Editor’s note: The world has turned upside down since we spent a magical evening at the Hermitage Artist Retreat in late winter with a group of visiting artists-in-residence and new artistic director and CEO Andy Sandberg. They were being feted at an outdoor fire feast by adventure chef Sophie Hollingsworth, who, until the epidemic, split her time between Sarasota and Australia. We’re hoping the photos will take you back to a lovelier time.

Nine Pulitzer Prize winners, seven MacArthur “Genius” Award winners, a U.S.  Poet Laureate, playwrights whose works have appeared on Broadway and visual artists who’ve been exhibited in major museums. These are among the hundreds of musicians, composers, photographers, novelists, screenwriters, filmmakers, poets and performers from across the country who come to the Hermitage Artist Retreat—a collection of historic cottages on a small beachside campus on Manasota Key—to stoke their creative fires.   

It’s a perfect match for adventure chef Sophie Hollingsworth, a Sarasota native who splits her time between here and Australia creating her own masterworks of what she calls “kitchen(less) cooking”—"the kind of meals you might imagine crafted if Indiana Jones and Martha Stewart threw a dinner party,” she likes to say.

Monday night beachside suppers are a longtime tradition at the Hermitage as a new crop of artists arrives to spend part or all of their six-week residencies at the retreat on Manasota Key. For a special dinner set among the Hermitage’s 100-plus-year-old cottages that Hollingsworth prepared one balmy winter evening, that meant stoking a wood fire for hours, then serving visiting artists and a couple of new Hermitage trustees a feast of local flavors: Napa cabbage and Southern greens grown at Gamble Creek Farm in Parrish, wild boar from Tampa’s Shogun Farms, Gulf shrimp on lemongrass skewers using lemongrass that Sophie grew in her yard.

The artists in residence were Limor Tomer, curator of live arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; musical theater composer Adam Gwon; Courtney Boddie, director of education at the New Victory Theater in New York; jazz clarinetist and composer Andy Biskin; playwright Julia Jordan; and poet and literary magazine editor Lisa Ampleman.

“I try to get people out from the indoors to have an experience in nature,” says Sophie about her urban fire feasts, which she conceived when she spent time in the Australian bush as a Fulbright scholar. “If people can love a place, they want to understand it, and if they understand it, they want to protect it.” A perfect parallel to the goal of Hermitage staff and supporters. 

The Menu: A Fireside Feast

Fireside Welcome

Seaweed butter scallops cooked in shell over the embers 

First Course

Fire-smoked Napa cabbage salad with roselle vinaigrette 

Gulf shrimp on lemongrass skewers

Second Course 

Scorched street corn

Leg of wild boar suspended over the fire with charred herb chimichurri

Braised Southern greens

Dessert

Smoked pineapple pancakes with pineapple glaze

New Player

When Andy Sandberg took the reins of the Hermitage Artist Retreat at year-end after longtime executive director Bruce Rodgers retired, he inherited an organization with a glowing national reputation for its commitment to the development of new art. But to area arts appreciators, it’s one that remains an enigma.

“What we do is particularly unique,” says Sandberg, a director, writer, actor and producer who, at 25, became the youngest Tony Award-winning producer in history for the 2009 Broadway revival of Hair. “I see us as one of the top arts organizations in Sarasota County, and I want to own and claim our place. So many great ideas started right here at the Hermitage; unfortunately, not enough people know that.”

To Sandberg, that means bringing the Hermitage’s visiting artists to more venues in Sarasota—especially northward—for the free community experiences that are required of them as part of their residencies. (Recent ones included everything from a memoir writing workshop at the Venice public library with author Alex Marzano-Lesnevich to a sonic meditation on Manasota Beach with composer Evan Primo. Keep up with the constantly expanding array of free artist events at hermitageartistretreat.org.)

It also means engaging as ambassadors the hundreds of artists who have spent time at the Hermitage, some of whom who have returned to work at the Asolo Rep and Ringling Museum. “Our alumni love this community—so much of their work is inspired by the setting—and many ask how they can give back,” Sandberg says.

Those community outreach experiences are as important to the artists as to the public, he adds. “One of the most valuable gifts we can offer artists is time and opportunity to develop without the pressure to present to their backers or their critics. When we invite artists to preview their work, we offer them a smart, art-appreciative audience to share their opinions.

What has excited Sandberg about coming here most is the Hermitage’s commitment to the development of new work and the support of artists. “It’s rare that organizations recognize the need of artists to create that space and time,” he says.

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