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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018 7 months ago

The Hermitage Artist Retreat places importance on its human factor

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Local author Roger Drouin opens a new chapter at area artists’ retreat.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Writers write. This iron law applies to all writers. And it’s particularly unforgiving for literary authors. 

Their beat is the world of the mind. But they also live in the real world. They share that world with friends, lovers, spouses and children, and often have to work at non-glamorous jobs to pay the bills until they write their first bestseller. 

Unless they live like hermits, how can they win the battle of the empty page?

Roger Drouin can tell you all about that battle.

He’s a Sarasota-based freelance journalist and author, prolific in fact and fiction. He’s also the proud father of a baby (Julien) and a toddler (Elaenia), both packed with energy. His home is bursting with love — and little free time. But you’ll never hear him complain about it. 

That’s not to say he’d refuse the gift of time. That gift came his way in the form of The John Ringling Towers Grant.

In addition to a cash award, it included a three-week residence at The Hermitage Artist Retreat — an idyllic slice of Old Florida on the shores of Manasota Key. 

On any given week, you might find painters, poets, filmmakers, and yes, writers, from around the globe. Thanks to the grant, you might also find a strong contingent of local talents like Drouin. 

The emerging author received the grant in October 2017. The timing was perfect.

“It came at a pivotal moment for me,” Drouin says. “Because of my family responsibilities, I’d been wondering if I should cut back on my literary writing. The grant encouraged me to keep going.”

After they received the good news, Drouin and his wife, Rachel, broke out the Champagne. After the celebration died down, they brought out the calculator.

“This was such a rare opportunity,” he says. “We wanted to make the most of it.”

Drouin decided to divide his time at The Hermitage. Two visits at the beginning and end of the summer of 2018 would put less stress on the family.

“I’d driven by The Hermitage, but I’d never actually been inside,” he says. “I was nervous about leaving Julien and Elaenia — and excited about the opportunity. I felt like a kid on the night before Christmas when I packed all my writing journals.”

What awaited Drouin was a complex of historic, wooden cabins, and a central building on a stretch of white sand by the Gulf of Mexico. The accommodations are rustic, but hardly primitive. Yes, there’s air conditioning and Wi-Fi. But the walls are free of flat-screen TVs.

Bruce Rodgers, the retreat’s executive director, describes the Hermitage experience as a mix of isolation and engagement.

“The Hermitage exists to inspire the artists of our time,” he says. “We offer the gifts of a beautiful space and unfettered time. Our visiting artists won’t find any distractions or excuses to keep them from their work here. But they’ll also find other artists who work in different disciplines. The cross-fertilization can be transformative.”

Drouin experienced that transformation firsthand. And his interaction with other visiting artists made all the difference.

During Drouin’s first residency, his neighbor was Vitus Shell, an edgy, young African-American painter from Louisiana. They hit it off, and Drouin also learned by his example. He realized that Shell’s approach to a blank canvas also works for the empty page.

“Having two young kids, I’ve adjusted to writing at random times while they’re napping or someone else is watching them,” says Drouin. “For me, it’s the only option. But Vitus works this way by choice. I’d watch him stroll away from a canvas — and come back to it with renewed insight. I realized it’s a great way to constantly shake yourself up.”

The author’s first stay was fruitful. He forged relationships. He also finished a chapter of “A Line,” his latest work of literary nonfiction. It’s an account of Drouin’s travels through nature with his loyal hound Sandy, in the spirit of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley.”

The second time around, Drouin didn’t finish the chapter. But he made great progress — and can see how to bring it home.

“It’s great when a creator can say, ‘I wrote this book,’ or ‘I completed this sculpture,’” Rodgers says. “I think it’s even better when a creator can say, ‘I met a brilliant author,’ or ‘I made friends with an excellent sculptor.’ ...  It’s all about the human factor.”

Drouin is still working on “A Line.” He can also look forward to another chapter at The Hermitage. And his whole family can, too. They’ve all been invited to The Hermitage’s weeklong Family Retreat for artists and their families in May. Needless to say, they’re all thrilled.

It’s all about the human factor.

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