Sue Landers, Rachel Zollinger, Renee Couture, and Donna Henderson at PLAYA Summer Lake

Four artists and writers explore the creative life at PLAYA Summer Lake, an artist residency in south-central Oregon.
Photo credit: Sue Landers

Sue Landers
: This summer I was reading George Stanley’s book Vancouver, which details his travels through Vancouver on the bus and by foot. I had just started a similar project in New York where I have been riding every subway end-to-end, walking around the neighborhoods at each terminal, and using the city as my studio to create a book that reflects New York at this precise moment in time. (Though, exactly what time it is, I’m not sure—late capitalism? Peak oil? Middle age?)

Writing a project of such scope can be overwhelming at times, so over the past few weeks of working on this project at the PLAYA Artist Residency I’ve taken great comfort in this quote:
"Take refuge in a long poem, avert inspiration, write carelessly." —George Stanley
I hung the quote over my desk as a reminder that the long poem, or any big project, or even a giant metropolis, is something to explore and wander. And in that meandering, new connections, insights, etc. can emerge and will be even more likely to emerge if I remain open, associative, curious—and careless.  

Rachel Zollinger
: Unlike Sue, I arrived at PLAYA without a specific project in mind—no previously started works or series to complete. I wanted to be free to explore this place without expectations looming or risk of incompletion. I find my best work comes when I’m operating at the edge of what I don’t know, past the safe territory and teetering on “I have no idea what I’m doing!” So I try to find ways to push myself to that edge. Wandering by foot is a good way, because it leads to wandering by imagination. It’s true that meandering, often by my own locomotion, leads to new connections and insights, as does careless play (or writing carelessly, I suppose). 

Renee Couture
: Toward the end of 2017, I realized it was time for me to shift the focus of my work. It’s a scary and exciting time in the studio. I simultaneously feel lost while on a path forward. That being said, I can’t think of a better place to enter new territory than an artist residency—a place where others are bravely pushing the boundaries of their own work and being supportive of each other as we are all the vulnerable position of exploration. Walking the edge (like Rachel said) of “I have no idea what I’m doing!” with the freedom of “I think I’ll do/try/think about this today,” is at the heart of a residency. Having the literal space and time to walk and wander in the quiet and reflect opens places in the mind because of the movement of the body. And not having much in the way of internet is also helpful. 

Donna Henderson
: I love this quote (and Sue’s and Rachel’s and Renee’s response to it), since my experience resonates with theirs in many ways. Before coming to PLAYA, I made a last minute decision not to bring the project that my application proposal represented, and instead to come open to new work with no ideas about what that might be. It was a relief and a joy to decide this, which told me it was the right decision—but it was also a very stepping-off-the-edge kind of feeling, since I had written very little for about 3 years—I wasn’t even sure I knew how to do it anymore, and I had begun to wonder if the well had been sealed in the interim.

But the decision to just come and just write—without expectation (i.e. “standards,” which was an important part of it for me) and without inspiration, along with the space and time and sublimely liminal landscape in which to work and play, set in motion a new kind of flow of language that became the new work. (I kept having to pull over to the side of the road to write things down on the day I arrived.)

And specifically what began was/is a long-poem sequence: a kind of conversation with language which that “carelessness” (by way of which I was not “trying to make a poem,” but just open a conversation) allowed. And of course inspiration has come in, precisely because I have not been 
looking for it!

PLAYA Summer Lake

Sue Landers

PLAYA at Summer Lake is a spectacularly beautiful place, in the high desert with a dry lake bed, where the light and color of the landscape change every hour and every day. Looking out into the scenery feels like a hallucination, like my brain is being rewritten after so many years of staring into the concrete, glass, and steel of cities.

It might seem unlikely that such a place could inspire poems about New York City and the subway, but the subtleties in its color palette, and the blurry lines between land and lake and sky, mirror certain characteristics of my work. Many of the pieces I am working on now occupy that liminal space between poetry and prose and are concerned with personal transformation and political change.

And since I am writing a book about mass transit and moving through space and never being in one place, but many, at all moments, I’m more than a little obsessed with all things “transitional” right now. And it turns out that a dry lake bed, a playa, in winter, is just that. Each day the wind shifts the lake’s shallow layer of water away from the shore or back. It can be difficult to even see where the water begins as you approach it. There is no clear line between clay beach to mud bank and water.


For the first few weeks here, I was afraid to go in to the water because I thought I’d get stuck. But the other day I just kept walking. One step I was in mud, the next in water. So, I splashed around in a few inches of water for a bit and then stopped to take a selfie. But standing still caused me to sink into the mud and in trying to get unstuck I tipped over and fell in. I fell into a physical manifestation of a transitional state. But I was solid. Solid in the silt and the shift. It was terrific. And this is an experience I suspect I will draw from over and over again as I work through writing this book.

Sculpture shown here is Black Rock Diamond by Rebecca Davis and Roger Asay (2014)

Rachel Zollinger

Searching for blue rocks (none yet!) and finding jade colored rocks in the hills above PLAYA.

I had never been to this corner of Oregon before and I was interested in PLAYA’s location in a high desert riparian ecosystem. The volcanic activity of the area has endowed this land with a spectrum of colors. Human activity, too, has brought new colors to this place, but it’s hard to know which colors originated here and which have been introduced. I began a project to describe the colors I found at PLAYA and the surrounding area.

The accumulated excess material from my project:

After I shared my in-process project with the other residents, people began bringing me rocks they found—specific colors, interesting formations, etc.

Renee Couture

Books to read. I managed to get through six of the ten.

I’m at PLAYA at Summer Lake trying to find a way forward into new conceptual territory. Asking questions, beginning research, seeking answers, trying to find the path forward, planning, and balancing time with walks. It’s during this fragile time that I have to remind myself to be playful, to play, and to experiment. I have to remind myself that it’s okay to fail.

After finishing the book A More Beautiful Question, I wrote out a series of questions to help guide future work. I know I need to add a few more questions:


I think I put together a solid budget for one sculpture:

This landscape and spring-like weather made for nice work breaks.

Video still from a project I’m starting. Or trying to start. We’ll see where it goes.

Donna Henderson

As a way to refresh my seeing and my silence (and also to explore in a non-verbal way the things that are showing up for me psychically), I try to do some graphic work every day. The phrase “feet of clay” had been coming to mind, so I made a quick sketch using local charcoal and some of the literal clay of the playa. As a result, some language has begun to coagulate around the metaphor also.

I call this “shadow selfie:” one of a series. Again, I think what attracted my interest were the words “shadow self,” which somewhat to my discomfort (but it’s also fascinating and liberating) has begun showing up in my poems more boldly, the longer I listen.

I love to look at things so closely that the familiar disappears back into the unknown, the often breathtaking beauty that appears at that liminal place. This is a close-up in a pile of pipes on an old construction site up the hill from PLAYA, which didn’t look like much until I got very, very close. It reminds me to do that with language, too: zoom in.

Interior of my cabin at PLAYA, sunrise. There’s a desk, too, but most of the new poems here get born in that bed!


Sue Landers

Rockaway Beach, Queens

I have been taking a lot of photos around New York for the past six months and am starting to notice a trend. I keep taking shots of lines moving towards focal points. I think I am obsessed with perspective, with looking at different angles that move towards (making) a point. And this shot I particularly love because it both veers towards and away from a single focal point, which mirrors the kind of complexity I hope my poems can achieve.

Rachel told me this image provides no immediately discernible scale, which I hadn’t realized, but is super interesting since I also like to move in and out of micro and macro level detail in my work.

Rachel Zollinger

Photo credit: Daniel Zollinger

New Mexico

This photo was taken near my home in New Mexico. I was collecting dirt for both an art project I was beginning and for a class I was teaching on soil ecology. There’s usually an element of mucking around and getting dirty in my practice, and I encourage my students to not be afraid getting their hands dirty. My brother Daniel, also a visual artist, took the picture. He often accompanies me on creative expeditions, and sometimes we collaborate.

 Donna Henderson

The Deschutes River, Oregon

When I’m on a river, I can feel the way time is an abstraction, because it disappears into the experience of the flow of phenomena that is what “time” really is. I live on a river—this is a photo of me on that river this summer. I do just love anything that gets me into a long flow!


Renee Couture

In the Studio

I took this photo in my studio one day while working. It serves as a reminder of the importance of being present when working because even a small, unexpected moment can help me see something in a new way or can help me find new/different/surprising answers.

Marfa, Texas

Okay, I know this is probably cliché. I mean, the mural is in Marfa, TX, and Marfa has become almost a pilgrimage site for artists. But this mural speaks to me. These questions feel relevant to me, both in my studio practice and my personal life. I think questions are at the heart of my studio practice. I often use my art practice as a means of investigation and seeking answers.

About the Artists

Renee Couture

Photo credit: Rewa Bush

Renee Couture
’s work has been exhibited nationally. She has received grants from the Oregon Arts Commission and participated in residencies at Djerassi, Jentel, PLAYA, KHN Center for the Arts, and Vermont Studio Center. Couture graduated from Buena Vista University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. More at

A Fault Line Where Pressure Builds
Renee Couture

 It All Turns on Affection
Renee Couture

I Am Not My Great Grandfather’s Forest
Renee Couture

Rachel Zollinger


Rachel Zollinger is an interdisciplinary artist and STEAM childhood educator living and working in Albuquerque, NM. Immersive site experience and deep research informs her practice as both artist and educator; her work recognizes human and non human communities alike. Visit her work at

Color Chart
Rachel Zollinger, 2018
crushed rock, dirt, found materials, paper, digital image; dimensions variable
Photo credit: Rachel Zollinger

 Radicle Intervention
Rachel Zollinger 2017-2018
dirt, native grass seeds; dimensions variable
Photo credit: Rachel Zollinger

Terra Nullius 1
Rachel Zollinger, Daniel Zollinger,  2017
biodegradable paint, digital image; dimensions variable
Photo credit: Daniel Zollinger

 Sue Landers

Sue Landers is the author of two books of poetry, 248 mgs., a panic picnic and Covers, and the multi-genre collection Franklinstein. She has an MFA from George Mason University, and recent residences include Saltonstall and PLAYA. Her current project explores New York City and its subway system. Visit

Donna Henderson

Donna Henderson is the author of three poetry collections, most recently The Eddy Fence (Oregon Book Award Finalist, 2011). She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She also practices clinical social work and teaches yoga in north-central Oregon, where she lives on the Deschutes River. More at


Excerpt from “The Eddy Fence” (The Eddy Fence 2011)
On the river one day, love, you showed me an eddy fence.

See where some current slides left into backwater?
How it slows and pools while the rest keeps on rushing?

As though the water’d divided and stayed still whole:
one water, two ways, the fence its shift and glue,

itself nothing, the water –a hundred percent of it—
backing or flowing, nothing left for the fence,

yet there the fence was, non-existing in spite of this.

And where you find one you fish it, you’d showed me then.
See all the matter that catches there?

And I saw:

insect shells seed cases
twigs and some clots of foam
dust in a rusty scum.
Fragile steeples of mayflies’ wings transparent in sunlight.

All these bits of the living and fallen dead
matted lightly together there,
felting a rind, a seam.

Locating the fence and adorning it,
yet not, of themselves, the fence.

Saw a trout sipping, passing with ease
between regions of swirl and flow which the eddy fence was.

Not a dwelling I saw
a way.

Books at                                                 
Bridge Street Books
of Georgetown            

A real bookstore in Washington, DC
2814 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC

Phone: (202) 965-5200 |  on Instagram



* indicates required

Total Pageviews