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A Time to Keep: My Winter Break in Troy, New York

Troy, New York. Where cans of Four Loko liter the ground next to used condoms, and the smell of marijuana seeps up like steam from smeared basement windows. Where the eight-year-old girl with the pigtails and the love handles escaping over her too-tight leggings breaks from her TV show and Lays chips to squeal at the construction workers outside her window, “You stupid, stupid people.”

It’s mid-January, and the streets of Troy are frozen. Rivulets of ice rise off the river like the texture of a poorly woven quilt. The waterfalls are barely running, the ponds are stopped in liquid motion. It’s hard to pinpoint the lethargy, the frozenness of being that is Troy. Even the wind seems frozen, the sun rising to a slower beat.

I spent a week of my winter break in Troy, working as an artist-in-residence at the Contemporary Artists Center at Woodside Church. As a college student, I had the thrilling opportunity of working alongside professional artists in a work-live space. The residency granted me my own studio and a living space, giving me the time to explore my artistic identity outside of school and the city.

I left New York City when only the other 6:30AMers were awake, the runners and the creepy old men who haunt Starbucks with newspapers you’ve never heard of, slurping their coffee and surveying you sideways over spectacles. I boarded a bus with eight other passengers, and as we drove, the snow accumulated, the terrain grew hillier. We slowed to a halt at Rensselaer station, and the director of the Contemporary Artist Center picked me up. I rode with her across the Hudson to Woodside Church.

We haul my suitcase up flights of stairs, to an old wooden door that sits on a hill so steep, even the church looks like it’s afraid it might topple down. Icicles form from the church’s roof, and the gate around the foot of the hill is adorned with greenery and trinkets. I sleep in a loft room where I’m in danger of falling twenty feet down if I rise too quickly. The floor creaks, and the paint is peeling in perfect shapes from the red walls, the slanted ceilings are fifty feet high, light filtering through multicolored soaring stained class windows. A certain spirituality seeps from the church walls, guiding its residents.

I’m sharing the space with seven other female artists, and we’re all sharing one bathroom. And we fit. We fit perfectly. We each have kitchen duty one night, and we all do chores together on Fridays. We clean up after ourselves and after each other. A care is taken of everyone’s space, creating a sense of strong community and dependency. Because the large church is drafty and cold, the coffee pot is always gurgling, the teacups always clinking. Some take meals around a large communal table in the kitchen, others eat in the privacy of their studio. The smells from the kitchen and the Victorian oven, adjacent to the studios, permeate the workspace at lunch and dinnertime. From Taiwan to Texas, each artist provides her own flavor.

I have my own studio for the first time in my life, and I wake up every morning with a deep appreciation for the pure gift of walking down the hourglass staircase and tiptoeing into my very own space. I work vigorously and it’s like my hands can’t be stopped. Beginning work in the early morning, I turn off the lights in my studio late at night, waiting to wake up the next morning, feeling accomplished with the previous days’ work. The project I’m working on is so monotonous, dry, and focused, that I believed nothing could lend it energy. Yet now, it begins, in its two-dimensional boredom, to dance again, to find life.

From landscape painters, to printmaker-DJs, the place is alive with music. The trembling notes of one of the artists, a vocalist, filter up from the basement as I sit on a gold enameled couch and sketch in the communal lounge. The music we create is a chorus of diversity coupled with the common goal to express our souls, in whatever way possible. She plays doom metal; I play The Mountain Goats. We dance on our own, yet harmonize together.

I only break for a few hours every day to jog outside, and through my running, I explore my surroundings. When I return, I’ve created a hollowness in the old neo-Gothic walls that allows me to breathe. I run up a steep hill, past the Burden nature preserve. The hill flattens out beyond  jagged trees and frozen rivers, and football fields and houses sit sturdy. The hill dips again, and I find myself looking out over the town of Troy, the smoke from factories obscuring the small cluttering of buildings beyond.

An elderly couple smiles in amazement as I run past them again, “Weren’t you just on the other side of Mill?” Because to them, everything in Troy is enormous; running from one side of Mill Street to the other is like crossing oceans in minutes. But to city eyes, everything in this town is miniature. The bridge across the Hudson makes the George Washington bridge seem obscene. I conquer the bridge in two minutes, the movements of my long strides glazing over the icy river below.

The streets are sewn together by the hands of an unconscious creator, hands that like mine in the studio, work uncontrollably, effortlessly. The traffic lights dangle like Christmas ornaments, useless. The historic Victorian houses lining Washington Park look like Lego pieces, unaware of their own value, as if strewn about by a careless eight-year-old. The sidewalks are usually deserted, except for the occasional strutter or hobbler. Everyone, I think, is five pounds heavier, five pounds more obtrusive then in the city. Screams from car windows about my ass while I’m running fail to perturb me, but the uneven up and down looks of the men outside the taverns with signs that read “Ladies Entrance” catch me off guard with an intimacy that city dwellers would never dare.

There’s a man I see everywhere on my runs: he wears blue jeans and a fitted black thermal tee, he walks a dog, his hair is buzzed and his eyes are an unhealthy shade of blue. At the corners of Mill Street, outside the drug stores, he repeats on the borders of my imagination. Strangers like this are the ones that haunt the streets of this city, lurking at the edges of this watercolored canvas, where everything begins to blend in its unnatural juxtaposition.

The strangers greet you, staring questioningly into your eyes, confronting you, shaping themselves. A thread of conversation weaves its way up from the sewers of Troy to coat the storefronts. In the coffee places, everyone knows each other’s names: Hannah calls out to Bill, because she hasn’t seen him since yesterday. After the yoga classes, everyone goes out together. It’s not that everyone is trying to relax, like you’d expect in yoga classes around New York City, but that everyone is relaxed without trying, by nature. Nothing is forced. People are naturally invested in other human beings in a way there isn’t time for in the city, invested in a dialogue between the young and the old that holds the fabric of the town together.

Yet people are also invested in themselves, I find, as I sit and have time to contemplate, to think, to literally be surrounded by my own artwork, without the threat of interruption or the pressure of forced relaxation. There is time. Time to kill and waste, and thus time to heal. Time to break down, time to build up. There is time for discussion, inspiration, for novel reading and painting, time that becomes sacred in this week, this church.

As I create, the world springs back into motion. The Christmas snow begins to thaw, and my external and internal worlds dissolve into fluidity. I left New York frozen, and now when I return, each cab passing sings a different song, the honking of their horns ring at different paces and volumes. The two-dimensional art I create begins to take on a life of its own, and as the icicles drip down slanted roofs, and water flows swiftly into sewers, I find that this break has afforded me a time to keep and a time to cast away.