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How Nola Studiola saved one artist's life

nola studiolaSummer. 2012.

Brokenhearted, jobless, and homeless, writer and former LSU English instructor Alison Barker holed up in her pal's uptown New Orleans apartment to regroup during a whopper of a midlife crisis. She had burned her first draft of a novel in a fit of weary frustration -- years of full-time teaching hadn't provided her with the time and energy to make much progress, she decided, and what's more, she had no sense of her own process. She constantly looked to others to tell her when her draft was progressing, and what it needed. All that uncertainty really got a girl down. She knew something needed to change; she knew she needed a serious inspiration make-over. She needed time to write, and to heal.

So she used her friend's place to embark on a two-month self-styled artistic retreat to hand-write the first draft of a new novel. And this: The apartment didn't have air-conditioning. In order to stave off the insanity that she knew was at her doorstep, Barker started a blog. She didn't want the blog to be used to bemoan the current discomfort in her life (at least not entirely). She wanted it to uplift and inspire her to reclaim her artistic process, and hopefully inspire others who faced artistic or professional roadblocks.

So she set about posing five interview questions to artists she admired, with the belief that throwing her questions to a larger artistic community could help her find answers. She named it Nola Studiola. NOLA, for New Orleans, place of her refuge, and Studiola, a play on the Italian word studiolo, which was an artistocrat's private study for reflection and rumination. She wrote questions like, "What's your artistic process?" and, "If YOU were holed up in an un-air-conditioned apartment in New Orleans for the summer, what would you eat?"

She emailed artists, chefs, and writers she admired with contact info she found off their websites or their publishing companies. Many people didn't respond to her queries to be interviewed. But some very special people did respond. People like illustrator and writer of _Baby Make Me A Drink_ books Lisa Brown, novelist Lidia Yuknavitch, novelist and critic Andrew Ervin, and Food52's Amanda Hesser.

She wanted to know more about the people who created food and art that she admired. Every week, she posed the same five questions to a different artist. She hoped it would help her out of her rut. And it did. By the fall of 2012, Barker had a new draft of her novel, and new connections with writers and artists, thanks to the blog.

She transitioned Nola Studiola to a collaborative website, in which different artists -- visual and literary -- curate the blog with their own content for month-long "residencies." At first, the only rule was that food be somehow involved, because talking about and making food had such a healing role. Now, the curator -- visual or literary artist -- just needs to produce content that best serves what their process needs at the time of the residency.

Some, like fiction writer Olivia Kate Cerrone, used her time at Nola Studiola to build connections in the artistic community by interviewing people whose work she admires. Others, like memoirist Sarah Perry, used the blog to reflect on the intensive research she conducted into her mother's murder for her forthcoming book _Shadowboxer_ (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Some use their time at Nola Studiola to pilot new projects, like the collaboration between visual artist Loren Erdrich and poet Sierra Nelson. Their exhange of video and poetry happens on the blog and is titled "Invisible Seeing Machine." There are still interviews, like Barker's audio interview with Hawthorne Press memoirist Jay Ponteri.

This fall, Nola Studiola issues a call for artists from the New Orleans area to mark the blog's third year of inspiration and artistic exchange with a quintessentially New Orleans slant.

This month, Nola Vie partners with Nola Studiola to spotlight those original interviews that started the whole thing. Stay tuned.

Nola Studiola, founded by Alison Barker, is a website curated monthly by artists and writers in residence. This fall, Nola Studiola seeks New Orleans-based curators. Email Alison at [email protected] for information.