Soaring Gardens Continues Ora Lerman's LegacyJan 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
One artist's retreat in Laceyville is now a retreat for many.
Long before—and long since—Virginia Woolf made the point in A Room of One’s Own that space is necessary for a writer, artists of all mediums have striven or longed for places to do nothing but create. Ora Lerman, a twentieth-century American painter, teacher, and advocate for women in the arts, worked in New York City but desired a serene and beautiful refuge in nature where she could do just that.
In 1973, she bought twenty-three acres near Laceyville, Pennsylvania, that included a farmhouse and adjacent two-story machine shop, which she transformed into a studio. Ora died suddenly in 1998 from cancer complications but had made her wish known that Soaring Gardens, the name she gave her refuge, become an artist’s retreat when she could no longer enjoy it. Since then, 513 artists have painted, sculpted, written, practiced, and composed rent-free, otherwise unencumbered by expenses or expectations.
A lifelong world traveler, Ora fell in love with the country home Frank Gay had built in the early 1850s, using money he and his brother made in the California gold rush to buy the land. According to Ora’s husband, David Ostwald, who is also a trustee and treasurer of the Ora Lerman Charitable Trust, “For a residence sited on a hill in dairy country, half a day’s oxcart ride from the village of Laceyville, the house makes some odd claims to grandeur. The narrow clapboard exterior is plain enough. But inside, it boasts two front parlors divided by a formal arch with unexpectedly elaborate moldings milled from local hickory trees.” These parlors come in handy as spaces for artists to gather or quietly enjoy the extensive library rich with art, artists’ biographies, architecture, psychology, literary works, and more. Artwork of Ora’s and from her collection fills the house.
Windows flood the downstairs rooms and upstairs bedrooms and study with light and long views of the Endless Mountains. Four to five artists may stay at a time, and a live-in resident has quarters downstairs off the kitchen. The resident has a car and is available to do airport pickups, town shuttles, and take artists on requested field trips. But not cook. “As has been the case since the beginning,” David explains, “residents do their own shopping and cooking to give them the freedom to shape their days as suits them best.” A housekeeper comes between sessions. Thirty feet away is the studio building with two separate 750-square-foot work areas.
After finishing her graduate degree in painting at the Pratt Institute in 1968, Ora wished for a place in which to paint landscapes. Only a few years after she found such a place, her focus shifted from landscapes to figurative paintings, but her interest in her own grounds was invigorated in 1988 after a six-month residency at Claude Monet’s estate in Giverny.
“She realized she could create a ‘Giverny’ in Pennsylvania,” states David. “By the spring of 1992, when I met Ora, the allée with the five arches was already in place and many of the old stone walls had been rebuilt. She had also created flowerbeds and erected curious trellises.” The wisteria, lilacs, clematis, peonies, lilies, irises, and tulips she loved are still in abundance, and a vegetable garden has been added that residents can enjoy. Hemlocks and black walnut shade the back of the house where a stone patio invites the muse to sit and enjoy the view of the gardens and pond.
Before she died, Ora selected five trustees to manage her art, the property, and the modest endowment she left behind. The uninsulated plank walls of the old house meant it was realistic to offer residencies only between mid-May and mid-September. When first deciding on a selection process, David relates, “We were sensitive to the fact that Ora had an intense interest in young talent, as evidenced in her many years of teaching at Suffolk Community College. We also knew she was concerned about the particular challenges that confront women artists.”
Actively working visual artists, writers, instrumentalists, and composers with at least two years’ professional experience since graduation may apply. Residencies are for three weeks. (If scheduling permits, two-week residencies will be considered.) There is no application fee and no fee to attend. Artists can apply individually or as groups. A limited number of $500 need-based grants are available. Grant applicants from historically marginalized communities are particularly encouraged. Applications are accepted from January 1 through March 31 and can be found online at lermantrust.org.
In addition to Soaring Gardens, the trust has a second place a ten-minute drive away. A small church built in 1903 was converted into a home and painting studios by Cornelis Ruthenberg and her husband, Jules Kirschenbaum. After Jules’ death in 2000, Cornelis gifted the church to the trust. The downstairs is living space, and upstairs the former sanctuary is split into two studios.
The motto of Soaring Gardens is “Create in Tranquility.” Residents are not tasked with producing a body of work or presenting for the public, though there have been some collective exhibitions over the years, most recently at the Hope Horn Gallery at the University of Scranton in 2021. Michele Godwin, a New York City artist who works in prints and ceramics and was a resident in 2014, appreciated the chance to be surrounded by more nature than concrete. She writes, “Living in the house in such close proximity to the studio gave me time to reflect and think about new ideas while being able to act almost immediately on those ideas.” She enjoyed being around like-minded women “to whom I didn’t have to explain myself.”
So, while it’s important, for the sake of art and the artist, to have a room of one’s own, having fellow creatives to talk with, and to affirm that it’s okay to make art a priority, is another gift such a residency bestows—thanks to Ora Lerman and her trustees.