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Creativity in constant motion at Arts Letters & Numbers

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Creativity in constant motion at Arts Letters & Numbers

Above: Residents at their communal meal. Photo courtesy of Arts Letters & Numbers

Arts Letters & Numbers is literally dripping with artwork. Painted clothespins attached to string hang from the ceiling of the mill house where artists in residence stay. Pieces of gray wash stone stand on the mantle of its cozy fireplace, in front of an array of vintage cameras. An artist sketches at the large wooden table across from a grand piano where the musician residents practice and compose their work. Sketches, paintings and chalk wall drawings adorn the walls in a random yet perfectly natural arrangement. Paper cranes guard the sitting room, which has been filled with a collection of potted plants and plush armchairs. A wooden light box hung above the stairs holds a solitary, bright yellow, toy school bus. It feels intoxicatingly cozy and calm. Everything belongs here. 

ALN was started in 2011 as a summer workshop program, running four to eight weeks per year. It acquired the mill house in 2015 and began operating year round in the old Faith Mills of Averill Park

The collection of buildings originally operated as a textile production, turning cotton into bundles of underwear: drawers panels, cuffs, collars and bodies of shirts during the early- to mid-1900s. One of the warehouses, as well as the old mill house dating back to the 1860’s and its barn (which ALN Founding Director David Gersten estimates is centuries older still), is now under the care of the arts institution and currently under renovation. Associate Director Frida Foberg says ALN hopes to have the space ready for artists and public shows within the next two years. The organization also bought two buildings up the street for artist housing and rents out rooms in another mill warehouse building across the street from their mill house for studios, shared by a truck supply manufacturing company and other local businesses. 

“We used the summer workshops for interdisciplinary works, but also to improve our facilities. Through construction grew art projects. We kind of had a deal with the town where, as long as we used our educational art programs as a way of moving forward with the construction, it was OK. But then there was a switch in who was running the town so we got closed down and now we’re getting it back.”

The mill house currently hosts 18 residential and thesis artists in disciplines such as architecture, visual art, theatre art, film, music and sciences. They have traveled from almost every continent to live and work in Averill Park—from South Korea, U.K., Australia, Canada, Chile, Nigeria, China and Froberg’s home nation of Sweden. Most of them found ALN through online residency platforms like ResArtis or Residency Unlimited but Froberg says there has been a lot of word-to-mouth as well. 

“Our residency program is international but we’re trying to get more regional artists as well to have a mix,” Foberg says. “We like to put different people together in a space and see what happens—as diverse in age, background, discipline as possible.”

Here they are free to roam the landscape and buildings for the perfect nook or cranny to get inspired and work on their projects. The structureless idea can seem daunting, but after exploring the spaces of ALN, one can imagine peaceful, open places to settle in. Handmade wooden tables are found in every room, patio or porch. Long, banquet-hall style tables in the barn, featuring a wide wooden stage for performance art, look like the perfect place to stretch out. The woodshop in the rented mill building hosts a random assortment of couches and chairs as a place to take a rest. 

“When the residents, or any participants, come, we don’t have any specific space designated because it’s about the conversation between you and the space. What space do you think you can work the best?” Froberg says. “I think it comes from the foundation of the organization, the fact that the residency program kind of started because we did have the house and it was just me, I’m an architect, and another architect living here. We were both like, ‘What the fuck is a residency?’ We had no idea. What are you supposed to do? What are the expectations? So we just started putting out ads for residents and began learning from everyone who was coming. Everything that this is now is because of everyone who has been here.” 

Accommodation prices for a shared room with up to three other people is $225 per week, private rooms are $325 per week. ALN also recently began to offer day residencies for local artists to use studio space on the property at $75 per week. 

“We have so much space. If you live close by, maybe you don’t need a space to live, you just need the studio space, you need to be in a community that is creative and will inspire you to create more,” Froberg says. 

Artists looking to show work can also contribute to their “Third Thursday” gallery exhibition each month.

Arts Letters & Numbers is currently running two parallel programs, a summer residency and a thesis program based on Gersten’s developed thesis programs as professor at The Cooper Union in New York City and visiting professor at RISD School of Design, among others. 

“We’re doing studio visits so we’re having deeper conversations with each individual artist.”

Froberg has incorporated her own artistic focus, on food and the way it connects people, into the residential process with “studio kitchen.” Artists can sign up for an hour before communal dinner to talk over their projects in the kitchen, the background of their piece and their inspirations to influence the meal for the evening. The catch: they can only use the ingredients that are already available to them in the kitchen, provided by the nearby Cropseyville Laughing Earth Farm.

“This is a great place to do it because there are always new people and there are different cultures. It’s super fascinating,” she says. “Making food is such an interesting discipline. It’s something we’re so used to and it’s kind of difficult for people to break their habits.”

In the fall, ALN will begin an afterschool program with Averill Park High School, taking the chance to work closer to their home base and engage with the local community. 

The organization has run school programming in the past, collaborating with Albany High School and Youth FX on the 2016 film and performance art project “Which Way is Home?” The Youth FX crew and students filmed outdoor shots on the grounds of ALN. 

The artists also have a solid relationship with the local elderly community, taking part in biweekly potlucks, “T-Time” (the T stands for tequila) meetups that consist of deep conversation (no small talk allowed) and ping pong games. 

They also hope to one day acquire all of the mill buildings to convert into community gathering and arts space. Wandering through the one mill they already own, one can imagine so many possibilities: loft space dance performances, community dinners, interactive galleries or theatre pieces, live music. Taking a closer look at the place, one will notice that the artists have already started leaving traces of their work, as if they couldn’t help but play with the space. A hanging installation hovers over a pile of wood, barely-started projects lay around—abandoned or left for later revisiting and one artist has cut a neat hole in the drywall to create a camera obscura, reflecting the lush green landscape from the window to a hanging sheet.

The space is in development just as much as the artists’ work and the team at ALN is ready to adjust to whatever it takes to grow and move forward in new ways. 

“One of our approaches is, if we already know the outcome we’re not going to do it. What is the point if you already know the results?” Froberg says. 

Though the application period for ALN’s fall residency program has closed, those interested in a residency from January to June or a summer residency in July 2020 can apply at artslettersandnumbers.com/residency. Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis, within 14-30 days. Artists can direct any questions to residency@artslettersandnumbers.com.

New submissions are always welcome. As Froberg says, residents are the foundation of Arts Letters & Numbers. 

“If there are no people here, ALN doesn’t exist.”   

Arts Letters & Numbers will hold a two-day festival open to the public, Aug. 2-3, celebrating and showcasing the work of their summer resident artists. Friday, musicians in residents will perform at 8 PM followed by a bonfire and entertainment. Saturday, “follow the flow” of the artist’s showcase starting at 2 PM, with a 7 PM dinner and late hours of visiting and entertainment. $10 suggested donation each day, $15 suggested donation for dinner, $25-30 full weekend.

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