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‘It’s like comfort food in a room’

Ashfield’s Wellspring House is a haven for creativity

  • ASHFIELD (May 12, 2014) — Assistant Director Hetty Startup sits at a desk in one of the five resident's rooms at Wellspring House. Poet Jody Cothey calls the decor, "comfort food in a room." Recorder/Trish Crapo

    ASHFIELD (May 12, 2014) — Assistant Director Hetty Startup sits at a desk in one of the five resident's rooms at Wellspring House. Poet Jody Cothey calls the decor, "comfort food in a room." Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • ASHFIELD (May 12, 2014) — Preston Browning sits in the living room at Wellspring House. Asked how he feels about being host there, Browning replies, "I love it. I truly love it." Recorder/Trish Crapo

    ASHFIELD (May 12, 2014) — Preston Browning sits in the living room at Wellspring House. Asked how he feels about being host there, Browning replies, "I love it. I truly love it." Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • ASHFIELD (May 12, 2014) — Writer Peggy Rambach looks up from her laptop in the book-filled living room at Wellspring House. The retreat center "gives you space in your life to allow for your true creative self to emerge," Rambach said.  Recorder/Trish Crapo

    ASHFIELD (May 12, 2014) — Writer Peggy Rambach looks up from her laptop in the book-filled living room at Wellspring House. The retreat center "gives you space in your life to allow for your true creative self to emerge," Rambach said. Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • ASHFIELD (May 12, 2014) — Wellspring House in Ashfield: "Amongst the hills, a quite place to be creative." Recorder/Trish Crapo

    ASHFIELD (May 12, 2014) — Wellspring House in Ashfield: "Amongst the hills, a quite place to be creative." Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • ASHFIELD (May 12, 2014) — Assistant Director Hetty Startup sits at a desk in one of the five resident's rooms at Wellspring House. Poet Jody Cothey calls the decor, "comfort food in a room." Recorder/Trish Crapo
  • ASHFIELD (May 12, 2014) — Preston Browning sits in the living room at Wellspring House. Asked how he feels about being host there, Browning replies, "I love it. I truly love it." Recorder/Trish Crapo
  • ASHFIELD (May 12, 2014) — Writer Peggy Rambach looks up from her laptop in the book-filled living room at Wellspring House. The retreat center "gives you space in your life to allow for your true creative self to emerge," Rambach said.  Recorder/Trish Crapo
  • ASHFIELD (May 12, 2014) — Wellspring House in Ashfield: "Amongst the hills, a quite place to be creative." Recorder/Trish Crapo

When architect and poet Ann Hutt Browning first saw the building that is now Ashfield’s Wellspring House in the summer of 1998, it was “an old, dilapidated carriage house full of rubbish,” said her husband, Preston Browning.

At the time, the couple had been living in Chicago but looking to relocate closer to their daughter and son-in-law, who lived in Montague and had just had a baby. Browning remembers his wife waking about a month after their visit and saying, “You know that old carriage house in Ashfield? Let’s buy it and turn it into a retreat for writers and artists.”

Browning, a writer and former English professor, chuckles as he recalls his answer: “Well, sweetheart, that’s an interesting idea but it seems a risky venture to me, let me think about it.”

But his wife was a “visionary,” Browning says proudly, and Wellspring House is now in its 16th year of offering creative retreats, predominately to writers, but also to artists who can work in relatively small spaces or like to work outdoors, “en plein aire.”

House and gardens

The Wellspring property is right on Main Street but the house sits well back from the road, at the far end of a long grassy lawn that includes a large, shady maple, flowers and fruit trees, an arbor, outdoor seating and a contemplative garden designed as a memorial to Ann Hutt Browning, who died in 2011.

The house has a large common kitchen in which residents can cook their own meals; a living room overflowing with books; two shared baths upstairs and five resident bedrooms, two of which can accommodate a couple.

Asked how it has been to be host at Wellspring House all these years, Browning replies, “I love it. I truly love it and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I can’t imagine any other way of life. It’s almost as good as teaching and sometimes even better because I don’t have to grade papers.”

Browning laughs.

In slow, kindly Southern cadences that suggest he is thinking carefully before he speaks, Browning says that from April until November, “There is a steady stream of incredibly talented and intelligent and interesting people coming through Wellspring House,” many of whom have returned “six or eight or 10 or 15, or even more than 25 times.”

What brings writers and artists back to Wellspring House is its “small, intimate setting,” Browning says. “And the ethos is relaxed, comfortable.”

Browning lists other factors that he thinks contribute to Wellspring’s appeal: the quiet beauty of the house and grounds with its large yard and 40 acres of woods; the company and respect of other people engaged in creative pursuits; the proximity to Ashfield restaurants and other businesses, the library and the lake.

“The town is extraordinary,” Browning says. “When I’ve been back in my hometown in (Culpeper) Virginia, I’ve been asked if I’d ever consider moving back there. The question usually comes from a woman and I say, ‘Honey, I live in a small town, a village really, in western Massachusetts that has a feminist press, some of the most talented thespians in the country; it has a wonderful lake; it has three places to eat, a fine library and a poet on every corner — I ain’t movin’ one inch.’”

A sense of magic

Hawley poet Jody Cothey, who has published under the name Pamela Stewart, says she may have been Wellspring House’s first guest. Spotting an ad in “Poets and Writers” magazine back in the late ’90s, Cothey submitted a manuscript to be considered for a residency, “And, boom — they invited me up for tea,” Cothey said.

“They were really proud of how the house had been redone,” said Cothey. She laughed as she added that, because she lives locally and had been looking at real estate around that same time, “I’d seen the house when it still had manure in the living room.”

The Brownings’ transformation of the house conveyed to Cothey, “A sense of magic — the colors of the walls and all of Ann’s geraniums in the windows ... The place really wants you to do your work.”

And though it is only 12 minutes from Cothey’s home on Tregellys Fiber Farm in Hawley, it might as well be a world away.

“I can’t do anything at home,” Cothey says. “The moment I sat down (to write) a dog would want something. Or the phone would ring. Or somebody would cough. I’ve tried the library — that’s noisy!”

The quiet atmosphere of the house and the sense that others are working in the nearby rooms make Wellspring a productive environment. Cothey says the upstairs bedrooms remind her of, “What people’s beach houses are like — the chenille bedspreads and the dressers with their slightly rickety drawers. It’s like comfort food in a room.”

Cothey has been to Wellspring House almost every year since that first year — sometimes more than once a year, she says. “It’s like a pilgrimage.”

Cothey likes to plan a residency in the late fall or winter, when the house isn’t full. She’s ridden out snowstorms there, she says, coming away from Wellspring House with drafts of poems that she can revise at home, the act of revision requiring less quiet concentration than creating first drafts.

And if you’re having trouble settling into your work, or you’re done for the day, “You can pad around and look at the fabrics,” Cothey said. “Or I can go down to the living room and see books I haven’t seen in 30 years — many books I should have read and haven’t.”

The fabrics Cothey is referring to are various woven and embroidered textiles draped on bookcases and tables or hanging on the color-drenched walls. Ann Hutt Browning brought these textiles back from frequent trips to the Solentiname islands of Nicaragua, where she befriended a group of artists and designed a large building to house workshops, a gallery, storage and office space for them. A table in the living room offers paintings by Solentiname artists for sale.

The books, which lean in bookshelves and stand in stacks eight or nine high on every table in the living room, span many genres and disciplines — from the most recent issue of the journal “Poetry,” to classics of literature, essays on social justice and environmentalism, or larger, photographic books on architecture, Indian art or Russian icons. Some of the books were written by former residents of Wellspring House. All are intended to inspire current residents.

Space to be creative

Peggy Rambach, who was beginning her third residency in mid-May, said that Wellspring House, “Gives you space in your life to allow for your true creative self to emerge.

“You’re always fighting to keep it alive, if you want to live in society and have a job and have a family, and do all the things that other people do who live in the world a little differently from artists,” she said.

Rambach is the author of the novels “Fighting Gravity” and “The Lons.” Her stories and essays have been published in anthologies and journals, including “Best American Short Stories,” “Best of the Small Presses,” The Christian Science Monitor, “Chronicle of Higher Education” and The Boston Globe.

Rambach lives in Andover and teaches writing to medical students and prison inmates. Her teaching often focuses on the intersection of the arts and healing.

As she sat in the kitchen one recent afternoon, Rambach said that Wellspring House, “Allows you to live in the world as an artist and be completely at home with yourself. And be with other people who live the same way.”

“A writing retreat restores you,” Rambach says, “because it helps you to reach the creative part of yourself, despite everything seeming to sabotage it. And your own self sabotaging it.”

Maria Lauenstein-Denjongpa, a writer who lives most of the year in Sikkim, India, where she teaches writing and literature at Taktse International School, discovered Wellspring House through a friend, who had seen it online. Lauenstein-Denjongpa has written two children’s books that were published by Scholastic India, as well as essays that have appeared in various journals. She has gone to Wellspring House several times to work on a memoir.

“Because it is small and not so expensive, it is easier to just decide to do,” Lauenstein-Denjongpa says. “You cook in a home-style kitchen and that is more low-key, too. There are four to six other writers or artists there but both times I was there, it was very quiet with people understanding that writing requires a quiet, focused atmosphere. There was no sense of high-powered competition or networking. Instead, a cordial atmosphere of people dedicated to their work.”

Several times, she has timed her residencies to coincide with a friend she met while they were both attending the MFA in Writing Program at Bennington College. Gail Hosking, who teaches literature and writing at Rochester Institute of Technology, says the last time she came to meet Lauenstein-Denjongpa at Wellspring House, in mid-January of this year, she was going through a “clearing out process.”

Hosking, a published poet and author of the memoir, “Snake’s Daughter,” spent time sorting through old manuscripts and burning some of them in the fireplace. “I needed to empty all the old out to make room for the new, which hasn’t arrived yet,” Hosking said. Hosking’s new chapbook of poems, “The Tug,” is just out from Finishing Line Press.

Hosking spoke warmly of Preston Browning’s invitations to residents to hold an evening “soiree,” at which residents can choose to read from their work.

“There’s no competition there, which is really nice,” Hosking said. “The spirit is beautiful in that way. People talk about going to the more famous retreats where there’s an awful lot of competition in the air. None of us needs that.

“Mostly, people are so grateful to have a space to write and so curious about what other people are doing. And curious about the bigger world of writing, what it looks like day-to-day. It’s a wonderful place,” Hosking said.

Assistant director Hetty Startup, who came to Wellspring House just before Thanksgiving of 2013, says, of the experience of doing a residency there, “It’s just a question of dwelling in very rich environment, a place that’s very special and unique and personal and professional. It’s very self-selecting in that sense. People honor the ethos of the place.”

She adds that, because there is little structure at Wellspring House, “People kind of have to know how to do a residency. They bring that with them — a sense of discipline and a plan. As well as a readiness to be delighted by surprising, wonderful things, such as a book you might pick up downstairs.”

This readiness to be delighted is just as essential as “bringing spare clothes and food that’s easy to prepare and cook,” Startup said.

***

Wellspring House, 284 Main Street; P.O. Box 2006, Ashfield, MA 01330. Phone and fax: 413-628-3276; email: browning@wellspringhouse.net; www.wellspringhouse.net.

Rates: $240/week April 1 to Nov. 15; $220/week during the off-peak season. Shorter stays can be arranged. A few partial scholarships are available. In addition to the kitchen facilities, a washer and dryer are available for residents’ use.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com.

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