Sunday, May 4, 2008

New York Mills

In many ways, New York Mills, Minnesota (pop. 1200) is your typical Midwestern outpost town. A train practically runs through it, almost every thirty minutes around the clock, which you can hear from Main Street, where you will find the local diner, library, post office, bank, bakery, Lutheran church (one of three in the town), town bar, antique shop, and hair salon. The town struggles with many of the typical problems of small towns in America... the decline of small farming and the joblessness and social problems that result, an aging population resulting from much of the young population leaving for the cities, the behemoth Wal-Mart that has moved into the neighboring town, and possibly a feeling some people have of being trapped, not to mention the harsh, seemingly endless Minnesota winter.

However, New York Mills has something that makes a truly exceptional place... Housed in the most beautiful building on main street is the New York Mills Cultural Center, a haven for culture in a place largely devoid of public venues for art. Thanks to the dedicated work of its employees, volunteers, and members, the center presents art exhibitions, community events, concerts, classes, and also brings artists to do retreats in the town, which are generously sponsored by the Jerome Foundation.

Thanks to my friend Anat Fort, a pianist and composer in NYC and former artist-in-residence there, I was introduced to their retreat program and was chosen to participate and recently spent two weeks living there. The cultural center owns a small house, just several blocks from the town, that they use to house the recipients of the grant. Other than eight hours of community outreach over the course of the two weeks (they also offer one month retreats), artists are given full freedom and solitude to do their work, as well as access to the resources of the cultural center. Partly because of the name of the town I suspect, they place a concentration on bringing artists from New York City, but also bring many local Minnesotans and people from other parts of the world as well, poets, writers, painters, and sculptors among them.

Why would an artist living in one of the cultural meccas of the world want to go live in a remote town of 1200 people? I am sure everybody who has participated in the retreat would give a different answer. Personally, small-town life is something very novel to me. I grew up in suburban Los Angeles, in a relatively populated place that did not have much history to it, and little identity, where people live at a fast pace and there is little that ties them together. Although I have traveled through most of the U.S. and seen much of small-town America, I had never really lived in it for any length of time, and saw this as a great opportunity to do so.

Also, there is the general need to once in a while escape the maddening pace of living in a big city, the constant noise and stress of everyday existence here which can provide a wonderful edge, but can be incredibly overwhelming and distracting. As a musician here, you live surrounded by people on all sides, forcing you to tailor when you can make noise and the type of noise you can make. Living in the retreat house, I had total freedom to play any time of day or night, to listen to music at whatever volume I wanted and not have to think twice about it.

Most of all though, the retreat was an opportunity to pare things down to the basics and really look inward, to embrace the solitude and ask some deeper questions, and, when ready, really dive into creative work more intensely than usual. Having a period of time away from any of the distractions of everyday life and having little to no responsibility is an extraordinary gift that this retreat and others like it offer, something that I hope to make a regular part of my personal and creative life.

And on top of this solitude, you do meet a truly unique breed of people over the course of your stay there. Many creative people and artists call rural places home, and have learned to thrive on the solitude, away from the ambition and noise of the urban world and the general rat-race of our culture. Beyond this, however, among the general population of the town, there is a wonderful sense of community, of "we" and not just "I", of calmness and simplicity, and a powerful sense of place that is difficult to find in cities. As far as the culture that the center brings, there are certainly people in the town whom are largely indifferent to it. However, enough people care about it to allow the center to survive and to serve not just the town but also be a sense of pride for the larger region.

In case you were wondering, I am not writing this just to encourage others to apply for the retreat program, but also to give my thanks to all the extraordinary people who make this program both possible and richen it with their warmth and generosity. Giant thanks to Lynn, Jamie, Marcia, Alice, Pam, Gary, Hope, Bob, Beverly, Elisa, Cheryl, Dennis, and the many others, and the Jerome Foundation for their generous support.

To find out more about the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center and the retreat program there, visit

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