The creative life can be a lonely business. While solitude is sometimes necessary, exchanges with other professionals feed the spirit and inspire the work. For two-time Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall (Hello Lighthouse; Finding Winnie), hurried conversations at conferences and unfulfilled wishes to meet up in the future were not enough. Creating a space for children’s book authors and illustrators to share and connect has long been a dream for Blackall, now realized in her launch of the Milkwood retreat in the Catskills. Milkwood’s 2022 retreat registration is open until March 31; participants will be chosen through a lottery and informed on April 4.
Blackall said that sharing a Brooklyn studio with four other illustrators has been a nurturing feature of her career. Brian Floca, Doug Salati, Dasha Tolstikova, and Rowboat Watkins form the core of her professional community, she said. “We are invested in each other’s work. We talk about it from the beginning to the end.” Acknowledging that this kind of collegiality is rare for most authors and illustrators, she hit on the idea of an artist retreat in upstate New York, an area where she and husband Ed Schmidt already owned a farmhouse. Fixing up their barn would have been costly, so it was ruled out, but nearby she found a place with the kind of magic that sets children’s authors and illustrators on flights of imagination.
Nestled in a valley filled with crumbling stone walls, babbling brooks and fields of wildflowers, the 21-acre dairy farm was established in 1850 and had been in the same family for generations, but abandoned in recent years. When Blackall saw it, she knew she had found the place, although not everyone was convinced it would work. Schmidt—a playwright—was willing to see what she saw in this place with its 19th-century barn and “more silos than we know what to do with.”
The couple bought the place in 2018, taking care to get the blessing of the farm’s former owners for their plans. Blackall built a “cushion” into her book schedule to take time off and work alongside her husband and local contractors to restore the farm over the course of three and a half years. It proved to be “the silver lining of the pandemic,” she said. “Instead of being stuck, we had this huge project to throw ourselves into.” There were trips to the famous Brimfield Flea Market to furnish the place and many hours of painting, staining, hauling, and sweeping. The couple named the farm Milkwood in a nod both to the property’s dairy farm heritage and Dylan Thomas’s 1954 radio drama Under Milk Wood.
The retreat now features eight bedrooms, each with an animal theme including everything from whales to kangaroos. Well known children’s illustrators have donated themed art for the rooms, including Blackall’s studio-mate and fellow Caldecott winner Floca (Locomotive) and LeUyen Pham, who donated a bear illustration in honor of her Caldecott Honor-winning Bear Came Along. The retreat’s 5,000-volume, two-story library contains a “carefully curated collection” donated by Susannah Richards of Eastern Connecticut State University, as well as books donated by authors and publishers. Blackall expects the collection—which includes everything from picture books to middle grade books to graphic novels—to continue to evolve, and this summer illustrator Oliver Jeffers will cover the ceiling with a constellation of stars.
When developing plans for the retreat, Blackall put out a survey on Instagram to determine community needs and interests. In this inaugural year, there’s an author and illustrator retreat coordinated by Newbery Honor author Cece Bell, a librarians and educators retreat hosted by Blackall and Richards, an LGBTQ+ retreat coordinated by Kyle Lukoff, a BIPOC retreat offered by Cátia Chien, and more. Because spots are limited to 10 people per retreat, those who are interested can register online to be entered into a lottery. In the future, Blackall said, she hopes a variety of educators and creatives will use the space, from publishers planning author retreats to agents gathering with clients as well as librarians and educators. “We want to make it as diverse and accessible as possible,” she said.
Although Milkwood is currently not a nonprofit, there are plans to apply for that status in the future. For now, there’s a financial assistance fund aimed at making the experience affordable and accessible (the retreat received a grant from the Awesome Foundation to make the retreat wheelchair-friendly and the bedrooms and a bathroom ADA-compliant). “We’re asking for ‘angels’ to help,” she said, adding that she hopes the retreat will also serve as a resource for local under-resourced schools, both in terms of access to books and author visits. “We’d like to give back to the community.” She added that this can also allow creatives to test their material with local kids and remind them “why we make books and who we make them for.”
Milkwood’s “practice run” retreat last summer went smashingly, Blackall said. Eight authors and illustrators attended, sharing tips and techniques, pulling beloved books from their childhoods from the library shelves, and going for long walks on the property from which there’s no other building in sight. Blackall and Schmidt did all the cooking (with “peeling and chopping” help from local assistants), a feat she said Schmidt was well prepared for: he used to cook for the audiences of his plays.
The retreat ended with dinner in the 100-foot-long former hayloft at which each of the participants was asked to offer a presentation of sorts (Pham was in attendance and performed a memorable song and dance). But the most intangible gift of the retreat was the serendipity that took place among artists, Blackall said. The informal sharing of techniques, ideas, and dreams made for a kind of storybook magic. “I’m a romantic, an optimist, and an idealist,” she added. “I believe that breaking bread together and looking each other in the eye leads to better conversations than you can have on Twitter.” She hopes the collegiality—as well as the opportunity for self-reflection and inspiration on long walks down country roads—will be just the nourishment that artists need.
“The dream is that long after we are gone, this place will continue,” Blackall said.
Blackall's upcoming picture book Farmhouse, inspired by her experience renovating Milkwood Farm, will be out from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on September 13.
For more information and retreat registration, go to www.milkwoodfarm.org.