Retreat for Artistic Collaboration

by Rebecca Nimerfroh

Retreat for Artistic Collaboration | NantucketJust four miles from the turn onto Polpis from Milestone, you will see an unassuming sign reading Almanack Pond Road. It is down this sandy lane, lined with scrawny, wind-swept trees that you will stumble upon the Almanack Arts Colony, a palatial retreat founded by John S. Johnson and sister India Blake that hosts screenwriters, songwriters, and artists from various different backgrounds and mediums in the pursuit of one precious thing: to escape the noise of the world, be inspired by the beauty of this island, and make amazing art.

One look at the property at 25 Almanack Pond Road and you would think you had stumbled upon a farmhouse in some landlocked state of America. The estate, with its now empty green paddocks, was a vacation home for the Johnson family for more than two decades and boasts an expansive horse barn (still with a dozen stalls), two converted guest cottages and a main house with five bedrooms. At the foot of a hill by the home there is a pond, likely stocked with fish, and an overgrown apple tree with limbs begging for climbing. Needless to say, this land looks every bit like the paradise that it serves to be for the creative types invited here.

Not open to the public, and with “colony” programs spanning from one week to one month for the Screenwriters Colony and the Songwriters Colony, under the Almanack Arts Colony umbrella, this “artist-in-residence” opportunity is obtained by referral only, not by application. Notable alumni include screenwriters David Robert Mitchell of It Follows and Megan Holley of Sunshine Cleaning. These programs are so successful, in fact, that the Screenwriters Colony is now in its thirteenth year, and the newly established Songwriters Colony is in its second.

But don’t dismay if you’ve not yet been referred, because if you are lucky enough to be on Nantucket this August, you can spend a full day enjoying the otherwise private grounds. On August 6, the Almanack Arts Colony will host their annual fundraiser, the “BBQ, Bocce, and Bluegrass” tournament, with tickets on sale starting at $30. Tickets are currently available on their website almanackartscolony. org and going fast. “It’s our only fundraiser and it’s really, really fun,” Director Callie Kever tells me as we tour the grounds on a crisp, spring day, pointing to the filed in which the bocce tournament is held. “It’s a good way to see the grounds.” The event is more than just bocce, however, with music by Four Easy Payments & Appalachian Uprising, unlimited BBQ, Beer and Wine.

Touring the grounds with Callie, it is hard not to imagine a team of writers hard at work, bouncing ideas of each other, or a musician playing a few chords and a fellow songwriter laying lyrics upon them, and Callie notes that the special thing about program is that at its heart, it is a collaborative effort. “We fly in mentors— anyone from a really well-known producer, or a songwriter at the top of their game—and they’ll come in for a week and sit and work with the artists. It’s sort of like an artist-in-residence program, but we don’t have any single artists at any given time, and that’s why we call it a colony,” she laughs.

Callie notes that last summer, local musicians Caleb Cressman, Andre Quackenbush, Ethan Philbrick, and Colin Gully (along with Songwriter’s colony alumnus Mark Stoney) recorded a song in the horse barn that was used in the opening scene of Screenwriter’s Colony alumna Sarah Adina Smith’s movie Buster’s Mal Heart (written while in residence), saying, “It was a full circle moment for Almanack Arts Colony!” And it’s collaboration just like this one that is exactly why the colony exists in the first place. The movie will be featured as part of the Film for Thought series at Nantucket Dreamland Theatre on Wednesday, June 7, with tickets at nantucketdreamland.org.

Callie says of the Songwriter’s colony, “the purpose is to foster collaborations between emerging and established songwriters, who would not normally have the opportunity to write and record together, by providing them the time and space to develop new material away from the pressures of the commercial songwriting business.” As for the Screenwriters Colony, several events are in store, including a nearly sold-out 5th annual Summer Soiree honoring Warren Beatty on July 22. And beginning mid-May until the end of October, the estate will be hosting writers for a week to a month at a time. Callie, who normally works alone on the property, says that this is the time of year when she has company, and enjoys the communal dinners cooked by a professional chef on a daily basis, served to all the guests at the long wooden dining table in the heart of the main house.

As for the future, Callie mentions that they wish to expand their programming even more, and as we navigate around table saws and woodpiles, she tells me that renovations are being done to the barn in order to safely host large crowds. “We don’t rent the space out, but a lot of people ask,” Callie says with a smile. “It’s not something we necessarily are opposed to, but right now we use the space for our own purposes.”

Standing with Callie on the grounds and in the spring sunshine, fielding crisp gusts of wind from the nearby ocean, one can clearly see the natural beauty, and feel it too. “It’s a really great, magical space,” Callie says, and I couldn’t agree more.

For more information on the Almanack Arts Colony, or to support their programming, visit almanackartscolony.org.