Amherst, VIRGINIA. It’s hard to believe that a month has gone by since I first arrived at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I have never been away from my family for so long. The camaraderie between myself and the other artists here in Amherst softens my bouts of homesickness. I speak every day to at least one of my three children. I write my husband often, missing his gentle presence — the way he frowns slightly as he reads my work, concentrating — those moments of intimacy we share on a routine day.

Image credit: Dorianne Laux

This week, after dinner, I present my work to the other fellows. I decided to share work I’ve done here, an abstract piece on trees and homeland, and a new chapter from my book.

Image credit: Avy Claire

The presentation is a joint venture with Avy Claire, a visual artist from Maine who has been here almost as long as I have. Her work taps deeply into landscape, and we both feel a certain affinity.

We take walks together in the countryside around VCCA, and I enjoy seeing the world through her eyes — the invasive plants that have become rooted in the native — and her uncanny awareness of what lies beneath the surface.

I don’t usually have a problem reading. A friend once told me I should imagine I’m reading the back of a Cheerios box, and this little trick still works for me, irrespective of how many people are in the room. This time, however, as I stand there, pages in hand, reading a line about my home in the Ella Valley, the faces of my three beautiful children swim up before me, and I falter for a moment, unable to conjure up that big, bright, yellow box. I clear my throat, apologize and then continue.

I don’t usually have a problem reading. A friend once told me I should imagine myself reading the back of a Cheerios box, and this little trick still works for me…

I’ve never been good at art, but with the help of Avy’s visual acumen, we turn the residency living room into a forest. There’s a sound track of birds recorded at 5am one chilly morning when I could not sleep; there are thin strands of yellow string tied with twigs and tiny bits of satin to represent the red cardinals that we hang together from the rafters after I climb a precariously high ladder, ignoring my vertigo because I want to prove that I can do it.

Together, we articulate through artifacts and words what it means to us to create. There’s a lot of fun in the process, too, and I’ve grown accustomed to Avy’s sudden eruptions of laughter as we work.

Image credit: Nancy McEntee


There are two weeks left before I pack my bags and return home. My book moves across the cork board in my studio, changing shape daily as I add another photo, another note, another theme scribbled in felt pen that escaped my attention the day before.

Image credit: Joanne Chen

It has flown the confines of my laptop and has become a visual entity that breathes and speaks. I will keep adding to it and will eventually write it into the book that, I hope, will speak not just to me but to others.

Last night, I slipped away from the living room earlier than usual, walking away from dinner and conversation with the other fellows and down to my studio in the dark of night. I arrive at my studio door, fumbling with the key in the lock, and open the door. What The Trees Reveal is waiting for me.


In NOTES FROM AFAR, writer Joanna Chen sends us weekly dispatches from Amherst, Virginia during her six-week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In Notes, Chen explores challenges and advantages particular to women writers, the allure and the reality of leaving her partner and children to write and the importance of personal space as she charts her own creative process in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains far away from her home in Israel’s Ella Valley.

NOTES FROM AFAR is the first in a pilot series focusing on women in the arts and one that we hope will become a regular feature. 

This is the fourth installment in the series. Click here for Notes From Afar, Week OneWeek Two, and Week Three.

Image credit: Patricia Aaron


Joanna Chen has written for Newsweek, The Daily Beast and The BBC World Service, among others. Her lyric essays have been published most recently in Guernica, Narratively and The Los Angeles Review of Books, where she writes a column.


  1. Joanna’s fourth installment brings me to happy tears. I too shared a lovely time at VCCA and the immense fortune of knowing both VCCA Fellows Avy and Joanna. Together I can imagine the presentation they presented was inspiring, and powerfully beautiful. The gift of quiet unstructured time afforded by an artist residency is a precious magical moment. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Hi Joanna-I love reading about you at VCCA! I just got home-unpacking, trying to remember what real life is like here in Boston.

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