By Judy Dean
Some places have the power to change the way we look at and live in the world. This is the second in a series I’m calling “Places that Shaped Me.”
Part 2: Camp
Interlochen MI 1970
Late one night a few weeks before my sixteenth birthday, some friends and I sat on the end of a dock, dipping our feet in the inky lake and watching for shooting stars. Suddenly, the Northern Lights surged up over the horizon and began to ripple and dance across the sky. It was so unexpected and beautiful that it caused my friend Jan, a quiet girl from LA who’d rarely even seen stars before, to burst into tears. Moments like that tend to stick with you for a lifetime.
This took place in August 1970 at Interlochen, a fine arts camp in northern Michigan. The camp was well known for classical music but offered programs in dance, theater, and the visual arts. I was attending as an art major. The brochure I’d received several months earlier, with its descriptions of demanding schedules and camp rules, suggested an experience more like boot camp than summer camp. Still, the prospect of spending eight weeks in the company of talented young people from all over the world appealed to me, even if my chances of getting in were slim. I was not particularly gifted but I did love to draw, so I submitted the requisite portfolio and waited. To my surprise, I was accepted and awarded a half-tuition scholarship.
During the run-up to camp I was excited and nervous. Some person or people had judged me worthy and opened a door. I’d never been called out for any type of special recognition before so feeling “chosen” was new and privately thrilling. Being gifted a scholarship (without which I couldn’t have gone) from a complete stranger instilled in me a sense of responsibility to make the most of this opportunity.
As soon as camp started it was off to the races. Five days a week I was in class all day, with time out only for meals and required recreation, which we called “forced fun.” Most evenings I went to a concert or other performance, often made more interesting because someone I knew was performing. Sometimes after dinner I’d head back to the studio, as there were always deadlines looming in my classes. Weekends offered a bit of downtime, beach trips to Lake Michigan, co-recs (code for time with boys), and more concerts. It was exhausting in the best possible way.
That summer was nothing if not a hundred firsts: first extended stretch away from home; first coffee; first coin-op laundry; first ballet class (kicked my butt); first hickey; and first exposure to dozens of classical composers, not to mention Crosby Stills & Nash. We slept on lumpy bunks, ate mediocre food, and wore ridiculous uniforms that included blue corduroy knickers for the girls. (Yes, knickers.) None of that mattered. In the end, three things did matter: the way I came to think about art, the people I met there, and the quality of the place itself.
I’m quite sure I showed up at camp believing that true artists were born, not made. When camp started I was among the majority of earnest young musicians, dancers, actors, and artists who aspired to become good, if not great, at our craft. We had a small number of peers who absolutely awed us with their abilities: let’s call them the superstars. My “ah-ha” moment came when I was able to see that the most incredibly talented among us (those superstars) worked the hardest at all. Yes, they practiced like maniacs! It was liberating to figure out that artistic achievement was, to a large extent, a matter of practice. This knowledge allowed me to stop fretting about my relative inexperience and dig in. I worked hard and improved quickly. That camp experience gave me the confidence to choose art as my college major, something I’m sure would never have happened otherwise. It’s easy to point to Interlochen as a place that truly shaped me.
It was exciting to spend time with young people whose life experiences were so very different from my own. I made friends from all over the country and a handful of foreign countries. Ironically, one of the best friends I made was a black kid with an amazing voice who went to my own high school. We’d never even seen each other before and would have probably never crossed paths if it hadn’t been for camp.
Interlochen was, and still is, a special place, drawing thousands of visitors each year. It was far more rustic in 1970 than it is today and the changes have been, in my opinion, both good and bad. The soundtrack of my summer was a dawn-to-dusk collage of overlapping musical fragments drifting out of practice rooms all over campus. You hear less of this now, not necessarily because there’s less practice going on but because buildings “improvements” have trapped more of that sound indoors. Fortunately, the piney smell and iconic Kresge stage overlooking the lake are unchanged. And teenagers, with their abundance of creative energy, still rule.