The five artists spent their afternoons in distinct nooks of the Anderson Center's historic Red Wing campus.
When they weren't at their desks, the writers would stroll through the sculpture garden or bike along the trails. Or climb the 76 steps to the top of the water tower to edit or just to look out, admiring this estate set on the edge of the small river city.
A mixed-media artist, Youmee Lee hopped between studios and was, on this day, hovering over a printing press.
But each evening at 6, the artists gathered for dinner.
They'd talk about all of it — their days, their work, their inspirations — in their common language, American Sign Language (ASL), their hands flying, their eyes smiling. On a muggy night in June, as the group chatted about kilns, the patio was quiet but buzzing, the conversation punctuated by Cynthia Weitzel's warm, warbling laugh.
Weitzel dreamed up this monthlong gathering, the Anderson Center's Deaf Artist Residency Program. It's the only residency — of about 500 across the country — devoted to Deaf artists.
Every other summer, five Deaf artists trek to Red Wing to work on a novel or a screenplay, a painting or a series of pots. Like other residencies, it offers the artists a chance to hone an old project or experiment in a new medium.
So there's lots of solo time. But these artists are hungry for the community, this year in particular.
Sure, Deaf artists can and do apply for artist fellowships of all kinds. But surrounded by hearing people at meals and outings, they're left out of conversations, said Weitzel, a Deaf artist and the program's coordinator. When they do engage, via lip reading or rare time with an interpreter, questions often remain superficial — "Is it hard to learn sign language?" — rather than digging into art and ideas.
"So they oftentimes will go in knowing that it's going to be a very lonely experience," Weitzel said. "Here, we have common culture, we have common language ...
"They understand each other and can talk about Deaf art history."
Together, they might shape Deaf art's future. (Many advocate for capitalizing "Deaf" to denote culture.)
One artist, Jenna Fischtrom Beacom, who grew up in Minneapolis, spent the month polishing a young-adult novel based partly on her experience of losing her hearing as a teenager.
"The book I'm writing now," she said via an ASL interpreter, "is the book I wish I had at that time."
Hungry to connect
Cristina Hartmann, a DeafBlind writer from Pittsburgh, arrived first. Weitzel guided her around the six-bedroom house, placing tactile dots on appliances to identify buttons.
It was Hartmann's first residency: "I'm a residency virgin," she said, smiling.
So coming here was "both awesome and terrifying," especially after a year and a half of social isolation that limited her ability to communicate. Hartmann uses Protacticle, a language rooted in touch, and tactile ASL.
"I was excited to finally touch new people," she said of her fellow residents. "But at the same time, I was rusty.
"They were wonderfully patient with me."
The other artists took a Protactile workshop, led by John Lee Clark, a poet, essayist and Bush Fellowship winner, so they could better communicate with Hartmann, signing into her palms.
The group's early riser, Hartmann brewed the first batch of coffee each morning and then got to work on her short story. That story complicates the plot of the Oscar-nominated short film "Feeling Through," in which a hearing teenager helps a DeafBlind man.
Though it features a DeafBlind actor, the film "is very much from a hearing-sighted perspective," Hartmann said. "My story will have both perspectives."
Two weeks into the residency, Hartmann moved easily between the house and the broader campus, an idyllic collection of buildings that were once the estate of Alexander Pierce Anderson, who created puffed-rice cereal. She explored the sculpture garden, running her hands along an artwork's branches and curves. She climbed to a small room at the top of the 115-foot water tower, settling into a rocking chair.
But this place's magic also stems from its people, she and others said, especially the woman they call "Cyn." Weitzel is the group's historian and cheerleader. Its kind but honest critic.
"She's who I want to be," said Sara Stallard, a writer from Campbell, Calif.
A studio full of symbols
In a basement room-turned-makeshift studio, Weitzel pried open a bucket of pink paint. She stared down at the canvas and signed the word "inform," her fingers flowing from her forehead and mouth out into the air. She nodded.
Then she dipped her hands in the paint and signed again, the paint flying off her fingertips, casting a pattern onto the canvas.
Once, twice, three times.
The technique, a take on the "action painting" popularized by Jackson Pollock, captures "the movement and the language, the handprints of our culture," Weitzel said.
These layers of drips would create a hazy, glowing light bulb, a common symbol in the Deaf community.
Her studio is filled with such symbols — objects shared and handed down, sorted and stored in what used to be old grain bins. A train token like those her father, who was also Deaf, used to make the trip from Minneapolis to the Minnesota School for the Deaf, as it was then known, in Faribault, Minn. Film reels and lanterns. Pans that speak to potlucks and time around the table.
A tour of this space, which Weitzel is quick to offer, becomes a crash course in Deaf culture.
"Someone who has never discussed or even been aware of Deaf art will start asking me questions, and I'll invite them over, let them borrow some books," she said. Deaf artists, too, peruse her shelves, deepening their own knowledge.
Weitzel, 55, didn't take her first art class until she was 30. As a kid, speech therapy was always scheduled at the same time. But she was drawn to art. "I was always creative."
After a career in nonprofits, including as a counselor and a human rights lobbyist, Weitzel became in 2011 a permanent, year-round resident artist at the Anderson Center, which also hosts dozens of artists for short-term stints. Seeing the residencies' value, she began concocting a Deaf-centric version. She and the center's then-director applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant, getting word that in 2014, they could start inviting artists.
"All I could do was cry," she said, "because I was so happy."
Embracing identity with art
Youmee Lee pulled the print from the press and drew it close. The circle she'd carved from a wood block was grainy.
"Salty," Erin Maurelli, artist and educator, said aloud and signed. "When you can see the paper through the ink, we call it salty. So, more ink or more pressure."
But Lee liked a bit of saltiness.
Based in Rochester, N.Y., Lee expected to spend most of the month in this printmaking shop. Or toying with handmade Korean paper, hanji.
Then she met Hartmann. "I realized that I wanted Cristina to be able to experience what I create," she said.
So Lee turned to ceramics, a more tactile art form she'd discovered last fall via her MFA program. She carved into small tiles the artists' favorite ASL idioms, such as "heart blossom." She photographed and animated the gestures into a moving, mesmerizing loop.
Then she invited Hartmann to her studio. Hartmann ran her fingers over the tiles. "Heart Blossom" felt "sensuous," Hartmann said later. With another — "Gotcha," an idiom Hartmann requested — "the lines captured it perfectly."
During previous residencies, Lee would have brief conversations with hearing artists and then focus on her own work, which often explored her Korean-American identity.
But this was "quite different," she said by e-mail. "My cohort has taught me to embrace my Deaf identity, and the art I created embodies much more of it."
Tales from the kitchen table
For many Deaf folks, the kitchen table wasn't always a comfortable spot.
On his computer, filmmaker Charlie Ainsworth pulled up a painting by Deaf artist Susan Dupor titled "Family Dog." A girl looks up from under the table as adults, their faces blurry and disfigured, talk among themselves.
Growing up in St. Paul, Ainsworth and his brother, who is also deaf, experienced the same thing — what he calls "dinner table syndrome." Being among extended family, but not being part of the conversation. Nine out of 10 deaf children are born to hearing parents, according to the National Institutes of Health.
"We have moments where we feel we're doing tricks for them," Ainsworth said. "They'll say, 'Can you sign this, can you sign that.' "
From an early age, he loved movies. He and his brother would watch them together, missing out on major plotlines if they lacked captions. Then they'd put on shows in the basement, filling in the gaps. "We always had stories to tell," Ainsworth said.
During late nights at Anderson Center, while others slept, he typed a script titled, simply, "Deaf," based on his childhood. But tucked in that script — and a few others he's also fashioning — are the other artists' experiences.
He'd steal snippets from the stories they told, gathered around the table, turning them into dialogue.
A week after the residency's end, those conversations continued via group text.
"VERY annoyed that you're not all in my kitchen when I wander in," Fischtrom Beacom told the group. "Kitchens should have deaf people there, ready to chat."