Taking Up Residents

Celebrating the Aspen Words Writers in Residence program and the importance of supporting creative process.

I have a stubborn case of look at me/don’t look at me syndrome. As an artist, my fine art is on full display, and it’s no small joy when people respond to my creative expression. The same goes for my writing. But the thought of public speaking thrusts me into a tight corner with my chorus of inner critics who insist on enumerating my many shortcomings. I curtail their power by rendering them into cartoonish sketches, but they can still be shrill. Recently I had to silence my interior monologue and step out of my comfort zone and onto a stage at the Aspen Words Book Ball. But let me begin with the beginning.

Group of 5 people posing for a photo, all smiling, at Aspen Words Book Ball Recognition Dinner.
Attending the Aspen Words Book Ball from left to right: Dan Porterfield (President and CEO of the Aspen Institute), Adrienne Brodeur (Executive Director of Aspen Words), me, Daniel (my husband), and Caroline Tory (Managing Director of Aspen Words).
Photo: Dan Bayer, courtesy of Aspen Words.

People rescue each other… We have a real role in how our own collective lives, our nation, and our world and society turn out.

Rebecca Solnit

Partner Up

For ten years my husband and I have hosted the Aspen Words Writers in Residence with our partner, Aspen Words. It’s a great collaboration — Aspen Words handles the selection and administration of all of the residents, and we provide the space and solitude to work, along with a vegetable garden. The selected writers come to research or write for three weeks in our barn apartment with a refrigerator full of groceries to get them started. When they are not working, they have access to this valley’s wealth of cultural opportunities and four wilderness areas. Even our dogs participate. They train our residents to supply biscuits when they show up at the back door.

beautiful view with garden in foreground, building in middle ground next to a pone, with the Elk Mountain range in the background.
This building houses the Writer in Residence apartment, my studio, and showroom. Views of the gardens and not too distant Elk Mountain Range set the scene.

In the Process

All of us struggle with time in a world that seems spinning off its axis. Artists in particular need both space and time to work. Producing great work takes work, and that variable never changes. Which is where the residency comes in. I am married to a writer and producer, and we are passionate about supporting artists in general and the artistic process in particular. Both of us understand how the modern world intrudes and even tramples on creative processes, so transforming a spare apartment into space for a residency seemed like a good idea. Process is an oblique notion, usually hidden from view, and most of us marvel at a finished masterpiece while oblivious to what it takes to get there. The magic comes from the long hours–some blissful, some torturous, all vital–not from shortcuts. But here’s an amazing thing. This Aspen Words Writers in Residence program has wound up serving us. We live in a small community with all of the benefits of rural small-town life, except for one: diversity. The visible part of the community is white, privileged, and geared towards recreation. So welcoming different people and voices into our family, and into our small, wild canyon, has been a blessing. The writers who have flowed through our lives have exponentially opened up our perspectives.

Aspen Words Writers in Residence Testimonial video for 2022 Leadership Award.

Speak Out

So, back to the talk. Last month Aspen Words honored the Writers in Residence program and the incomparable Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown. I took the stage before his acceptance speech. So that was humbling.

Isa Catto speaking on stage behind podium at Aspen Words event with husband, Daniel Shaw in background.
Me and my husband, Daniel, up on stage.
Photo: Dan Bayer, courtesy of Aspen Words.

Here is what I said:

Frankly, we are conflicted about receiving this award. Our relationship with Aspen Words has given far more to us than we have to it.

Through the [Aspen Words Writers in Residence program], we have hosted 50 novelists, poets, essayists, historians, memoirists, young adult authors–and each one has expanded our family’s universe. Some of our writers have become good friends. One of our residents even turned out to be an 8th cousin. This residency has reinforced the importance of artistic process and underscores the power of hospitality. 

We are all aware of how our beloved valley is in peril — in peril of becoming a monoculture, a place that is too precious and exclusive. Literature and nonfiction keep different voices and stories in circulation and are the best antidotes to prejudice and ignorance. When we take words and stories for granted, we do so at the risk of diminishing our intellect, our collective curiosity, our freedom of expression.  And our sense of community. The debacle at the Aspen Times is a perfect example of this.

When I went to college eons ago, my father left me with a letter of advice — what he called his 16 corollaries to the ten commandments.  Top of his list? Never pass up an opportunity to pee. My father was always a pragmatic soul. But number 14 is equally good. “You never know as much as you think you do — don’t be seduced by your own voice. Listen and ask questions.”  Aspen Words brings SO many voices, SO many perspectives to this valley and that keeps us all listening. To stories. To excellent journalism. To sublime poetry. 

My parents believed that hospitality was a verb and the exchange of diverse views was essential to human evolution and potential. So thank you, Jessica and Henry, for showing us the way. We want to thank Adrienne and Caroline, the board, this amazing room of supporters — honestly it is an honor to be here with you — and everyone at Aspen Words for a seamless partnership. Aspen Words — you keep knitting this community together. We need words to bind us now more than ever.

I stepped off the stage in one piece, internal critics kicked to the curb. At least temporarily. 

Jericho Brown

Here is the poem Jericho Brown read to the audience:

Jericho Brown, Pulitzer Prize winning poet, speaking on stage at Aspen Words event.
Jericho Brown, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, shares with the Aspen Words Book Ball attendees. 
Photo:  Dan Bayer, courtesy of Aspen Words.

Crossing

The water is one thing, and one thing for miles.

The water is one thing, making this bridge

Built over the water another. Walk it

Early, walk it back when the day goes dim, everyone

Rising just to find a way toward rest again.

We work, start on one side of the day

Like a planet’s only sun, our eyes straight

Until the flame sinks. The flame sinks. Thank God

I’m different. I’ve figured and counted. I’m not crossing

To cross back. I’m set

On something vast. It reaches

Long as the sea. I’m more than a conqueror, bigger

Than bravery. I don’t march. I’m the one who leaps.

Showing Up

Every artist knows that they occupy a peculiar space. The world often thinks the arts are quaint, or superfluous, or the provenance of extremely wealthy patrons, or at worst, some sort of charade. This is why arts education and arts advocacy are critical not only to our survival but also to society’s survival. But we also have to support individual artists in any way we can. By showing up in any way possible, however possible.

If you are interested in the nuts and bolts of starting your own residency, here is an excellent resource: Alliance of Artist Communities. All you have to do is show up.

Isa Catto Shaw sitting with many other blurry people at Aspen Words event.
Yours truly
Photo: Dan Bayer, courtesy of Aspen Words.

5 responses to “Taking Up Residents”

  1. Helen Schulman Avatar

    I love this, Isa!!! The time I spent with you and Daniel, your wonderful children and hilarious dogs, on your beautiful property, was one of the most important gifts of my creative life. I often think back on it just to gain the courage to continue. (We have so much here in NYC, but too often feel nature-starved.) That residency has continued to feed me all these years now. I’m so grateful to you all!

    Much love and best wishes,

    Helen

    1. Isa Catto Avatar

      Helen. Thank you for your lovely comment! And lucky us that you found your way into our lives. Your time here with us was a gift! And now that we are moving about again — here’s to that NY reunion. And we are overdue a phone gab for sure! Hope you and Bruce and your kids are thriving! I’m ecstatic that you are working with AW!

  2. Adrienne Brodeur Avatar

    I love this, Isa! So beautifully put. Thanks for all you do for writers.

  3. Marie Chan Avatar

    Really lovely writing and sentiments, Isa! What you do for the writers and artists who pass through your gates is amazing! Miss you guys!

    1. Isa Catto Avatar

      Thank you dear Marie!

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