Life in the Colonies

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

The mansion at Yaddo, home of Spencer Trask, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., 1900s

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.”

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.

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.

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.

So all day you make art. You are alone with your words or notes or images, your heart and soul and whatnot. You visit other studios if invited. You take walks, you run, hike, work out, swim, watch TV, play pool and ping-pong. The food tends to be excellent. At Yaddo after breakfast you bring lunch to your studio in a tin lunchpail. At MacDowell your lunch arrives by truck around noon, quietly left outside your door in a picnic basket. In that case, lunch is the only external event of the day. Once at MacDowell there was a new and muscular girl working in the kitchen. In her first day she screwed the soup canisters so tight that hardly anybody could get them off, even in hours of trying. That night we were all traumatized.

Most of the MacDowell studios are in the woods out of sight of each other, each with a unique design. One summer I had a tidy brick studio next to a little pond. I took to visiting the pond after lunch to observe the fauna. One afternoon I stood watching a dragonfly perched on a leaf, eating a common fly that was bigger than its head. It was turning the fly around and around, and in the course of a minute devoured it with tiny audible chomps. I tried to imagine eating, in a minute, a piece of beef the size of my head. In the pond lived groups of crayfish. I’d get a stick and play with them. Most would jet away backward with a flick of their tails, but always the alpha crayfish would come for the stick and poke at it with his claws. Day after day I lay beside the pond boxing with crayfish.

Yaddo has a fringe of woods, but it’s near town and next to the racetrack. (In August you hear the end of each race, which sounds like a wave rising and crashing.) The more interesting fauna at Yaddo were inside the mansion. We had noticed these things that looked like oversized butterfly nets hanging in the halls and wondered what they might be. One night several of us went out to see the movie Alien, in which a horrible creature is stuck to a spaceman’s face. In the middle of the night a poet from the group was having a nightmare about that creature and woke up to find she had a bat on her face. Naturally she began to shriek wildly. The door flew open and a fellow colonist ran in brandishing one of those nets. As it was narrated by the poet at breakfast next morning, the scene was classic farce: naked screaming woman in bed and man in underwear thrashing around with bat net. That’s how we found out what the nets were for.

What can I say but that, at the time, in the utter absence of distraction, all these things were marvelous, better than TV, better than the Internet. I mention the last because to date none of the MacDowell or Yaddo studios is wired, Internet is only in the main buildings, and cell service is spotty—which is the way most colonists want it.

A few people produce legendary work at the colonies, and a lot of others come into their own in their individual ways. Colonies are where, in the course of making new friends and recovering from a busted marriage, I finished growing up about as much as I’m ever going to. In regard to my music, it’s where I found out, more or less, how good I am and how good I’m not—pretty good, in my opinion, but one needs to learn how far from Mozart one’s work lies. It’s where my back first went out; it never entirely returned. (Back and neck pain is endemic at colonies; you’re hunched at a desk or piano or easel all day.) A colony is where, when I took up briefly with a suicidal short-story writer, I learned for the first time in practice rather than in theory what a bad idea a roll in the hay can be. Colonies are the last places I danced my ass off. They’re the last places I fell in love. They’re where I made friends who are still with me, along with friends I met through those friends, all of us in the business of creating things.

So how deranged, sodden, lascivious, egomaniacal, and so on, are the colonies? Actually the level of excess disappointed me. I found the bulk of artists to be, on average, no crazier than anybody else. After all, a substantial percentage of the human race is nuts, and most of those people don’t have art as an excuse. The percentage of drunks and loonies I encountered at the colonies is not significantly higher than the percentage to be found among my own friends and family. And as best I can tell, my friends and family are not unusually loony.

Artists generally refer to their work as a job, but the reality is that few artists of any kind make a living at it. Most of us are not pretentious enough to speak of it as a calling, but that’s what it amounts to. We do it because there’s nothing we’d rather do, because we’re good at it, because we’re wired up that way. There are far too many artists in the world, far more than the market can bear. The reason is that art is one of the greatest things in the world to do. In a perverse but typical corollary, the gods have decreed that art will therefore be one of the worst professions in the world to get by in. For the run of able and passionate but uncelebrated artists, the colonies stand as one of the few genuine perks in an endeavor that is absurd and unprofitable in nearly every way except in the doing of it. The abiding mood of irony and the sometimes wonderful camaraderie of the colonies is based on that shared understanding. Here, at least, you can laugh at it all.