Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How to Apply to an Artist Residency

I asked Artsmith’s Executive Director, Jill McCabe Johnson, what Artsmith looks for in residency applications. Jill doesn’t make the selections for the Artsmith residency herself, by the way—a rotating panel of poets, prose writers, and artists make those decisions each year. Jill’s sense is that the writing sample (or portfolio) is by far the most important element of the application package. Her advice to potential residency applicants (for any artist residency) is this: be absolutely honest.

Applicants who write what they think judges want are missing out on the benefit of creating an artist statement or statement of intent. It's a contemplative, reflective exercise—a chance to deeply assess where they are with their craft. The most exciting work is often in a strange, hard to describe state, right at the edge of exploration and sometimes obsession. It's a vulnerable, risky place, and it can feel even more vulnerable and risky to talk about it. Instead, artists might feel safer talking about some past project. However, applicants whose work has them practically humming with electrical current sound as though they're working in a field of charged air. I believe reviewers sense that risky, vulnerable, charged moment in the work and are drawn to its illuminating potential. I also like to believe, that when artists are honest with themselves rather than writing what they think others want to hear, they gain something by examining their work, and therefore validating its importance.

Hearing Jill’s advice encourages me because the one time I did take a risk in an application, I wondered if I had made a mistake by sounding like I didn’t know for sure where my writing was headed. I don’t think my Artsmith application was all that risky, but here’s what my cover letter and very brief Statement of Intent looked like. Note: this is not a typical Artist Statement, but a variation on the Artist Statement in compliance with Artsmith’s application requirements. 

Dear Artsmith Peer Review Panel,

After living away from the Pacific Northwest for twenty years, I returned to Oregon four years ago and found my writing transformed by the strong physical and emotional connection I feel to this region. My essay structure is characterized by intuitive leaps and my style is often lyric, relying on image and reflection, and on implication more than explanation.

Note: This residency is located in the Pacific Northwest and I knew I would benefit from “writing in place,” and this was something I wanted the judges to know. If you have a strong connection to the region where your desired residency is located, be sure to reveal that in your application—but don’t be a brownnoser! When I applied (and was awarded) a residency at the Collegeville Institute in flatland, Minnesota, where mosquitos grow as big as your head, I didn’t invent something about my sense of a place I’d never been. For that application, I focused on my work and what I thought I could bring to the community in residence alongside me.

My work has been published in The Gettysburg Review, Arts & Letters, River Teeth, and elsewhere. My second memoir just released from Texas Tech University Press.

Note: This is just the requisite list of publishing credits (if you have them). As an editor, as a reader, and as a writer, I have a strong preference for a brief listing of credits. If a writer fills an entire paragraph with all her publication credits, I always feel like I’m listening to a pompous windbag. But if a writer lists three impressive credits, I will naturally assume that the humble writer has many more credits with similarly impressive publications. And the editors and judges will most assuredly Google your name and learn more. Toot your own horn, to be sure, but choose the sweetest, clearest notes. Three of them.

In a residency setting, I look forward to extended time alone to immerse myself in writing, but I also look forward to fellowship with other artists. I’m an extrovert, but I’m primarily a listener, asking questions to draw others out. I am always interested to hear about the writing projects, intentions, struggles, and successes of fellow artists.

Note: This is, I think, my own innovation in a residency application. I’m a listener, a mentor, writing coach, and editor, and when I’m placed in a residency setting my skill set comes with me. Again, this isn’t something to plug into your application if your dearest desire for the residency time is absolute solitude. But if you’re a listener, like I am, I don’t think it hurts to you let the selection committee know this. Most residencies offer creative time during the day and fellowship during the evening. Is there something unique you will bring to your fellow residents? Consider mentioning it somewhere in your application.


Lynn Otto
Lynn has known me since I moved to Newberg, Oregon, four and a half years ago. We have been in a writing group together since 2010, and Lynn and I meet at local coffeehouse each Thursday to spend the afternoon writing.

Nancy Nordenson
Nancy is a longtime online writing friend (since 2007), and she was my roommate at the Collegeville Institute residency last summer.

My spring semester teaching commitment does not begin until January 13, so I am available to attend the entire Artsmith Artist Residency January 3 – 10, 2014.

Note: Artsmith asks applicants to provide contact information for two recommenders. Here's where I innovated a little by including a brief "bio" for each recommender (and what she knows of me as a member of a writing community). I could have selected faculty members from my MFA as my recommenders. I could have selected my publisher or an employer—but I thought I should list people who know not only my writing but what I bring to the writing community. So I listed two fellow writers who have seen me “in action” in a writing community and who know how I balance respect for writing time with socializing—elements of balance that are important in a residency community.

Thank you,

Lisa Ohlen Harris

Simple sign off—and if there hasn’t been another field provided for your full contact information, be sure to include it under your name (address, phone number, email).


  1. Wise, practical advice -- thank you, Lisa. I'm in the middle of filling out two residency applications and appreciate your guidance.