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Artists Find Inspiration at a Creative Community in the New England Woods


With fresh snow at the MacDowell Colony, the artists at the New Hampshire retreat have caught sight of a moose in the forest scattering the wild turkeys that usually feed on the grounds. But the writers and composers are not in the New England woods for bird watching. For nearly a century, artists have come here to create.

It is where American composer Aaron Copland wrote Appalachian Spring. Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson have been here, and American writers Thornton Wilder, Willa Cather and James Baldwin. Today, artists from across the country and around the world compete to stay at MacDowell -- with this year's international residents hailing from such far-flung countries as China, Albania and Cameroon.

For writer Joe Caldwell of New York City, being selected to work on his novel at MacDowell is like winning a literary prize. "When you apply and do get in, you really feel validated as a writer," he says. "It's a validation you can't get any other way. You feel you've been invited into the continuum of other artists and writers. And, perhaps more importantly, it empowers the writer. What it does is give you a confidence that you wouldn't have otherwise. With that, it goes one step further: you take risks you wouldn't take otherwise. That's the ultimate contribution that MacDowell makes to the arts."

The MacDowell Colony receives about 1,400 applications every year from writers, visual artists, composers, architects, and filmmakers. Peer panels make the selections to fill about 250 residencies of four to six weeks. The colony is full year-round.

David Macy, MacDowell's resident director, says artists want to come here to get away from the social and business obligations of day-to-day life that can interfere with their creative voice. "Artists typically live in urban environments and have many responsibilities," he points out. "The MacDowell Colony has aimed to provide an environment that is conducive to letting that voice out."

The Colony sits on 200 hectares of farmland, woods and fields. Several large buildings serve as common areas for the 25 or so artists usually in residence. But the heart of this creative community is in the 32 small cottages, tucked away amidst the trees. These studio-residences are isolated from one another to give the artists the solitude they need to concentrate fully on their work. "The artists are provided with three meals a day and a studio that is a separate building, allowing them to feel like they can laugh and cry at will," says Mr. Macy. "In the studio, no one is going to hear them, and the inhibitions fall away."

That has been the case for Laura Schwendinger, a composer who teaches at the Universities of Wisconsin and Illinois. She says she sometimes feels the influence of the composers who worked in the studio-cottage she now occupies. "Aaron Copland has composed on these pianos…Leonard Bernstein was [in my studio] in 1971…all sorts of incredible composers," she marvels. "You're not only part of a continuum, but you feel like you're working in the same environs that they worked in. That gives you such a boost. It makes you feel a part of this huge creative flow."

Nothing is allowed to disturb that creative flow, not even meals. Lunch is delivered to each studio and left on the doorstep. But breakfast and dinner are eaten in a common dining hall, where the residents have lively debates about their work and about art in general. "We've had a lot of discussions this residency with artists about 20th century music," notes Professor Schwendinger. "I won't mention her name, but a very fine sculptress here asked, not quite as tersely as I'm stating it, 'Why do 20th century composers like writing such ugly music?' It was fantastic in a way, because it opened up dialogue that you don't have with people in the real world."

Along with the work, the discussions and the lasting friendships that are formed, the tranquil setting of the MacDowell Colony allows for another important creative process: napping. "The naps are really famous here," notes Laura Schwendinger. "Everyone has a bed in their studio, and napping is a wonderful treat. In that nap, you re-energize. You wake up and something new appears in your head."

As his residency at MacDowell comes to a close, author Joe Caldwell has mixed feelings about returning to the real world in New York City. "This is the real world," he says, gesturing to the property around him. "This is where it really happens. This is where our lives fulfill themselves. That other [world] is the waiting process until it's time to come back and really get going on something."

Since the first "colonists" arrived in 1907, more than 5,000 artists have spent time at this unique retreat. In its second century, MacDowell Colony officials hope to expand their programs and facilities, so that computer artists and other creative people using digital technology can also be inspired by a visit to the New Hampshire woods.

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