeps us aware that our land is helping protect the city during storms.”
Recent participants have included Sarah Danke who envisioned Dancers for Solidarity, a project involving incarcerated participants creating and sharing dance moves, and Monique Verdin (pictured), of Houma Indian descent, who considered how humans adapt to climate change, creating an archive of her people.
Why would artists want to do this? As the poet, Morris, explained: “You definitely feel like you are connected to the wilderness, even though you are still technically in the city of New Orleans.”