There’s an idea about starving artists that might need to be revised. An idea that you should suffer for art, that you have to wrestle with your better angels to make anything worthwhile, that you have to be alone to be creative. Maybe these are old-fashioned ideas; maybe they’ve always been wrong.

Instead: imagine a long table on a sunny terrace in a garden somewhere you don’t speak the language. Sometimes that table is filled with flowers, sometimes paints and paper, sometimes lush platters of local cheeses and honey, candles, bottles of cold wine. There’s laughter, thoughtful conversation, others of your kind gathering together over this table in search of something fresh in their perspectives, searching for connection and community in a few days flooded with absolute beauty.

This is Willow Gathering, one of a series of lavish, long-weekend retreats in stunning locales designed to support and sustain the creative entrepreneur.

Photography by Tara Ashton

And these are the women behind it all:

To say Emily Jeffords is a successful artist is to say the sky is blue. She’s a successful person: painter, mother, writer, soul. Her studio is in the White Whale, a whitewashed 1890s house in the neighborhood of the Monaghan Mill with tall ceilings and tons of light, and it’s there she works, creates, contemplates, often with her kids in tow. Up until 2018 she kept a blog on creative life called Beautiful Hello. She wrote about things like the challenge of being a mother and an artist, saying, “Kids do get in the way, and they do take a lot of time and energy. But maybe they’re supposed to.” She has hair like an actual Disney princess.

Julie Dodds is a floral designer and founder of Willow Florals; native to Travelers Rest, owner of the most animated face you’ve ever seen: labile, generous, expressive, full of emotion and exclamation. She also keeps studio space in the White Whale, and it’s easy to see how the two women share a sense of atmosphere, a connection to the balanced design of the natural world. Julie’s son is young, too, and she’s also built a wildly successful wedding and event business while staying true to her life as a mother and partner. Her magnetism is profound and kinetic, like some kind of motivational light socket.

In the way that you suddenly wonder about the vital interior vocabulary of a genius or a new lover or a child, you wonder what it means to Emily Jeffords to be nourished.

 

Emily and Julie imagined Willow Gathering as a space to indulge creative sensibilities, and, to make this happen body and soul, they convinced Beth Ables to come feed everybody.

Beth is a writer, hostess, mother, author of two of the best little locally (and lovingly) published cookbooks ever made: A Place Here, Volumes 1 and 2. She is warm and funny and exactly the kind of person you’d want to fill your kitchen with goodness. (For example: when my best friend’s father died, I made Beth’s recipe for quiche from her second cookbook as an offering. It’s called a Quiche Template, flexible and accommodating to whatever ingredients you have on hand, though particular in its technique. In the midst of whatever else she was feeling and dealing with, the best friend texted to say it was the finest quiche she’d ever eaten. So I texted Beth, and she thanked me. She’d heard about what happened, and had so wanted to make something to ease the time. (Now it’s like I did, she said.) She is a kitchen angel, a self-declared camp mother, a kind of community-making guru with a sixth sense for the comfort of others.

To drop into conversation with these three wonder women is to understand the essential spirit of Willow Gathering: why it’s important, why it works, and why maybe it’s such a revolutionary endeavor to begin with. Creative people are fed by the presence of other creative people. And presence is not something you can create. You have to show up for it.

Photography by Tara Ashton

Where you show up, as it turns out, makes a difference. Part of the idea is to plan the retreats in visually beautiful places, places that inspire and excite aesthetic pleasure. The first Willow Gathering was in the French countryside south of Paris in 2017. Julie handles operations, and she remembers thinking: let’s just rent a freaking chateau. In 2018, they held retreats in Greenville, then France and Spain, returning to Spain in 2019, each time centering the retreat in properties imbued with a certain kind of spirit. “It’s a feeling,” Julie says, showing me pictures of a possible location in Italy that turned out flat. “Some places can seem right when you’re looking on the Internet, but then when you get there . . . ” She trails off. “They’re just not.”

This attention to place is essential to what the retreat offers its participants. It’s about honing that connection to what inspires, the speed and security you have in recognizing it, in yourself and others. When describing what Willow Gathering is about, Emily uses plush words like amplify, resonate, glorious. She says, “Our goal is to make the retreats really nourishing.” In the way that you suddenly wonder about the vital interior vocabulary of a genius or a new lover or a child, you wonder what it means to Emily Jeffords to be nourished. Maybe you need to be nourished. Maybe you need to understand what that would be. Emily handles outreach for Willow Gathering. She makes people see how this could deepen not only your sense of self, but also your sense of your career.

The average retreat is five days long, beginning with a floral-design workshop where Julie guides everyone through creating a table arrangement. Many people have never handled flowers, and the colors, textures, scents immediately trigger new pathways to their own mediums. There’s always a painting workshop (many of the participants are fans and followers of Emily’s work), and there are always excursions to vineyards, historic sites, or museums. They’ve gone horseback riding. A masseuse came to the chateau. But meals are a clear highlight, where people feast with all their senses, and conversation sparks and flows. “People come alive over the table,” Emily says.

But isn’t that the nature of art? A normal situation saturated with grace and beauty and light and meaning?

 

Beth laughs. “I mean, I can make the same tomato soup in France that I make all the time, but in those surroundings, simple things become extraordinary. In any normal situation, this is just lunch.”

But isn’t that the nature of art? A normal situation saturated with grace and beauty and light and meaning? Tomato soup that nearly brings tears.

The creative people who sign up for retreats like this are often at a particular place in their lives. Mostly women, young mothers away from their children for the first time, or in the midst of other life changes, they are looking for a way to reclaim a part of themselves, or to mark a year that’s passed, for better or worse. Too, they are people not afraid to travel alone, to try experiences outside of the norm, to explore themselves and their surroundings, having their own wild adventure. Just getting to the retreat can be empowering—language isn’t always easy, and navigation must be negotiated rather than dialed into your GPS.

Photography by Tara Ashton

Past participant Kristin Steck is a stay-at-home mom with an eight-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son. “I’m barely starting to call myself an artist,” she says. She attended a Willow Gathering retreat in Spain after she’d been oil painting for about a year. “I think one thing it really provided was a more authentic connection to what is creative inside of me. I was able to pause from day-to-day life and see how everything was so delicious and beautiful. I was able to realize I have a good eye. I could recognize beauty.”

Sarah Cray, co-founder of an art-based subscription-box business, heard about Willow Gathering while following Emily’s social media. “Because a large portion of my job is to create and teach a new watercolor project every week, I know it is necessary to pay attention to my creativity,” she says. “About a year ago I remember having the feeling that if I wasn’t careful, I could easily burn out.” Her retreat provided the creative rest and reset she was looking for.

One thing that’s unique about the retreats is that there’s no focus on a finished product, no drive to get things done, no pressure. Layered into the planned schedule is the sense that the itinerary is optional, that the days can be as restful as they need to be.

But when you push yourself out of your comfort zone, replacing that familiarity with intentional beauty, fresh perspective, and complete ease, new things happen—for the leaders as well as the participants. Julie remembers pausing at the top of the stairs in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, having just explored the whole gallery, overwhelmed with this intense moment of wonder. Beth says, “When you travel like this, there’s a kind of insanity that sets in. You find yourself asking, ‘What does my life mean?’” Emily says, “You lead someone else through a creative exercise, and it opens something else up for you.”

Photography by Tara Ashton

Beth says, “You are inviting people into it. We fight the urge to smuggle that away. That’s what happens with any good thing, right? That’s when I put pen to paper. The one thing that makes an experience stick is to reflect on it.”

The next retreat will be to the Italian countryside in 2020, with an emphasis on building a sustainable business, and finding creative practice that doesn’t drain you, but feeds you. So what feeds these three?

“Freedom matters a lot to me,” Emily says. Julie expands that thinking. “I try to cultivate the discipline to say no. Saying no to some things makes space for smaller things, the space to say yes.” Schedules being what they are, the break she has now was planned nine months ago, by saying no to holiday events and weddings, by making a threshold and keeping it.

But sometimes it’s in remembering that what feeds you can be balance. Beth says, “The whole gather-round-the-table thing—I can’t do that all the time.” The opposite is what she needs, time to pour into herself, to be quiet and alone.

But never starving.

To learn more about Willow Gathering: willowgathering.com