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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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."

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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.

A multidisciplinary air pervaded the reunion, too. We became part of an interactive sculpture, as artist Clarinda MacLow wrapped ribbons of cloth around us, connecting the Fellows into a living network, and creating a zigzag pattern across the Great Hill of the park.

And we all brought birthday cupcakes, as contributions to an edible piece of art. I chose a vanilla cupcake decorated with swirly white frosting and festooned with multicolored sprinkles – simple but festive. I carried my cupcake in my knapsack, on the bus up from Baltimore, and though I tried to cushion it in a box lined with waxed paper, it arrived looking weary: Its frosting top had slipped off like a wayward toupee.

As it turned out, my cupcake looked embarrassingly bland among the more creative cupcake expressions: the one decorated with a purple dahlia in full bloom, several decked out in painterly designs. Perhaps the most MacDowell-ish creation of all was the glass measuring cup, half-filled with batter, which baked itself into a perfect cupcake in the warm noontime sun.

But the biggest cake at the reunion wasn't edible at all. It was a 25-foot birthday cake sculpture, hand-sewn of rip-stop nylon and inflated with hot air, the creation of multimedia and performance artist Pat Oleszko.

During the past 100 years, more than 5,500 artists have become MacDowell Fellows, and while gaining admission is based upon accomplishment, talent, or promise, once in residence, a spirit of equality reigns. The established, renowned Fellow and the unknown, striving Fellow eat side by side in the colony's dining room, are given the same picnic basket lunch in their studio, and play ping-pong together at night. During my stay, a courtly older gentleman, who had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, invited me – a novice writer – to give a joint reading with him in an evening entertainment for the colonists.

The same egalitarian spirit was alive at the reunion picnic, where name tags were purposely eschewed and celebrity was not emphasized. There may well have been bold-faced names in attendance, but that was not the point: On this afternoon, whether cultural icons or worker bees in the artistic hive, we were all simply MacDowell Fellows mingling in the park.

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During the event, we reenacted a sacred MacDowell ritual – the signing of the tombstone. In each colony studio hangs a set of wooden plaques, onto which every occupant since 1907 has carved his or her name. Reading the tombstone in your studio is a source of both inspiration and intimidation. "I remember getting into my cabin and seeing all the tombstones lining the wall," recalls writer Patsy Sims, "and going around and reading the names on the tombstones and thinking: They were here – and now I'm here! It's an amazing experience. Very daunting. Very humbling."

On the tombstones in my studio I recall the names of writer Thornton Wilder and composer Virgil Thompson. In other studios, they bear such names as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, Willa Cather and Studs Terkel, James Baldwin and Edwin Arlington Robinson, Wendy Wasserstein and Galway Kinnell. Some colonists turn the tombstones to the wall during their stay so they won't be crippled by the implicit high expectations.

Here at the picnic, we engaged in a pale imitation of the ritual: For sake of convenience, we signed our names on paper, in a choice of colored markers. The signatures will be bound into a book and placed in the colony's library.

"You have a sense of all the creativity buzzing around here, informing you and your own efforts, in a wonderful way," says writer Peggy Anderson, summing up the day.

Which, in a cupcake, is what the colony is all about.

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