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The Sable Project Brings Artists to an Off-Grid Vermont Farm

  • Amidst the breakfast rush, artist-in-residence Zoe Sabina Newmarco writes poetry in the open-air kitchen at the Sable Project land in Stockbridge, Vt., on Aug. 10, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • The Sable Project artist-in-residence Mary-Hannah McWilliams plants young greens in the early morning at the Sable Project land in Stockbridge, Vt., on Aug. 10, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • The Sable Project co-founder Otto Pierce washes dishes in a makeshift sink while talking to artist-in-residence Mary-Hannah McWilliams at The Sable Project land in Stockbridge, Vt., on Aug. 10, 2016. During their residency, artists not only create and perform but also farm, cook and clean. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • The Sable Project co-founder Otto Pierce starts a new bed in the vegetable garden on the Sable Project land in Stockbridge, Vt., on Aug. 10, 2016. Pierce bought the land in 2013. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Artist-in-residence Erin Schweers prepares breakfast for herself in the outdoor kitchen at The Sable Project in Stockbridge, Vt., on Aug. 10, 2016. While food is provided, artists take turns preparing meals for each other and themselves throughout their residency. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/15/2016 10:00:37 PM
Modified: 8/15/2016 10:00:39 PM

The sounds echoed around the clearing in the deep woods on Taggart Hill, high above the White River in Stockbridge, Vt.





Clack-clackclickety-clack ...

“Am I hearing what I think I’m hearing?” I asked Jessica Lee on a cloudy afternoon in mid-August.

The manager of The Sable Project nodded, smiled and replied, “Typewriter.”

Welcome to the Sable Lands, where California-based performance artist and paper-maker Veronica Rodriguez was transcribing a poem on the 1960s-vintage manual Olympus at an open-air workbench high on the slope overlooking the clearing.

Where several dancers, painters and pursuers of many other muses were helping to prepare lunch for fellow members of this year’s crop of resident artists, with vegetables from the curving grids of gardens they take turns cultivating.

Where Lee, who spends her autumns, winters and springs in Brooklyn, N.Y., teaching dance to kids and working on theater productions, and fellow Middlebury College graduate Otto Pierce, a White River Valley native and professional model, are nearing the end of their third summer of coaxing food from the land and alternately overseeing, chaperoning and shepherding this small delegation of emerging 20-something artists through a residency off the grid.

“There’s a lot of talk about how time moves here,” said Pierce, a 2009 graduate of The Sharon Academy. “Because we’re so unplugged, not looking at our phones every minute, time has a way of slowing down.”

“And yet,” Lee said, “each day feels very full.”

They’ve been inviting artists to the heart of Vermont to fill their days in relative peace since 2014, not long after Pierce, who’d taken a break from his studies at Middlebury, bought these 15 acres in 2013 with proceeds from his modeling work.

“I didn’t buy the land with a plan for a residency,” said Pierce, who, depending on the angle, resembles New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady or actor Ethan Hawke. “I bought it more on a whim. Once it was there, it was a space for ideas to percolate.

“It was calling for something to happen.”

In October of 2013, Pierce asked newly-minted Middlebury graduate Lee to help him realize what he calls a “very, very loose” vision of counteracting “a youth culture that’s addicted to technology.”

“It’s a way … to unplug,” Pierce said, “to plug into something more centered.”

It sounded about right to Lee, who like Pierce had started at Middlebury pursuing environmental studies and found herself drawn to dance and other arts.

“I wanted to be hands-on in some way with the natural world, but I didn’t want to be in a lab all day,” Lee recalled. “When Otto emailed me with the idea, I knew right away that my life had changed.

“I knew I had to say ‘yes.’”

Next came the task of finding artists willing to say ‘yes’ to retreating to a place where they could practice their art, as long as they could explore their art while living away from social media and other cyber temptations, and helping to turn the land into a haven to which artists could retreat year after year.

“It was entirely experimental,” Pierce remembered. “We weren’t calling it an artists’ residency at the time.”

Much of that first summer was spent building tent platforms, a roofless sculpture of logs called The Studio — where residents meet and visiting dancers and musicians perform — and several dormer-sized studio sheds, mostly with wood from trees on the land, and from Pierce’s grandfather’s sawmill in Royalton.

Amid the clutter in one shed last week, Pierce picked up a stained-glass hanging of The Sable Project’s logo and observed that a dancer crafted it.

This summer, the project also is expanding the kitchen, a lean-to with a roof but no walls, the better to prepare the additional bounty from the land.

“The soil’s definitely not great up here,” Pierce said. “Every year, we’re adding compost and horse manure, whatever we can put our hands on.”

Lee says that potatoes were about the only crop they grew with much success that first summer. This year — in beds radiating out in semicircles from the Stonehenge-esque Studio — the crops include onions, salad greens, beans, broccoli, beets, squash and grapes. Residents, who are allowed to bring their own cars, may supplement their own meals with meat and other food brought in from the outside world.

The Sable Project also planted apple trees and is cultivating berry bushes and a variety of perennial crops, to which deer, bear, birds and other wildlife in the neighborhood so far don’t appear to be helping themselves.

“I think it’s because we’re not walled up in a house,” Lee said. “We’re right out here all the time.

“We smell.”

While serving as a photo intern during 2014, the project’s first summer, Rodriguez noticed the interaction and cross-pollination among the artists more than the aroma.

“I always knew I wanted to come back,” said Rodriguez, who recently completed a year at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy. “In a community like this, we’re maintaining the land, the farm, doing our art. It tends to be, at first, quite a lot to manage. There’s an assimilation period. Eventually, you learn to take care of the group. We all rely on each other to look out for ourselves and for the group.”

Toward that end, Pierce and Lee start screening applicants for residencies from homes outside Vermont while snow lies deep on Taggart Hill. They ask candidates to submit an application, then answer a questionnaire, send a portfolio of their work, and undergo an interview by phone or by Skype.

“It becomes evident very quickly how well they’re going to fit in, to contribute in a useful way,” Pierce said. “What we learned most that first year, more than the farming side or the building side, was interpersonal dynamics: How to facilitate community and communication in this intense situation.

“There were no guidelines.”

“We just made it up as we went along,” Lee added. “If there’s a manual out there, we didn’t read it.

“We learned how to lead, what our roles are.”

And while learning to weather the weather — “I discovered that you can work all day in the rain and you won’t melt,” Lee said with a laugh — Pierce and Lee have been gradually introducing the project around the area. The outreach includes once-a-month visits to the Feast and Field Market in Barnard and a food-and-art series at the Sable Lands on Fridays at which guest musicians and dancers perform. Last Saturday, they held a Sable Garden Gathering featuring food grown on the Sable Lands.

“There’s still new stuff all the time,” Pierce said. “There’s a sense of being more accessible” than the project was over its first two summers, “of sharing it with more people.”

And there’s a sense of summer running down, as the hours of daylight grow shorter.

“When I’m back in New York, I have to be connected with the phone and all the electronics,” Lee said. “This experience is teaching me that it’s about finding a balance, remembering that the tools are tools, not an end in themselves. When I go back at the end of the summer, it’s a huge culture shock.

“It’s way easier to come here from there.”

To learn more about The Sable Project visit

David Corriveau can be reached at and at 603-727-3304.

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