Writers Colony Rises From the Ashes

Kevin Canfield

When wildfire tore through Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in the spring of 2004, nearly everything, aside from some tall oak trees, was destroyed. Eight distinctive cottages that provided refuge for generations of writers, an idiosyncratic library, irreplaceable journals that contained the jottings of past residents, the Steinway piano Sergey Rachmaninoff is said to have once played—all of it was gone.

Dorland was converted to a nonprofit artists colony in 1979, and was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary when fire destroyed the buildings, sparing little but a grove of grand oak trees.

But people who'd fallen in love with the three-hundred-acre Southern California artists hideaway refused to let it go. Now, after almost six years of fund-raising, brainstorming, architectural planning, and construction, Dorland is once again welcoming writers. This spring Dorland is opening the first two of its new artists cottages, with more to come. Plans call for adding six more cottages, each of which will be about 575 square feet, by the end of 2011; the total of eight new structures would replace the eight destroyed in the fire.

In addition to building the new cottages, Dorland officials plan in the years ahead to construct an "art barn," with studio and gallery space, as well as a community house for gatherings and concerts. Martha Minkler, Dorland's director of development and rebuilding, says the timeline for construction is fluid: "In this financial climate it's all about the money."

The new cottages are modeled on the so-called Katrina cottages, first built in the Southeast after the deadly hurricane of 2005. They cost about seventy-five thousand dollars each, Minkler explains, while the two other planned buildings are significantly more expensive. Dozens of businesses, nonprofit groups, and individuals have helped fund the rebuilding, but Minkler says the fund-raising is ongoing.

Set among the hills east of Temecula, California, the property first served as a haven for artists Robert and Ellen Dorland. It was converted to a nonprofit artists colony in 1979, and was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary when fire destroyed the buildings, sparing little but a grove of grand oak trees. (The five artists-in-residence at the time were evacuated safely.) About twelve hundred writers and artists—American as well as international visitors—have spent time at Dorland, including National Book Award-winning poet Jean Valentine, best-selling author Alice Sebold, and South African novelist Tony Eprile.

Noelle Sickels, a Los Angeles-based novelist who has stayed at Dorland several times, says the colony immerses writers in a natural setting that's conducive to creative work. "From one side of the property there's this hill where you can see the sun set. If you walk across to another hilltop, there's a place where you can see the sun rise. It's very beautiful and it's very peaceful and it has really a magical quality to it. All your everyday distractions are gone. You're completely alone," she says, noting that residents respect one another's creative space. "You could spend a whole month there and not talk to another person."

Julia Gibson, a writer and Dorland board member who lives in New Mexico, says she, too, found the colony unusually conducive to inspiration. "A lot of people feel there's a power there. That happened for me," she says. "It felt like the place was on my side. It seemed like there was something outside of myself that was specific to that place." Gibson adds that the new Dorland will be different in some important ways. For instance, unlike the old cottages, some of which were built in the early 1930s and quirkily remodeled over the years, the new cottages will be virtually identical. Dorland's new cottages will have electricity, whereas the old ones did not.

"I go up to Dorland at least once a month, so I've been able to see it in progress and get used to the fact that its really a different Dorland now," Gibson says. "That's okay with me, but I think for some people it's going to be a really big difference."

For information about how to help rebuild Dorland—as well as residency application information—visit dorlandartscolony.org.

Kevin Canfield is a freelance writer in New York City.