On July 4th a group of writers and artists gathered on the beach at the Little Bridge in Oak Bluffs. They were not there to sunbathe or go swimming. Instead, they took turns raising their voices in the wind and reading from a speech first given by Frederick Douglass in 1852 in Rochester, N.Y.
On the day that celebrates the birth of independence and political freedom for this nation, Mr. Douglass’s speech, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro, reminded those in attendance that the nation’s freedom was not a universal experience.
“Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions!” Mr. Douglass said at the time.
The speakers were all part of Renaissance House, a residency retreat for artists and writers. In the audience, the founder of Renaissance House, Abigail McGrath, watched and listened intently. Mrs. McGrath created Renaissance House to help artists find time away from their busy lives to focus on their art. She evaluates her applicants based on the quality of their work, but her prime focus is actually whether an artist needs to get away.
“It’s not a melodramatic need. It’s the need of a mother with three kids, a woman in her 40s whose mother has become ill. Caretakers,” she said.
The fellows for this week are Kate Gillespie, speculative fiction, Donna Woodard, creative non-fiction, and poets Mary Wheeler and Kareema Bee. At the Little Bridge these women, among others, all took turns echoing the words of the great poet and orator, uniting the past and present.
Mrs. McGrath said that she seeks out those who have had to put their passion on hold to care for others. Both her mother, Helene Johnson, and her aunt, Dorothy West, were Harlem Renaissance writers who for a time had to give up their art to support their families. Renaissance House provides the opportunity for people with talent and drive to develop their voice.
One writer, now a regular at Renaissance House, was working as a maid in a hotel. “My friend had a good candidate,” Mrs. McGrath said. “He said ‘she’s working here in the housekeeping department and at midnight, when she has her lunch break, she locks herself in the bathroom to write poetry.’”
Mrs. McGrath seeks to turn a stolen moment for art into a viable career.
“But what I do better than that is bring in Island artists that they would never meet if they were just visiting, so they can talk about things like how to earn a living as an artist or how to get an agent, the practical aspects of the business,” she said.
Mrs. McGrath has three retreats: a building in Harlem, a house in Napanoch, N.Y. and a home in Oak Bluffs. She looks for issue-oriented writers in her applicants, people who focus on “substantive issues [the promotion of which] makes the world a better place.”
Frederick Douglass is the archetype of this ideal of how powerful words can effect change, Mrs. McGrath said. Renaissance House fellows are a diverse group, comprising a “mingling of people who are not all credential-oriented,” she said.
“They have a need to write, so much so that they’ll lock themselves in a bathroom to do it.”
Renaissance House is still accepting applications for its 2013 season, and is introducing a special discounted commuter program price for Island residents. For those interested in getting a taste of Renaissance House, Mrs. McGrath hosts an open salon on Tuesday evenings featuring a variety of guest writers. Applications and additional information can be found online at renaissance.house.harlem.com.