A think tank for artists in New England woods
Aaron Copland wanted peace and quiet to put the finishing touches on ''Appalachian Spring.'' Thornton Wilder visited to think through ''Our Town.''Skip to next paragraph
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Leonard Bernstein needed the hush to conceive his ''Mass.''
Today, like these once-obscure artists before him, composer Murdock McGinnis sits inside one of a series of sequestered bungalows penciling notes on his music score. As leaves fall gently outside, he gives birth to a string quartet amid humble surroundings: bare walls, hooked rug, table, chair.
Welcome to what has been called ''the most creatively prolific 400 acres in America'': the MacDowell Artists' Colony. What a think tank is to scholars, what a research firm is to high-tech engineers, MacDowell is to the fine artists - indeed to the greater culture - of the world.
Much of the music you hear, many of the paintings and sculptures you see, and the books you read - from the famous to the little-known - owe a debt to this slice of silent geography just outside picturesque Peterborough.
Founder Edward MacDowell, a composer, got so much work done here - inspired by mountaintop vistas, fragrant pine forests, and the refuge of the wilderness - that he started inviting others in 1907. Celebrating a 75th anniversary last year, the colony counted 35 Pulitzer prizes among its distinguished alumni. As the first, oldest, and largest of American artists' colonies, it has spawned others across the country - somewhere near 40, and the number is growing.
''MacDowell is the granddaddy of them all,'' says composer Richard Wargo, who has had more than one stint at this and other well-known colonies. ''It's the place to aspire to if you're an artist.''
There were no colonies around when, 10 years after buying an abandoned farm with tumble-down barns, Mr. MacDowell expressed his dream that the different artistic disciplines ''come into such close contact that each and all should gain from this mutual companionship.''
The legacy left by him and his wife, Marian, is summed up in two words: silence and seclusion.
''It's set up so that artists don't have to deal with phone, television, neighbors, job, even preparing meals,'' says director Chris Barnes. ''They eat breakfast, and then work undisturbed in their studios until dinner. Poets, writers, sculptors, painters, tell me they get a year's work done in eight weeks here.''
For a few, days without interruption are worse than sleepless nights, but ''most creators thrive on ideal working conditions,'' says former chairman William Schuman.
''Of all the elements in the creative process, quiet is one of the hardest to come by,'' says painter Hunt Slonem in a testimonial to MacDowell. ''In an age of sensory overload, to be cradled in the protective environment is a great luxury. MacDowell offers an escape ... to watch the lady-slippers bloom and the porcupines mate, to observe and be restored by nature.''
The 20-or-so colonists here at any given time - divided roughly among visual artists, composers, and writers - share breakfast and dinner in the converted barn, Colony Hall, before retiring to self-contained, solitary studios - each beyond earshot of the others. Lunch is delivered quietly by picnic basket promptly at noon, and colonists sleep in various dorms.
''Take a look at this view and tell me I haven't found an artist's paradise, '' says Nancy Chance, a third-time visitor. She left the hustle and bustle of Manhattan to finish a string quartet in one-eighth of the time it would take her at home. ''It's not just the quantity of work you can get done here, though,'' she adds. ''The serenity adds to its quality as well.''