Back in my footloose, aka unemployed, years in the ’70s and ’80s, I spent some time kicking around the colonies. By that I mean stints at MacDowell and Yaddo, the most venerable of the American artists' colonies. In those places artists from the various disciplines are stabled and fed for fees ranging from modest to none. In my sojourns as a colonist, adding up to about a year and a half, I got more music written per diem than at any other time in my life. Meanwhile I had my share of adventures, encounters, and contretemps.
I know what you're thinking: Sex! Drugs! Egos! Art! In all those respects, yes and no. A certain number of people turn up at the colonies with an indecorous agenda, but the majority come to work, in an atmosphere of intense privacy and concentration, without spouses, kids, students, commuting, cooking, cleaning, or hustling. For most artists at a colony, this is the only place to get away from all that.
In those facts are the mission and the glory of artists' colonies. You can get more work done than anytime or anywhere else, and spend your evenings hanging out, if you wish, with some of the most creative and interesting people around. For nearly everybody, the work comes first. Dalliance, if any, is icing on the cake. But most arrivals have no such intentions and neither did I, in my one-to-two-month stays at Yaddo and MacDowell and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. What follows is a mélange of reportage and memoir.
Each colony has its founding myth. It was not the then-celebrated composer Edward MacDowell who founded the eponymous place in Peterborough, N.H. He died early, but as he faded he imagined that his estate might inspire other artists as it had him. His wife Marian campaigned for years to raise money for a colony. Edward survived to see the arrival of the first MacDowell fellows. Eventually there were 32 studios scattered about the woods. Over the years they have housed Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, Spalding Gray, Alice Walker, and others of that stature. Colonist Thornton Wilder based Our Town on Peterborough. Marian survived until 1957, keeping the place running and enforcing her rules, particularly in regard to female fellows: No slacks, no smoking in public, no canoodling, or you hit the highway. In those days, hanky-panky was a challenge. In 2007 MacDowell celebrated its centennial.
Yaddo was founded in 1900 by financier Spencer Trask and his literary wife Katrina. The founding family was bedeviled by tragedy: four of their children died and Spencer was shaving on a train when it crashed and killed him. The bulk of the place is the formidable mansion on the edge of Saratoga Springs. The mansion and outbuildings house the guests, some of them in MacDowell-style cabins. One studio is a stone tower beside a mossy pond that looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. (It used to be a chapel for the Trask servants.) At Yaddo a remarkable collection of young artists came into their own, among them John Cheever, Flannery O'Connor, and Truman Capote. In the 1930s Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions mounted a historic series of new-music concerts in the Yaddo music room. The tally of honors won by Yaddo alumni include 66 Pulitzers, 27 MacArthur "genius" awards, 61 National Book Awards, and Saul Bellow's Nobel Prize.
Because of the grand mansion and the Victorian outbuildings, Yaddo has a somewhat higher tone than rustic MacDowell or the Virginia Center with its horse pastures. But the run of fellows at all the colonies is largely the same sort of people, most of them relatively obscure toilers in the fields of Art.
Your basic nonfamous colonist is usually a straight-ahead creative sort, only smarter, more imaginative, and funnier than your average bloke. On the whole, the days go smoothly. Guests arrive for dinner every night psyched and satisfied or bemused with their day's work, or a bit flipped sometimes—especially the neophytes, because they've never before been given a lovely quiet room where there's nothing to do but make things. With new colonists there's a certain amount of staring at the wall and trying not to panic. Sometimes, a breakthrough happens. A friend of mine sat fallow for two weeks in his studio and then in a couple of days wrote a tremendous aria for his opera that, about 30 years later, helped win him a Pulitzer.
One or two nights a week somebody will put up a notice that they're giving a presentation of their work. For the presentation you provide your fellow fellows a jug of cheap wine and some chips, and for about an hour (the unwritten rule) you do your act for the most sophisticated and sympathetic audience you will ever have. Some of them will not like your stuff, but on the whole they will be nice about it. A party often follows a presentation. At colonies I found a remarkable absence of the kind of hustling, boasting, and careerism that marks most gatherings of artists. There's an undercurrent of recognition that we're all in the same business and the same boat, and from that comes a certain mutual respect. The biggest hustler I encountered at a colony was a nun (nonhabited) who wrote startlingly erotic poetry that was presumably also spiritual. We all got copies of her book in our mailboxes, which was considered pushy.
Naturally it's not all sweet harmony. I remember two women novelists who palled around for a couple of weeks. Then one of them gave a reading; she turned out to be a commercially successful historical novelist. Next morning her artier pal knocked on her studio door. (This is verboten: no uninvited visits.) The historical novelist opened the door and her pal said: "I'll give it to you straight. Your work is crap." Afterward the pal threw her things in the car and bolted. Everybody gathered around to comfort the quite freaked historical novelist. She calmed down soon enough and got back to work.
The true sociopaths are few in my experience, but like everywhere else they turn up now and then, and word gets around. One evening in the dining room at MacDowell I overheard a well-known novelist describing a colony fixture she had observed in another stay. "She finds these young things," she said, "and she sort of adopts them. And they blossom.” She waved her arms. "Blossom! Blossom! Then she wipes them out."