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Arts / Galleries

What It’s Really Like to be an Artist in Residence — a Tale of Two Worlds and One Working Artist

Houston Artist Bradley Kerl Lets us in on His Tuscany and Corsicana Adventures

BY Bradley Kerl // 05.24.19

Malcolm Gladwell famously said that it takes 10,000 hours to get good at what you do. By my count, between a BFA, an MFA and five years of painting almost full-time in my studio, I’ve spent twice that amount of time thinking, conceptualizing, looking, reading, and practicing to get even halfway decent at this gig.

I’d wager that there’s nothing more precious to an artist than time.

Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to be awarded two month-long artist residencies — a truly luxurious gift for a working artist. My first was in January 2017 at 100W Corsicana, an residency for artists and writers located in an 1898 Odd Fellows Lodge in downtown Corsicana, Texas. More recently, I spent the month of October 2018 at Villa Lena, a creative agriturismo in the heart of Tuscany, Italy.

Corsicana Here I Come

100W was the first residency I ever seriously considered applying for. My wife and I had just welcomed our first child, and I declined adjunct teaching opportunities to be a stay-at-home dad, working during nap time and late into the night in our cramped, windowless single-car garage.

I was resigned to being out of commission for a year, but submitted an application anyway. I was shocked when I got the call from Kyle Hobratschk, co-founder of the residency, letting me know that I had been accepted for the first round of 2017 residents.

My son was nine months old when I traded my makeshift home studio for a 2,400-square-foot workspace on the third floor of the historic lodge. It had hardwood floors and panoramic views of the historic downtown through the 10-foot windows.

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Bradley Kerl preparing for open studios at 100W. (Photo by Kyle Hobratschk)
Artist-in-residence Bradley Kerl preparing for open studios at 100 West, Corsicana, Texas. The expansive space was originally an Odd Fellows Lodge, and dates from 1898. (Photo by Kyle Hobratschk)

There was a bedroom and bathroom attached to the studio space — complete with Independent Order of Odd Fellows relics — and I shared a kitchen and common area with the two other residents, a writer and another painter.

Other than the occasional dinner with 100W collective members or an impromptu rooftop happy hour, the small-town setting offered few distractions.

The atmosphere at 100W is austere even on a bright, sunny day, but in the dead of the gray north Texas winter the conditions were downright monastic, and I liked it that way. I used the relative isolation as an opportunity to get as much work done as possible.

My idea was to work through a backlog of images I had saved up for future paintings, and I completed over two dozen small- and large-scale oil-on-canvas works — many of which formed the foundation of “Greenhouse,” my solo exhibition that opened at Galveston Arts Center (GAC) in the fall of 2017 — in addition to a pile of stretched and gessoed canvases waiting to be painted on.

I’m an overachiever by nature and was overeager by circumstance, so my approach to the residency at 100W was, in hindsight, perhaps a bit over the top: I basically loaded my entire studio up in a U-Haul trailer and transplanted it 182 miles away… and up three flights of stairs.

But my month there was immeasurably important for me as a young artist and new father. I regained confidence in myself as a painter, got back into a rigorous studio practice, and forged lasting relationships that have resulted in collaborations and other opportunities.

Bradley Kerl in Third Floor Studio at 100W. (Photo by Kyle Hobratschk)
Kerl in his third-floor studio at 100 West, a residency in Corsicana, Texas — an hour south of Dallas — an environment, which the artist describes as “monastic.” (Photo by Kyle Hobratschk)

Under the Tuscan Sun

When I was in the process of applying for 100W, I got a targeted Facebook ad for Villa Lena. I was intrigued by the image — a bright blue pool overlooking rolling Tuscan hills! — and clicked through. I submitted an application on a whim since I was already in the mode, not thinking twice about it. By the time I received an email to schedule a Skype interview, I had almost forgotten I’d even applied.

The interview was to take place on the morning of August 25, 2017, just as Hurricane Harvey was making landfall in Port Aransas. The day prior, on August 24, I finished hanging “Greenhouse” at GAC only to de-install the show and store it safely in the old bank vault upstairs in case of flooding.

My pregnant wife, 18-month-old son and I decamped for Bryan to ride out the storm. Distracted by the stress of evacuation, unsure of the fate of my artworks in Galveston and a bit hungover from too much red wine the night before, I thought I blew the interview with Lena Evstafieva, co-founder and namesake of Villa Lena.

Cut to October 1, 2018: Me, wide-eyed, arriving in Rome well after sundown, zooming up the E35 to Florence in my rental car. I cut into the dark, meandering countryside, hurtling up and over hills, around impossibly tight curves hugging the cliffs.

The villa (Photo by Bradley Kerl)
Italy calls: Villa Lena, the author’s home away from home for his 2018 residency. (Photo by Bradley Kerl)

I emerged on the top of a hill and stumbled into a candlelit room full of conversation and laughter — my home for the next month.

The vibe at Villa Lena is decidedly social but of the work-hard, play-hard variety. It’s a truly international setting, and there was so much knowledge and inspiration to be found among the staff and other residents — visual artists, musicians, chefs, designers, writers — who all brought different ideas and cultures to the (sometimes literal) table.

If my first residency at 100W was meticulous and regimented, my plan for Villa Lena was to go with the flow and work in the present. I prepared simply, packing just a carry-on suitcase full of watercolors, drawing pads, and colored pencils – basically everything I would need to create a pile of drawings on the go.

I fully expected to be overwhelmed with the sights, sounds, food, culture, and people that I encountered and wanted to document that experience. I spent mornings recapping the previous night’s events over croissants and espresso, then ventured off on day-trips to nearby towns or strolls around the agriturismo’s extensive grounds, which include two vineyards, an organic garden, a pig sty, and grove after grove of olive trees.

I would spend the afternoons in my private studio overlooking one of the groves, sorting through photos of my adventures and arranging them into categories, and then painting.

The body of work I produced at Villa Lena, around 40 small drawings and watercolors, are illustrative of my time in Tuscany. I found myself particularly drawn to the surrounding landscape, as so many artists throughout history have. The light and the colors of Tuscany are incredibly specific and of unmatched quality.

On the watercolor palette I used at Villa Lena were colors like terracotta, Tuscan red, burnt sienna and olive green, and I had a sort of metaphysical experience realizing I was painting a landscape with colors that originated from the same exact place.

Most of the works on paper produced by Bradley Kerl at Villa Lena. (Photo by Bradley Kerl)
Works on paper produced by the author during a productive 2018 residency at Villa Lena, in the heart of the Tuscan countryside. (Photo by Bradley Kerl)

In addition to a number of landscapes, I painted a series of portraits of the characters I encountered at the villa: fellow residents, foundation and agricultural staff, as well as some of the quirky Italian vehicles on-site.

My month-long residency culminated in an installation in my studio of found objects and paintings that read as a time capsule of my month there. My work as a painter has always been about my experience moving about the world and the chance encounters that happen on a day-to-day basis.

Any time I leave Houston (or Texas, in general) I always come home with a trove of new ideas and images that inevitably filter into my studio practice, and my Italian excursion was no exception. The work I produced at Villa Lena is only the beginning of many years’ worth of drawings and paintings.

Bradley Kerl is represented by Jonathan Hopson Gallery, Houston. See his work here. 

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