Hey y’all, long time no see! This week I’m writing about a place that is special to me, my family, and is dear to many. Chautauqua Institution is a difficult place to describe, which is a sentence you’ll hear frequently if you ever attend yourself or talk to anyone who has been. This year, I had the joy of being able to show it to my partner, Reed, who initially described it as “a christian summer camp for retirees” which is…..not wrong. When I learned my two Grinnell friends Anne and Judith were accepted to the summer art residency there I told them to expect to see more old white people gathered in one place than they had ever seen before. I am technically a third generation Chautauquan, albeit one that season pass holders call a “weeker.” My grandparents and my mom started going in the 1970s. The first year I went with my whole family was 2004 and, minus a four year gap during Grinnell years, this season marked my 12th year in attendance. Chautauqua has been a formative place for me and all my immediate family members, and sharing the experience with friends and loved ones was a delight.
A Relatively Brief History of Chautauqua Institution
The Chautauqua Institution grounds are situated on Lake Chautauqua in Western (not Upstate) New York State near the Pennsylvania border. The name “Chautauqua” is an Iroquois word which means either “a bag tied in the middle” or “two moccasins tied together,” and describes the shape of the lake (source). Like all land in the United States, this area used to be home to indigenous peoples. Passing through the Seneca Nation on the way from Buffalo to Chautauqua, you’ll see a sign that reads “Welcome to the Seneca Nation, Sovereign Lands Since Time Immemorial. NYS OWES OVER $ 675 MILLION.” Read more about their ongoing struggle for justice here.
Chautauqua Institution was founded as a summer camp for Methodist Sunday school teachers, but since its onset has been welcoming to all religions and religious denominations. Most Christian denominations have a quasi boarding house on the grounds. My grandparents were the hosts of the Baptist House for several years and my family always stayed there even though we’re Episcopalians. The iconic Athenaeum Hotel was built as a convention space for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and now ironically hosts one of the two places you can buy liquor on the grounds. “Frances Willard is rolling over in her grave,” says Granddad.
As my Grandfather explains, 19th Century educational pedagogy is alive and well at Chautauqua. Since 1878, it has been home to the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC), which is the oldest and longest-running book club in the United States. It was originally founded to provide a pseudo syllabus to people who couldn’t afford a college education. Here’s a link to all their book selections from 1878-2018. My Nana is one of their readers and helps picks books to add each year.
The summer season is comprised of 9 themed weeks with a twice-daily lecture schedule and a nightly entertainment program. Growing up, my favorite week was National Geographic week which featured a different NatGeo photographer lecturing about their life and work every morning. Although many people haven’t heard of the place, it draws a lot of heavy-hitters. I.e., DIANA ROSS played there this summer, hello! The intimate and relaxed environment allows opportunities to meet famous authors, musicians, artists, theologians, academics, etc. that would rarely happen elsewhere. When I was about 13 I met Julie Andrews and she was every bit as lovely as you would expect.
After a hundred and something years, Chautauqua is still going strong, and is recognized by those who know it as an epicenter for art and culture. It is a place that celebrates learning for the sake of learning. My hope for its future is for more people to discover the magic of this place and for the summer population to become younger and more racially, ethnically, sexually, and socioeconomically diverse. If this place sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend checking it out! They have already released the themes for 2020 and they all seem amazing. For students, in addition to the art residency I talk about below, there are also programs for music, religious studies, dance, and theater that all have scholarship opportunities.
VACI and the Chautauqua School of Art
VACI, was not, as Reed thought, a tent giving out vaccines at the Art in the Park! fair. Rather, it is the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution, which includes a seven-week emerging artist residency, lecture series, and gallery space. This year, the illustrious Sharon Louden was named head of all VACI programming, marking the first directorial change the program has seen in over thirty years. I loved being able to see the work that my Grinnell studio art friends Anne Rogers and Judith Tong had been working on during the course of their residency. By a happy coincidence, the week my family decided to go to CHQ coincided with the last week of their residency.
The Infinite Tea Party
Anne and her co-resident Connie Fu co-hosted a lovely, magical, infinite tea party. With instructions to “bring only ourselves,” Reed and I happily spent time sitting in the grass meeting many of the summer resident artists and a few of the teachers. Connie and Anne served everyone tea in cups and saucers they made. The tea party was a triumph of the handmade. Both artists wore muslin clothing Anne constructed which was functional both for hosting a fancy tea party and for rolling down the art quad hill. The artists intend to take their respective handmade items from this tea party and continue to host tea parties wherever they live, both with new people and with people present at the inaugural event. Hence, the term infinite. I hope I am lucky enough to be able to attend another iteration of the Infinite Tea Party in the future! This event is a perfect representation of the infinite possibilities opened up when artists collaborate. Although, I must say, the huge Froot Loop necklace that Anne and Connie strung together at the tea party might have been their best collaboration yet.
Above: My drawings from the Infinite Tea Party
Below: Anne packs up her summer studio, as reflected in an etching plate
Above: Ceramics and clothing designs by Anne. Notice how the use of shapes informs the structure!
Below: Judith screen prints her designs (my favorite was “Chauthotqua”) on clothing and patches for VACI friends
One of the best parts of being at Chautauqua is doing…nothing! I valued this time to unwind, unplug even more, paint, read, reflect, listen, and learn. I think of it as a home-away-from-home-coming and it was lovely to be able to share this experience with Reed and Lewis’s friend Henry before leaving to dive back into our busy lives and routines.
That’s all for now!
a few excerpts from my sketchbook