This summer I participated in the strangest of residency programs. Jentel is nestled in the rolling hills of northeastern Wyoming on a remote 1000-acre ranch where one is lucky to find an ephemeral pocket of cell phone service. I drove to this residency straight from Virginia having just finished two weeks at VCCA.
Jentel is not for everyone: akin to a reality TV show, the program lasts for one month with exactly six people who are to live together in a palatial and colorful house with furniture made of quaint reclaimed wood and lots of luxurious country décor. The drawback of being so isolated is lack of a nearby hospital, grocery store, gas station, or any other service, as well as limited wifi and a landline that can take only incoming calls. The residency grounds are surrounded by cows, dirt roads, hills, and are situated along a beautiful creek with lots of wildlife and even a few resident animals. The most conspicuous of these is Marilyn, a charming white cat that sleeps on a table in front of the main door of the house and sometimes rolls around on the path leading to the studios. Staff does not get involved in daily activities other than to meet and touch base once a week. It is up to the residents to work things out among themselves: when to do laundry, who gets which portion of the refrigerator, when to run the dishwasher, how to share the common areas… The residency is entirely subsidized including a stipend and weekly cleaning service. Residents are required to buy and prepare their own food, which can be picked up during weekly trips to town.
Having just driven 1900 miles, I arrived in a daze and encountered a staff member who assured me that others were on their way from the airport. As everyone rolled in, I realized how lucky I was to be scheduled with five other kind, compassionate and friendly people who were easy to get along with and even fun! The July artists were me, Mateo Galvano, Masha Ryskin, and Nichole Van Beek, and writers Shonda Buchanan and Sherry Rosenthal. We cooked and baked communally, shared wine and martinis, grilled in the yard; I occasionally fried up some Serbian-style crepes… We also read to each other, shared our artwork, collected rocks, frolicked in the back yard, listened to music, watched movies. It’s amazing how quickly people become friends when they are isolated and left to their own devices.
The artist studios were 400 square feet in size, and each one contained several tables, chairs, and a cot. In order to conserve wall space, the studios were designed with one smallish window. I’m used to working with natural light, but the artificial lighting proved to be quite strong and consistent for detail work. Each studio also included a slop sink and an exhaust fan. I put in many studio hours during my time at Jentel while mostly listening to the Entitled Opinions podcast. I got unbelievable amounts of work done in only one month’s time, including large portions of a detailed oil painting and two pieces in my Foreign Bodies series.
A couple of times per week Sherry and I drove to Sheridan, the nearest town 30 miles away to use a swimming pool. The local YMCA was quite impressive with state-of-the-art facilities where one of the lifeguards gave individualized swimming lessons and taught me a new swimming stroke. I also participated in a few of the morning hikes back in the snake hills near Jentel. We were required to wear orange vests anytime we left the residency grounds, especially if we walked along the road or through herds of cattle. The relatively skittish young black angus had allegedly never before seen a human on foot. During these hikes we also spotted several deer. The views were quite beautiful… But much more importantly, we found a spot with a few bars of cell phone service. This hill was reserved for checking voicemails and texts that rolled in all at once, as well as downloading podcasts for the day and catching up on important phone calls.
On our town trips to Sheridan we discovered a fun store that carried hundreds of ropes, saddles and spurs. On another occasion I was surprised to accidentally stumble into a gun shop where I then purchased a $2 used DVD of Children of the Corn. As a group, we made one trip to another small town of Buffalo to check out The Occidental Saloon on a Thursday evening. An amazing lineup of musicians took turns playing bluegrass and country music. I had visited the Occidental a few times in 2014 while I was in residence at Ucross.
In the midst of packing and preparing for a long and stressful drive home, the last two days of the residency suddenly took an atypical turn. Jentel required us to do many structured and meticulous tasks like cleaning out slop sinks in the studios, washing leftover dishes, emptying and cleaning out both refrigerators and cleaning the pantry, hanging towels in a specific location, removing all pillowcases and bedsheets in the bedrooms and studios, placing these things in a particular manner, typing up an exit interview form… For purposes of inspection, we were also required to vacate our studios two days before our departure date. The deposit refund was contingent on doing all of these things just so, and if a mistake was found we were asked to return and correct it. For a good laugh, one of the staff members referred to the final sweep as the “idiot check.”
It was time to go home. On my drive toward Chicago, I got caught in a huge storm in South Dakota and my phone began screaming at me to take cover for a tornado. I couldn’t see anything as my car was being slammed by hail and rain, but a few minutes later I somehow pulled into the shoulder of an underpass with several other cars squeezing in. There were no exits for miles. This lasted for hours; visibility was often very low with a stroboscopic show of dozens of lightning bolts in all directions, all flashing in succession within fractions of a second. I had to pull over several times. I finally found the quirky trucker motel near the border of Minnesota and Iowa where I had a room reserved for the night. Appropriately named Earth Inn, the motel was partially buried underground. This was a very clean and cheap tornado-resistant spot, and a warm welcome during the torrential downpour.