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For 81 Years, a Wooded Haven : Retreat Fosters a Special Creative Fellowship of Artists

Times Staff Writer

The MacDowell Colony is a beautiful desert island. It offers silence and time for the most unadulterated form of concentration. It’s an experience all artists, writers and composers should have at least once.

--Frances FitzGerald, 1972

Pulitzer Prize winner

for “Fire in the Lake”

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For 81 years writers, composers and visual artists have been coming to MacDowell Colony to spend a few weeks alone concentrating on their craft.

The 450-acre wooded haven is the oldest and largest artist colony in the United States. Nearly 3,000 men and women, famous and unknown, have visited the colony since its founding in 1907. It is here that Thornton Wilder wrote “Our Town,” Aaron Copland composed parts of “Appalachian Spring” and Leonard Bernstein completed his “Mass.”

The slice of wilderness was purchased in 1896 by composer Edward MacDowell, who claimed his creative activity tripled while working at the quiet wood lot.

It was MacDowell’s hope that his estate would someday be opened to other artists, and his wife, pianist Marian Nevins MacDowell, carried out her husband’s wish in 1907. She played an active role in the colony’s operation until her death in 1956 at the age of 99.

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Forty-five Pulitzer Prize winners have been writers or composers in residence here, including Wilder, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Stephen Vincent Benet, Barbara Tuchman, Nan Robertson, Alice Walker, Studs Terkel and Jules Feiffer.

“This is the third time I have been accepted as a Colonist at MacDowell,” said New York City novelist Peter Cameron as he sat on the stoop of his studio in a forest alive with deer, woodchuck, porcupine, chipmunks, skunks, squirrels and songbirds.

Cameron, 28, here for seven weeks, also visited the colony in the winter of 1984 and spring of 1986. Many “colonists,” as the artists and writers call themselves, visit again and again. Writer Alec Waugh was here on eight occasions. The average stay lasts five or six weeks.

A collection of Cameron’s short stories, “One Way Or Another,” was published by Harper & Row. He is currently working on a novel called “Leap Year,” which is being serialized each week in the magazine Seven Days.

“I’m still writing it, working on Chapter 28. I don’t have the slightest idea how it will end. It sort of evolves. Each chapter has a cliffhanging ending, like the old Saturday afternoon movie serials. Being here gives me time to think more clearly. Nobody knocks on the door, no phones ringing, just myself alone in this cabin in the woods.”

Simple Furnishing

His rustic studio is simply furnished with worn carpeting, a table, a desk topped with his word processor and a cot. There are 31 studios scattered in the woods, no one within sight of another. Each has a mantelpiece with wooden boards or “tombstones” detailing the names of the artists who have occupied the studios and when.

“The vibes and stimulation just from those who used this studio in the past is unbelievable. Thornton Wilder used this very same room when nothing of his had yet been published,” said Cameron.

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Of the tombstones, Alec Waugh once said: “I think of all the writers who have sat here before me, of all the dreams that have been dreamt, of all the books that have been written here.”

Nearby, in another studio, Paloma Ceruda is working on a series of charcoal-on-paper drawings called “Images of the Crimes of Deforestation in the Amazon.” She is an artist-in-residence for seven weeks.

‘Pretty Awesome’

“This is an opportunity to get totally lost in my work,” said Ceruda, 40, who attended Cal State Long Beach and now makes her home in New York. “It’s pretty awesome to be here for an artist like me who hasn’t managed to survive on art work alone. Office work supports me, yet, some day my fondest dream is to devote full time to art.”

Brooklyn writer Joel Agee, 48, also is here for seven weeks. The son of the late James Agee, who wrote “A Death in the Family,” he is in the middle of writing a novel that has so far taken him five years.

“This is total immersion, absolutely nothing to distract me, an incredible atmosphere,” said Agee, who authored “An American Boyhood in East Germany,” published in 1981 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Leonard Bernstein recalled: “I was here three times, mostly in winter when the snow was higher than you are; it’s wonderful here in winter.”

Of the 1,200 to 1,300 applications received each year, about 200 are accepted, said Christopher Barnes, 52, resident director of MacDowell Colony.

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Barnes said that applications are judged on a single criterion--talent--and reviewed by a panel of peers.

“Many who come have achieved success and many have not. Can you imagine the frustration of writing a play and never seeing it performed, writing a symphony and never hearing it played, writing a book and never seeing it published, an artist with paintings never sold? We get talented artists, writers and composers like that as well,” said Barnes.

“It costs the colony about $90 a day for artists. Colonists contribute an average of 10% of that. They pay what they can.” Each is provided a bedroom in one of the four residence halls, meals and the use of the studio.

All composer’s studios have grand pianos; all visual art studios have northern light and white wall space. Residents have breakfast and dinner together in Colony Hall, the main dining, social and residential facility. Lunch is delivered to the door of each studio.

‘All Pure Time’

“There are no interruptions from breakfast to dinner. It is all pure time. As a result eight hours becomes 12 or 14 hours,” said Barnes. “The colonists are on their own to do what they want. Some work all day, some all night, some split it up.”

Until 1955, MacDowell was strictly a summer colony. Since then it has operated year-round with 31 artists in summer, 25 in both spring and fall, and 19 in winter.

With a staff of 13, it costs about $750,000 a year to operate the colony, which has a small endowment and is dependent on gifts, grants and bequests to meet its annual operating budget. Last year friends of MacDowell contributed $550,000.

One “fellow,” as colonists are known after they leave, pledged 10% of his arts earnings to the colony, said Barnes. “Often we get a bequest from an estate of someone who had been here. It is a lifetime thing. Once you have been here, MacDowell Colony is always a part of you.”


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