"Saltonstall and Me" by Jim Mott
When asked, it is not always easy for the artists and writers awarded month-long residencies at the Saltonstall Arts Colony to articulate how we affected their lives and their work. When painter Jim Mott, one of our first residents in 1996 learned he was coming back this summer, he reflected on the influence Saltonstall had on his life. He sent the following letter, posted here in its entirety. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
- Lesley Williamson, director
SALTONSTALL AND ME
It's easy enough to say that the Saltonstall Colony changed my life. Every interaction we have influences our lives to some degree. And the time I spent at Saltonstall was clearly pivotal in my development as an artist, though mostly in ways I couldn't see at the time. Really, I was one of those underachieving residents who wonders why the month's painting output fits so very easily in the back seat for the drive home.
I was in the first official group of residents, June 1996. For the previous few years I'd been working on an environmental science degree, planning a career change. Being chosen for a residency was, first and foremost, a validation that put me back on the art track at a critical moment. Ironically, I spent most of my time there wandering the woods and fields around the colony, identifying plants and animals, compiling species checklists to provoke the interest of future residents. I'd grown up in the country, and being able to ramble with no necessary point, except to reconnect with the spirit of wonder and discovery, was a treat. I also welcomed the cross-currents of creative influence from fellow residents, truly enjoyed the experience of a dedicated, small creative community, and made some lasting friendships. The food was great, too!
My fondest memory is being on hand while Don Evans stood on the deck one evening, looking out over the Saltonstall fields. A gifted, hot-shot writer from Chicago, his memoir had described how boys in his neighborhood used to collect fireflies for the sadistic thrill of hitting them with baseball bats: Whack! And some little light shoots off into the night, a bright glow fading off and dying into nothingness. I think it was a time-lapse metaphor for their father's lives at the factory. But there at Saltonstall we watched – Don for the first time – as a dark, wide hillside came to life with the flickering lights of a thousand fireflies. Maybe not a thousand, but it felt that way. Firefly heaven.
I also did some painting there. Most of my output was mediocre or experimental; it didn't seem to add up. And yet, when else would I feel so free to depart from my usual, small landscape paintings that a particularly startling encounter on a nature walk (in this case, the end of a life-long quest to find a chocolate tube slime mold and the unnerving sight of large insects, called ichneumon flies, laying eggs in a dead tree) would lead me to the trance-like execution of a large abstraction on a wooden plank? For a few hours I felt more connected to the primal urge to create, the shaman cave painters of the paleolithic, than I'd ever imagined possible. It's an experience I treasure – along with the quirky, plank painting that resulted.
Perhaps most important for my artistic development, though equally serendipitous, was the gathering of ideas and influences that would, three or four years later, begin to bear fruit in my Itinerant Artist Project (IAP). The IAP is a public outreach initiative that has allowed me, in many ways, to truly fulfill my sense of artistic “calling.” It has also led me to unexpected levels of productivity and a helpful degree of recognition. I doubt I would have come up with the concept – or done anything like it – if I hadn't been a Saltonstall resident. One key catalyst was a Cornell lecture by Donald Kuspit, which I just happened to hear broadcast on the college radio station: It posed some questions I had to answer. Other factors were more subliminal, like hearing about Ithaca's alternative, barter economy.
While in residence I also happened to do two very small Ithaca landscapes that I liked very much. They happened to suggest a series, they happened to be 5 ½” x 8 ½”, and when I finally decided I was ready to drive around the country trading art for hospitality, that became my standard size panel, my unit of exchange, the consistent format that defines the project and keeps me on track. In one month a year on the road since 2000, I've done almost 600 such paintings of the varied American landscape – and given away 120 or so for the privilege of staying with strangers in 30 states.
It's been an interesting journey, and in many ways it started with the Saltonstall Colony. I won't say I think of Connie Saltonstall all the time, or even very much of the time, but I do think of her with deep gratitude and great respect for her vision and generosity. My IAP is based on the principles of art as gift and gift flow. Time at Saltonstall was a gift that put it all in motion.
(And, yes, I'm looking forward to going back and maybe being more productive in the studio, or at least updating those species lists).