Thu 19 Dec 2013
by Bonnie ZoBell
Just driving through the Southern California backcountry to get to Dorland Mountain Arts Colony makes the trip worthwhile. Up through honey-colored hills and billowing California grasses, you let out your first sigh of relief that you’ve left the pressures behind and are narrowing in on an idyllic spot for virtually all artists and artisans. This is the only writers’ retreat I know of in Southern California. If there are others, I haven’t heard of them, and I’ve lived here most of my life. Once you get there, you’re agog with the loveliness of your cabin, the possibilities of what you can accomplish, the privacy you crave, and being able to do what you really want—write.
Dorland Mountain Arts Colony is open in the Temecula hills again. Two beautiful new cabins have sprung amidst the blue oak, thistle, chaparral, and sage on the property and are available to writers, composers, photographers, academics, visual artists, and mixed media. Know that when I say “cabins,” these two dwellings are not much smaller than the cottage I live in in San Diego. In New York they’d go for spacious one-bedrooms. Still, the word “quaint” permeates with each abode set in its own private area on the hill with gorgeous vistas out the many windows, wood-burning fireplaces, and large spaces to work. A refrain from past residents has been that the colony is “life changing,” “transformative,” and it’s easy to see why. Each cottage has a porch with an oversize wooden rocker waiting for you to relax on. Meanwhile, your five senses have already been alerted and are quickly cataloging details for later use your in pastoral surroundings. The alluring views of Temecula Valley on one side and the mountains on the other are enough to inspire even the jackrabbits to compose arias.
The area was homesteaded in the 1930’s by Ellen and Robert Dorland. Ellen Babcock Dorland, a world-famous concert pianist, and her lifelong friend, Barbara Horton, a dedicated environmentalist and writer, had dreams of developing an artist colony like the ones Dorland had seen on the East Coast. Finally, they did with the help of the guardianship of the Nature Conservancy. The property was deeded back to Dorland Mountain Arts with the stipulation that the land be protected from development in perpetuity. The grounds have been determined an Indian burial ground and are considered sacred by neighboring Indian tribes.
In the early years, Dorland was known as a popular rustic colony, operating without electricity. I, personally, like my laptop, fan, and a bright light to work into the wee hours. I was glad to hear air conditioning was recently added. However, many artists thrived there, working with gas lanterns.
Tony Eprile, author of The Persistence of Memory and Temporary Sojourner and Other South African Stories, both of which were New York Times Notable Books of the Year, trekked to the hill many times before electricity went in. “I found that I became reacquainted with the night,” he says.
Alice Sebold, best-selling novelist of The Lovely Bones as well as author of the books Lucky and The Almost Moon, found some serenity and time to write at Dorland. There she befriended Robert Willis, a World War II veteran and watercolorist, who shared some of his traumatic wartime experiences and described the effects these later had on him. During one six-month period in the 90’s, she replaced Willis as caretaker, and has said that living without electricity and having to tend to basic human needs more stringently changed the way she lived and worked. She started her book Lucky at the colony, which was the setting for the ending of the memoir. Willis and his wife Janice Cipriani, also a water colorist, are the current caretakers.
In 2004, Dorland burned to the ground in a California wildfire. Every building on the property was destroyed. The Board of Directors, the community, and fans of the peaceful enclave, all devastated, have worked relentlessly to raise money to recreate the magical community and to be able to invite artists again. The agreement with the Nature Conversancy is that Dorland will rebuild cottages on the ten original footings for the old colleges, and the rest of the property remains protected as a nature preserve.
Along with the two cottages that have now been rebuilt, funds are currently being raised to expand with several more, says Laura Plant, the current Executive Director. To date, three-fourths of the monies have been collected so far, says Laura Plant, the current Executive Director. There isn’t a firm complete date for these, but Dorland expects that to be sometime in 2014
When Eprile heard that his old stomping grounds in Temecula were up and running again, he applied and was pleased to receive a residency in 2011, the first time he’d been back in seven years. Upon going back, he had this to say:
Life has returned after everything went up in flames of such intensity that the iron that formed the adobe library melted and caved in on itself and obliterated the books beyond ash. But I discovered wonderful new books in my cabin, left by resident artists or donated, I don’t know, but it’s a serendipitous pleasure to stumble upon them. Nature has bounded back: there’s a herd of deer—five does and an imposingly antlered, watchful stag—that shows up in the oak grove every morning I’m there, a bobcat hunts rabbits in the woodpile below my cabin. In my ten days there, I feel a spirit of renewal jostling.
Lisa Fugard, author of Skinner’s Drift, a powerful story of family secrets set in the harshly beautiful landscape of rural South Africa, has been one of the residents of the new Dorland. Born in South Africa, her first novel was named as a notable book of 2006 by the New York Times.
I’ve had two residencies at Dorland since it’s reopening. A composer was in the other cabin during one visit, another writer during the second. My home is only an hour away, so my husband could come up and visit me overnight, which is allowed if Dorland is notified and folks are quiet, a nice treat that not all colonies allow. Any thoughts about being too isolated were quickly dashed. As I say, Temecula is very close if you miss the real world. The staff at Dorland is creative and around if you feel like talking. Robert Willis, watercolorist, artist-in-residence, and caretaker, has lived on the property for decades. He and his wife Janice are helpful, friendly, and can relay many intriguing historical details as well as tell you where to find anything you need to find not too far away. I went into town a few times and began daydreaming about writer friends I could get to apply at the same time I did. We would each get our own cabin, meet up for dinner and the occasional hike. More importantly, we’d have a glass of wine on our panoramic front porches.
For years I’ve enjoyed seeing the United States via sampling various guises of serenity, living temporarily on the Virginia Center for the Arts’ Blue Ridge farmland, walking Katrina Trask’s woods at the Yaddo Foundation in Saratoga Springs, the farmland and 450 timbered New Hampshire acres for MacDowell, the natural prairie of Ragdale in Lake Forest. Surely, Northern Californian, Midwestern, and East Coast types would appreciate discovering the only artist colony I know of in Southern California and get a taste of what life is like here, revel in our kind of peace.
Dorland is now encouraging artists to return to the newly refurbished Southern California Mecca and get a taste of life in California’s boonies, where they can find light even in the winter, hiking, forays into the quiet ranching town of Temecula. Apply! Fly to the San Diego Airport and get a shuttle to Dorland, about an hour, away. Or fly into John Wayne Airport in Orange County, also an hour drive. It’s nice to have a car once you get there, but not necessary—Robert Willis arranges to take residents on the ten-minute drive into town nearly every day. One big stocking up of your kitchenette can last a long time if you ache for solitude.
Dorland, unlike other colonies, will let you apply for as little as one week—helpful for those who work or have children and or for other reasons can’t get away for too long. But, oh, what an artist can do with one week all to herself. Residencies can be had for as long as eight weeks. For a gorgeous virtual tour, the answers to other questions, and applications, see Dorland Mountain Arts website listed at the top.
I’m already working on my next application.
Bonnie ZoBell’s fiction chapbook The Whack-Job Girls with Monkey Puzzle Press was released in March 2013 and her short story collection WHAT HAPPENED HERE is forthcoming with Press 53 in spring 2014. She’s received an NEA fellowship for her fiction, teaches at San Diego Mesa College, and is Associate Editor of The Northville Review. For more information, visit www.bonniezobell.com.