Today, even the most grounded among us may see the world as a bleak place after reading headlines of a planet ablaze and injustice unabated, or simply scrawling CANCELED across one’s plans for the future.
I have a very personal family story to which I can turn for inspiration when I witness or experience setbacks. In a chapter titled “A Scattering of Ashes” in my grandfather’s autobiography, he wrote of the 1978 suicide of his daughter, my aunt, Pamela Djerassi, at the age of 28.
I was born six years after her suicide. Its impact on my grandparents and my father evolved but never diminished.
Where Pami’s sense of justice and humor, her poetry and art, reflected potential and promise, was suddenly left a void that could not be filled.
At the time, she and my father were both living on the cattle ranch that my grandparents bought upon moving to California from Mexico in the 1960s. After she died, my family faced the question of what to do with her house and interest in the ranch.
Grieving, my grandfather Carl and my step-grandmother, Diane, traveled to Florence, Italy. According to Carl, standing in a piazza, surrounded by the beauty and legacy of artists’ work that had been sponsored by the Medicis hundreds of years before, he mused: “It’s hard to think what Florence would’ve been like without the Medicis.” To this, Diane responded, “But imagine what it would be today if their patronage had extended to women.”
Diane’s comment brought a flash of clarity in light of Pamela’s own experiences as a young woman artist in the 1960s and 70s. Past need not be prologue. Human beings can transform profound loss into a gift for others, writing a new story in the process.
This was the birth of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, an organization that initially provided year-long residencies for one woman artist to live in Pamela’s home for a year. Subsequently it expanded to provide the gift of time and space on the ranch to month-long cohorts of 10-14 artists-in-residence of all different disciplines and gender identities.
More than 2,500 artists have received residencies since the cattle ranch’s conversion into an artist colony. Alumni hail from all 50 states and and dozens of countries around the world. Countless works of art – pieces of music, dances, plays, poems, canvasses – as well as ideas and collaborations have been born into the world at this Program, forming an inverse reflection of the tragedy that created it.
Their art, and this resident artists colony, embody the spirit of renewal that we all need, now as ever.