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.
During this year’s ceremony, I appreciated Executive Director Cheryl Young’s thoughts on “bohemianism” and the financial struggles of working artists:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 [email protected]
Also, don’t forget that the Gwarlingo bookstore has additional book titles on my personal recommendation list, including poetry, fiction, art and photography books, and more. A portion of your purchases benefit Gwarlingo.