Free retreats for artists, writers and performers

Are you an artist, looking for a free retreat opportunity? Here are some places in the UK, Europe, the US and South America that offer free or very cheap retreats for artists, performers and writers.

IMG_2345Retreats are an essential for the writer or artist. On retreat, all you have to do is hone your craft, relax and nurture your creativity.

And while there are thousands of retreat centres out there, many are costly. Artists, writers and performers don’t start life rich, so here are a few retreats I have found out about that won’t cost much.

The US seems to offer many artists retreats with different entrance criteria and expectations.  Some offer residencies for free, some are subsidised, some are on a barter scheme. Check out individual venues in the USA on the excellent Mira’s List, featuring links such as the free residencies scheme at the prestigious MacDowell Colony.

One great page of US residencies can be found here: 26 Amazing Writing Residencies.

It seems that Amtrak are just about to start offering writers’ retreats… the details are vague right now, but if retreat-by-train gets you going, check out this news story for more information.

One such opportunity is the month-long residency in Finger Lakes from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation. Artists/writers must be from New York State, and there is a  $500 stipend available to help with your travel costs. Applications are now open.

One fantastic program in Massachusetts is the Artists’ Pointing The Way residencies in Edgartown, offered by the Point Way Inn owner Claudia Miller. Read an article about the opportunity here and find the contact details here.

Residency Unlimited is a site dedicated to finding residencies for artists and writers. You can search by art form, deadline or location. There are opportunities all over the world, from Mexico to the Himalayas to the Galapagos Islands. Many opportunities are free, some offer bursaries to the artists, some involve costs.

Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, UK is the reputed castle of King Arthur.  It’s ruins lie before the spectacular scenery of the Cornish coast.  Rugged cliffs overlook the tidal Merlin’s cave. Take the path down to the beach, where you will crunch on sea-worn pebbles.

Even better is that you can enjoy this idyllic place through Camelot Castle Hotel‘s free artists-in-residency programme.  You have to apply in advance.  Regarding selection criteria, the owners John Mappin and Ted Stourton make this refreshing statement:

As soon as some one says they are an artist, why then they are one. The decision to create is probably one of the most powerful decisions that a being ever makes and by validating that decision and giving it a window of space to be nurtured it is extraordinary what can occur.

Odsherred Teaterskole in Nykobing, Denmark has a fantastic residential theatre school near to forests and beaches. I found out about it on a week-long residential mask workshop with Steve Jarand.

Nykobing is about two hours by train or bus from Copenhagen, which costs about 40 Euros return. Odsherred Teaterskole is not easy to find if you are a stranger so ask when you get there. The teaterskole is a good half hour’s walk through the woods from the train station, although buses and taxis are available. I choose to walk because it is delightful; through an ancient forest with Hansel and Gretel style cottages just off the path. The Teaterskole has a subsidised policy for playwrights and theatre practitioners: for 5 Euros linen charge you can stay in a room there. And that charge is not per night, it’s for the duration! There are kitchens and showers to use, or you can pay 15 Euros per day full board, which will buy you a share of a delicious, home-made organic buffet.

You can stay at Odsherred Teaterskole as a writer in retreat, or you can take part in one of the many residential theatre workshops are hosted there. Check out their workshop programme here. Staff are friendly and efficient, and if your Danish needs brushing up, don’t worry: most people speak English. If you like quiet beaches, gentle seas and walks in forests, this might be the retreat for you.

You can pay to stay at La Muse in the South of France, or you can apply to stay for free as part of a trade barter.  The barter involves free board and accommodation in return for 24 hours work per week.  You have to apply to barter at least two months in advance, and barters are not available during summer months.

The view from La Muse Artists' Retreat, South of France
The view from La Muse Artists’ Retreat, South of France

La Muse is a rural, mountainside retreat with a cosy, village lifestyle and views of lush green valleys.  If you want to be inspired while watching the sun set on the thousand-year-old cypress trees in the churchyard, then consider coming here on retreat.

This retreat page on mentions another opportunity in Paris, France. They say: “If you’re a writer and willing to put up with less than ideal conditions, the famous Paris booksellers Shakespeare & Company may let you crash above the shop.”

I couldn’t find details of this on the Shakespeare and Company website, but please look for yourself or contact them and ask.

The La Napoule Residency, a château in France, offers a five-week residency for artists.

They say:

La Napoule Art Foundation offers time and space for creative minds to engage in cultural interchange and meaningful work that impacts the world for the greater good. In addition to using this time to explore new ideas and develop their work, artists are expected to take every opportunity, especially mealtimes, to build community and friendship as well as to exchange ideas and experiences.We are not a hotel, and only welcome guests on certain occasions such as residencies, workshops, and nonprofit partnerships.

Application details can be found on their website.

The Art Monastery in Italy seeks to offer residential opportunities for those interested in the arts, spirituality and ethics. It has a wonderful website and offers many different opportunities from internships to work trades, from residencies to becoming a visiting lecturer.

The Creators Inn in Sweden offers artists free accommodation for visiting creators. They hope that this will promote the local area and that the presence of creative people helps enrich local life. So participation locally would be very welcome.

The Saari Residence in Finland hosts both individuals artists and groups who are looking to research creative work. Grants are available through the Kone Foundation, and you can stay for up to two months. There is an application process.



They have facilities to accommodates artists from many disciplines: “The barn contains four kinds of workspace: an artists’ studio, a dance studio, a woodworking shop and a metalworking shop.”

Their website says:

The Saari Residence’s historical surroundings and peaceful location near a nature reserve and bird wetlands help to fade away all distractions.

Artists and researchers can also come together under this interesting residency scheme.

The 360 Xochi Quetzal residency in Jalisco, Mexico offers three to five live-and-work spaces in a small town complete with cowboys and stunning lakes and countryside nearby. National and international visual artists, photographers, dancers, writers, new media makers and musicians over the age of 23 are welcome to apply for free one-month residency programs that include accommodations and a food stipend of 1,000 pesos – that’s about £35 GBP. You can apply for a summer or winter program or rent a live/work space at other times. There is a small application fee.

Organise your own retreat

Or why not organise your own informal retreat? My generous Danish friends have a log cabin that they use as a summer house. I was allowed to stay there for a couple of months in spring to do some writing. I offered to do some cleaning and painting and generally look after the place. I also paid for the electricity and water that I used. The great thing about organising my own retreat was that it was totally personalised with no application process. I stayed in a beautiful location with no wifi, no TV, no people to talk to, so I could really get my head down and write, undistracted. If you are not interested in collaborating, this kind of arrangement could suit you well.

Do you know anyone with a cabin or a caravan like this?

Alternatively, housesitting might fit in well with your plans. I can recommend the website Trusted Housesitters. There is a membership fee but the service is excellent.

I recommend every artist, writer or performer goes on retreat at least once a year to rediscover their passion, and allow space for new creation.

If you hear of other retreats, let me know and I will update this list.  And if you visit one I’ve recommended, please let me know what you think!

Lots of love and luck on your creative journey : )

Planning my own personal retreat

Having left it too late to book on a ten-day Vipassana course this winter, I decided to create my own retreat.

On December 29th, I am going to stay in a bungalow on the Pembrokeshire coast for a week.

For the first three days, I am having complete silence. This will involve a full media detox – no phones, no music, no TV, no internet, no books, no newspapers, no MacBook. No conversation.

Just me, a log fire, walks along the coast, plenty of herb tea and home-cooked food.

Every day I plan to do yoga and meditate for at least five hours.

I would like to remain in silence during that time. In case someone speaks to me, I will carry a little card that says, “I’m sorry, I can’t speak at the moment.”

This part of my retreat is about gaining clarity. I would like silence with no distractions, to let my mind settle and return to stillness. I don’t hope for any great revelations, just a little peace and time to listen to what’s inside.

I plan to go silent upon arrival in Marloes, on December 29th and break my silence on January 1st 2011, after three days.

Then, I have invited good friends to come join me. Offers are open, so friends can come if they feel like it.

I am also taking my guitar, some masks, some books and DVDs so I can immerse myself creatively on the last four days.

This part of my retreat is about energising and inspiring myself. I am hoping that the three days of silence and stillness will aid my creativity.

I guess that remains to be seen! Watch this space for an update.

In the meantime, could you do with some quiet time, with no distractions? Or some time to recharge, creatively? Can you make a space for that, in your life?

Can compassion be learned?

Is compassion something you are born with, or can you learn to become more compassionate?

New research suggests that compassion can be both taught, and learned. Richard Davidson and associate scientist Antoine Lutz studied the brain scans of 16 monks and 16 control subjects. All were asked to practise a special compassion meditation whilst undergoing an fMRI scan. The scientists found that areas of the brain used for empathy were stimulated during the meditation practice.

Davidson and Lutz believe that this research could be useful in treating people with depression. The theory is that if people suffering with depression could be taught a compassionate meditation practice, they could relate to the suffering of others more easily. “Thinking about other people’s suffering and not just your own helps to put everything in perspective,” Lutz says.

This is a subject that science is taking very seriously. The Dalai Lama is speaking at the CCARE Conference on Scientific Explorations of Compassion and Altruism on Friday, October 15, 2010 at Stanford University. You can watch a live webcast of the conference here.

From personal experience, I can say that compassionate practise has helped me deal with family problems more usefully. Over the summer, I learned a compassionate meditation practise during my three weeks on working retreat at Casa Saraswati. This is based on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and involves visualising a being or situation that gave you love, feeling the love grow in your heart, and then transferring this same love to others. Often we would sing the Avalokiteswara mantra after meditating, which also encourages compassion. I practised for three weeks, and noticeably became a much kinder, more generous and giving person in my daily life.

When I returned from my retreat, I found that my mother had become mentally ill again. Up until now, I have been notoriously unkind to her during her bouts of illness. As a child and younger adult I felt angry at my mother for not taking her medication, and bringing such suffering to everyone around her, not just herself.

This time, things were different. I was much more understanding of my mum. I felt more tolerance towards her. It wasn’t always easy: sometimes the old anger would arise while I was sitting with my mother, so I would sing the Avalokiteswara mantra over and over in my head until I softened. This would always work, and allow me much greater empathy for my mum. As a result, I was much more able to help and support her through this difficult time, and she managed to come out of hospital much sooner and with much less stress than in the past.

I am extremely grateful to the Buddhist tradition and my teacher Didier Danthois for this incredible gift. I also had the support of a very loving and compassionate partner, Caroline, who is a care-worker. She has already achieved a very high level of compassion towards others, without any mediation.

Imagine if we could teach compassion practices like these to children who were bullies, or to prisoners?

Imagine how greater compassion could better your relationships with your family and work colleagues?

Imagine how we could all care for the environment and put an end to war if we all learned to develop greater emotional understanding of all living beings around us?

Looking for the answers?

Ever find yourself asking questions about who you are and what you should be doing? Do you feel like the answers are out there somewhere? Are the answers more important to you than the questions themselves?

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke has this advice:

Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answers.

Notice that Rilke does not talk about asking questions. It feels to me that there is a big difference between ‘asking’ and ‘living’ the questions.

Asking… is it more about a want or a need? I do tend to find chewy questions, asking myself over and over again what I should be doing. The problem is that I am engaging only the intellect, not the senses and the body. Simultaneously I am expecting that the confused intellect doing the asking can also find the answers!

Living the questions feels more to me like a process, like becoming the question itself. Is that possible? It sounds a bit like going on a quest, in which the trials and experiences become the teachers and the prize itself is unimportant.

So are the answers that important? Are we too het up on the answers in the West?

Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas in their book Be Creative actually encourage their readers to not know stuff. They recommend practising saying “I don’t know” at least three times a day. They even advise dithering over choices more often! Guy Claxton is a professor of psychology, and he has found a correlation between creative genius and the ability to admit that you don’t actually know the answer.

Think about it. All the greatest inventors and scientists have had to ask questions, without knowing the answers. Their has led to their developing a new invention. But even then, they look for the next advancement. Mr Dyson is not resting on his laurels. He is searching for the next great vacuum cleaner, with even more advanced technology.

Within religion, we can find a similar approach to questions. Zen Buddhism is renowned for its ambiguous sayings. Many of their wisest words are laid out in philosophical riddles. For example:

When the task is done beforehand, then it is easy.

(Zen master Yuan-tong)

Not so straightforward, huh? Zen sayings always seem to require living with the question for a while, not seeking a quick fix. Masters often gave questions as answers to their students’ questions. The rationale in Zen is that in life, there are many ways of seeing one thing. A riddle allows for ambiguity, and therefore allows different ways of seeing to exist at one time.

It seems to me that it’s all about potential. Within everything in the universe, within every cell and atom is a limitless potential. Within an acorn is the potential to become a huge oak tree. Every seed asks the question, “Can I grow into a big tree, and bear fruit?” and still every day it grows. It grows and grows, asking the question, without looking to answer it.

If the seed asked, “Can I grow?” and answered “No”, it would stop growing. It would have limited its potential. If the seed asked, “Can I grow?” and answered “Yes”, it would keep growing, but with expectations. It would also have limited its potential. Expectations limit potential by pretending to glimpse the future. The seed cannot truly know whether it can grow or not.

When we ask intellectual questions, it is our ego that seeks to answer them. The ego wants to know, to be right. The ego hates to admit that it doesn’t know. The ego’s answers are limiting because it cannot know the future. When the ego answers a question with a definite answer, the fun of finding out is replaced by a ‘truth’ or a prediction. The potential of exploration through questioning, through finding different ways of looking, has now been limited as the ego pushes to prove its own answer. The ego, believing its perspective is right, will seek to find any other perspective wrong. This is the beginning of conflict and often ends in separation and destruction.

Can you forget the answers and the need to be right? Can you let open questions work their own magic? Can you develop the same patience as the seed that questions, but trusts that answers will come? Can you give yourself the huge freedom that is not having to know all the answers!

Click here to check out the full text of Rilke’s poem. It’s magic.

It’s not what you get, it’s what you give

As a student, did you ever ask, like me, “Why am I learning this?” or “What good will this do me in my life?” And let me guess… you were asking about algebra or trigonometry, right?

It seems like a feature of modern life. In our Western world, much it seems is about what ‘I am getting out of this’.

This is an egotistical perception of our relationship to the world. In this perception, the world must give to us, to fulfil our selfish desires and needs. Never do we ask what the world needs.

Before I went on a working retreat this year, I had a lot of questions to ask about my relationship. I felt like at times, I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it.

Casa Saraswati is the new home for Didier Danthois’ School of Sacred Clowning. Having worked with Didier previously, I had offered to come on a working holiday this summer to help paint, clean and prepare his new retreat centre for courses.

Mornings at Casa Saraswati begin with a ninety minute meditation practice, broken down into twenty minute sitting meditations, walking meditation and compassion practice, in the Buddhist tradition.

I had a fantastic time, and over the three weeks I could feel myself developing greater honesty, compassion and empathy. I enjoyed the spiritual practices, but also the hard work of preparing Casa Saraswati. It felt good to work communally on a goal, aimed at helping others.

After a few days, the questions I had had about my relationship became meaningless.

I had stopped thinking in terms of me, and what I get out of it. My thoughts and actions were now directed at what I could give.

This was a breakthrough for me. Suddenly, I unlocked a whole new perception on my life, and my relationship. What about if I could always think in terms of what I could give, not get?

Can I give this person love? Can I give this person a meaningful, passionate relationship?

This perception is a whole new way of looking for me. It makes me look outwards, not inwards. It makes my egotistical wishes shrivel in the face of a greater good. And it feels right.

When I reach the end of my life I am going to ask myself what I did to make the world a better place. What did I do to improve the quality of others lives?

I believe that by asking what I can give I can help others better.

And what a different place schools would be if we felt we were not just learning to get a good job and a fat paycheck, but if we were learning so that all of society could benefit from what we could give.