Beside the Ohio River: A Kentucky Retreat



The stillness of the water, steady as socks around the tree trunks is deceptive. Simmering through the leaves, the sun makes a green sauna of where I stand searching the water for a hint of lapping tide against the sloping banks.  Stepping carefully across the slippery mud, I dodge the poison ivy thriving even in these flood waters. Swollen by this summer’s rains, the Ohio River looks benign from where I stand. But 20 feet out, huge logs and unidentifiable debris speed by, the only indication that this is no lake. The current is treacherous enough to swallow the strongest swimmer. In fact, in recent days entire homes have been washed away by these waters.


A massive engine rumble and I know before I see, a loaded barge passing – long, flat beds piled high with construction materials. This one dirt, the next, huge cement blocks. A tugboat at the end, merrily pushing the load. It stirs my heart, this timeless glimpse of industry and I watch it pass like a parade.


I love a river – the stories they carry, the sense of coming and going, both a force of life and destruction. Growing up, the Hudson was my river. I sent my adolescent angst against the tides of immigrant history, imagining relief and romance with the promise of the ocean and a world beyond my Bronx Streets. The Ohio is a different beast – an American river connecting and sustaining working communities. I stand in Kentucky looking across at Ohio. West Virginia, Indiana, meeting the Mississippi in Illinois leading through – not just an exit and entry – as much a life-line as an artery.


Up at the house are friends who also traveled here from other states. But this river holds our history from decades ago. We studied with a sculptor here in Kentucky, sharing art and our lives. When we can, the women of our group, (we christened ourselves Studio 70 Sisters) meet in summer for what we call, our retreat. We began these gatherings more than 5 years ago when our kids were old enough that leaving them for a week inspired minimal guilt. We reconnect with the ease of family, sharing wine and food, delighting in catching up on each other’s lives.


By the second day, a spot is sussed out, easels set up, paints and pastels arranged and a magical quiet descends. These gatherings are not just for gabbing – there is work to be done! Like alchemy, there is a sweet understanding and common language creating best circumstances for creative working, thinking, being. Quiet, of course and a sensitivity to space that is remarkable and rare. Any of us can peek into a room and quickly sense whether someone wants to be left alone.


This year we are at Paula’s – a stunning spread of fields bordered by river and railroad tracks. At night, the rattle of trains rush by, so close to this grand old farmhouse that our beds shake. Like barges on the river, I find this romantic and easily go back to sleep imagining the lives whooshing past this dear spot. I feel simultaneously a sense of being in the center of things and in the middle of nowhere.


It is good to be back here after so many years even in this sweltering humidity. The barge has passed and the rumble fades as the load heads towards Cincinnati. Within minutes, a lone Tug chugs into view heading in the opposite direction, relieved of its load, it is pushing easily upriver. I think of us gals – especially with kids, how we forded our way through the currents of our lives, keeping precious cargo steady on course for the more than twenty years until we could (almost) let go. And here we are again. As I watch the tug chug back from where it came, unencumbered and light, I navigate my way carefully up the muddy banks for dinner with my friends.

Artists’ Retreat 2013

The idea started on my visit with Jane in England a few years ago. It had been a long time since we’d seen each other since we lived an ocean apart and were both juggling our hectic lives as mothers with full time jobs. Lingering for hours over drinks on the roof of the Tate and then again around her massive wooden kitchen table,  we spoke of more than just our present lives dominated by beloved kids. We remembered who we were many years ago as art students together. Then and still, we were travelers, artists with rich and active inner lives. We just needed to remember. With our shared history, we recognized this in each other and spoke for hours about our too-often neglected creative process and how we had become overwhelmed by dishes, laundry, making a living, struggling in our marriages (in my case anyway!). Energized and inspired by each other, we decided we must fan these creative coals.

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic to rent a house together, with …” I rattled the names of women who had also studied with us decades earlier. “We could paint and write all day and have great dinners at night with lots of wine.”

“Let’s do it!” Jane agreed.

And so we did.

That summer, about a dozen of us kin-spirit women gathered for a week in a rambling old house in the Catskills. We christened ourselves the Studio 70 Sisters – after our art teacher Mike Skop’s school in Kentucky, the place where we’d connected decades earlier.  Jane came from England as promised, others from Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. We stepped away from our busy lives as mothers, spouses, workers, and for the rich communion with familiar, creative friends. Days were spent doing what ever we wanted — some went off painting together, others spent time alone, reading and in my case, writing.

Evenings we gathered in the kitchen sharing wine and recipes and remarkable, delicious dinners came together effortlessly and went on for hours. Afterwards, we moved to the living room to talk some more. For one week together, merely by being present and paying attention to each other, we felt nurtured.

We met at some rambling house in the Catskills for 3 years in a row.  We missed last summer but are on again for this year. Today we will all converge on a little town in Litchfield County. Laura found this year’s spot and generously organized a week of possibilities including the promise of some Renaissance music, maybe some yoga, maybe a massage…

Doesn’t this sound like bliss to you?


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