09/10/2014 11:28 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Yield to Whim


Torii by Bruce Johnson greets you at the Djerassi entrance.

I recently received an incredibly generous "gift of time" from the Djerassi Resident Artist Program (DRAP) in Woodside, California. "Time" seemed like a peculiar perk for an artist residency program to tout, but once I arrived on the ranch I understood what it meant. DRAP is located on a secluded 600-acre ranch overlooking the Pacific ocean, and leaving the property was a long, windy-road-ed ordeal; I clocked in maybe 15 hours off the property my entire month there. The folks at DRAP provide artists everything they need so they can focus on creating art. They housed us, fed us, fetched supplies from the city, and provided a supportive environment where all the artists have to do is create. Residencies last four weeks, and they come at no cost to the artists. The "gift of time" at DRAP means you are free to do, or not do, whatever you please for a month without distraction.

This residency is located on SMIP Ranch, which is tucked into the Santa Cruz Mountains just south of San Francisco. SMIP Ranch was founded in the 1960s by Carl Djerassi, the brilliant chemist responsible for creating the birth control pill. Djerassi turned this cattle ranch into an artist residency to honor the memory of his daughter Pamela, an artist who committed suicide in 1978. Carl Djerassi wanted to give artists a peaceful, supportive environment to pursue their work. The rolling hills, redwood forests, ocean views, and abundant wildlife at SMIP Ranch provide endless inspiration for creative minds.


Yield to Whim, the Djerassi motto. Created by Frank Foreman in 1983.

Many of my friends picture artist residencies as hippy-dippy places where spoiled artists frolic naked through the woods and vomit paint on canvasses. Truthfully, resident artists are the most professional people I've ever worked with. Visual artists tend to be tenure-track professors, writers mostly have agents, composers have their doctorates, etc. DRAP in particular draws high-achieving creative professionals. More than 800 people apply every year, and around 80 get in; you're about as likely to be accepted into an Ivy-league college as you are DRAP.

I was part of a group of ten artists from around the world for DRAP's August residency; four professional writers (all different genres), two professors of visual arts, one composer, one computer scientist turned designer, and one choreographer made for an amazing cohort. We all received our own private accommodation and work space geared towards our specific medium (dance studio, darkroom, sound-proof recording studio, etc.). Add in the amazing staff and Hank the dog -- I interacted with only 12 people for an entire month and I loved it.

Cabin fever did not overcome us, and there were never any inter-artist fights. Rather, our group ended up with incredible "group cohesion." The staff commented on how close knit we quickly became; whenever there was a movie or a game night, everyone happily attended. The choreographer coaxed half the residents into dancing naked in the woods for her art videos; I figured if I don't become famous, my naked body might end up on loop at MOMA one day. I even helped the computer scientist (who was just dipping his toes into the creative world) turn his digital work into physical items -- t-shirts and silk scarves for the residents.


Resident writer Kimi Eisele wearing scarf and shirt created by Paul Max Payton.

One of the most impressive aspects of DRAP was the food. In regular life about 25 percent of my daily mental energy is devoted to the procurement and preparation of food; while I was in residence, I rarely had to think about where my next meal was coming from. DRAP's private chef was, simply put, amazing. Monday-Friday he made the most delicious dinners, and he never repeated a meal. We ate a lot of "big California salads," grilled organic meats, and homemade hot sauce. The chef's two best meals were homemade Chinese takeout (grilled beef and broccoli, General Tso Chicken, steamed veggies, rice) and Southern night (fried chicken, collards, mac and cheese, ribs, and cobbler). DRAP provided residents with food to make for all the other meals; we would fill out inventories of what we wanted, and twice a week the pantries were magically stocked.

Truthfully, if this sounds like summer camp for adults, it's because it is. Camp teaches kids many valuable life skills -- bravery, resilience, curiosity, etc. Camp puts kids in a fresh environment free from distractions and without the usual family and friend safety net to fall back on. DRAP, similarly, brings together adult strangers who form an artistic tribe for a few weeks. We were free to experiment, make mistakes, climb, explore, commune with nature, or do anything else that may bring about the creative juices. My strongest DRAP memories sound like summer camp stories; I will remember hearing a coyote (they sound like the devil), counting shooting stars at night, seeing the Milky Way, painting pictures of sunsets, and spending endless afternoons hiking without any real destination. I even lived through my first earthquake!


Me among the tall grass at SMIP Ranch.

My month at DRAP was the most productive time I've ever experienced as an artist. I produced more than 200 photographic prints in the darkroom, and I taught myself to color them with oil paint (a really retro technique). The scenic mountains, the amazing friendships, and all the incredible moments will never be repeated in that same configuration as I experienced in August 2014. Tears build inside of me when I realize I may never see some of those artists again, and we will probably never all be in the same place at the same time. I know we will all continue to move forward as creative warriors, each of us forever changed by the gift of time given to us by Djerassi Resident Artist Program.


Sunsetting over the Pacific.