I was honored to be part of the pilot project for a regional Teaching Artist Retreat on Monday and Tuesday. It was held at a resort in Boiling Springs in central PA, where the corn is twelve feet tall this August. Sponsored by the arts councils of VA, MD, WV, DE, PA and NJ, and thanks to my relation with Young Audiences of NJ and Eastern PA, I was one of 6 NJ campers chosen to attend, in spite of the fact I’m from Pennsylvania.

Driving through another torrential downpour, I got there before noon on Monday, just in time for lunch and a keynote from Gina Lyles, an arts advocate for juvenile justice and incarceration issues. There were several discussions involving teaching artists and underserved communities throughout the retreat. Good stuff.

I ran into a few familiar faces, performers and fellow TAs that I knew from Godfrey’s and the folk scene: Sue Trainor from Hot Soup and Crabmeat Thompson, a kids’ performer from Delaware. I love the surprises at these meetings.

We broke out into sessions: Marketing, Residency Planning, Entrepreneurial Skills and Advocacy. I took in the Entrepreneurial one led by two black women (Purple and Wincey) who have developed interesting lives in arts advocacy and making a living doing it.

The second session I went to was for a new group Teaching Artists of the Mid-Atlantic (TAMA) led by my friend Sue. It’s a new regional organization trying to connect the TAs with each other. I hope to share my experiences developing our local TALV group with them.

The final session were pop-up labs for some personal creative time doing poetry, dance, painting, and drumming. I went to the drum circle led by Philly percussionist Joe Tayoun on Doumbek. He was pretty intense but very good in leading a group of mostly amateurs. It was fun and a necessary part of any gathering of artists.

I checked into my room overlooking a daunting cornfield, and headed to the main hall for dinner with my NJ clan. The food was expensive but the company was good, including three women potters, including a woman in her 80’s who was a hoot. Good connections and conversation.

There was a ‘milk and cookies’ reception following dinner on the outdoor patio, so I headed to down there with my guitar slung on my back. It was early on so I unpacked my guitar, sat on the stone wall and started to play. One theater movement lady (familiar with our own Touchstone Theatre!) from WV sat down to listen to Here Comes the Sun. Another graphic artist got out some spoons to play along with another tune, and then Joe the Drummer came by with eight drums and some percussion instruments. Things took off from there and we created a cool center of energy that enabled others who got to mix, meet and chat on the patio. The drummer took over (no surprise) and a bunch of the women started some quite tribal dancing. That’s when I headed for the cookies. But I was glad that I found a good way to introduce myself to everyone, create some music and energy for the event. I headed for my room for the night.

The Tuesday session started with breakfast and open discussion around the ole Jersey table, followed by a plenary panel on “The Profound Possibilities of Arts Learning” dealing with arts in underserved communities. The four participants had some great stories of their work with aging, incarceration, military and special needs families. It was really impressive to hear how TAs can affect positive change in these communities. The four breakout sessions were led by each panelist. I went to the aging discussion, lead by a theater manager from Elkins, WV. She had some great insights on working with folks in old folks homes, developing a crew of high school theater kids and doing the hard but personally refreshing work for the elderly.

We gather again for a closing plenary for some reflection and sharing of what we had gathered, with some remarkably varied responses. My quote was “Embrace the Chaos.”

We then gathered into groups of ten out on the lawn and did a closing activity. We had a skein of yarn that started with one artist sharing what they took away, then tossed the yarn ball to another and that artist did the same. By the end we had built a web that was unique. I suggested each dip their point around another string in the middle, ala a Cat’s Cradle and the web took on a wonderfully strange and beautiful shape.

I said adieu to many of my fellow TAs, gave out CDs and download cards of Troubadour as parting gifts, and hopped in my car for the two hour drive back to the Lehigh Valley. As usual, I prefered to drive back in silence, pondering the experience, negotiating another torrential rain storm and feeding off the energy that these retreats give to me.

I am a lucky man.


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