I wasn’t sure I belonged in the Anderson Center. I’d read about it on one of my National Geographic road trips. The site described it as “A writers’ and artists’ retreat that has a small but worthwhile collection of paintings by Warhol, Man Ray, Matisse, and more.” It sounded vaguely interesting and I had some time to kill on my way up to Minneapolis, so I decided to stop in.
It took a while to find the front door. I accidentally turned into the wrong lot and wasted a few minutes wandering around the outdoor sculpture garden. Had the heat been more forgiving or the track a bit shorter, I might have walked the whole path to see all the art. I certainly liked what I did see. Abstract sculpture tends to be pretty hit or miss with me, but the stuff at the Anderson Center was thoughtful and interesting. I snapped a few photos of the outdoor pieces before the temperature got the better of me and I made my way to the main parking lot.
The Anderson Center is a complex of several attached buildings. Some of the doors were locked, but not all of them. Some of the lights were off, but the sun was bright in the windows. Once or twice I saw a person, and briefly considered hiding. There was every indication that the public was allowed to be there, yet it wasn’t especially inviting at the moment. I was afraid if I was seen I might be asked to leave. When I was spotted, I tried to look as confident as possible. It was clear that the people walking the halls were artists, and I felt sure that they wouldn’t all know each other. I suppose I was under some ridiculous impression that I didn’t look like a complete tourist.
I started with the gallery spaces – the rooms clearly intended for outsiders. I moved into the halls, which were functional yet still dotted with sculpture and paintings. Then I started to see the signs. “More art downstairs” they proclaimed in colorful, hand-painted script. I found myself in empty workshops, much like the River Arts District in Asheville, NC. The whole building still felt unfinished, with boiler pipes running along the ceiling and cement under the hodgepodge of rugs. I turned a corner and found myself staring at a solid white door, painted over with line after line of Biblical scripture. I walked through it and found more scripture, painted on every wall like the scene from a movie where we meet the madman. I kept looking over my shoulder. Surely I was not welcome in this very private space.
Back outside I set my eyes on a freestanding water tower. There was a door at the bottom, and on a whim I reached for the knob. While plenty of doors had been open in the center, it felt especially strange for this one to be unlocked. A person shouldn’t be allowed to simply wander up into a tower. It feels too dangerous for a litigious society like ours. Just inside the door was a long, spiral staircase that led up to the top. Like the rest of the center, it was dark inside. I couldn’t resist.
There’s something inherently dramatic about a spiral staircase. No one ever felt comfortable going up or down a spiral staircase. The triangle shapes of the stairs puts one instantly off ease. Not only is one altering altitude (a dangerous endeavor in its own right), but there isn’t even the stability of equal footing for each leg. One doesn’t casually walk on a spiral staircase – one does it with purpose.
At the top of the tower I walked through a door and the disconcerting blackness gave way to sunlight. It poured in from all sides. Outside the perfectly round room was a balcony for taking in the view. Inside the room was a large table with a single chair. There were papers everywhere, organized in neat stacks with unknown rhyme and reason. Some were on the table, others were on a nearby bench. I recognized the scene instantly. This was a writing room.
Apart from the table and chair, the room was beautiful but sparse. There was a sink and a fan and not much else in the way of furniture. The ceiling was painted like the night sky, and the floor was a rich, dark wood. To me it was heaven on earth. Such simplicity, such privacy, such dedication. Whoever this writer was, she never stumbled on to her work day, and she didn’t get “accidentally distracted” from it either. She climbed up to the top of the water tower on those dark and dramatic stairs. She looked out her window and no one was on her level. Standing alone in the writing room, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of permitting I’d need to install a water tower within the Seattle city limits.
Some time ago I applied to a local writer’s retreat made especially for women. Participants would have a week or more in the island retreat center, far away from hummanity. The point was to be in nature, to have your meals cooked for you from the on-site garden, and to have an entire week of uninterrupted time to focus on your work. I was sure it was what I needed to write my next play. I hadn’t had such a retreat when I wrote my first play, but somehow I had convinced myself that I required solitude in order to write the second one. My application was rejected.
It’s true that art needs to be nurtured, it needs to be cultivated. Places like the Anderson Center are important because they remind us that if we don’t work for it, art won’t happen. At the same time, we have to be careful as artists not to assume that without an Anderson Center, art can’t be made. Perhaps less will get done. Perhaps it will be more difficult. But it can still happen. That same day in Minnesota, long before I stumbled upon my dream writing tower, I had managed to write all on my own. I had managed to write while sitting in a cafe in a rather unremarkable town an hour south. In the days before, I had managed to write while sitting in someone’s guest room, and while crammed in my car hoping the rain would stop. I’ve managed to write late at night and early in the morning. I went through five Starbucks gift cards to get my trip posts out on time. And these days I write in my home at the same little computer I had on my travels, just with a bigger monitor and full keyboard. I hem and haw about writing and editing a lot, but I still manage to get it done. By the time these trip posts are finished, I will have managed to get it done for more than a year.
And I didn’t even have my own water tower.