When most of us hear the phrase “summer camp,” it brings to mind images of boys and girls roasting marshmallows around fires, paddling canoes and swimming in lakes, sleeping in bunk beds in spare, wood-framed cabins—in short, taking part in all those activities that have come to define camp life in the popular imagination. The fact that many of us never even went to camp when we were kids has little bearing on our ability to picture what it’s all about: on TV, in the movies, in novels, plays and memoirs, the joys (and tribulations) of summer camp are somehow part of our collective memory.
In a special December 1959 issue on “The Good Life,” meanwhile, LIFE magazine focused on what we might call summer camps for grownups: art colonies and workshops where college students and full-blown adults honed their artistic chops in the great outdoors. But take a look at the cultural figures in some of these pictures. How many of us would pass up the chance to take a photography course with Ansel Adams? Or study poetry with Robert Frost? Or learn about jazz from Percy Heath?
For its part, LIFE pondered the phenomenon of “Americans putting their idle summer hours to profitable use” in tones at-once celebratory and perhaps just a little bit skeptical:
Summer culture was once something to be taken in small passive doses—in a book, an art show or a concert. Today increasing numbers of vacationers are discovering that it is more fun to create some culture themselves than just sit and soak it up.
Next summer more than two million Americans will head for art colonies and workshops to play music, paint, dance, write novels, fashion pottery and poems. They are egged on by the help of professionals, by the fellowship of like-minded enthusiasts and by the inspiration of woods and meadows. . . . Now in many a pretty dell the warble of flutes and the clatter of typewriters drown out the song of birds.
Finally, below is a portrait of the great Alfred Eisenstaedt at a camp where “mohair weaving” was quite popular, wearing what looks to be a cross between a cossack’s hat and a rather woolly dark wig. Yet more evidence, if any were needed, that when the spirit moved him, one of the most talented, insightful craftsmen of the 20th century could also be a deadpan, self-deprecating cut-up. Now there’s a cultural lesson we can all take to heart.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.