MFA alumni Mary Skrenta’s Naked artist residency experience

MFA alumni Mary Skrenta praticpated in a residency called “Naked State” for ten days which takes place in Gwillimbury, Canada.  

You just graduated from the MFA program, can you talk a little about what that has been like for you? How did leaving for this residency feel? Was this perfect timing to go to a residency? Why or why not?

The timing in Aug was perfect. After thesis I really needed a break! I was overwhelmed, tired, exhausted, spent. I purposely dumped everything in my studio and did not make work for many weeks. I reconnected with loved ones/family, got into nature…filled myself back up. Then I vacationed in Toronto/Niagara Falls CA for 5 days before the residency (never been to CA before) which was AMAZING. So by the time I arrived at the residency (just abt an hour north of Toronto) I was refreshed and renewed; ready for a new art experience. I had my breathing room and was able to harness everything I learned in the MFA program and it was incredible to be this educated, experienced artist yet not have the pressure I did while in school. It felt, even more than my MFA thesis show, that I was truly reaping the rewards of earning an MFA.

How did you get involved with this residency and why did you choose to apply? What makes “Naked State” unique to most artist residencies?

I learned about it through the MFA program, from Victoria Lavorini, who came across it when she worked for Molly. The reason I chose to apply is in the description:

Naked State is a 10-day residency to create artworks that explore the nude human body in context of nature, culture and art. For the duration of the residency, the artists and residency Facilitator live as *naturists (in the nude) within the Bare Oaks naturist community to create works that explore questions such as: What is nudity? Does stripping away clothing rid us of class, gender, and personal expression?; Do the connections between our bodies and the land change when nude? Is nudity always sexual? What is the role of the nude in historical and contemporary art?; Is an animal with fur naked? Is it possible to be civil in the nude?; Is there a natural state for human being? Residents work individually or collaboratively to create artworks that explore these questions through media of their choice, such as photography, video, installation, drawing, painting, performance art, dance, sound art, media art, etc. Naked State welcomes people in all walks of life into a creative journey of criticality thinking and self-discovery. People with disabilities, people of colour and diverse gender identifications are encouraged to apply. 

How did you become interested in working with the nude figure and sex in your work?

I started working with the human form long ago, before I even asked myself why I worked with any particular subject. As a child all I ever wanted to draw was the human form. My first drawing memories are drawing the figure from master works in our family bible. I wasn’t interested in the stories, just the figures, including the faces, hands and feet. I have a fascination with the way flesh undulates. And while I am also inspired by other natural forms, I find the connection between the human form, the human mind, and culture especially compelling. My interest in sex and the nude figure has to do with the psychology of taboo that is enforced by societal institutions like religion. I am fascinated with how that psychology affects the appearance of the human form in all aspects of life, such as art, advertising, and media.

Did you have a particular project during your time or did you create freely? What sort of work did you end up with at the end of your residency? Is it what you expected? How did your work transform into something completely different than you originally imagined? Why do you think it evolved in this way?

My proposed project explored the concept of aging flesh with installation work of latex stretched and draped in a natural environment. I worked on that project as well as a series of small sculptures that were made of natural elements gathered on site, and then manipulated and wrapped in pig intestine. I was given advice from the facilitator, and we had group critiques, but I was allowed to create freely. My work evolved from the environment because it was directly created in and out of the environment. It was also very much a response to being naked and surrounded by nudism for the entire ten days. You can’t help but be changed and affected by that, it is very liberating, and it showed in the work. I had absolutely no expectations or preconceived notions before I went, except for the loose proposal, so I felt free to explore. I guess I assumed in a place where nudism was so accepted, freedom would be allowed, and I was right.

What was it like to interact with other artists at the residency? What was the setting like? What was your typical day like?

My fellow Naked State artist friends are some of the most wonderful and inspirational people I have ever met. We keep in touch and refer to ourselves as a family. We bonded so intensely. We did workshops together and became part of each other’s’ work.

The residency was hosted by and took place at Bare Oaks Family Naturist Park in East Gwillimbury, Ontario, Canada (about an hour north of Toronto). Clothes are not allowed at the park by anyone, unless the temperature drops, even by all staff. The mentality of ethical naturism supports the theory that if clothing is allowed for some, a hierarchy would occur and those unclothed would feel vulnerable. It also weeds outs voyeurs and people who would have less than upstanding intentions. The park is not a swingers’ club or hedonism resort; it is a place where people who wish to be in their natural state can do so freely. The members were very excited to have us there. We interacted freely with them, they were invited to partake in our activities (some did) and we even had studio visits with them. The park was so well maintained and absolutely gorgeous with outdoor showers, beautiful woods and walk paths, colorful gardens, a pool, hot tub, two saunas, lots of sprawling green lawns…just beautiful! We stayed four to a cabin, and we’d start each day with coffee on the porch. We’d then head to studios, which were provided in large marquee tents, fully equipped with electric, lights, water nearby, tables, chairs, etc. We artists ate the freshest, most delicious and healthy meals together, provided by staff in the main clubhouse. There were different scheduled activities, such as workshops, critiques, and lectures throughout the ten days, but apart from that our time was our own. Everyone was very motivated.

What advice can you give artists applying for a residency, especially one that is so unique and specific like this one?

Honestly, the only advice I can give is: go for it and don’t be afraid! I found out about this residency the very day of the deadline, and put together my application and proposal in several hours and took the chance. Don’t simply go for big names and prestige, look for residencies that feel right and tie in with not only your current work but your mindset and philosophy.

What do you feel you walked away with from this experience?

I am completely transformed. I did not only create art, I entered a completely different mindset and was liberated so completely. I proposed work dealing with the aging body, and as a woman of almost 50, being naked amongst other artists and an entire community while working, creating, eating, sleeping, bathing, hiking, relaxing, and performing gave me such confidence and energy. And the other artists created such moving work; I laughed and cried and was struck awe by it. This was not just an art residency; this was a human life residency, and because my works deals with the physical and mental human state it was a perfect fit. I like the name Naked State, but I’ve thought it more fitting to refer to it as Natural State. : )

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