Grand Hotel. People come and go. Nothing ever happens.
These are the opening and closing lines of the 1932 movie Grand Hotel. The “nothing ever happens” is ironic since a whole passel of things transpires as the lives of the hotel residents intersect in various ways.
I thought about this movie during my recent sixteen-day residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts where I was among twenty-five or so fellows—writers, visual artists, and composers. During my stay, people came and went and, like the residents of Grand Hotel, our lives connected at certain levels.
Of course, the residency lacked the dramatic complications and subplots rife at the Grand Hotel: intrigue, deception, and theft, not to mention murder by telephone (literally). At VCCA, our connection to one another was unscripted and organic as we gravitated toward this or that person out of common interest or background or the visceral spark we felt for a particular person’s art.
The reason we were there had more to do with another line from the movie—when Greta Garbo famously utters, “I want to be alone.”
We each had come to VCCA for some quiet, uninterrupted time to create our art in individual studios where our privacy was protected by residency protocol. And like Garbo, our need for aloneness was accompanied by the opposing need for conversation. For Garbo, John Barrymore was the answer. For us, it was the communal meal (delicious, by the way), which initially can be daunting as the newcomer wonders which table to join and how her presence will affect the already established dynamic—whether she will fit in. A particular worry for the shy.
When I was young I suffered quite acutely from shyness. My silence was taken by many as a sign that I was either mute or unintelligent. I remember one rather self-possessed child demanding with some hostility, “Can’t you talk, girl?” I answered her question with a shrug. Unintelligent.
I’m not as shy as I once was, my curiosity about and delight in people outweighing my concern about saying something stupid. Besides, it was an affable bunch I was in residence with at VCCA. I looked forward to the evening meal, not just because I’m an unabashed fan of all four major food groups, but because after hours shut away in my Greta Garbo solitude trying to coax words onto the screen, I craved the company of my fellow fellows. I wanted to hear about their day, their work, their likes and dislikes, their childhood fears, their realized and as yet unfulfilled dreams, the names of their children, pets, brother, favorite author, their ailments and heartaches and unexpected moments of joy. Because what I really wanted to know was how they made their art and what I could learn from them.
Sometimes, though, it’s just unnameable.
I was reminded of this the night the lights were knocked out by a thunderstorm. One of the writers read his work to us by flashlight, and we celebrated the birthday of the Austrian filmmaker among us with an ensemble of flashlights aimed at the cake and strawberries. The shared illumination in that darkness inspired a congenial coziness, keeping us together chatting in small groups rather than returning to our studios. Someone asked one of the visual artists who was also an accomplished musician to play something on the piano. It was a jazz ballad, yearning and sweet, heartbreaking and lovely. Exquisite in its wordlessness and yet the very feeling I want to capture in words.
Before the music ended, the lights came on and a cheer went up for our deliverance from darkness. Then the music also ended. I went back to my studio to indulge my Garbo wish for aloneness. But the music stayed with me for a while like something murmured—a fading conversation.
The next morning I left this place of lush grounds dotted with sculpture. This place with horses in the pasture, cows in the meadow, and stinkbugs in the studios. This place where you hug your cab drivers goodbye (talking to you, Charles and Cora Tabb).
The old work I’d revised and the new work I’d created occupied a satisfying number of kilobytes on my hard drive. It was time for someone else to occupy my studio, to be nourished by food and friendship, to fall in love with the art of others.
VCCA. People come and go. Art happens.