For artists only

MacDowell, the oldest artists' colony in the US, gives some 200 people a year room, board, and a quiet place to think.

No question about it: The MacDowell Colony loves its "colonists," who come to the New Hampshire woods to block out all distractions and produce their best art.

Each is given room and board, along with a studio to work in at no charge. Most of the grateful artists treat their temporary home with respect - but some have gotten so caught up in their work they forget their manners.

"One artist, who shall remain nameless, painted right on the wall of his studio," says Cheryl Young, the executive director of MacDowell. "When it came time to leave, he decided he wanted his painting. So he just cut it out of the wall with a chain saw and took it with him."

The colony quietly repaired the wall, repainted, and brought in the next guest.

That hospitality is just what Marian MacDowell had in mind when she established the colony in 1907 as a haven for working artists on her 450-acre southern New Hampshire farm. It's the oldest of about 100 such artists communities around the United States and among the best known, along with such others as Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, Colo.; Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts in Sweet Briar.

MacDowell is a living tribute to her husband, American composer Edward MacDowell. Today, more than 200 artists visit each year for stays ranging from two to eight weeks.

The 20 or 30 artists in residence at any given time gather each evening at Colony Hall, the large administrative building, for a family-style meal (served promptly at 6:30 p.m.) and informal activities such as pool and ping-pong. Other than breakfast, it's the only time they are likely to see one another. The rest of the day the "colonists," as the artists are called, scatter to some 30 studios that dot the rolling, wooded property. There they sculpt, paint, write, design, or compose.

They don't even have to account for how they spend their time. "We don't ask for a report at the end," Ms. Young explains. That's because of the rigorous selection process. The applicant must show a track record of accomplishments. On average, only 1 in 6 artists who apply is accepted. "We try to find people who are most likely to do something good, and we let them do it," Young says. "We don't bug them. We don't ask them if they finished what they were supposed to today."

So how does the colony know if it's succeeding in its mission?

For one thing, it can point to its list of past colonists, which includes nearly 60 Pulitzer Prize winners. The stellar list includes Willa Cather, Barbara Tuchman, Studs Terkel, and Michael Chabon. Thornton Wilder wrote "Our Town" here in the 1930s. Aaron Copland composed his "Appalachian Spring" in one of the studios, and Leonard Bernstein finished at least part of his monumental "Mass" in another one. In fact, the colony's elegant stone library building is stacked to the ceiling with books and musical scores published by past MacDowell colonists.

To guard the colonists' privacy, the general public is allowed on the grounds just one day a year. That's Medal Day, when the studios are opened, and the colony presents an award to a prominent artist. Recent honorees have included animator Chuck Jones, architect I.M. Pei, and writer Philip Roth.

To keep in better touch with the townspeople of Peterborough, the colony has begun a series of monthly presentations called MacDowell Downtown. In April, colonist Tom Gilroy shared scenes from "Spring Forward," his movie starring Liev Schreiber and Campbell Scott, and provided a glimpse at the world of filmmaking. When Mr. Gilroy was trying to cast veteran Hollywood actor Ned Beatty for a key part, he told the audience, he was getting nowhere with Beatty's agent.

Actor D.B. Sweeney had auditioned for a part (he didn't get it), and Gilroy mentioned his trouble in getting through to Beatty. "Give me the script, and I'll hand it to him. He's my next-door neighbor" in California, Sweeney said. A little later, Gilroy received a call from Beatty, wanting to talk about the part.

Accommodating the artists often trumps tradition. Though the original concept was for studios used only during the workday, with living quarters and meals in Colony Hall, some of the studios now are full live-ins, with kitchens and bedrooms. Young acknowledges that the staff can be softies - they've even quietly installed an air-conditioner (rarely needed in the cool New Hampshire woods) if the artist claims to absolutely need it. One persistent rumor among colonists is that one of the new studios has a hot tub. It's not quite true, but the studio does have a bathtub next to a picture window with a marvelous view.

The projects the colonists tackle vary widely. For Jo McDougall, a recent stay was a chance to finish her fifth book of poetry and work on a memoir about her father, a coming-of-age tale set on a rice farm in southern Arkansas. MacDowell provides "solitude - time to think," says Ms. McDougall, who has won a stay at the colony several times.

People have "lost their sense of awe and wonder" about life, she says. "MacDowell is a place where you can go to be in awe." (About half of the colonists have come at least once before. David Rakowski, a composer from Maynard, Mass., is on his 10th visit.)

While artists generally want to work alone, being able to talk about their art at the breakfast and dinner tables is often a great help. ("The quickest way to stop a conversation on an airplane is to say that you're a poet," McDougall says.)

Some of the artists form lifelong friendships. As the colonists gathered for dinner on one recent night, one stood up and recited from memory a favorite poem in honor of another colonist who had departed the night before.

A studio at MacDowell provides "a little nest to work from," as well as a spirit-lifting "validation" of one's artistic credibility, says Emily Brown, a painter from Philadelphia. She used a recent stay to paint large ink-brush triptychs of landscapes that will be installed in the vaulted archways of a Philadelphia gallery.

Laura Hendrie, working on her third book of fiction, says being alone in a studio, with no telephone or Internet access, is not a problem. "Solitude," she says, "is what art is all about."

It's "hard to carve out time to work" at home, agrees Gail Taylor, a poet on her first residency at MacDowell. She's working on a book of poems relating to the life her parents led as transient African-American civil rights activists.

Blake Tewksbury, whose job it is to look after the colonists' needs, has delivered lunch baskets to their studios for years. Usually he leaves them quietly on the outside step, but sometimes he gets invited in. The artists may ask him what he thinks of a poem or painting or may choose to vent a little frustration, Mr. Tewksbury says.

He makes sure they have flashlights for wandering the unlighted paths after dark. Sometimes they need special help: He once took an artist to the nearby town of Keene in order to find a sheet-metal shop. "He made what looked like metal baskets," Tewksbury says.

A visit to the studio of Whiting Tennis means first opening a gate in a stone wall and walking down several steps. The studio, most of which is just one good-sized room with a high-peaked ceiling, is built into the side of a hill. Mr. Tennis has a couple of canvases on the walls and others stacked haphazardly in rows on the floor. He apologizes; he's just moved in and hasn't finished any new work.

The angular young artist, with a tall Lincolnesque frame, doesn't know exactly how his MacDowell project will turn out, but he's not worried.

"I never have anything like writer's block," he says. Instead, he tends to find so many interesting artistic paths to explore that he must force himself to choose one. He does that by telling himself he'll come back later and follow the abandoned threads of thought.

He flips through an album of photographs he's taken on trips across the United States and Australia. Tennis is fascinated with modest buildings and lawn ornaments - mobile homes, tree houses, and other structures ordinary people have customized to express themselves. He plans to make art that will capture the textures, shapes, and colors he sees in the photographs. The results will be a cross between painting and sculpture, mounted on canvases but with three-dimensional elements.

"I was told recently that what I do isn't painting," he says with a shrug. "That's fine with me. I don't care what label you put on it."

Whether Tennis will be the next Jackson Pollock, or MacDougall the next Emily Dickinson, is not the point, according to Young. "It's like the NBA," she says. Few become superstars. For some, the time may be needed just "to meet your demons" - facing up to that empty canvas or blank computer screen.

"The museums get the old stuff," Young reminds a visitor. "We're getting the stuff at the cutting edge."

Writer at work ... umm, sort of

Encouraged by the staff at the MacDowell Colony, I've decided not to just write about artists at work but to be one.

I've devised a writing project in which I'll break out of the conventions of journalism and let my creative self emerge.

The first morning after breakfast, I tromp down a gravel road from Colony Hall, where I'm staying, to the Irvine Fine studio, where I'll work. After a few wrong turns, with a cold rain pelting down, I find the door and unlock it. Ah, the heat's on and a huge wooden desk stands before me under a picture window.

I settle in to create.

Though most writers these days bring a laptop computer, I feel more "artistic" scribbling on a yellow legal pad. I decide to warm up by describing what I see around me. It's so quiet that I hear only the scratching of the felt pen on paper.

"The studios were sited by Mrs. MacDowell so that none was visible from another," I write. (I later learn that a few studios converted from farm buildings are close to each other.) "There is no radio, television, telephone (cellphones work only intermittently), or refrigerator to distract me, though there's heat, electricity, and plumbing.

"The woods are still - evergreens stretch skyward out of my sight and a few brave green sprouts push through the brown leaf litter of early April."

Hmmm. It's still only 10:40 a.m. Lots of time to get the project going. I get up and inspect the room more closely. Lining two of the walls are 16 "tombstones," wooden plaques on which are inscribed the names of everyone who has worked here before me. I take each one down and scan for celebrities. Alice Walker, the author of "The Color Purple," was here in 1974. I wonder if she bothered to look at these tombstones? The composer Meredith Monk came in 1988. Playwright Richard Nelson, whom I interviewed last fall, was here in 1992. And way back in 1955, novelist Henrietta Buckmaster wrote here. She later became Home Forum editor of the Monitor.

Soon a lunch basket arrives on the doorstep. The basket is a time-honored MacDowell tradition, left quietly on each doorstep so as to not disturb the occupant. (Mine is filled with a thermos of soup, a veggie sandwich, cookies, and other goodies.)I've promised to visit an artist in her studio for lunch, so I grab my basket and coat and head out with a map to navigate the deserted gravel roads through the woods. Thoughts of Little Red Riding Hood fill my head.

Poet Jo McDougall ushers me into her studio, and we talk about her writing projects and what she likes about MacDowell (she's come several times), all the time warmed by a gently sizzling fire in her fireplace. (Hmm. That's a nice idea, I think!) The afternoon fills up with more interviews. With an evening activity in town, I don't get back to my studio again.

Day 2 dawns, my last chance to get in touch with my inner muse.

After breakfast, I hike through overnight snow to the studio and decide that a crackling fire will put me in just the right creative mood. I quickly build one, but just as it really begins to catch, smoke pours into the room. The damper is closed. Soon two fire alarms are blaring, with no shutoff switch in sight. With no phone, I hike back to the main building to confess what I've done.

The whoop-whoop of the alarm seems to be echoing throughout the entire colony. I imagine composers pounding on their keyboards in frustration and poets covering their ears and wailing.

Finally, about 30 minutes later, two workmen are dispatched and manage to silence the din. The windows are opened, and the smoke begins to clear. I apologize and thank the men sheepishly.

One tells me, "No problem. Happens all the time. Those dampers can be tricky to operate."

I return to my desk and settle in. At last to write! What's that? The lunch basket has arrived already? My gosh, it's noon! I have just enough time to eat, get back to pack, and say a hurried goodbye.

I am a failed colonist. Nothing to show for my Irving Fine time.

Not to worry, says Blake Tewksbury, whose job includes delivering the lunch baskets and helping new colonists to settle in. That's why artists are encouraged to come for several weeks and not expected to do much in the first few days, he says when I talk with him later by phone.

"I tell new people a story about a tribe in Africa that always stopped every few days when it was traveling," he says. "When asked why they stop so much, the tribal leader replies, 'Your spirit takes a while to catch up with you.'

"It's the same thing here. You need time to catch up. And it happens again when you leave. Even though you're back home, it takes some time to really leave this place."

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