SUMMER LAKE — An artists’ and scientists’ colony founded by a Eugene couple has taken root over the past few years in the high desert of eastern Oregon, a land of sagebrush and salt flats accompanied by an evening sound track of singing coyotes.
Playa — that’s the Spanish word for “beach,” referring to its location on the shores of Summer Lake — has been open for business as a retreat for artists and scientists since 2011. That was some years after Eugene architect Bill Roach and his wife, Julie Bryant, bought the old Summer Lake Inn, a place then more familiar to hunting and fishing types, and converted it to a series of well-appointed cabins and studios around a central meeting hall.
Then they opened its doors to artists, choreographers, cinematographers, photographers, composers, novelists and scientists to stay here for terms of up to three months and work on creative projects in an extraordinary physical setting.
The couple’s vision for Playa evolved gradually after they bought another property in Summer Lake a few years ago, Roach explained.
“We came to this part of the world and fell in love with it,” said the Hermiston native. “And then the Summer Lake Inn came up for sale. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to own a B&B and run it?’ So we purchased it. And we tried to run it for about a year before we discovered we were not cut out for the hospitality business.”
Running the inn, Roach recalled with a rueful laugh, meant a lot more public contact than either he or his wife were ready for. “We were on the path to Reno and Las Vegas and Burning Man and every hunting season imaginable,” he said. “We were open to the public 24/7.”
So after that rocky year, they closed the inn down and rethought their plans. The couple had bought the old inn with money from what Bryant calls a “very lovely, generous” divorce settlement from her previous marriage. “We felt that was something that had come into our lives and not something that we had earned,” she said. They wanted to do something good with the money, something that benefited other people.
“We had bought this property without a clear idea of where we were going with it,” she said. “But our hearts were with the people who came and loved the place.”
“We had heard a bit about residency programs,” Roach said. “But neither of us had a strong art background.”
They began to think and talk and travel, looking at other artist residency programs. They formed a non-profit corporation. They recruited artists and friends to a board of directors. And they eventually arrived at a vision of Playa as a place where artists and scientists could come to work together in a beautiful remote setting.
And it is beautiful. Playa sits on the shore of Summer Lake, a mostly dry alkali bed that’s between the tiny eastern Oregon towns of Paisley, to the south, and Summer Lake, 10 miles north.
They spent two years renovating the old inn, bringing to its reconstruction the same fine design work and attention to detail that Roach used for the WaterShed building, a mixed-use, environmentally friendly complex he designed in Eugene at Third Avenue and Mill Street.
On its 55-acre campus, Playa offers six cabins, two work-live studios, and three other studios, in an idyliic, shaded setting between Highway 31 and an old ranch pond on the edge of the lakebed. Residents stay here free — Playa currently charges only a $25 application fee, though it had asked some residents to pay for stays in the past. Dinner is served to the group twice a week — it’s not mandatory, though pretty much everyone shows up — and the rest of the week, your time is entirely your own. Residents have no other obligations.
A modernistic wooden bridge zigzags across the pond and gives easy access to the playa itself, where within a short walk you find a striking land art installation, “Black Diamond,” created from black basalt on the white alkali by Roger Asay and Rebecca Davis, who were in residence this summer.
Beyond art, though, Roach and Bryant envisioned Playa as forming a meeting ground for artists and scientists.
“Getting a conversation going between science and art is critical,” Roach said. “Science and art were born together. They used to be pals. They were inseparable. But over time, science has pulled away from art and been made the handmaiden of industry. And part of our wanting to get science and art back together is to bring philosophy back into the mix.”
Since Playa opened three years ago, it’s served as a desert home for dozens of artists and somewhat fewer scientists. With their Eugene connections, Roach and Bryant have naturally attracted a lot of Eugene artists, including painters Jon Jay Cruson, Kathy Caprario, Sarah Grew and Rakar West, photographers Gary Tepfer and Terri Warpinski, poet Cecelia Hagen and novelist Miriam Gershow. Among the more-famous past residents is Portland writer Cheryl Strayed, author of the best-selling non-fiction book “Wild.”
When I visited Playa last weekend, I found a small group of intensely — almost deliriously — happy residents who couldn’t quite believe their luck at being there.
“The playa is totally mesmerizing,” said Mayer, Arizona, sculptor Deb Gessner, two weeks into her four-week residency, as she gazed at a dust storm building across the dry lakebed. “It’s totally hypnotizing. And there is no interruption. No husband. No music, because I didn’t bring any tunes. No internet, or very little. And a great bunch of people.”
Gessner, whose day job is working in a commercial bronze foundry, was enthusiastically engaged in building a larger-than-life female statue out of scraps of Styrofoam packing materials, cardboard boxes and cut-up strips from newspapers and magazines. In the evenings she was using a makeshift darkroom to develop pictures she made on the playa using a variety of pinhole cameras.
In the next studio over, photographer Don Fike had brought with him a full digital photography setup, including Mac computer and high-end Epson printer, and was displaying a couple dozen large color photos he’d made on the playa and elsewhere.
A former art director for Wine.com, Fike — now retired — was wildly enthusiastic about his chance to stay in the desert and create.
“This is a fantastic organization,” he said. “The location is one of the driving factors. It’s a fantastic spot. What is unusual is to try to create a retreat that involves science, as well.”
Reaching out to the scientific world has been one of the greater challenges Playa has faced. It can be hard to get scientists to move away from their accustomed settings, complete with high-speed internet and expensive laboratories. (Internet and cell connections are scarce to non-existent here.)
And, in fact, Playa is still fine tuning its mission. It nearly closed down two years ago, as Roach and Bryant struggled with the problem of finding the right staff to tackle a tough job in an extremely isolated location. A year ago they hired a new executive director, Deborah Springstead Ford, to run what has become a $250,000 a year operation.
Ford, a photographer who worked previously with the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, has stepped into her job with what seems limitless enthusiasm. She’s applying for grants, reaching out to make connections with the local community, and helping the organization broaden its reach from Northwestern artists and writers to national and international scope. She’s talking about starting a literary prize and has revamped Playa’s website. She has visions of an art gallery near the main entrance, and wants to see more scientists taking advantage of Playa’s opportunities.
And she and the founders have changed the residency program’s schedule. It once invited people to stay for set terms, with everyone arriving and leaving at the same time. Now terms are staggered, and you can apply to stay for two, four, six or eight weeks.
“And that did exactly what I had hoped would happen,” she said. “We’re getting many more applicants, and many more international applicants.”
One thing Playa is doing to reach out to the community is called Playa Presents, a series of tours, readings and receptions open to the general public. Ford said the events were well attended during the winter, but that in the summer months attendance was down. “And today we’re up against the Lake County Fair,” she said the Saturday I visited. “And Burning Man. If we get six people, we’ll be lucky.”
Six, in fact, was about how many people showed up that evening to tour Gessner’s and Fike’s studios and to hear readings by writers Liz Ahl, Mark Hedden and Helen Jones. But at the reception that followed, no one seemed to mind the lack of a crowd, including Roach and Bryant. The founders, who moved recently to a house near the retreat they founded, mingled graciously and inconspicuously in the small crowd.
Roach talked later about where he would like to see Playa go in ten years. A more robust residency program. Expansion to some other locations. And some way, not quite yet fully imagined, to help people in Oregon bridge what he calls the “urban-rural divide.”
“There is such a richness to rural life, but it’s hard (for urbanites) to get to experience it in a short period of time,” he said.
47531 Highway 31 (between mileposts 81 and 82)
Summer Lake, Oregon
More information: PlayaSummerLake.org