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LAUNCH PAD // Montello Foundation (Montello, Nevada)

"My stay at Montello was varied, unexpected, and beautiful in so many ways. When I arrived, the sky was smoky from wildfires. A few days of heavy rain and thunder followed. Then cloudy skies and cold wind, and then heat! The region smelled of dust and sagebrush. There was sandstone, mountains, and salt flats. I spotted migratory elk and also a silver mine." - Soyoung Shin, 2015 Resident

What is the road between a first idea and the launch of a new residency program? In LAUNCH PAD we are checking in with our Emerging Program Institute alumni to hear about the challenges, triumphs, and many surprises on the road to launching and the first year of running a residency.

This month we caught up with Stefan Hagen, founder of the Montello Foundation. With a mission of supporting artists who foster our understanding of nature, its fragility and our need to protect it, the Foundation launched a new residency to connect international writers and artists with the remote desert landscape of northeastern Nevada.

How did the idea for Montello emerge? 

I was traveling in the Great Basin for a photo project and felt the need of having a "base station" in the land there, somewhere where you can experience the weather and the light without having to retreat frequently, a shelter. The next realization was then that I wouldn't be able to use it myself enough to warrant to set something up permanently so the only way I could justify the expense and effort would be by opening it up to other artists and create a residency program.

You envisioned the site as "a solitary retreat where artists can experience the vastness of a desert landscape from a safe building, a unique space for inspiration and creation, a place that provides a shield from distractions in the solitude of the desert." How was this vision incorporated into the design of the building?
First it was incorporated in the location of the building. I was looking around quite a bit to find a place that is remote enough, but somewhat reachable and also had the right topographical feel to it. Some valleys in the Great Basin are almost "inhumane", very flat dried lake floors, with vegetation, but there is no visual change even if one would walk for an hour; others are too narrow and the eye, the mind, can't wander enough. Then it was incorporated in the layout of the building with large windows to the main Northern view for visual access to the landscape when one is inside and smaller windows to the South and West to minimize the heating up of the building in the summer. Another "design aspect" is the fact that there isn't any cell phone reception at the house and the focus has to shift away from chatter to the more meaningful communication of the work of the artists.

What connections did you already have in Nevada? And what partnerships were key in launching the program and running it in the first year?

I didn't had really any connections in Nevada before I decided to start the program. The local connections with the contractors and neighbors I built up over the years while I was getting the building up and running. In terms of cultural connections, I met the artist and director of CUAC in Salt Lake City, Adam Bateman, at the Alliance's 2009 Emerging Program Institute. He has been a fantastic connection and dear friend.
What can an artist expect from the Montello experience?
Artists can expect that they will be distracted by the clouds (actual remark by one of the artists). Artists who have little experience being in nature, especially being alone in nature, will be able to discover the full range of nature from the very small and quietness to majestic thunderstorms and amazing night skies; artists who do have experience being in the wilderness will be happy to have a fine house right there with a kitchen, a bed and a shower and also a studio to work on art too fragile to be outside, right there in their study, in nature.

Creating an eco-conscious facility was a priority. How did you approach this?
While not every aspect of eco-conscious building wasn't possible without living there for an extended period of time or hiring a large crew, the siding and the deck is all reclaimed wood and the use of petrol based products was kept to a minimum. The focus was on zero net energy building. The walls have an R value of 34 (almost double the required), which keeps the house at a pretty steady temperature throughout the extremes of the desert climate in the summer. For the early and later part of the season we have a wood stove and the electricity is generated with solar panels. The roof is also used for rainwater collection.
When you started the program you had a number of concerns -  “Would the artists be able to focus in the extreme isolation? Would the environment be too overwhelming? Would sudden rainstorms make the bad roads impassable?” What has come to pass? What were the pleasant surprises?
There was mud. There were extended power (and with it running water) outages. But I must say that all the residents met these challenges with utmost grace. They all understood that not everything can be fixed right away and things happen, especially in the beginning of a residency program. What was also a very pleasant surprise how the local ranch was very helpful and even let a resident stay overnight when they thought the roads were too bad to drive out to the residency building.

What are your hopes for the program's future? Changes in the next few years?
In the moment we are focusing to make all the utilities of the residency building more reliable. Further along we want to create again other forms of artists support such as exhibitions, installations and publications.
If you could give one piece of advice to new residency leaders it would be...
Focus on the studio. Make it a chapel. Make it a space where you just want to sit on a chair and read a book, make it a space where you just want to be in it and breathe.

The Montello Foundation is open to international writers, visual and new media artists, composers, musicians and perforaming artists. There is no fee for artists to stay at the retreat, but artists are responsible for their travel expenses and for their meals. Pets, partners and children are welcome. The next deadline is January 31, 2017. Read more here.