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Creative Processing: Taking a Break at Moonlight Retreat

I’m going to argue that artists are the most hardworking people I know. Maybe it’s because I’m an artist and also a Capricorn, or perhaps it’s because I just started a new job last month as an educator and have been working non-stop since, with barely any moment to stop and just breathe or take a break. Often, I find myself juggling numerous projects, exhibition deadlines, freelance work, or commission pieces all at once while holding down a full-time…all just to pay the bills. And I can say with confidence, that I am certainly not alone in this balancing act that many artists navigate to survive. We work hard because we need to eat. We need to live. But in order to live, we need to create. 

One thing I never take for granted is the incredible community of artists that surround me in Milwaukee. Almost everyone is willing to support one another through attending events, promoting projects, or just meeting up for coffee to exchange notes. The communities we build and actively take part in become a resource that nurtures our creative practice. I spend any extra time I can find in my schedule attending art exhibitions, events, and supporting my immediate community in Milwaukee knowing that I can expect reciprocation. While our communities nurture the work we do and encourage growth in our creative endeavors, I’m interested in the ways that we as individual artists foster time for reflection, make time to celebrate our completed successes, and build in time to take breaks: mental, physical, and emotional. I’m learning as I get older that this is so crucially essential to the preservation and nourishment of our creative processes. 

Image: Piece of paper that has been folded several times shows text from Cross Creek by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Text was provided to Moonlight Retreaters upon check-in for the weekend. Photo by Rachel Hausmann Schall.
Image: Piece of paper that has been folded several times printed with text from Cross Creek by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Text was provided to Moonlight Retreaters upon check-in for the weekend. Photo by Rachel Hausmann Schall.

As a student I pushed my body to the limits each day. I worked two jobs to support myself through college; which often meant many nights of less than adequate sleep, which then rolled into days fueled by loads of coffee and gas station food. Back-to-back critiques led to late nights in the studio. All of a sudden, 4 years had passed and, yes, I had a college degree, but did I achieve a routine of self-care and preservation during that time? Did I allow myself to rest, chill out, take a break and absorb experiences and reflect? In truth, I allowed myself to fill most days with stress inducing anxiety because I was always working – there simply wasn’t time to slow down. Growing up has taught me quite a few things, but one of the most important is to take care of myself. When I focus on that I am protecting my creative practice and giving it room to grow. 

Last month, I attended a much needed magical weekend in Burlington, WI at Camp Dewan. It was the second annual iteration of Moonlight Retreat, an inclusive camp experience that fosters camaraderie, the arts, play, experiential learning, and a deeper connection with nature for artists and non-artists alike. Started by artist Naomi Shersty in 2018, Moonlight Retreat is held over a full-moon weekend and is an opportunity to relax, network, learn, explore, and “unplug” during the final moments of a summer that everyone is hoping won’t end.

Image: Colorful hand-drawn map indicates locations of cabins, dining hall, lake, bathroom, and kickball field at Moonlight Retreat. Image courtesy of Naomi Shersty.
Image: Colorful hand-drawn map indicates locations of cabins, dining hall, lake, bathroom, and kickball field at Moonlight Retreat. Image courtesy of Naomi Shersty.
Image: Outdoor scene with three tents (blue, green, and orange) set up on a grass lawn in front of a line of trees. Photo courtesy of Maeve Jackson.
Image: Outdoor scene with three tents (blue, green, and orange) set up on a grass lawn in front of a line of trees. Photo courtesy of Maeve Jackson.

This year, Moonlight hosted yoga, herb walks, canoe and kayak rides, in addition to workshops in screen printing, cyanotypes, incense making, magic vessels (memory jugs), pie making, casting, signet carving, color magic (nail polishing), and plein air painting. Not to mention hiking, exploring, ghost stories, wishboats, and a two-minute talent show with a variety of acts: tin foil animals, a fire performance, and an original song written about “party island”: the gigantic inflatable multi-person raft where many spent a good amount of their weekend. Campfires, swimming, tetherball, bocce ball, kickball, s’mores and beverages, stick n’ poke tattoos, ghosts in the graveyard, and hiking were also viable options to spend one’s time, among other ventures I am probably forgetting to name. All activities at Moonlight were completely optional; Naomi describes it as an “all or nothing” weekend. Choose to participate in everything or fill all your time with absolutely nothing; whatever best suits you. Treat the weekend as the retreat you need. 

Image: Pink, hand-painted banner hung on a silo reads "Moonlight Retreat". Two green chairs are positioned in the foreground in front of a check-in table with markers, tape, and other supplies. Photo by Rachel Hausmann Schall.
Image: Pink, hand-painted banner hung on a silo reads “Moonlight Retreat”. Two green chairs are positioned in the foreground in front of a check-in table with markers, tape, and other supplies. Photo by Rachel Hausmann Schall.

For me, Moonlight Retreat served as an escape from the daily grind of work, prepping for work, production of work, and researching and ideating new work. The opportunity to spend time outdoors, learn new processes/crafts, and meet other creatives at Camp Dewan was a reminder that we all deserve breaks. Breaks from not only our jobs and daily chores, but also from the creative process. Downtime allows for ideas and projects to grow naturally, for new ideas to spawn, and old ones to become revitalized. During my time at Moonlight, I gave myself permission to “let go” of all responsibilities and just relax.

Image: Canoes, kayaks, and inflatable rafts are sitting on grass pictured in the foreground. Campers are floating on a large raft next to a wooden pier on a lake against a background of trees. Photo by Rachel Hausmann Schall.
Image: Canoes, kayaks, and inflatable rafts are sitting on grass pictured in the foreground. Campers are floating on a large raft next to a wooden pier on a lake against a background of trees. Photo by Rachel Hausmann Schall.

Naturally, taking breaks means different things to different people. Post-Moonlight Retreat, I collected responses from campers to begin a dialogue about what the weekend meant to them. We talked about the impact of self-care and taking breaks on the creative process. For Moonlight Retreater Elisabeth Gasparka, a musical performer and songwriter (also mastermind behind the “party island” song featured in the talent show), self-care routines include embracing the solitude and silence she once found to be challenging:

“I used to find my need for solitude and stillness to be stressful (inducing thoughts of “why am I not being productive right now? How will I ever keep up with so-and-so’s production?). I also used to struggle with collaboration much more (steep shyness, fear of judgement). Now, I find that stillness and solitude build me up for the next collaboration.” 

As a working musician, Elisabeth collaborates regularly with her band, Warhola Cats.

Image: Five polaroid pictures are sitting on a wooden table-top. Polaroids depict images of people, nature, and a plastic pink flamingo. Polaroids courtesy of Missy Ziebart. Photo by Rachel Hausmann Schall.
Image: Seven polaroid pictures are sitting on a wooden table-top. Polaroids depict images of people and nature. Polaroids courtesy of Missy Ziebart. Photo by Rachel Hausmann Schall.

One anonymous response mentioned that breaks are essential for “reminding oneself to be patient so you don’t get overwhelmed with the big picture of what you WANT to create.” 

Another camper, artist Maeve Jackson, believes that breaks are essential to her creative practice and those moments are crucial to her development as an artist:

“I do build time for “taking breaks” in my creative practice because I need that time for my body and mind to breathe. During that break I may not be creating work but I am still thinking and observing which can filter into a new project. It is the moments of just being – of observing – of listening – of watching – of seeing that influence my art practice. I appreciate having those moments of taking a break because they are so important to me, those are the moments I truly feel myself advancing.”

After moving to Milwaukee fairly recently, artist Becca Kacanda (@rottogrotto) treated Moonlight Retreat as a way to connect with other creative people. She hosted and directed one of the many workshops offered throughout the weekend: magic vessels (memory jugs). Participants selected a jar or vessel that they covered with grout and then adorned with pieces of tile, beads, bottle caps, broken glass, and other mementos. Historically, memory jugs honor the dead and are covered in objects associated with the deceased. Some campers brought along specific materials they used to create a vessel, others pulled from Becca’s extensive stash of collected objects. I created an “affirmation” jug, one that will always be associated with the weekend at Moonlight. It’s covered in words that I want to use to remind myself of goals and thoughts that will support me, like “new” “pwr” “full” “think” and “dog” (I’m hoping to adopt a dog by this time next year).

Image: People gathered under a large white tent are sitting in folding chairs around tables with empty glass bottles. A group of people are standing in the background looking at materials in plastic containers. Image depicts participants in the Magic Vessel (Memory Jug) workshop at Moonlight Retreat. Image by Rachel Hausmann Schall.
Image: People gathered under a large white tent are sitting in folding chairs around tables with empty glass bottles. A group of people are standing in the background looking at materials in plastic containers. Image depicts participants in the Magic Vessel (Memory Jug) workshop at Moonlight Retreat. Image by Rachel Hausmann Schall.
Image: Magic Vessel (Memory Jug) covered with beads, bottle caps, tiles, broken glass, and other materials is centered in the frame on top of a white and brown checkered tablecloth. Photo by Rachel Hausmann Schall.
Image: Magic Vessel (Memory Jug) covered with beads, bottle caps, tiles, broken glass, and other materials is centered in the frame on top of a white and brown checkered tablecloth. Photo by Rachel Hausmann Schall.

Moonlight Retreat founder Naomi Shersty shared: “Having worked in Academia for almost 20 years, I’m eager to create a learning environment outside of institutions for higher learning.”

She also described the impact of planning and preparing for Moonlight Retreat and its effect on her practice: “I reckon my personal studio practice has been somewhat on hiatus to enable MLR to grow. Yet, MLR has given me renewed strength (even for how exhausting it is) to put some focus into creating other projects…MLR is like the happy, sunshine-y part of making for me…my personal projects are much darker. (I am a Gemini – I need both). So yes, I sense, the two halves of my making feed one another.”

Campers at Moonlight also shared some techniques they implement to maintain a regular routine of self-care. Swimming, reading, appropriate amounts of sleep, cooking good meals, organizing, journaling, yoga, list-making, crying when you need to, healthy cycles that balance work and play, remaining active, being in nature, and seeing a mental health professional were among some of the responses.

Image: Over twenty Wishboats (floating pieces of wood holding candles) are floating in water in a dark, nighttime scene. The candlelight illuminates figures standing on the shore to the right of the frame. Photo by Rachel Hausmann Schall.
Image: Over twenty Wishboats (floating pieces of wood holding candles) are floating in water in a dark, nighttime scene. The candlelight illuminates figures standing on the shore to the right of the frame. Photo by Rachel Hausmann Schall.

Earlier this year, I was invited to participate on a panel at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design that addressed artists’ strategies for self-care. We reviewed Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury” and discussed its connection to self-care and creativity. For a while, I’ve been sitting with that discussion and trying to understand how I practice modes of self-care and build in time for taking breaks. 

“Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. The head will save us. The brain alone will set us free. But there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves, along with the renewed courage to try them out.”- Audre Lorde

I think a clear mind helps one ruminate or marinate an idea, grants rejuvenated energy and births new mindsets. Breaks are essential to our creative survival as makers. They allow us to make time for making. Moonlight Retreat was the perfect opportunity to take a break and cherish the conclusion of a summer. Revitalized creative energy now flows through my body and I’m ready to trust the direction of my creative process, making sure I leave time to care for myself. 

Featured Image: A metallic, decorative curtain streamer hangs in the center of the picture frame between trees on either side and is being blown by the wind. Photo by Rachel Hausmann Schall.

Rachel Hausmann Schall is a visual artist, writer, and arts organizer living and working near Milwaukee, WI. She has exhibited work nationally and at many galleries and alternative spaces in Milwaukee including Chamber, Frank Juarez Gallery, Usable Space, HOAX Gallery and the Brooks Stevens Gallery at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, among others. In 2018, she was awarded the Mary L. Nohl Suitcase Export Grant which supported an exhibition of solo work at Project 1612 in Peoria, IL. In 2019, she completed an artist residency at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT. She is interested in artist-run, DIY, and alternative spaces that support emerging and underrepresented artists through exhibitions and programming within the greater Milwaukee area. Rachel Hausmann Schall received her BFA in Integrated Studio Arts from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design in 2015 and maintains a role as co-founder and co-director of After School Special, a satellite artist collective aims to support emerging artists through collaborative programming. Rachel Hausmann Schall is also a contributing writer for the Wisconsin based arts publication ArtDose Magazine. Find more of her work at rhausmannschall.com.