Creative Genius Blossoms At The Hermitage Artist Retreat

A narrow, two-lane road shaded by a canopy of arcing palms and oak trees valanced in veils of Spanish moss meanders along Manasota Key in Englewood at the southern-most reaches of Sarasota County. After winding through a rare scene of secluded "Old Florida'' lush with native flora, Manasota Key Road skirts along the breezy shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico and leads to the Hermitage Artist Retreat, one of coastal Florida's most well-hidden historical and cultural gems.

"The idea is that this is the coolest place you can't get into,'' says Hermitage Executive Director Bruce Rodgers, with a wink as he steps onto the porch of the beach cottage that serves as the nonprofit organization's office of operations. The Hermitage Artist Retreat is not only unique in its ecology, but in its history, its creative mission and its exclusivity. Artists of all disciplines are welcome, but residency is available only on a highly prestigious, invitation-only basis, and only five artists can visit the retreat at one time.

Adjacent to Rodgers' office stands the Hermitage House, a 106-year-old, two-story homestead that overlooks sea grape-laden beach dunes and the azure waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It is one of five historic structures at the retreat that serve as live-work spaces for visiting artists. A short stroll away, the Whitney House and neighboring cottage built in the 1940s also serve as private artist sanctuaries. Each guest space at the Hermitage Artist Retreat provides special amenities for visiting artists of various disciplines. The Whitney cottage, for instance, is sound-proofed and equipped with a piano to provide a live-in studio for visiting composers, while the garage in the house adjacent serves as a spacious work space for visual artists.

Over the past decade, the Hermitage has been the creative birthplace for works by numerous Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, poets, playwrights and composers, MacArthur "Genius'' Fellows and internationally acclaimed visual and performing artists.

Hermitage artists currently making a splash in the art world include 2013 MacArthur Award-winning Jazz Pianist and Composer Vijay Iyer; and Composer Nico Muhly and Greenfield Prize-winning Playwright Craig Lucas, who worked together at the Hermitage on "Two Boys,'' an opera that opened Oct. 21 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York; and Pulitzer Prize-winning Composer Bernard Rands, who in April, 2014, will lead the Boston Symphony in the premiere of his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, which he worked on during his stay at the Hermitage. U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey is visiting the Hermitage this month (January).

Making Room For Top Talent

A National Artist Advisory Committee made up of a network of curators, theater directors, music producers, arts scholars and esteemed writers throughout the United States collaborates annually to nominate a small pool of stand-out artists to present with exclusive invites to the Hermitage Artist Retreat.

Invitations go out to between 40 and 60 artists early each June, each one containing a shell from the Hermitage beachfront that represents the exclusivity of being one of the unique individuals chosen among thousands. Those who accept the invitation are granted a block of six weeks' time to spend at the Hermitage, and are only responsible for their own transportation and food during their stay. In exchange for free room and board at the retreat, each visiting artist agrees to participate in two programs that engage the local community with the arts during his or her stay.

"Most of the programs are in collaboration with other organizations throughout Sarasota County. We have a full partnership with the Ringling Museum of Art, for instance, and we do five or six programs a year as part of their 'Art of Our Time' series,'' Rodgers explains.

The community aspect of the program is a fundamental element in the mission of The Hermitage Artist Retreat, as detailed by the Comprehensive Community Cultural Plan outlined by the Arts and Culture Alliance of Sarasota (then called the Sarasota County Arts Council) in 1999, which addressed the need to better serve independent artists while engaging the local community.

"The Arts Council was looking to make impact in the south part of the county, and with individual artists, in particular. The project came out of that idea, and Patricia Caswell, the Council Director at the time, enlisted a man named Syd Adler, a visual arts patron and philanthropist. He came on the board and they became partners in founding The Hermitage Artist Retreat. What they did was to create a steering committee of citizens with a variety of different backgrounds to raise the money to restore the property and develop the idea into a reality,'' Rodgers says.

Cultivating A Creative Environment

The history of the Hermitage is as rich as its current creative culture. The retreat resides on land originally inhabited by the Calusa Native American tribe, though its modern story begins with the arrival of Swedish immigrant, Carl Johansen, who built the first homestead (now the Hermitage House) in 1907. The property would pass through several hands throughout the century, reaching its most "infamous,'' albeit brief, point in history, when it operated as the Florida Sea Island Sanctuary -- a nudist colony -- in 1936-1937. Retired naval Architect Alfred Whitney purchased the property adjacent to the Hermitage House in the early 1940s, upon which he constructed his "hurricane-proof'' winter home, including two water cisterns and pump house.

The Hermitage House and Whitney properties were combined as a single land parcel in the late 1940s, and eventually came under the ownership of Carroll Swayze, a current working Englewood artist and her mother, Ruth, in 1975. The Swayzes, who inhabited the property until 1986, were instrumental in preventing the loss of the historic buildings from beach erosion. Later, when Sarasota County acquired the property with the intention of demolishing the buildings to make room for additional public beach parking, the historic nature of the structures prevented their demolition.

Inspired by the Cultural Plan outlined in 1999, Sarasota County commissioners granted the Arts Council a long-term $1-a-year lease, and County Parks and Recreation was assigned oversight responsibility for the property. Led by Caswell and Adler, the committee secured grants and private donations for the $1.2 million project that moved the Hermitage House 37 feet away from the eroding beach, created a barrier dune and restored the structures to their current states. Careful attention paid to maintaining the buildings' architectural integrity, including meticulous restoration of the original cypress wall and floor paneling.

Rodgers, who served as Associate Artistic Director of Sarasota's Asolo Theatre from 1993-2004, joined the Hermitage Board of Trustees in 2001, before resigning from his position in 2005 to take on the role of Executive Director at the Hermitage. Although the retreat hosted its first artist, Malcolm Robertson of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2003, it was not until Rodgers entered the role of Executive Director that the Hermitage drafted its official operating policies and spun off from the Arts Council as an independent 501c3 nonprofit organization. 

Recognizing Rising Stars

Today, in addition to the artist retreat program, The Hermitage organization serves artists and engages the local community through its prestigious Greenfield Prize, established in 2008, and the State Teacher Artist Residence (STAR) program.

The Greenfield Prize, presented in partnership with the Philadelphia-based Greenfield Foundation, presents a winner annually in the rotating categories of drama, music and a "wild card'' with a $30,000 prize in the form of a commission.

"Instead of a a past accomplishment, the prize is given as a future investment. It's our key to becoming a national organization,'' Rodgers says. The yearly award dinner, he adds, is held the during same weekend as the premiere of the Greenfield commission from two years prior.

"That creates an entire weekend, and between the unveiling of the commissioned work and the award of the new prize, we draw some of the most respected people from around the country to the Hermitage, and they participate in creative conversations -- all of which are free to the community,'' Rodgers says.

The STAR program, which takes place at the Hermitage during mid-July through mid-August, is presented in collaboration with the Florida Alliance for Arts Education (FAAE). During this four-week period, out-of-state Hermitage fellows are discouraged from planning their visits, due to the complications that could potentially arise in the instance of emergency evacuations from Manasota Key during the height of hurricane season.  However, the campus remains open to five Florida public school educators who are chosen annually by the FAAE for the opportunity to nourish their individual artistic passions outside the classroom by spending the month at the Hermitage Retreat.

Throughout the year, the Hermitage campus hosts a series of approximately 12 free-to-the-public beach readings that occur on a loosely-scheduled monthly basis dependent on the availability of visiting Hermitage fellows and STAR participants. The campus is also host to other free community events such as artist talks, open studios and plein air painting, which it promotes on its Facebook page.

Although the Hermitage is a secluded retreat, as its name implies, Rodgers is confident that as accomplished musicians, writers, performers and other artists continue to visit and receive inspiration from the cloistered one-of-a-kind "Old Florida'' setting, the Hermitage will play an invaluable role in shaping local culture through its community engagement, and that the works created at the Hermitage will create a ripple effect on an international level that brings artistic recognition to Sarasota County.

"The work that's being done here is being shown in major venues around the country and abroad. While we occupy a relatively small footprint, we have a huge impact,'' Rodgers says as he gazes across the sandy dunes and onto the Gulf beach.

Meanwhile, one more pristine shell washes onto the Hermitage shore and awaits the day it will be plucked from the sea of its peers.

Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she can generally be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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