Notes on customs, habits, and mating rituals of the residents at Yaddo, MacDowell, and other artists’ retreats.
I spent some time kicking around the colonies in the 1970s and 1980s when I was a footloose, or unemployed, youth. I’m referring to internships at the most prestigious American artists’ colonies, MacDowell and Yaddo. Artists from a variety of disciplines are housed and fed there for fees ranging from low to none. I wrote more music per day while I was a colonist, which lasted for about a year and a half, than at any other time in my life. Meanwhile I had my share of adventures, encounters, and contretemps. Advertisement.
You’re probably thinking, “Sex, drugs, egos, and art? In all those cases, yes and no.” The majority of people arrive at the colonies to work in an environment of intense privacy and concentration without spouses, children, or students, nor do they commute, cook, clean, or hustle. However, a small number of people arrive with an impolite agenda. This is typically the only place for artists in a colony to get away from everything. Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement.
These facts reveal the purpose and brilliance of artists’ colonies. You can work more efficiently than you ever have and spend your evenings socializing with some of the most interesting and creative people in the world, if you so choose. For nearly everybody, the work comes first. Dalliance, if any, is icing on the cake. However, the majority of newcomers don’t have such intentions, and I didn’t either during my one- to two-month stays at Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. What follows is a mélange of reportage and memoir. Advertisement Advertisement.
Each colony has its founding myth. It was not the then-celebrated composer Edward MacDowell who founded the eponymous place in Peterborough, N.H. He died early, but as he faded he imagined that his estate might inspire other artists as it had him. His wife Marian campaigned for years to raise money for a colony. Edward survived to see the arrival of the first MacDowell fellows. Eventually there were 32 studios scattered about the woods. Over the years they have housed Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, Spalding Gray, Alice Walker, and others of that stature. Colonist Thornton Wilder based Our Town on Peterborough. Marian survived until 1957, keeping the place running and enforcing her rules, particularly in regard to female fellows: No slacks, no smoking in public, no canoodling, or you hit the highway. In those days, hanky-panky was a challenge. In 2007 MacDowell celebrated its centennial. Advertisement Advertisement
Financial entrepreneur Spencer Trask and his wife, a writer named Katrina, founded Yaddo in 1900. The founding family was plagued by tragedy: Spencer was killed in a train crash while shaving while four of their children perished. The imposing mansion on the outskirts of Saratoga Springs makes up the majority of the location. The guests are housed in the mansion and outbuildings, some of whom have cabins in the MacDowell style. One studio is a stone tower next to a pond covered in moss that resembles something from The Lord of the Rings. (It used to be a chapel for the Trask servants. At Yaddo, a remarkable group of young artists—among them John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, and Truman Capote—came of age. In the Yaddo music room, Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions presented a historic run of new music concerts in the 1930s. Alumni of Yaddo have won 66 Pulitzer Prizes, 27 MacArthur “genius” awards, 61 National Book Awards, and Saul Bellow’s Nobel Prize, among other accolades. Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement.
Compared to the rural MacDowell or the Virginia Center with its horse pastures, Yaddo has a slightly higher tone because of the grand mansion and Victorian outbuildings. However, the majority of the colonial workers are the same type of relatively obscure laborers in the fields of art. Advertisement Advertisement.
Typically, a non-famous colonist is a straightforward creative type who is smarter, more creative, and funnier than the average man. On the whole, the days go smoothly. Every night, guests arrive for dinner either excited and content, puzzled by their day’s work, or occasionally a little flipped—especially the newcomers because they have never before been given a lovely, quiet room where they have nothing to do but create things. There is a certain amount of staring at the wall while attempting to remain calm with new colonists. Sometimes, a breakthrough happens. After sitting idle in his studio for two weeks, a friend of mine quickly wrote a fantastic aria for his opera that, about 30 years later, helped him win a Pulitzer. Advertisement.
Someone will post a notice announcing a presentation of their work one or two nights per week. The unwritten rule is that you give your fellow classmates a jug of cheap wine and some chips for the presentation, and for about an hour you perform your act in front of the most educated and understanding audience you will ever have. Although some of them won’t like what you do, most of them will be polite about it. A party often follows a presentation. At colonies, I observed a striking absence of the hustling, bragging, and careerism that characterizes most artist gatherings. There is a growing understanding that we are all on the same team and in the same boat, and as a result, there is a certain amount of respect among us. The most sleazy nun I ever came across was a non-habiting nun who wrote shockingly erotic poetry that I assume was also spiritual. Her book arrived in our mailboxes for all of us, which was considered intrusive. Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement.
Naturally it’s not all sweet harmony. I recall two female novelists who got along well for a few weeks. After that, one of them gave a reading; she later became a popular historical novelist. Next morning her artier pal knocked on her studio door. (This is verboten: no uninvited visits. When the historical fiction author opened the door, her friend greeted her by saying, “I’ll give it to you straight.” Your work is crap. The friend then threw her belongings in the car and drove off. Everybody gathered around to comfort the quite freaked historical novelist. She calmed down soon enough and got back to work.
In my experience, there aren’t many true sociopaths, but like everywhere else, they occasionally surface, and word spreads. I overheard a well-known novelist describe a colony fixture she had seen during a previous visit one evening in the dining room at MacDowell. She explained, “She finds these young things, and she sort of adopts them. And they blossom. ” She waved her arms. “Blossom! Blossom! Then she wipes them out. ” Advertisement.
I recognized the composer she was referring to—one with a previously respectable reputation. Her strategy was to approach a potential protégé, typically a young woman, and pique her interest and sympathy. She would viciously turn on the protégé once she had gained their respect and trust. She had a young male composer as her choice when I knew her at MacDowell. She and the protégé started taunting me for no apparent reason, especially during meals. I felt like the sickly fat kid that everyone teased in the cafeteria in fifth grade. After dinner during those weeks, I crept back to my studio and started working on my first orchestra piece. It needed the time anyway. Eventually it got me a publisher. Some years later I ran into that protégé. He was doing all right. “Did she turn on you?” I asked. “Of course, ” he said. Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement.
Yaddo and MacDowell used to operate at a reduced capacity during the colder months, with only 15 guests as opposed to the summer’s 30 or so. We all used to eat dinner at a long table in the library during the winter at Yaddo. In that situation, just one person can sour the scene. An elderly academic who spoke loudly, endlessly, and frequently insensitively throughout every meal bothered me during one of my residencies. We unconsciously established a pattern of switching up who sat next to him. We were in shock when he finally left and thought we could still hear his voice during the first few meals. Advertisement Advertisement.
There are tragic cases, varying in severity from The famous cartoonist’s widow spoke about him nonstop and had no idea how to use a washing machine for laundry When we were bowling in town, the gay filmmaker who had acquired a stomach ailment from a young Egyptian told me that he gave it five years to get better before taking his own life. The nerdy young photographer dressed in vintage clothing went into the woods, dressed up trees, and took pictures of them. She finished a life-size portrait of herself when she got back to New York, then she leaped out of a high window. It was over a guy, we heard. Advertisement Advertisement.
Another perennial element is the diceyness of the art itself. The competition to be accepted into one of the major colonies has always been fierce. In my years, Yaddo and MacDowell probably accepted one in every four applicants. I’ll wager the percentage is slimmer now. To my eyes and ears, the work was consistently of a decent to excellent standard. However, some of what makes it into homes is horribly bad. I recall the graduate student who projected photos of him and his friends having a good time while intoxicated onto canvas and traced the images to create his paintings. He added titles like, “We really screwed up that time!” and “There’s usually a helping of arrested adolescence” to the end. The arrogant teenager telling us he was writing a novel in stream-of-consciousness while smoking marijuana and playing guitar all day What else would you be writing, we thought. Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement.
A charming and unsettling custom at MacDowell is to hang “tombstones” on the walls of each studio. Each artist who stayed there inscribes their name and discipline on these wooden slabs. When I got to my first studio, I threw my things down and eagerly looked at the gravestones. My discovery was the usual one. I could make out the fading names of Aaron Copland and a few other notables from the 1930s. The only other name I recognized among those many others was that of a student from my high school. Pianos are in composers’ studios, but I once received a stay extension and found myself in a writer’s studio. As always, I studied the tombstones. Years ago, disciplines such as writer, poet, writer, poet, etc. marched down the wooden slabs. The disciplines evolved into Star Keeper, Flower Shepherd, Mountain Goddess, and other titles around 1968. The disciplines returned around 1971 (the year the Beatles split up), including writer writer poet poet writer, etc. Advertisement Advertisement.
The colonies are essentially hermetically sealed, acting as art-making test tubes. You might take a day or two off to visit friends and family, but extended absences are discouraged. One of the best Christmases of my life was spent composing in my MacDowell studio, then enjoying a sumptuous dinner with a few other colonists who were glad to be away from home. Crowds gather on MacDowell’s Medal Day in the summer when tents are erected on the lawn and luminaries like Roth and Updike are honored (whether or not they are alumni). Residents of the colony have a history of embarrassingly getting wasted and ending up under the tables on those days. In my experience, we had to drink on Medal Day because we felt uncomfortable around all those strangers. We were warned, but nonetheless, a documentary crew showed up for dinner one night and started filming us. Normally, meals were filled with roaring laughter, wonderful conversation, and fascinating gossip, but as soon as the cameras started rolling, we turned into a group of idiots laughing uncontrollably and spilling wine all over the tables. Afterward we could not figure out what got into us. It had to do with feeling violated and having our little world torn apart. Advertisement Advertisement.
I’m sure you’re curious about the sex, but what about that. In my experience, there were typically one to three discreet affairs going on at any given time, especially if one or both parties were married to someone else. There are always energetic, creative, single young people living there, and whatever happens, happens. But anyone can get lucky, if open to the possibility. I recall a writer in his 60s who, with excitement and apprehension, learned for the first time that he was gay. A few years later, he won a Pulitzer, and he passed away a few years later. Before going back to his boyfriend’s house, a composer acquaintance had a sweet moment with a ethereal woman poet. (I believe she was the one who left an article on male multiple orgasm in my mailbox for my education. I concluded it isn’t worth the trouble. ) Advertisement Advertisement.
Here and there I was one of the items. Theoretically, colonists are expected to keep their pranks to themselves. Noncolonists are not allowed to visit overnight. You’re expected to keep it to yourself when they do overnight visits. It’s don’t ask, don’t tell. I confess to a few extra-curricular visits. In one of them, I navigated a snowstorm in order to visit a close friend at MacDowell. I pulled over next to her studio just before midnight, parking my car on the street. I had the option of freezing to death, but I didn’t, and I was well rewarded for my perseverance. Advertisement Advertisement.
Depending on who lives there, the colonies’ social and sexual climate, as well as their relative heat, naturally vary. I heard it more than once, “We should have come here last month.” “This place was a nonstop orgy. I’ve discussed this with a few former colonists, and everyone agrees that those episodes usually seem to occur at a different time than yours. Advertisement.
The most scandalous incident I can recall occurred when a young, married artist showed up at Yaddo. She created tiny, light-colored pastels of different crustaceans with captions like “A picture of a feeling.” ” I began hearing whispers among the men at breakfast. It turned out that she was rapping on men’s bedroom doors late at night and politely but firmly inviting herself in. “Did she knock on your door? What did you do?” Although we never asked about potential non-conformists, a general lockout was declared. I was both relieved and disappointed that she never knocked on my door.
So all day you make art. You are by yourself, alone with your thoughts, notes, feelings, and anything else. You visit other studios if invited. You exercise by going for walks, running, hiking, swimming, watching TV, playing pool, and ping-pong. The food tends to be excellent. After breakfast at Yaddo, you bring lunch in a tin lunchbox to your studio. At MacDowell, your lunch is delivered by truck at noon and is discretely left in a picnic basket outside your door. The only external event of the day, then, is lunch. There was once a young woman who was slender working in the kitchen at MacDowell. She screwed the soup canisters so tightly on her first day that few people were able to remove them, despite hours of trying. That night we were all traumatized. Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement.
The majority of the MacDowell studios, each with a distinctive design, are hidden from view in the woods. I had a neat brick studio next to a small pond one summer. I started going to the pond after lunch to look at the wildlife. One afternoon, I stood there and observed a dragonfly eating a common fly that was larger than its head while it was perched on a leaf. The fly was being turned around and around by it, and after a minute, it was being devoured by tiny audible chomps. I made an effort to picture myself devouring a head-sized piece of beef in a single sitting. In the pond lived groups of crayfish. I’d get a stick and play with them. The dominant crayfish would always approach the stick and poke it with his claws while the majority would flee backward with a flick of the tail. Every day I would lay by the pond and catch crayfish. Advertisement.
Yaddo has a fringe of woods, but it’s near town and next to the racetrack. (In August you hear the end of each race, which sounds like a wave rising and crashing.) The more interesting fauna at Yaddo were inside the mansion. We had noticed these things that looked like oversized butterfly nets hanging in the halls and wondered what they might be. One night several of us went out to see the movie Alien, in which a horrible creature is stuck to a spaceman’s face. In the middle of the night a poet from the group was having a nightmare about that creature and woke up to find she had a bat on her face. Naturally she began to shriek wildly. The door flew open and a fellow colonist ran in brandishing one of those nets. As it was narrated by the poet at breakfast next morning, the scene was classic farce: naked screaming woman in bed and man in underwear thrashing around with bat net. That’s how we found out what the nets were for. Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement
What else can I say other than that, at the time, in the complete absence of distraction, all these things were wonderful, superior to television and the Internet. I bring up the last point because, as of now, none of the MacDowell or Yaddo studios are wired, there is only spotty cell service in the main buildings, and there is only limited access to the Internet.
At the colonies, a select few create works that are legendary, while a large number of others discover their unique callings. Colonies are where I finished growing up as much as I’m ever going to, while making new friends and getting over a failed marriage. It’s where I discovered, more or less, how good I am and how good I’m not with regard to my music—pretty good, in my opinion, but one needs to learn how far one’s work deviates from Mozart. My back first started to hurt there, and it never fully recovered. (Back and neck pain are common in colonies because you spend all day hunched over a desk, piano, or easel. I first learned what a bad idea a roll in the hay can be in practice rather than theory at a colony where I briefly dated a suicidal short-story writer. Colonies are the last places I danced my ass off. They’re the last places I fell in love. They are the places where I made friends who are still close to me and friends who I met through those friends. We are all in the business of making things. Advertisement Advertisement.
The level of excess actually disappointed me; how insane, sodden, lascivious, egomaniacal, and so forth are the colonies. I discovered that most artists were, generally speaking, no crazier than anyone else. After all, a significant portion of the population is insane, and the majority of those individuals do not use art as an justification. The proportion of inebriates and lunatics I saw at the colonies was not appreciably higher than the proportion I saw among my own friends and family. And from what I can tell, neither my family nor friends are particularly crazy. Advertisement.
Most artists refer to their work as a job, but in reality, very few artists of any kind are able to support themselves through it. The majority of us are not arrogant enough to refer to it as a calling, but that is essentially what it is. We do it because we are good at it, because we have no other preference, and because it is how we are wired. There are far too many artists in the world; the market simply cannot support them all. Because creating art is among the most wonderful things one can do, The gods have therefore determined that art will be among the most difficult professions in the world to make a living, which has a perverse but typical corollary. The colonies stand as one of the few genuine benefits in an endeavor that is absurd and unprofitable in nearly every way except in the doing of it for the run of capable and passionate but unnoticed artists. This common understanding serves as the foundation for the colonies’ pervasive irony and occasionally wonderful camaraderie. Here, at least, you can laugh at it all.
Weekends with Yankee: MacDowell Colony
Is MacDowell Fellowship prestigious?
More than 15,000 fellowships have been awarded to MacDowell artists. A panel of esteemed experts in each field awards these intensely competitive fellowships, each with an average value of $14,000, solely on the basis of talent.
How much is a MacDowell fellowship?
Fellowship $400,000 Permanently Endowed with Stipend – A gift at this level will permanently endow a Fellowship for one artist each year in your name, as well as a stipend each year.
What is a MacDowell residency like?
MacDowell gives exceptionally talented artists time, space, and an inspiring environment. A MacDowell Fellowship, or residency, includes up to six weeks of lodging, three meals per day, and exclusive use of a studio. There are no residency fees.
Can you visit MacDowell Colony?
Visits to MacDowell Though the Peterborough campus of MacDowell is only accessible to the public on Medal Day each August, groups and the press are encouraged to make arrangements by calling Jonathan Gourlay at (603) 924-3886.