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Artists gather to mark anniversary of MacDowell Colony

Poets, painters, and writers celebrate 100 years of a retreat in the New Hampshire woods that has nurtured some of America's most prominent artists.

By Elaine WeissCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 4, 2007



New York

Creative artists are a famously free-spirited bunch, a bit unruly, a tad cynical, not inclined to obey commands or gladly queue-up in orderly fashion. But last weekend, in New York's Central Park, nearly 500 talented and temperamental artists happily arranged themselves into (almost) neat rows and, when told to, willingly smiled for the camera to produce a historic photograph.

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It took a large-format camera and a wide-angle lens to capture this largest-ever gathering of the Fellows of the MacDowell Colony, the artists' retreat set in the woods of New Hampshire, which is celebrating its centennial birthday this year. From near and far, hundreds of painters and poets, composers and photographers, sculptors and playwrights, emerged from their studios, abandoned their desks, slipped away from their pianos, set down their chisels or pens or cameras and made their way to the Centennial Reunion picnic. And they were on their best behavior as they posed for the portrait.

"I was surprised that they actually quieted down and were so cooperative," says Cheryl Young, the executive director of the MacDowell Colony, who knows the alumnae, called Fellows, well. "These are people known for thinking outside of the box and being a little revolutionary."

When the photograph is printed, I should be visible, sitting somewhere in the first few rows, toward the center. I'm wearing a blue shirt. Finding me will require a magnifying glass.

Like my comrades in the photo, I am a MacDowell Fellow. We all have, at some time in the past century, been granted a residency at the colony, and it remains one of the most profound experiences – and magical places – in our lives. "MacDowell gave me a place to be a writer when there didn't seem to be anyplace for me," says Peggy Harrison, who first came to the colony in the 1970s. "When I arrived, they gave me the keys to this beautiful studio, and I just burst into tears."

Every MacDowell Fellow is given one of the 32 studios on the grounds of the 450-acre colony in Peterborough, N.H. (which had once been the home of the celebrated American composer Edward MacDowell and his wife, Marian, who established the colony) and for a month, perhaps two, is relieved of all domestic distractions. Fellows are given room and meals, time and solitude, and, most crucially, the companionship and encouragement of fellow artists. "MacDowell provides a sense of warmth, of community," says Harry Leigh, a sculptor who has had nine residencies at MacDowell. "It's a receptive environment where you meet the artists of your generation, and other generations. It provides time to think, time to imagine, time to dream – and time to create."

• • •

In a culture where the marketplace holds sway, the colony can give sanctuary to unfashionable creative expressions. It is a chance to live and work among artists of different disciplines, learning how they think. "As a visual artist, you don't often get the chance to talk to a composer or to talk to a writer, and their take on what you do is so different – because they bring their knowledge to your field, and you bring yours to theirs," says visual artist Carol Steen. "So it just opens everything wide."

Out of dinnertime discussions at the colony, many artistic collaborations are born. I still hold dear the small gifts of collaboration given to me during my residency: a musical interpretation of the book I was writing, penned by a friendly composer, and the painting of vivid shapes in bold colors, a sympathetic visual artist's present to keep me warm in my chilly studio.

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