The Art of Taking Risks : 13 Years, 3500 Artists, 7 Memorable Lessons


Image from the vernacular photography collection of Mark Glovsky

When I was a girl, I was fearless. I was always falling out of trees, off of speeding bicycles, into muddy creeks. Once, I was bitten by an angry goose. I was knocked on the head accidentally with a baseball. A rock. And a basketball. On one hot summer evening, the rope of the tire swing broke and sent me and my best friend, Michael, hurling through the yard like a hockey puck. And then there was the morning I tumbled into my neighbor’s cactus garden. (Who knew that cacti spines came in so many size and color variations? Ouch.)

But somewhere on the way to adulthood, the youthful spirit of risk took its leave. Like so many other “responsible” adults, I succumbed to the tyranny of the regular paycheck. Although I never lived extravagantly, I traded my time for money, and money for things. Once on that spinning wheel, it’s hard to get off. Often we forget that it’s even possible to stop, reevaluate, and make radical changes to our lives. It feels too scary. Too hard and overwhelming.

This past year has forced me to stop and reconsider my options. Ten months ago, when I launched Gwarlingo, I never could have anticipated how quickly the site would grow and how enthusiastically it would be received. Some incredible opportunities have come my way as a result–I’ve made new friends, had fabulous conversations with readers (in person and online), traveled, flexed my writing, tech, and photography skills, been on the radio, been hired for new, challenging projects, and more. And every minute has been pure pleasure for me. For the first time in ages, I have no idea what surprises the day will bring when I get out of bed, and that excites me.

Image from the vernacular photography collection of Mark Glovsky

After thirteen remarkable years working at The MacDowell Colony, I’ve decided it’s time to take the leap into full-time self employment. The decision wasn’t easy, but I know it’s the right thing to do. Letting go of my 9-5 job (with a regular paycheck and benefits) will allow me to expand Gwarlingo and tackle some new creative projects. Is it a risk? Of course. But it’s a risk that takes me back to those free-wheeling, tree-climbing days.

While I’ll miss all of my friends at the Colony terribly, I can still be part of a creative community through Gwarlingo and through some new collaborative projects that are on the horizon.

Over 3500 artists have passed through the doors of MacDowell during my tenure there. That’s a lot of creative energy in one place. In the past few days a number of people have asked me about the experience of working at the Colony for over a decade. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned in my thirteen years at the nation’s oldest artist retreat…

  • If you are open, receptive, and generous with others, the majority of people will be open, receptive, and generous in return.

  • Reserve judgment. Forget rumors. Listen and be patient. Most people will surprise you.

  • The most successful artists don’t have some mysterious gift that allows them to excel in their field. They simply work hard, work consistently, take creative risks, and don’t worry about what other people think. This is the real formula for creative success.

  • It is artists who have the best bird’s eye view of our culture today–they can tell us where we’ve been and where we’re going. They have the special ability to imagine alternatives to the present.

  • Artists can also view the world from a micro level. They can help us appreciate the unseen.

  • Solitude is an art. Unplugging and learning to be alone with yourself is essential if you want to do your best creative work. Technology is a tool. We should control it, not the other way around. Turn off your phone, Twitter, email, etc. Do it. The withdrawal symptoms will subside, eventually.

  • Being an artist is challenging in our society. It’s hard mentally, physically, and financially. It takes a village–a community of friends, fellow artists, and supporters who understand why you do the work you do and believe that it’s valuable. If you have the means, support artists and organizations, like MacDowell, who are helping artists realize their full potential. And if you’re an artist, don’t forget to leave your apartment or studio every now and then. Find a residency program, go to a reading, concert, or opening, or have fun with friends. Play and connection are just as important as hard work.

These are just a few of the lessons I’ll take with me when I go.


Image from the vernacular photography collection of Mark Glovsky

I have a lot of exciting ideas for growing Gwarlingo. I’m looking forward to organizing live events, providing more resources for artists on the site, and digging into much-discussed topics like money, fear, and technology and how these dovetail with the creative life.
And then there is my own creative work that’s been languishing–I have a novel to sell, stories to finish, and photographs to print.

Of course, I will also need to piece together the funding to make all of this happen. Traffic on the site continues to grow. Last month I had over 25,000 unique visitors to Gwarlingo. I expect this number to climb as I have more time to devote to the project. This opens up some new opportunities for sponsorships, which I’ll be exploring.

I’ll also be available for freelance and consulting projects. I have a large project with a nonprofit that will take part of the year, but I also look forward to working with artists who need help with grant writing, project proposals, social media, and artist statements. I have a few artists penciled into my calendar already.


Image from the vernacular photography collection of Mark Glovsky

My last day at The MacDowell Colony will be April 27th. Life is going to be very full until then, so please forgive me if I’m not able to post as regularly in the coming weeks. You will have more of my time and attention very soon.
Thanks to all of the staff, friends, and artists who have made my job at the Colony so memorable through the years. I also want to thank the friends, old and new, who have participated in the evolution of Gwarlingo.

We’re just getting started.

Image from the vernacular photography collection of Mark Glovsky

Don’t miss the next Gwarlingo feature. Click here to subscribe to Gwarlingo. You can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook.
Support Gwarlingo by making a donation of any size. Gwarlingo takes countless hours of labor each month, and your help keeps the site going!

A special thank you to Mark Glovsky for sharing these beautiful images from his found photography collection. Thanks Mark!


By | 2016-11-11T21:52:47+00:00 05.06.12|Found, Greatest Hits, Images, News, Process|17 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) 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, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Nova April 11, 2012 at 2:51 am

    Michelle, I am so thrilled and excited for you! I know MacDowell will miss you very, very, very, very! much—and yet I absolutely can’t wait to see what happens next with Gwarlingo and with you. I’m a huge fan of Gwarlingo and I’m really looking forward to keeping on reading. All my best to you, and congratulations on making the leap!

    • Michelle Aldredge April 11, 2012 at 7:08 pm

      Nova, Sigrun, Mary, Sam, Manfred, Kathryn, Anne, Mari, and Karen… Thank you! Your messages and good wishes have meant a lot to me today. As you can imagine, the decision is bittersweet. I feel like MacDowell is part of my DNA after all these years! I’m glad to have the support of friends and readers like you during this big transition.

      Sigrun, I was happy to see your comment on Mark Glovsky’s photos. Aren’t they beautiful? I’ve never met Mark in person (we met through Gwarlingo), but I’m going to be doing a larger feature on his collection some time in the near future. He has an incredible array of found images that I’m eager to share.

  2. Sigrun April 11, 2012 at 3:45 am

    Dear Michelle,
    I have had the pleasure of following Gwarlingo for several months now. It has been a fantastic stimulating & inspiring experience. It’s a brave decision to quit a fulltime job, but I know what you’re capable of, and feel sure that you have made a good choice. (& as far as we know we only have this one life) Wish you the best of luck for the time to come!

    ps: love the pictures too!

  3. Mary April 11, 2012 at 8:08 am

    Congratulations Michelle!

  4. manfred juengling April 11, 2012 at 9:28 am

    creativity with beauty and space for mind and soul,congratulation , bluebird artist barcelona

  5. Kathryn April 11, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Hi Michelle. I wish you all the rewards that pure risk brings. I wish you closer to beauty and to the wild beat of living.

  6. Anne @ Zen and Genki April 11, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Wow, Michelle, I am just thrilled for you! What a marvelous, exciting time. My hat’s off to you,lady, for your spunk, sparkle and passion. I am looking forward to reading about (perhaps even seeing, right here!)all of your future successes.
    Kudos to you, congratulations to you, and all the very best to you as you close one chapter and open the next.

  7. Mari April 11, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    Michelle, many congratulations to you on your step of faith and courage into the unknown! I know your new ventures will be rewarding and stimulating in ways that you’ve yet to discover. Thank you for gwarlingo, which is just about my favorite thing on the Internet. With all best wishes for your future (which I look forward to following!), —Mari

  8. Karen Rand Anderson April 11, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    Mucho congrats, to you, Michelle! All of the above comments are exactly what I wanted to say…They sum up just how I feel about Gwarlingo. You have an extraordinary gift in being able to ferret out curious, interesting and meaningful art experiences and ideas, and then share them SO BEAUTIFULLY with the rest of us. Your talents are many, and stellar! Best of luck as you forge ahead on your personal path; I’ll be waiting (as usual) with bated breath for each and every Gwarlingo post and your beautiful photos, and looking forward to following your evolution. AND reading your novel! Can’t wait!

    Warm wishes,


  9. Sam Zalutsky April 11, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    Congratulations and best of luck, Michelle! I’m glad I got to MacD. while you were still there. I look forward to seeing that novel one day and keeping up with the site.

  10. Samantha Ellis April 12, 2012 at 2:12 am

    Congratulations on taking the leap! I look forward to reading your fiction one day. xxxx

  11. Colette Lucas April 12, 2012 at 8:05 am

    Reading Gwarlingo is part of my daily morning routine. I look forward to your continued success.

  12. Andrewson April 14, 2012 at 8:52 am

    Awesome read.

  13. Diane Moser April 27, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Michelle, you are an amazing woman and I know you will be producing amazing photographs and will continue to help other artists in a new way!Kudos to you for taking that big leap into the unknown of self employment,but I know you will be truly successful at anything you do!

  14. AC April 27, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Exquisitely said, profoundly felt. I’m so happy for you, and, resultant of reading your missive, have become a bit weepy. You’re a magnificent treasure to us.

  15. Heidi Kumao April 27, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Wow! I’m so impressed and inspired!
    Michelle, you have been a real “rock” at MacDowell and a gem to have around the place. It will be weird without you!!
    I am glad that you have carved out a unique place for your own creativity and am always poking around at the topics and artists you have covered with Gwarlingo.
    Your leap into life is inspiring to me personally. We need to be reminded sometimes of the importance of risks. I wish you all the best.

  16. Mar Cuervo December 9, 2013 at 9:59 am

    Dear Michelle, I´m writing you from Madrid (Spain). I still don´t know what made my find Gwarlingo but I´m stick with it. Love it!It is a great therapy and it really feeds me artistically! Thanks!

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