Inside the MacDowell Colony

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macdowellThe MacDowell Colony is one of America’s oldest and most prestigious artists’ retreats, tucked away in the woods of Peterborough, New Hampshire. While its remote campus offers the solitude and freedom that has inspired a vast variety of artists for more than a hundred years, once a year, every August, MacDowell opens its doors to the public for a terrific summer lawn party.

The purpose of the shindig is to award the Edward MacDowell Medal, given each year to an artist who has made “an outstanding contribution to American culture.” The first recipient was Thornton Wilder, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town, was primarily composed at MacDowell; other recipients include Leonard Bernstein, Georgia O’Keeffe, I.M. Pei, John Updike, Sonny Rollins, and Joan Didion. 

crowdHundreds come to the Colony for a short ceremony in which the award winner is lauded with short, clever speeches before giving a short, clever, and insightful speech of his or her own. This year, the recipient was writer and composer Stephen Sondheim, and the audience was treated to MacDowell’s Chairman Michael Chabon, waxing nostalgic about his parents bringing him to the D.C. premiere of Sondheim’s musical Pacific Overtures as a kid in the 1970s; MacDowell President Susan Davenport Austin, confessing she keeps a print of the Georges Seurat painting that inspired Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, because the musical so profoundly impacted her life and work; and presentation speaker Frank Rich, crediting Sondheim for motivating him to become a drama critic when he was still a college student, while using the platform to apologize for a few lackluster New York Times reviews he’d given Sondheim’s musicals in the past.

basketBetter than the ceremony, however, and better even than the picnic lunches on the lawn, is the chance to tour all of the studios spread out over MacDowell’s campus. Every studio is open, and all artists—playwrights, poets, composers, visual and film artists, writers, poets, architects and more—share and discuss their works-in-progress. Plus, attendees can search each studio’s wooden plaques for the names of artists who have worked and created there since the Colony opened in 1907.

If you weren’t at the ceremony this August, explore the pictures below for a peek at the grounds and into a few of the studios. It’s truly a special place. For more information on the history of MacDowell, or to apply for a residency, click here.

Solitary paths lead from one studio to another—almost none of the buildings are within view of any other.








Below is Heyward Studio, currently hosting film and video artists Akosua Adoma Owusu of Alexandria, Virginia. Each studio comes with its own bicycle.


Inside Watson Studio, where composer Joelle Khoury of Lebanon is working on her current project, Palais de Femmes.


One of the artists’ plaques inside Watson Studio. Studs Terkel, Richard Yates, and Kay Boyle, just to name a few.


One of the newer studios, Calderwood, currently housing playwright Stephen Karam.


A plaque in Calderwood: Jayne Anne Phillips, Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman. . .


A year-round resident.


Musical scores by former residents, housed in the Savidge Library…


…And just a few books by former residents shelved at the Savidge library: Chris Offut, Tillie Olsen, Susan Orlean, Stewart O’Nan. And that’s only a small portion of the O’s!


Gargantuan paper airplanes hang in the studio of visual artist Michael Scoggins of Brooklyn, NY.


Michael Scoggins’s work space in the Cheney studio. Check out his tumblr for more great pictures.


“It can sometimes be hard to communicate what goes on at MacDowell. It’s more than inspiration, more than creativity or myth or the eternal human spirit or any other kind of foofy thing you’d want to name—and I’m happy to name all of them. But it’s in the taking of pains, it’s in affirming the craftsman’s simple truth that what’s worth doing is worth doing well, that you will find the root of art’s power to affirm, in the face of so much dark and brutal evidence to the contrary, that life matters, that we matter, and that anything worth doing well is simply worth doing.”

—from novelist and MacDowell Chairman Michael Chabon’s introductory remarks at the Edward MacDowell Medal Ceremony, August 11, 2013.

(All photos courtesy the author.)