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Yaddo and MacDowell: Works in Progress

Alone again, artistically: A glimpse of what it’s like to be present at the creation
By D.C. DENISON  |  July 24, 2008

This article originally appeared in the July 18, 1978 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

In the East Room of the Yaddo mansion, Virginia Spencer Carr, a biographer, is relaxing in an overstuffed antique recliner, casually reading the drafts for her next book. She is sitting in a bay of large French windows overlooking a small pond surrounded by deep woods. The tops of the windows are stained glass, and the morning sunlight casts their colors over the Persian carpet and hardwood floors. On the other side of the study, next to a pile of finished work, a typewriter sits on a stand; the page in it is already covered with neatly typed prose.

Virginia Spencer Carr has the look of someone who hasn’t answered a phone or washed a dish in six weeks. In fact, she hasn’t. And today, for the 43rd day in a row, she knows she will not be disturbed: there is no telephone in the room, and the rules of the house forbid anyone from so much as knocking on the door unless he has been invited. She will not even have to break for her midday meal: a lunch basket (containing a tuna fish sandwich, carrot sticks, an apple, some cookies and a thermos of coffee) prepared by the cooks downstairs sits on an end table and will be there when she wants it. There are diversions of course, but not of the mundane variety. She could, for example, take a nap on the large 19th-century brass bed in the adjoining bedroom, or soak awhile in the oversized bathtub in the next room. Or she may decide on a late-morning stroll through the 400 wooded acres that surround the mansion.

But Virginia Spencer Carr is not in the mood for diversions; she is getting too much work done. Her current project is a biography of Carson McCullers. Not coincidentally, McCullers wrote in this very suite during her many summers at Yaddo in the 1940s. (She wrote The Ballad of the Sad Café here.) Presumably — as if the situation isn’t already inspiring enough — McCullers’s ghost is helping Virginia Spencer Carr with the biography.

Carr is one of the privileged guests of Yaddo, an artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. When McCullers was here, she described it as “an emotional Shangri-La and a literary mecca.” Since then, others have been less dramatic in their characterizations (it is often called a “fresh air fund for artists”), but the deal remains irresistible: every artist-guest receives free room and board and plenty of zealously protected privacy, for an extended period of time — usually six weeks to three months. The object is creative work, and unlike in most places where artists get together, distractions are kept to a minimum: there are no workshops, no pretentious symposiums and no anxious students. All the artist is asked to do in return for this blissful situation is to spend his or her time creating — or, as founder Katrina Trask put it in 1899, “creating, creating, creating!”

* * *

Whatever the term “artists’ colony” brings to mind — outlandish traumas, raging temperaments, reveries of inspiration — chances are that Yaddo, and the older MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, not only display these stereotypes in abundance, but probably started them. Since they were founded (MacDowell in 1907, Yaddo in 1926) these two have been the prime examples of the species. And since that time more than 3000 artists, writers, poets, composers, painters, sculptors and photographers have enjoyed their benefits, many of them on the way to more famous endeavors. At Yaddo, for example, any administrator will eagerly recite the list of illustrious alumni: Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Milton Avery, Aaron Copland, Truman Capote....The MacDowell list, which boasts 32 Pulitzer Prize winners, begins with Leonard Bernstein, Thornton Wilder, E.A. Robinson, James Baldwin, Jules Feiffer....

An imposing collection of names, to be sure, but many artists and writers are not certain the whole “colony” idea isn’t too contrived, simply a rustic branch of the same tired New York City art world. In a recent New York Times Book Review, John Knowles wrote, rather haughtily, “Every art or writers’ colony I ever visited — briefly — was shot through with people hanging in bars or sweltering on beaches talking about their work. The work itself never seemed to get done, appear, see print.” A photographer who has always avoided colonies scoffed, “They are just places where bored artists — even the dowdiest old poets — go for some romantic know, affairs.”

Yet it seems that for every critic there are two or three who rise to the defense of these colonies, claimng the ability to double or triple artistic output within the confines of MacDowell and Yaddo. “Actually, despite all that you hear, the basic idea is quite simple,” says Nancy Englander, the elegant director of the MacDowell Colony. “We aim to provide a place where the creative man or woman can find the freedom to concentrate for long, undisturbed periods of time upon his or her work. We want to provide a place where the artist can be maximally creative.”

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 See all articles by: D.C. DENISON

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