Interview with Amy Ellingson: How to do an artist residency (and not be a jerk)

Sarah Thibault
Jul 2 · 11 min read

After a few challenging interactions at a small residency I attended this spring, I reached out to my community to see if we could cull together an agreed upon list of etiquette rules, or at least some techniques to help manage the quirky group-living dynamics that inevitably come up while attending artist residencies.

One of the best responses came from Amy Ellingson, a painter and former professor of mine who recently left her long-time home in San Francisco to build a new life (and a gorgeous new studio) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In addition to her 7-point guide for making the most of the artist residency experience, she shares her new projects and why she left San Francisco for the Southwest.

By all accounts, you seemed to have the perfect set-up in the Bay Area. I think every painter I know there was green with envy over your corner studio in Yosemite Place. What prompted your move to Santa Fe?

I’m a Bay Area native, I’ve loved San Francisco all my life, and I was lucky to work in Yosemite Place, a studio building full of friends and colleagues, for 17 years. When I moved into my first space in the building on the second floor, it was a big step up from my small studio in Outer Mission/Bernal Heights. Sometimes we stretch a bit and feel we must live up to the studio itself, and I have learned that each time I move my studio, it really energizes me and shakes things up.

There might be a bit of fearfulness about taking on a bigger space, but expanding your workspace forces you to be more expansive in your thinking and your productivity. My third-floor corner studio at Yosemite Place was so conducive to making and showing work, and it prompted me to take advantage of the studio as a social space where I could host small and large studio visits, have parties, etc.

Photo of new studio in Santa Fe, courtesy of Amy Ellingson

We designed my new studio to expand upon this idea; I am able to move everything out of the main painting studio when I want to host a group, so it can function more like a gallery or presentation space when needed. Many people talk about and engage in, post-studio art-making practices, but for me, the studio is everything: a laboratory, a production site, a sanctuary, a library, a comprehensive domain for working, thinking, studying and sharing. It’s the space that allows everything to happen. The more well-designed and functional it is, the more fluid and free my work process is.

Many people talk about, and engage in, post-studio art-making practices, but for me, the studio is everything: a laboratory, a production site, a sanctuary, a library, a comprehensive domain for working, thinking, studying and sharing.

I visited Santa Fe for the first time in 1992, right after getting my MFA from CalArts. “The City Different” got under my skin though, at the time, I couldn’t articulate why. My next visit was a few years later. Again, I felt an attraction that I couldn’t quite understand. After that, my partner and I visited regularly, at first maybe once a year and then 2 or 3 times a year.

I always tell people that, in Santa Fe, gravity feels stronger and the dome of the sky feels higher. The light and cloudscapes are incredible. Looking at the sky is like watching a panoramic film all day long.

This might sound strange but, in Santa Fe, I often have an awareness that I live on a planet, in a vast universe. I think it’s because of the sky, the dramatic changes in weather and atmosphere, and the fact that nature is all around. You can see the horizon at all times, and you can sense the curvature of the earth. This is the kind of place where everyone runs outside to watch the sunset each evening.

About ten years ago, we began talking about moving here someday, and we began looking at houses seven years ago. Our realtor was very patient! It took about six years to find the perfect place: close enough to town so that people would be able to visit the studio easily, but outside of city limits, so that we could build the studio without too many restrictions.

I have been designing this studio in my head for 25 years, so in many ways, it was an easy task. Our architect was a joy to work with, and the design process went pretty smoothly. We began construction in late January and finished late April. This space is a few hundred square feet larger than my YP studio, with a lot more wall space, better window configuration, and spaces for the office/library and storage/rack room, separate from the main painting studio.

It was good that it took so long to accomplish this goal; I was able to thoroughly strategize how I would transition my career to another city.

So often, we think that we must stay in one place to maintain the professional traction that we work so hard for. But, I spent many years connecting with people here, creating new friendships and professional relationships, and also figuring out how I would maintain relationships in the Bay Area.

Of course, the internet makes this possible. When we can connect with anyone and everyone so immediately and frequently, it’s easier to keep all the balls in the air. You are a perfect example of this, Sarah! You’re engaging your audience in the Bay Area while expanding your practice all around the globe.

Thank you! It’s an interesting paradox. While the Tech Industry is responsible for making San Francisco unlivable for many artists, technology has provided more opportunities for artists looking to connect with communities and audiences all over the world, making it possible to be more independent.

It’s a very good time for artists to leave big cities (where we all once felt we had to live) for smaller ones, where the cost of living is much cheaper, where we can still connect to the larger creative ecosystems of big cities and where the local art scenes are dynamic in their own right.

Do you find that your work has changed at all since you’ve moved to a new place, with a dramatically different landscape and pace of life?

That’s such an interesting question and one that a lot of people have been asking. During my “downtime,” while the studio was under construction, I worked on a few proposals for corporate commissions and public art.

I ended up making one large commissioned painting in our living room and kitchen, which was quite a challenge. All the while, I was overseeing the studio construction.

So, I’ve been busy, but it hasn’t been my usual 60–70 hours a week in the studio. It’s hard to say how this new environment and, indeed, the studio itself, will change my work, but I think it’s fair to say that, inevitably, that something will change.

I feel more myself here. There is a sense of freedom and possibility here that I no longer felt in San Francisco. There’s a lot of creative energy in Santa Fe, on all levels. My stress level has gone down significantly, and there is time for contemplation and deep communion with nature. My work-life will be more fluid with a home studio. I can take a break to go for a walk or water the garden, and then get right back to work. My commute is a short walk through the garden.

Photo of outside of studio, courtesy of Amy Ellingson.

The new work I’ve begun is a continuation of what I’ve been doing. I painted up to the very last few days before leaving Yosemite Place, completing a commission for the Kaiser Center in Oakland. I also had another large painting in progress that was about half-finished, so that is what I’m working on now.

I’m going to take it slow, get accustomed to the new studio, and just see where things go. It’s a really interesting position to be in, and I’ll try to savor it.

Yesterday, I did a big drawing with markers tied to long sticks. I don’t think it’s particularly successful, but I feel the need to loosen up a bit as I get back into the groove, so I will take the time to experiment a little.

It’s also interesting to be alone in the studio. I’ve had a series of assistants over the last 20 years or so, with very few breaks between them. I love having someone else in the studio a few days a week. I enjoy the esoteric conversations, and the mutual support and friendship aspect of it, as well as the boost in production that it affords. However, I will wait awhile before hiring someone new. These first few months in the studio are a chance for me to have complete privacy as I claim this new space for myself.

I just saw on your Instagram account that your work was (just?) featured on the Showtime TV show Billions. What was the context for the scene? How did that come about?

I have a friend who works for an art fabrication company. She does a bit of consulting on the side, and asked if I would be willing to put my work forth for consideration for a new character on Billions. I knew that the show featured a lot of art, which signifies not only the extreme wealth and power of the characters, but also something about their internal lives, so I was open to it.

I’ve yet to watch the show, but I hear great things about it, and I am thrilled that the character who “owns” my work, Taylor, is non-binary, and is played by a non-binary actor, Asia Kate Dillon. From what I gather, Taylor is a counterpoint to some of the other characters, and I am happy that their art collection signifies something younger and perhaps more personal than the blue-chip, predictable collections of some of the other characters. I’m looking forward to binge-watching sometime soon!

You have been awarded fellowships at a few prestigious artist residencies including the Civitella Ranieri Foundation and the MacDowell Colony. What was your strategy when you were putting together your application?

You know, I never really felt the need to do residencies, as I am most productive when I’m in my own studio. However, a friend nominated me for the Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship in 2007. I applied and got in.

I couldn’t turn down a chance to live and work in a medieval castle in Umbria for 6 weeks! The challenge was: what could I work on in a relatively short amount of time?

I ended up doing works on paper, which was fantastic for me — something that I had longed to do but hadn’t quite figured out. The methodology of the work I did there continues to this day, so it was a very fruitful experience for me.

Civitella is special because it is a very small group of international artists, writers and composers. I made some good friends, and it sparked an interest in doing more residencies, especially since I was planning to give up my teaching position at SFAI. I knew that I would miss the interaction with students and colleagues, and I figured that doing a couple of residencies would be a great way to expand my network of artist friends.

In terms of applying, I think it’s best if you have a concise project to work on. Whether you are continuing a project, completing a project, or doing research for a new project, I think it’s important that your proposal is ambitious, yet manageable. Sometimes people overreach, and the panel might consider your proposal to be unrealistic.

I also think it’s important to realize that no one holds you to your proposal once you get in! Everyone knows that plans change, ideas evolve, and the work goes where it will go. But, you don’t want to waste the very valuable gift of unencumbered studio time, so having well-defined intentions is important.

On your application, make sure your writing is clear and concise. There’s no need for art jargon in a residency proposal. The selection panel will be reading hundreds of applications; make sure yours is direct and easy to read.

Another strategy: apply for the less popular times of the year, if you can. Most people want to do residencies in the summer. I went to MacDowell in November, and Ucross in March. The colder months are a little less competitive, and think the vibe is a little different, too.

Artist residencies fill an important role. Take the time to learn about the history and mission statement of each residency you apply for. If you are awarded a residency/fellowship, be sure to acknowledge the great gift of time, the delicious meals, exposure to a new environment and all of the other wonderful things a residency has to offer- and take advantage of the ongoing support you will receive. Be sure to thank people, and maintain contact with them throughout your career. They are invested in your success.

Do you have anything else coming up that we should know about?

I’m looking forward to establishing a routine in my new studio, and I have a lot ideas for new paintings and works on paper. I’ve been invited to do a print project with Shark’s Ink this August. We’ll be producing two prints in two weeks, so I’m thinking a lot about that. I’m also finalizing the design for a mosaic mural that I’ve been commissioned to create for a Sam Houston State University in Texas, due to be installed July 2020. I’m really excited to be doing another mosaic. This one will be twenty-six by twenty-six feet, about half the size of my SFO mural.

In general, I think it’s really important to be open to whatever experiences present themselves. Of course, you are there to immerse yourself in your work. However, you are spending a few weeks with a very specific group of people, in a very specific place. Take the time to hang out, see the local sights, and take little field trips.

Residencies can be life-changing experiences if you are open and receptive.

7 Tips for Doing an Artist Residency

1) Be sensitive to other people.

If residents are quiet or seemingly anti-social, maybe they are just immersed in their work. You never know what is going on with people, and everyone is a little nervous and out of sorts at the beginning.

2 ) Don’t sit at the “mean table” at dinner.

Sometimes, especially at bigger residencies, there is a dynamic that can leave you feeling like you’re in the seventh grade all over again. Don’t get caught up in petty dramas.

3) Learn about the residency locale.

Take advantage of field trips and activities so that you really get a feel for the place. For me, seeing sights like Assisi, Gubbio and the Piero della Francesca route in Umbria, or Devils Tower near Ucross, were every bit as important as racking up studio hours.

4) Work hard, but have some fun, too.

When I was at Civitella, we all stayed up really late on one of the first nights to drink champagne while watching the Perseid meteor shower. It was a magical evening. Some of the best experiences are spontaneous field trips, talking around the fire, artist presentations, going for walks, etc.

5) Don’t get so drunk at dinner that you end up heckling another artist during his artist talk.

(Yes, I witnessed this once)

6) Allow the work to go where it will.

You’ve outlined a proposal, which helps to define your goals, but you never know how you will respond to the experience of the residency. Release expectations and control. I made a bunch of really awful works on paper at Ucross, but they helped to get me to the next step. For me, having a little time to “fail” proved to be very important .

7) If an artist who is a former race car driver wants to take you, in his Saab convertible, on a ride along the Piero della Francesca trail in Umbria, by all means, GO!

But remember to wear a hat.

Originally published at

Artists + Travel

A resource to help artists travel creatively

Sarah Thibault

Written by

Artist, writer, streamer of Netflix — Freelance writer for The Culture Trip, Blacklane Travel and Founder of the Artists + Travel blog

Artists + Travel

A resource to help artists travel creatively

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