Artists Retreat into Solitude at MacDowell Colony The MacDowell Colony, 100 years old this month, is a haven where artists of all types — writers, composers, sculptors — can sweep away distractions and just create. Though solitude is the retreat's main draw, interdisciplinary feedback is central to its appeal.
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Artists Retreat into Solitude at MacDowell Colony

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Artists Retreat into Solitude at MacDowell Colony

Artists Retreat into Solitude at MacDowell Colony

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

When artists need time to do their work, one challenge is shutting off day-to-day disturbances. One place to find the needed time and space to be creative is at an artist's colony. The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire is one of the nation's oldest and best-known artist colonies, and it turns 100 this month. To mark the centennial, NPR's Art Silverman headed north to learn what it takes to eliminate distractions for the sake of art.

ART SILVERMAN: No phone, no fax, no friends, no family…

(Soundbite of hammering)

SILVERMAN: …just a cabin in a snowy wood.

Unidentified Woman: Your key should open that door.

SILVERMAN: Writer Emily Raboteau lives in New York City.

Unidentified Woman #1: This will be your home for the next four weeks, Emily.

SILVERMAN: She's come here to work on a novel. She gets a desk, chairs, pencil and paper. And since it is winter, one more thing…

Unidentified Woman #1: Ice grippers. It's icy out there, so you need ice grippers to put on your shoes. You just flip them on.

Ms. EMILY RABOTEAU (Writer): I don't think I've ever worn an ice gripper before.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah. No?

Ms. RABOTEAU: Are they self-explanatory?

Unidentified Woman #1: They are. They're like rubbers.

SILVERMAN: The trek from one isolated, one-room studio to another is icy, and there's 450 acres to traverse at MacDowell.

(Soundbite of piano piece, "To a Wild Rose")

Ms. ELAINE AGNEW (Belfast Composer): This is an extremely famous piano piece by Edward MacDowell called "To a Wild Rose" that every pianist in the world has played.

SILVERMAN: Belfast composer Elaine Agnew. A hundred years ago, composer Edward MacDowell owned this land. He savored its isolation and his ability to get work done here. After his death, his wife Marion encouraged other artists to come. And for the last century, they've come to step outside of their daily lives for a short time.

Mr. FRED HURST (Musician): In music terms, there's a fermata, which is a pause, you know, something's going along, the rhythm stops like a big chord usually, or a space. And it's a fermata on your life.

SILVERMAN: Fred Hurst have had a number of fermatas. He's come back to the MacDowell Colony this winter to work on the composition related to the centennial of the colony. There are 32 studios here. Grants from foundations, corporations and individuals support the cost of running the place.

Writers, photographers, composers, filmmakers, sculptors vie for the free studios - famous and unknown alike. Once accepted, an artist can stay as short as a couple of weeks or as long as a couple of months. Privacy is respected, but collaboration and even discussion is common.

Ms. AGNEW: You know, if I were going to do this, I think I should do a visual (unintelligible). Or do you want to actually do some -

Mr. L.M. KIT CARSON (Screenwriter): One of the things I found here was the value of this cooked stew of (unintelligible) and these different disciplines.

SILVERMAN: Screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson - he's back at the McDowell Colony for a second time.

Mr. CARSON: You sit around dinner talking about - (unintelligible) is talking and then somebody runs off and brings you back some stuff and shows it to you. That I didn't realize was part of the magic here, because people are really open to showing their ass here.

SILVERMAN: That is nasty.

Unidentified Woman #2: Nasty.

SILVERMAN #2: That's wild.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

SILVERMAN: Were you anticipating this kind of sexual stuff or were you looking for it?

Unidentified Woman #2: No. The sex was out, for example, this one I totally have no clue that his hand was there.

SILVERMAN: But the real conversation at the McDowell colony is between the artists and what's inside their heads. The gift of solitude means having to drive yourself to do your best. Again, screenwriter Carson.

Mr. CARSON: What it fells like when you write is that you're standing on the ledge of a cliff, your feet are hanging over the edge, and there is an axe between your legs. And your responsibility is to work in that condition without all the time going…

(Soundbite of vomiting sound)

SILVERMAN: Other artists hover at the edge of playfulness at the McDowell colony, and it's serious playfulness.

Mr. JOHN GRADE (Sculptor): What I'm trying to do right here with this hair dryer is warp each piece slightly.

SILVERMAN: Quietly spy on what's going on in the various studios, and you could find a sculptor playing with ice.

Mr. GRADE: It's not doing exactly what I had thought. It's doing very different things. And if you come down below it, you can see all of these wart-like growth on the bottom.

SILVERMAN: John Grade has created a layer cake of ice. Sheets of it are stacked in frames. He is watching the patterns that form and it melts.

Sherri Wood plays with sound in her studio.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man #1: Help me somebody. Help me somebody.

Unidentified Man #2: There's no such thing as vacation. There's no such thing as vacation.

SILVERMAN: These are the recorded voices of people reciting mantras - not the religious kind, but phrases they used to keep their spirits up everyday. When she gets back to her home in North Carolina, she has a plan to blast the mantras out of a loud speaker from the roof of the travel trailer she owns.

Unidentified Man #3: Every light saber battle must advance the story.

Unidentified Woman #3: Can she build it? Yes, she can.

Unidentified Woman #4: These are images of an airplane - looking out airplane window.

SILVERMAN: (unintelligible) is playing with pictures.

Unidentified Woman #4: I took pictures every three seconds, so they're kind of close to each other, and they're, like, slowly changing. I'm really fascinated by it.

SILVERMAN: And writer Dorinda Clifton is playing with the memories of her own earlier life. She's 77 years old.

Ms. DORINDA CLIFTON (Writer): The reason I write is I have all these ghosts in my past, and I want to have them tell the story. Then I don't have to live this story anymore.

SILVERMAN: Back in the 1960s, Clifton was on the spiritual quest in the Mexican desert. She writes about it in the third person.

Ms. CLIFTON: The woman is crouching, vomiting, extending her head beyond the edge of the blankets, stuffing mushrooms into her mouth, trying with all her might to stop the wrenching, retching spasms of her fasting body - weeping in fear that her rebelling body will deny her spirit the vision. Finally, no more mushrooms to force down.

SILVERMAN: By eliminating distractions from the outside, the artists who come to McDowell can reach inside themselves. In fact, there's only one thing that has to be added - lunch. And it's delivered to the studios every day by a man named Blake Tewksberry.

Mr. BLAKE TEWKSBERRY: So we're walking toward the studio with a picnic basket. We'll put the basket on the porch outside the studio.

Unidentified Woman #5: Oh, hi.

Mr. TEWKSBERRY: Hi. Hi, hi.

Unidentified Woman #5: Thank you very much for lunch.

SILVERMAN: Getting lunch delivered to your door every day in a picnic basket may seem like an extreme example of courtesy to the outside observer.

Mr. JOHN ALYWARD (Composer): Sometimes I tell friends, oh, I'm going to the McDowell colony. Oh, what's that? And why can't you do that in your own room?

SILVERMAN: Composer John Alyward says it's easy for a place like this to be underappreciated and misunderstood by non-artists. In his experience, the creative process has always been seen as a luxury by outsiders.

Mr. ALYWARD: And the big thing, you know, the thing when I got growing up was, oh, you're a pianist. I always wanted to play the piano. I never had the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALYWARD: You know, it's like, okay. Well, yeah, well, neither did I.

SILVERMAN: Art Silverman, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: There are pictures of the artists and their work at McDowell at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CLIFTON: I asked him, why did you give me this studio? They said, you deserve it. I asked them some other question. They say, you deserve it. I am sad, because I'm going to leave in four days.

SILVERMAN: You could refuse to leave. I'm sure they have a lot of trouble getting - yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CLIFTON: Well, I've been here eight weeks. No, I'm going to come back.

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