Obsession & Empathy: Nan Goldin, Michael Chabon, & A Home for Indigent Bohemians

 

Left to Right: Writer Ayelet Waldman, photographer Nan Goldin, and Pulitzer-Prize-Winner Michael Chabon (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

Two weeks ago, artists and art lovers converged on the quiet town of Peterborough, New Hampshire, for a chance to meet some of the most talented contemporary artists working today. Each August the famed MacDowell Colony opens its doors to the public and gives visitors from around the country an opportunity to tour its 32 studios, historic sites, 450 acres of forest, vegetable gardens, streams, orchards, and fields.

When composer Edward MacDowell and his wife Marian established an artist retreat in the New Hampshire woods in 1907, the idea seemed nothing less than ridiculous. Skeptics were quick to pounce, accusing Mrs. MacDowell of creating “a home for indigent bohemians.” But remarkably, the idea worked. The MacDowell Colony, the oldest artist retreat in the United States, has supported over 6000 writers, filmmakers, composers, visual artists, architects, and performers, and spawned hundreds of other programs based on its model. For two to eight weeks at a time, artists are given a private studio, three meals a day (lunch is delivered in the now-legendary picnic baskets), and quiet time to work on a creative project within a community of artistic peers.

What makes MacDowell’s Medal Day unique is the diverse range of artists, art lovers and supporters who are thrown together for a weekend of socializing, open studios, and conversations about the value and meaning of art—art on a personal level, but also a national one. Medal Day is like a family reunion of sorts, with the usual cast of crazy cousins and wise matriarchs mingling with all of those black sheep (and there are plenty of black sheep).

But regardless of your role in the MacDowell family—whether you’re a colony fellow, a local resident, an out-of-town visitor, a volunteer, a staff member, a friend, a supporter, or in my case, a former staff member turned press—there is always a sense of homecoming when you step onto the Colony property. From the moment that MacDowell fellow and board member Michael Chabon steps up to the microphone, you become hyperaware that in this oasis the value of art is not only assumed, but considered as essential as food, water, or air.

 

Marian MacDowell on the porch of the log cabin she had built for her husband, composer Edward MacDowell. (Photo courtesy The MacDowell Colony)

 

 

Medal Day visitors explore Edward MacDowell’s log cabin, which was the first studio on the property. Marian MacDowell would drop a lunch basket at her husband’s studio door each afternoon, which is how the tradition of MacDowell picnic baskets began. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

“If I look a bit frazzled–,” Michael Chabon explained, “Ted Kosinski beard, suit worn with sneakers, thousand-yard stare alternating with homicidal glint–let’s just say that I have finally found the answer to one of the questions I am most frequently asked, namely, ‘Mr. Chairman, how do you manage to take care of four children, among them two teenagers, all by yourself, when your wife goes away to Africa for two weeks, without losing your admittedly already somewhat tenuous grip on sanity?’ The answer, I am sorry to report, is: ‘You don’t.'” (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 
During this year’s ceremony, I appreciated Executive Director Cheryl Young’s thoughts on “bohemianism” and the financial struggles of working artists:

Luc

[Sante] devotes a chapter to bohemia in New York in Low Life noting it was a state of mind more than a place. Therein he quotes a definition of the term by the author Ada Clare: “The Bohemian is by nature, if not by habit, a cosmopolite, with a general sympathy for the fine arts and for all things above and beyond convention. The Bohemian is not, like the creature of society, a victim of rules and customs… Above all others, the Bohemian must not be narrow-minded.”

She goes on to say that Bohemians do not strive to be poor. They are poor because they have eschewed more stable ways of earning a living to pursue life more freely. Bohemians like Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane were good examples of artists who embraced the idea of creative freedom, who eschewed the mainstream and remained on the fringe even after success.

Not all artists are bohemian, but they all-too-often share the common trait of being poor. For Edward MacDowell, who was employed as a professor and struggled to carve out time to make new work, creating a colony was a brilliant scheme to temporarily free artists from their everyday commitments to work and commerce. The Colony is a kind of sanctioned bohemia, one that works particularly well within a capitalist economy where the state only slimly supports artists. MacDowell provides opportunity for research and development for ideas that may or may not register in the commercial marketplace. And residency programs have proven their worth many times over and are today one of our country’s most copied ideas. In the past twenty years there has been an explosion of these sorts of programs internationally.

 

“Luc [Sante] devotes a chapter to bohemia in New York in Low Life noting it was a state of mind more than a place.”  (Photo: Luc Sante at The MacDowell Colony © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Nan Goldin and Michael Chabon (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

The Colony has been awarding the Edward MacDowell Medal, a prestigious lifetime achievement award, for 53 years. Past recipients include visual artists Robert Frank, Edward Hopper, Louise Bourgeois, and Georgia O’Keeffe; composers Leonard Bernstein and Sonny Rollins; architect I.M. Pei; filmmakers Chuck Jones and Stan Brakhage; interdisciplinary artist Merce Cunningham; writers Robert Frost, William Styron, Eudora Welty, and Joan Didion; and playwrights Thornton Wilder and Edward Albee.

Photographer Nan Goldin was the 2012 medal recipient. Goldin is known for her highly personal photographs of friends and lovers coping with AIDS, physical abuse, and addiction. Luc Sante, chairman of this year’s Medalist selection committee, said,“Nan Goldin’s photographs of her life, her friends, and her family—unflinchingly honest, nakedly emotional, sometimes brutal, but most often tender —redefined the autobiographical use of photography and influenced everyone who has come after her.” Sante, who introduced Goldin during the event, described the artist as a “visual diarist” who tries “to freeze time” by capturing her friends at the beach, at parties, in bed. “The moment is the subject,” Sante said. They are “emphatically not snapshots.”

 

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, 1983. (Image © Nan Goldin courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

 

 

Nan Goldin, Picnic at the Esplanade, Boston, 1973. (Image © Nan Goldin courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

 

Writer Michael Chabon, who is also chairman of MacDowell’s board, has written many of his novels at the Colony, including his most recent book Telegraph Avenue. In his Medal Day remarks, Chabon compared the “obsession and empathy” in Nan Goldin’s work to that of Marian MacDowell:

Obsession and empathy. This year’s Medalist, the great Nan Goldin, once used that phrase to try to explain the true nature of her art. “A lot of people,” she said, “seem to think that art or photography is about the way things look, or the surface of things. That’s not what it’s about for me. It’s really about relationships and feelings… It’s about emotional obsession and empathy.” She was talking about photography, but I don’t think I’ve ever found a truer, more concise statement of how I approach writing, of what drives me to write in the first place.

The word “obsession,” of course, carries strong overtones of madness, of an uncontrollable consciousness circling endlessly around the same emotional locales, a tornado looping eternally back to wipe out the same eternal trailer park, over and over again. An artist’s work can be seen as the sum of his or her obsessions–think of Borges with his tigers, Plath with her ovens, Cornell with his ballerinas, Kahlo with her dripping milk. Obsessions are the finite, unvarying deck of trumps that an artist deals and redeals in a series of hands that is infinitely varied, playing solitaire, telling all our fortunes.

But empathy, too, is a kind of madness–isn’t it? A baby picks up the plastic receiver of a toy telephone–you know, the ones with the little blinking faces–and solemnly engages in babbled conversation with no one on the other end of the line, and we chuckle. But if an adult were to do the same thing, with the same solemnity, talking at length into that hollow bit of plastic with the expectation of understanding and of being understood, we would call that crazy. And yet that is the very madness, the beautiful, necessary madness, of empathy. Imprisoned in our skulls, alone with our thoughts, with nothing to judge by, apart from our own memories, our own patterns of thought, our own limited sensory information, we behave as if we can feel and know and understand what is passing in that other high, impregnable tower over there, out of whose small window another lonely face peers out.

Medal Day guests visiting Irving Fine Studio (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

Nam Le discusses writing with Anna Ivey and composer Yotam Haber. (Photo courtesy Anna Schuleit)

Welcome, therefore, to the asylum, a place (to give the word its original, literal meaning) of safety.

Here in these woods, the separate, parallel madnesses of obsession and of empathy can be brought to bear, like the lenses of a powerful instrument, on that great formless, featureless nebula of heartbreak and information known as the world, without the world’s being able to do the thing that the world does best: get in the way.

Here in these woods, in the studios you are welcome to visit…, along the paths and at the dinner table and in the library, some madman or -woman will be shuffling the decks of his or her obsessions. Daring to imagine that he or she can reach out across the void and touch the untouchable heart of another faraway being, and even, perhaps, as in one of Nan Goldin’s photographs, find a way to preserve that moment of connection against the destructive work of time.

Here in these woods, a great woman, Marian MacDowell, woke up one morning and said to herself, to her loved ones, and eventually to the world, starting today, by the sweat of my brow and the strength of my arm, the fierceness of my purpose and the steadfastness of my vision, by cajolery and tirelessness and good humor, I am going to create a place where obsession and empathy are not merely shielded but sheltered, tended, housed and fed. And how crazy was that? The woman must have been insane.

 

Michael Chabon with his daughter Sophie and son Zeke (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Medal Day guests caught glimpses of many different Nan Goldins during the course of that Sunday: Nan Goldin the public figure, the loving daughter, the humbled, fragile artist, the funny, wise-cracking woman with a cigarette and I’m Sorry tattoo.  (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

“But I have nothing to do with Nan Goldin. She died about ten years ago… I’ve had so many sea changes. Before I was battered and after. Before I was on drugs and after. That’s not what I am talking about. I’m talking about this public Nan Goldin; she’s got nothing to do with me. This famous person, this cult figure, has nothing to do with me.” (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

We caught glimpses of many different Nan Goldins during the course of the day: Nan Goldin the public figure, the loving daughter, the humbled, fragile artist, the funny, wise-cracking woman with a cigarette and I’m Sorry tattoo on her arm. Goldin’s acceptance speech was particularly moving. She talked about her extreme shyness, particularly as a young woman. “I hate photography,” she said. “It’s one of the lower art forms.” But as a young woman at school, “I was given a camera and that’s how I learned to speak.” “Artists can get stuck in their studio,” she said. “But I found the world was bigger.”

I was particularly struck by the artist’s description of her personal transformation, as both an artist and an individual. Goldin seems uncomfortable with the gap between her personal and public life. She refers to her former self as “the old Nan Goldin.” The artist’s Medal Day remarks echoed her comments from a 2011 interview with photographer Sally Mann:

But I have nothing to do with Nan Goldin. She died about ten years ago… I’ve had so many sea changes. Before I was battered and after. Before I was on drugs and after. That’s not what I am talking about. I’m talking about this public Nan Goldin; she’s got nothing to do with me. This famous person, this cult figure, has nothing to do with me.

Like all artists, Goldin is eager to focus on her most recent work. “The Ballad [of Sexual Dependency] was twenty years ago,” she explained to the Medal Day audience. “I have no idea what I’ll do tomorrow. I have a five-minute plan, not a five-year plan.” Her most recent major American show was Scopophilia, which paired 400 of her own autobiographical images with new photographs of paintings and sculpture from the Louvre’s collection. The exhibit, which I saw at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York last year, consisted of both photographic prints and Goldin’s characteristic slideshow set to music.

During her acceptance speech, Goldin’s 99-year-old father, Hyman Goldin, beamed at his daughter from the audience. “The greatest life achievement I had was keeping him alive,” his daughter joked from the podium.

Goldin thanked her assistants and her friend Luc Sante, who turned her onto the music she used in her famous slideshows. She also thanked “her dealer,” Marvin Heiferman. “My art dealer,” Goldin clarified with a laugh.

 

During her acceptance speech, Goldin’s 99-year-old father, Hyman Goldin, beamed at his daughter from the audience. “The greatest life achievement I had was keeping him alive,” his daughter joked. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Nan Goldin’s father, Hyman Goldin. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

“I was given a camera [at school],” Goldin said, “and that’s how I learned to speak.” (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

Before we ate our picnic lunches and dispersed throughout the property to tour the artists’ studios, we were reminded that being an artist is not about fashion or trite hipsterism. It’s about obsession, empathy, and possibility. Executive Director Cheryl Young summed it up nicely with this quote from the late art critic Robert Hughes:

The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning. It’s not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world.

Gwarlingo is the only place you’ll find these photographs of Nan Goldin, Michael Chabon, and the artists and visitors at MacDowell’s open house. Whether you have a personal connection to MacDowell, have thought about applying to an artist colony, or simply want a closer look behind the scenes of this historic artist retreat, I think you’ll enjoy perusing this special photo essay. (Note: Click on images to enlarge)

(If you’d like more information about MacDowell, artist colonies, and some of the artists featured here, please see the resources at the end of the article).

 

Artist Mary Lum in Firth Studio (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

“The Colony is a kind of sanctioned bohemia,” says Executive Director Cheryl Young, “One that works particularly well within a capitalist economy where the state only slimly supports artists. MacDowell provides opportunity for research and development for ideas that may or may not register in the commercial marketplace.” (Photo: Firth Studio by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Nan Goldin talks with Jeff Rosenheim, MacDowell board member and photography curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Me paying a visit to Mike Estabrook’s studio. These giant, cut-out puppets are being used in Mike’s latest video animation project. (Photo: Michelle Aldredge by Mike Estabrook)

 

 

Medal Day guests gather under the tent for the award ceremony (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

A Medal Day guest outside of Baetz Studio. Writer James Baldwin worked in Baetz during his residency in 1954. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Poet Patricia Smith chats with visitors in Baetz Studio. Smith’s fifth book, Blood Dazzler, which chronicles the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2008. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Ruth Reichl, food writer, co-producer of PBS’s Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie, culinary editor for the Modern Library, host of PBS’s Gourmet’s Adventures With Ruth, and the last editor-in-chief of the now shuttered Gourmet magazine, chats with former MacDowell staff member Lila Trowbridge and other visitors in Schelling Studio. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

A manuscript and books Ruth Reichl is using for her current writing project on display in Schelling Studio (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Schelling Studio is one of two studios on the property covered in hemlock bark. During a recent renovation, new bark was harvested from trees on the MacDowell property. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Medal Day visitors peruse some of the books Ruth Reichl has written, including Garlic and Sapphires, Comfort Me with Apples, and the Gourmet Today cookbook. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Hyman Goldin (on left) with Michael Chabon and his daughter Nan. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Each August a large white tent is erected in a field at the MacDowell Colony. The Medal Day ceremony, which is attended by 1000-2000 people, is held beneath the big top. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Animator Mike Estabrook draws handmade cards for guests at Heinz Studio (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Heinz, MacDowell’s sculpture studio, was built in the old ice house. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Dancer Morgan Thorson and animator Mike Estabrook in Heinz Studio on Medal Day (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The MacDowell staff prepares to hand out hundreds of picnic baskets to Medal Day guests (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Nan Goldin takes a cigarette break (Photo © Michael Moore/The Keene Sentinel. All rights reserved)

 

 

Medal Day guests visiting painter Julie Heffernan in Cheney Studio. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Julie Heffernan’s latest series of paintings is about environmental degradation. She’s the recipient of NYFA, NEA, and Fulbright fellowships and was recently inducted into the National Academy. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Nicolas Girard Deltruc, Executive Director of the Montréal Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, and filmmaker-in-residence Kevin Everson (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Each MacDowell studio has plaques or “tombstones” signed by the artists who have worked in that space. Some of the writers who have stayed in Heyward Studio include Michael Chabon, Arlene Hutton, Gary Giddins, Josh Weil, Roger King, Heidi Julavits, and Daniel Handler. During Medal Day, Kevin Everson used the Heyward mantle to display his short films on an i-Pad. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

MacDowell staff members Jim and Randy with artist-in-residence Kyla Chevrier. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

For her open studio, Kyla Chevrier created a site-specific installation with sheetrock and monochromatic color in Alexander Studio. Chevrier requested that only six visitors enter the studio at once. (Photo courtesy Sally Wright)

 

 

 

Chevrier used different colors on different walls. The rear wall, which is in the darkest corner of the room, was bathed in cool gray tones. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Kyla Chevrier discusses her installation in Alexander Studio with two Medal Day guests. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

The staff sets up picnic tables before Medal Day crowds arrive. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Writers in residence Bill Goldstein (on left) and Andrew Sean Greer (right) with Blake West (center). (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

The Chabon Family (left to right): Rosie, Sophie, Zeke, and Abe (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Work by architect Kiel Moe on display in Shop Studio (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Architect-in-residence Kiel Moe discusses his work with Medal Day guests in Shop Studio. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Composer Sebastian Currier with visual artist Mary Lum (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

One of the many vegetable gardens at MacDowell. The gardens are designed and maintained by Emily Drury and provide fresh vegetables, herbs, and fruit for artists’ meals spring through fall. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Medal Day guests enjoying lunch on the lawn (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

MacDowell volunteer Carolyn Saari and staff member Colette Lucas (on right) prepare to greet Medal Day visitors in the Savidge Library. The Colony is in the midst of adding an addition to the library. The new building was designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the architects who designed the new Barnes Museum in Philadelphia. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Nan Goldin with writer Luc Sante in front of the Savidge Library (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Artist Mary Lum in Firth Studio (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Mary Lum discusses her work with a Medal Day visitor at Firth Studio (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

A study in blue. A Medal Day guest consults the map of MacDowell’s 450 acres. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Jeromy Brett and the MacDowell staff begin Medal Day clean-up. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Visitors peruse catalogs in Julie Heffernan’s painting studio (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

During the open studio tours, Alena Graedon, Anna Schuleit, and Anna Ivey underline their favorite passages from Nam Le’s short story collection The Boat. (Photo courtesy Anna Schuleit)

 

 

Rain pours off the Medal Day tent during a Saturday evening reception for Nan Goldin. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Jeff Rosenheim introduces Nan Goldin’s slideshow, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Guests watched Ballad in Colony Hall, the central gathering area for artists and staff. (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

Colony Hall at the end of Medal Day (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

 

The sun sets behind the Medal Day tent (Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey 2012. All rights reserved)

 

The next deadline for applications to The MacDowell Colony is September 15th. To apply online or to learn more about upcoming public events or supporting the Colony, please visit the MacDowell website. You can also view The Faces of Medal Day, a special public art project that captured candid photos from Medal day, here.

The Alliance of Artist Communities is an excellent resource for artists in need of time and space to work. ResArtis is also a useful organization for those searching for an artist colony outside of the United States.

To purchase photographs by Joanna Eldredge Morrissey or to obtain permission to reuse these images, please contact Joanna at jo.eldredge@me.com.

 


 

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By | 2016-11-11T21:52:37+00:00 08.31.12|Events, Images, News, Spaces|3 Comments

About the Author:

I'm a writer, photographer, and the creator of Gwarlingo, a crowd-funded arts & culture journal that covers contemporary art, music, books, film, and the creative process. I’ve spent nearly 20 years as an arts enabler, helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I’ve also done time at an arts magazine, a library, and an art museum in Atlanta. For two years I cared for injured eagles, hawks, and owls at a raptor rehabilitation center in Vermont. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, consulting, and creative projects full-time. (You can check out my recent projects here.) I’ve appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, served as the judge for A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Literary Prize, and received fellowships from the Hambidge Center and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. My writing and photography have appeared in RISD XYZ magazine, 2Paragraphs, Psychology Today, Born Journal, and other publications. I offer one-on-one coaching sessions, group workshops, and speak to businesses, arts groups, and students about overcoming the psychological and practical barriers to producing your best work. (Read more here .) If you'd like to work with me one-on-one or hire me to speak at your school, business, or organization, please contact me at michelle (at) gwarlingo (dot) com. -

3 Comments

  1. Colette September 1, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Yet another fabulous Medal Day! I love the photos of Mary Lum’s studio and art work.

    • Michelle Aldredge September 1, 2012 at 7:56 am

      I’m a fan of Mary Lum’s work too. She was one of my favorite artists in the deCordova Biennial. That’s a great photo of you and Carolyn!

  2. Jeffrey Gross September 2, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    Wonderful spread, Michelle. Also, Mr. Chabon may not have had time to “take care of four children,” but he certainly found the time to look devastatingly hip.

Comments are closed.