Words and images by Cassidy Alexander
It was quiet. That day, the wind whipped through the trees and the water churned under bridges, erasing all sound. The animals were at home, resting. The chilled air pushed its way into my lungs, filled me to my fingertips and rushed back out of my lips, exhilarating me. Walking through the grounds, I felt like it was possible to run a thousand miles, compose a symphony or build a town from the ground up. Though it was a cold winter day, I couldn’t help but feel that it would be just as electrifying of an experience at any temperature.
That feeling in the air is what draws people from around the world to the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna. The center is an almost 40-year-old interdisciplinary artist community and art education facility in the middle of 3,000 acres of preserve on Spruce Creek. But don’t worry: the town is just around the corner, said Kathryn Peterson, ACA marketing and membership director.
“When you take the turn into ACA from the main road,” Peterson said, “the whole rest of the world kind of disappears. You’re drawn into this artist oasis.”
Largely, ACA is centered around its Masters-in-Residence programs, where artists in all disciplines — visual arts, music, dance, writing and architecture — can apply to stay at ACA for three weeks to create work, teach associate residents and learn from each other. Beyond the Masters-in-Residence programs, the center also offers Community Artist-in-Residencies, and, once a year, a teen creative writing residency called “Your Word.”
“The Atlantic Center for the Arts is in some ways the center of the arts world,” Co-Executive Director Nancy Lowden Norman said. “We have artists who come here who’ve won Pulitzer prizes, major music awards, [who] internationally exhibit, and people who are interested in the arts have access to meet and talk with them in [an] informal and inspiring setting that they can’t get anywhere else.”
For those who wouldn’t call themselves “master artists,” ACA’s main campus has the Pabst Visitor’s Center and Gallery with several exhibits, and nature trails that are both open to the public. The main attraction, though, comes from the many free events hosted there. Artists-in-Residence often present their work at the end of their residencies in programs open to the public, and ACA hosts other events beyond that throughout the year.
This March, the Center is showcasing the Dosti Music Project Concert, which brings together young musicians from around the world who collaborate to put on a once-in-a-lifetime show; in January, the Center put on the 40th Annual IMAGES: A Festival of the Arts featuring over 250 artists on one of New Smyrna’s main streets. For a full list, check out ACA’s calendar of events.
Beyond events, the town of New Smyrna has an arts community that draws visitors. It’s very different than Jacksonville’s arts scene, according to Peterson and Norman.
“I think of [Jacksonville] as more industrial, more commercial,” Peterson said. “New Smyrna is very low key. It’s very welcoming, you know, southern hospitality. It’s a warm community.”
After strolling part of the grounds at the Atlantic Center for the Arts’ main campus, visitors can head over to their other locations: Arts on Douglas and the Harris House.
Arts on Douglas is a commercial gallery with art rotating each month, giving viewers a new reason to visit. It also houses the alt_space Gallery, which showcases local artists, and Yurick Studios, for community arts programming. Harris House is the location of ACA’s Community Artist in Residence, as well as the occasional community program.
Located just off Canal Street — one of New Smyrna’s main hubs for shopping, eating and the arts — visitors can easily make a day out of the trip by exploring what New Smyrna has to offer.
“New Smyrna is a historical, kind of unique coastal town in Florida,” Peterson said. She encourages visitors to head over to Canal Street, and Norman suggested checking out Flagler Avenue.
“Back in the ‘70s a lot of artists moved into New Smyrna when it was a kind of poor kind of town,” Peterson said. “New Smyrna, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and this arts community kind of grew up together out of the ‘70s.”
Near Arts on Douglas is The Hub on Canal is home to 26 artist studios and represents more than 65 artists overall. They host ongoing community programs and classes as well.
Though the community is quiet, going to the Atlantic Center for the Arts is invigorating. As Norman said, the arts scene in New Smyrna is “on a different, more intimate level.”
“It’s just this unique, magical feeling when you turn off that road,” Peterson said. “You feel like you’re in a different place.”
It’s true. When you turn off that road, you’re in the place where masters are made, and where masters make art.