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The Sable Project – Our Interview with Project Manager Jessica Lee

The Sable Project is an alternative artist residency and creative space that was born out of a big idea and a bit of land last summer.

When you have a group of young creative people on a farm in Vermont, living in tents, growing vegetables, planting fruit trees, building a stage (with a sprung floor for dancers’ feet) and a clay pizza oven shaped like a dragon, creating art, doing without electricity, phones, or the internet…well, it could have easily been a recipe for disaster. But it wasn’t.

They had such an amazing experience that they’ve now formed an official non-profit and are doing it all again this year. http://www.thesableproject.org/about/

Jessica Lee was there from the beginning, and now she’s a board member and their Project Manager, which means that she’s doing planning, fundraising, community engagement, administration, and communications, in addition to creating dance: http://www.thesableproject.org/artists/#/jessica-lee/

She came to visit over the three-day weekend, and we caught up a bit on what she’s been doing and what’s coming up next. I think it’s fair to say that we can expect the unexpected…

The NewsWhistle Q&A with Jessica Lee of The Sable Project

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Photo: Alan Kimara Dixon

Name: Jessica Lee
Date of interview: January 19, 2015
Age: Almost 24
Birthplace: Denver, CO
Current towns: 1) Fairfield, CT 2) NYC 3) Stockbridge, VT (I spend a lot of time traveling between my three homes.)
Occupation: dancer, dance teacher, arts administrator

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1. I know that the Sable Project is an artist residency where artists live in community at a farm, do work together, and create art, but can you describe it a little more? Is it like a commune? Is it like a kibbutz?

Ah yes, definitions. In establishing ourselves we prefer not to use the word “commune” because we are separating ourselves from the connotations of the 1970s hippie communes. (No drugs or free love here!) The Sable Project is first and foremost an artist residency designed to support emerging artists. We are living intentionally and communally, however, and all food and basic responsibilities such as cooking dinner, caring for our living spaces, and working in the garden, are shared.

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2. What is it like to live and work there? How do you spend your days?

Most of us live in tents on platforms (there is also a tree house and a shack). We spend a lot of time in our kitchen and around our kitchen table, and last summer we ate dinner together almost every evening. Our sleep schedules were greatly influenced by the sun—especially when we were working hard all day.

This blog post I wrote back in July describes a little bit of what life was like this summer: http://thesableproject.tumblr.com/post/91672077496/daily-life-at-sable-hi-everyone-most-of-you-are

We adopted this schedule for about a month. It worked well for our building projects (which we had a lot of!) but not as well for our artistic practices. So we plan on making sure that art (either solo or collaborative) happens every single day in one way or another this year. We are certainly open to improvisation and adaption but we will start with breaking the day up into two main chunks: work in the garden in the morning and then artwork in the afternoon. Building projects will be on an ongoing basis, depending on what they are. If they are big building projects, such as completing the studio, we will have a work party and invite lots of people to join us.

I loved living at Sable. I felt so fueled by the physical work and fulfilled by the simplicity. It wasn’t always easy to live so closely with other artists but I learned a lot.

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3. When did founder Otto Pierce first have this idea for the Sable Project? How did it all start? How did you find the first group of people last year?

Otto and I were very much influenced by our dance professor at Middlebury College, Penny Campbell, in bringing together artists to collaborate and create. We both took her Creative Process and Performance Improvisation classes in addition to Dance Composition. The seeds were in place, so to speak, so that when Otto brought his creative friends up to the land for his September 2013 birthday party, and we all ate good food, sang songs, recited poetry, danced around the bonfire, and slept under the starts, it made perfect sense to invite them back. The beautiful land called for creativity and pulsed with possibility. We listened.

My life changed forever on the morning of October 7, 2013, when, while on the subway in NYC, I read the e-mail from Otto asking me to join him in making an artist residency on his land. It was one of those moments where even if your head is saying a hundred things (“Three months?! Living outside?! Will you ever get a “real” job and support yourself?! Are you really an artist?!”) your heart is already a thousand percent committed. And so, ever since, I have been working on Sable.

About half of the 2014 artists were friends of Otto’s that he asked to join, and the other half applied online, either finding out about Sable through their schools or friends or family. This year we are requiring everyone to apply, even if we already know them personally.

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4. Why did your group create this? What need is it fulfilling? How is this different from other existing opportunities for young artists?

We saw the need for a space for creativity that lives outside of the technology-filled world most of us are in. Bombarded by information almost 24/7 by multiple media, and often at a very fast pace, we tend to lose sight of who and where we are, both literally and figuratively. The Sable Project is different because it is entirely off-grid. We have no electricity, internet, or cell phone service. This challenges young artists to develop their work without the distraction of tech devices. The residency is grounded in its intrinsic connection with the land itself. It challenges our assumptions of consumption and communication. How much do we need to get by comfortably? What is the value of personal communication?

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5. Was the property Otto’s family’s or did he buy it from someone else? The website says that it is 15 acres; how much of it is undeveloped woodland and how much of it is actively used by the Sable residents?

Otto bought the property himself from the Thompson Family after his success as a model. Yes, it is 15 acres, but actually still unsurveyed, so this is a guess. Otto believes that it is more than 16. We will probably have to survey it going forward, I’m not sure how that all works. Most of it is still woodland and undeveloped, only the lower east corner of the triangular plot is the field actively used by our residents. There is now a trail running through the woodland part of The Sable Land, which we made last year for our final showcase.

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6. What does the name “The Sable Project” mean?

Although the word “sable” does mean “black” and is a kind of animal in Asia with dark brown fur, The Sable Project has no direct connection to these. Since this residency is tied so closely to the land itself, and the environment in which the artists live and work, we felt it was fitting that we name the land first. The Sable Land is named after the closest mountain to the land, Mt. Sable, and The Sable Project, naturally, emerged from that.

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Photo: Ben DeFlorio

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7. What’s the funniest or saddest thing that’s happened to you this week?

Yesterday, I watched Downton Abbey with my mom (we’re catching up), and we caught a really sad episode. I’m really wrapped up in the characters. So it was very sad, even if it didn’t happen to me. I’m very glad to be a woman in the 21st century.

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8. What’s your favorite movie?

I watch Love, Actually every year. It’s not the best movie, but it has become my tradition to see it at Christmastime. I used to watch it with my college friends. This past year, I watched it without them, but I reminisced about having them with me.

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9. What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in life?

Deciding that I wanted to be an artist, a dancer. Going into the arts world, where there is not much security. I’m still working through that.

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Photo: Ben DeFlorio

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10. If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would that be?

That’s a good question. I’ve learned from the good and the bad decisions in my life, and I have no huge regrets. I’m concentrating on living forward with the lessons I’ve learned from the past decisions, cherishing the time with my grandmother, making, being, and doing.

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11. What’s something that most people don’t know about you?

I think that I consider myself to be a spirited introvert. I come across as an extrovert, I enjoy other people and socializing, and working with others on a team, but I also refuel on my own.

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12. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard?

I’ve been given a lot of great advice. The best is what my friend Davis has told me: to be kind and honest to myself and to others, and live intentionally. You can apply that to various situations and relationships. I’m learning that it is hard to be honest and kind to myself, but that being healthy starts there.

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13. Who’s your favorite celebrity and why?

I’m not much of a celebrity person, I don’t keep up with it, but I’d say Jennifer Lawrence. I think it’s awesome that she’s so honest about her role in this world, a role model, and a regular person in some ways. She has a great sense of humor and does not take herself too seriously.

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14. What’s your strangest phobia or superstition?

From my childhood, I was afraid of the whale in Pinocchio. That led to me being afraid of the whale in the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, and really, being afraid of things so much larger than me, which make me feel small and helpless.

http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent-exhibitions/biodiversity-and-environmental-halls/milstein-hall-of-ocean-life

I’m actually going to be performing at that museum this May. A fellow dancer, a co-director of an organization that makes musical instruments out of trash, called Bash the Trash is participating in an event which will be themed around sea turtles. It is quite possible that I will be dancing in the room with the big whale, so I am going to have to come to terms with it. I’ve become less of a picky eater lately, and I’m no longer afraid of spiders, so I’ve definitely gotten over some of my childhood particularities. I’m looking forward to the challenge of embracing this fear.

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15. What’s a book everyone should read?

Well, it’s not for everyone on the planet, but I’ve been reading Group Genius by Keith Sawyer, which is a book my dance professor, Penny Campbell, had assigned in a Creative Process class. It’s about how working together in a group can produce more creative results than working individually, and how the creative process is enhanced by collaboration. I’ve been applying it to my art, but it applies to business as well. We’re definitely trying for fruitful collaboration in our work with The Sable Project. As a leader, I’m hoping that working together will help us find more good ideas and more exciting artwork, although we are also going to make sure there is time for solo practice as well.

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16. The Sable Project looks like a lot of fun, especially for young creative people. What kind of legacy or lasting work do you see coming out of this, besides the experiences that you all have there? How much of it is ephemeral or inspirational, and how much of it is something that you can see having staying power? Is there a goal for the future (further development of the physical site, written work, compositions of music, choreography, etc., expansion of the size of the program, financial endowment, etc.)?

We hope that the young artists who come to Sable can launch their careers off of their experiences and work there. They will take with them their personal practices (because working daily as an artist is different than doing work for school, something I learned from my experience), as well as the body of work they make. Visual artists will take the physical pieces of art (size permitting), and performers will get photo and video documentation. Any art left on The Sable Land will become an installation, such as sculptures along the trail in the woods.

One plan for this year is to expand and improve the garden, get the soil really fertile and the harvests even more successful. We want to bring more people to The Sable Land to receive local organic food, share our art with us, and broaden the Sable community. We also plan on finishing the studio to have a dry indoor place to work on our art that is separate from the kitchen, and perhaps a roof over the stage to protect the wood.

We also hope for this residency to continue for years to come. We don’t have a goal for expanding the program just yet (sometimes smaller is better) but financial stability would certainly be wonderful. Some day it would be nice to get paid to support myself. The work that Otto and I are doing to establish the 501(c)3 will help with this.

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17. Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?

(Laughing) Yes, The Sable Project! We are looking for artists to participate this summer…either for June, July, and August, or just for August, and we’re accepting applications until March 1st. We have room for visual artists, musicians, dancers, performers, all kinds of creative people. We are particularly looking for emerging artists who are not yet established in their careers, who are ready for hard work, who are finding their path, and who make a commitment to having a low environmental impact: http://www.thesableproject.org/apply/

If you’re local to Stockbridge, VT, you can buy a CSA share and get fresh vegetables and flowers each week. We’ll have art presentations or performances at the weekly pick-ups. http://www.thesableproject.org/csa/

If you’d like to support the work we do, we’d appreciate your donations! They are tax deductible: http://www.thesableproject.org/support/

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Images Courtesy of The Sable Project, unless otherwise noted.

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com