by Stacia Friedman
Earlier this month, local artist Debs Bleicher traded his West Mt. Airy home studio for a barn in Lackawanna County. It was a productive weekend for Bleicher who completed three large canvases in the company of a dozen other artists at Spring Hills Farm in Dalton, Pa.
“In a group, you learn quickly about the creative process,” said Bleicher who has a degree in ceramics from Tyler School of Art but didn’t start his formal training as a painter until 2003.
Organized by Francine Shore, an instructor at Main Line Art Center, the retreat took place on a 400-acre, working organic farm, just outside of Scranton in the Endless Mountains. For several years, Shore has been taking small groups of artists on retreats to locations that would bring out the inner Cezanne in anyone.
While many transformed the beauty of the landscape into abstract paintings, others created still lives or took advantage of a popular model – a white horse who posed while munching grass.
“This retreat is a haven that takes me away from everything that may be cluttering my life,” said Anita Halpern, of Oreland. “Francine is the catalyst who inspires and directs our passions, while at the same time respects each one of us for our individual directions.”
The artists worked without the interruption of phones, spouses or email for six hours each day, stopping only for a luscious lunch before returning to their easels. Conversation at meals was lively while they enjoyed homemade, organic, vegetarian cuisine. Eggs came from the hen house, vegetables and herbs were picked from the garden and ice cream came from a neighboring farm.
“As soon as I get home, I’m going to McDonalds,” quipped Bleicher, an unabashed carnivore.
“The peaceful atmosphere and the proximity to nature frees my soul from the encumbrances of life,” said Fonda Hartman of Bala Cynwyd. “I absorb what surrounds me, and it seems that my paint brush takes a mind of its own.”
She credited Shore with the success of the weekend.
“Francine lovingly and painstakingly arranges every detail of our time at the farm,” Hartman added. “Her gentle critiques and support is what really fires all of us to do our best.”
Accommodations at Spring Hills Farms were not lavish. There were no television sets, swimming pools, tennis courts or chocolates on the pillow. Just a jelly jar containing wildflowers on the nightstand, exposed wooden beams and the occasional tree limb as a banister. Baby chicks peeped on the porch, and a geriatric dog wandered in and out, along with a cat who popped up on unsuspecting laps and beds.
“My art tours are not vacations,” said Shore. “They’re an opportunity for artists to gather information, interact with one another and to be refreshed by new landscapes. It’s an amazing place experience for painters, printmakers and photographers.”
Each morning after breakfast, artists gathered around the fireplace in Pond House for a talk by Shore.
“The goal of this workshop is to expose you to an intense investigation of the Spring Hills Farm landscapes as a springboard for new ideas, materials and imagery,” Shore explained.
To illustrate the concept, Shore used the paintings of Gorgio Morandi whom she called “an Italian poet in paint.” She encouraged participants to go beyond superficial depictions of beauty, to trust their own vision and to look “into” forms and spaces, not just “at” them.
For three days, artists focused on their own unique interpretation of their surroundings. They were free to choose individual, open-air, studio spaces or gazebos scattered throughout the farm that came equipped with easels, tables and chairs. Some drew inspiration from the natural pond, bordered by thousands of yellow irises. When they needed a break, they were free to wander in the hills, high grasses, forest or take a dip in the pond.
Owned by the Hull family for 70 years and run by the four sisters who grew up there, Spring Hills Farm’s crops include Christmas trees, maple syrup and blueberries. Brown and white Jacob sheep grazed in the meadow. Hens clucked in their own whimsical house and Belgian horses pulled wagons and, on special occasions, a vintage surrey with a fringe on top.
“We’re not a resort – we don’t advertise,” said Susan Constantine, one of the sisters who runs the Farm. “But at certain times of the year, we welcome visual artists, writers and meditation groups. Our mission is to promote appreciation of the natural environment. Most of our land is under conservancy.”
Francine Shore’s next artist retreat at Spring Hill Farm will be October 10-12, 2014. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stacia Friedman, a Chestnut Hill resident, is a freelance writer. Her novel “Tender is the Brisket” is coming out on Kindle later this month.