Notes on Customs, Habits, and Mating Rituals of the Residents at Yaddo, MacDowell, and Other Artists’ Colonies.

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Dec. 19 2011 6:55 AM

Life in the Colonies

Notes on customs, habits, and mating rituals of the residents at Yaddo, MacDowell, and other artists’ retreats.

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I knew who she was speaking of, a composer of formerly moderate reputation. Her game was to pick up a protégé of some sort, usually a young woman, and draw her out with sympathy and interest. When she had won the person's trust and admiration, she would turn on the protégé viciously. When I knew her at MacDowell her chosen was a young male composer. For some reason she and the protégé took to heckling me, especially at dinner. I felt as though I were in fifth grade, the sickly fat kid everybody made fun of in the cafeteria. In those weeks I slunk back to my studio after dinner and worked on my first orchestra piece. It needed the time anyway. Eventually it got me a publisher. Some years later I ran into that protégé. He was doing all right. "Did she turn on you?" I asked. "Of course, " he said.            

Colony Hall and Sigma Alpha Iota Cottage part of the MacDowell art colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
Colony Hall and Sigma Alpha Iota Cottage part of the MacDowell art colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

In the cold months, Yaddo and MacDowell used to be at half strength, around 15 guests instead of summer's 30 or so. In winters at Yaddo we all used to have dinner at a long table in the library. In that situation, just one person can sour the scene. A residency of mine was troubled by an aging academic who declaimed loudly, endlessly, and often insultingly through every dinner. We tacitly fell into a routine of rotating who sat next to him. When he finally left, we went through the first couple of meals stunned, imagining we could still hear his voice.

There are the tragic cases, in various degrees of the term. The widow of a famous cartoonist who talked about him all day and didn't know how to do laundry in the washing machine. The gay filmmaker who had picked up a stomach thing from a youth in Egypt and told me, while we were bowling in town, that he gave it five years to get better before he killed himself. The waifish young photographer who wore antique dresses, went out in the woods and dressed up trees and took photos of them. She returned to New York after her stay, finished a life-size photo of herself, and jumped out a high window. It was over a guy, we heard.

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Another perennial element is the diceyness of the art itself. To get accepted at one of the major colonies has always been highly competitive. I think in my years Yaddo and MacDowell accepted maybe one out of four applicants. I'll wager the percentage is slimmer now. The average level of the work, to my eye and ear, was always decent to terrific. Yet some of what ends up in residence is wondrously bad. I remember the graduate student who made his paintings by projecting onto canvas photos of him and his buddies drunkenly messing around, and tracing them. He appended titles on the order of, We really fucked up that time!!! There's generally a helping of arrested adolescence. The cocky kid playing guitar all day in a haze of pot smoke telling us he was writing a stream-of-consciousness novel. What else would you be writing, we thought.

At MacDowell there's a charming and unnerving tradition of hanging ”tombstones" on the walls of each studio. These are wooden slabs on which each artist who stayed there signs his or her name and discipline. When I arrived at my first studio I threw down my stuff and excitedly examined the tombstones. My discovery was the usual one. From the 1930s I could make out the faded names of Aaron Copland and a few other notables. Otherwise, of those dozens of names over the decades the only one I recognized was a guy from my high school. Composers' studios have pianos, but at one point I got an extension of my stay and ended up in a writer's studio. As always, I studied the tombstones. For years the disciplines marched down the wooden slabs: writer writer poet poet writer poet, etc. About 1968 the disciplines turned into, Star Keeper, Flower Shepherd, Mountain Goddess, and so on. About 1971 (the year the Beatles broke up) the disciplines returned to, writer writer poet poet writer, etc.

The colonies are virtually hermetically sealed, test tubes for gestating art. You might take a day or two off and go see friends and family, but long departures are frowned on and visitors discouraged. One of the best Christmases of my life was spent composing in my studio at MacDowell, followed by a lavish dinner with a few other colonists who were happy not to be at home. On MacDowell's Medal Day in summer, when tents go up on the lawn and the likes of Roth and Updike are feted (whether or not they are alumni), crowds pour in. On those days resident colonists have been known to get drunk and embarrassing and end up under the tables. In my experience we had to drink on Medal Day because all those strangers weirded us out. One night at dinner a documentary crew marched in (we had been warned, but still) and commenced to film us. Usually meals were full of pealing laughter and splendid conversation and fabulous gossip, but as soon as the cameras appeared we became a pack of giggling idiots, spilling wine all over the tables. Afterward we could not figure out what got into us. It had something to do with feeling violated, our little world shattered.

But what about the sex, I'm sure you'd like to know. I found there were usually an item or three going on at any given time, most of it discreet, especially if one or both persons were married to somebody else. There are always young, imaginative, unattached young folks in residence, and what happens is what happens. But anyone can get lucky, if open to the possibility. I remember a writer in his 60s who discovered for the first time, with excitement and trepidation, that he was gay. He collected a Pulitzer a few years later and died a few years after that. A composer acquaintance had a sweet interlude with an ethereal lady poet before returning home to his boyfriend. (I think she was the one who left in my mailbox, for my edification, an article on male multiple orgasm. I concluded it isn't worth the trouble.)

Here and there I was one of the items. In theory, colonists are supposed to keep their fooling around in-house. Noncolonists are not allowed to visit overnight. When they do visit overnight, you're expected to keep it to yourself. It's don't ask, don't tell. I confess to a few extra-curricular visits. In one of them I drove through a snowstorm to see a good friend at MacDowell. Near midnight I parked my car on the road and waded through thigh-high snow to her studio. I could have foundered and frozen to death, but I didn't and was well rewarded for my effort.

The social and sexual tone of the colonies, and the relative heat, naturally vary according to who's in residence. "We shoulda been here last month," I heard more than once. "This place was a nonstop orgy." I've talked about this with several former colonists, and the consensus is that those episodes generally seem to happen at some time other than yours.

The most egregious situation I remember was when a young and married artist turned up at Yaddo. She did small pale pastels of various crustaceans, with titles like, "A picture of a feeling." I began hearing whispers among the men at breakfast. "Did she knock on your door? What did you do?" It turned out that she was rapping on men's bedroom doors late at night and politely but firmly inviting herself in. A general lockout was declared, though we never inquired about who might have not conformed to the lockout. I felt wistful that she never knocked on my door, and also grateful.