Peterborough

The hunt, transformation, release — an artist’s code

PETERBOROUGH: Visual artist Betye Saar is the recipient of the 2014 Edward MacDowell Medal, an award that was ‘long overdue’

  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
  • Visual artist Betye Saar was presented with the Edward Macdowell Medal on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.

The hunt, the transformation and the release. So visual artist Betye Saar has described her process, and so MacDowell Colony Board Chairman Michael Chabon interpreted it during the annual Medal Day ceremony in Peterborough on Sunday, when Saar received the Edward MacDowell Medal. Saar’s work in assemblage challenges African-American stereotypes in what Chabon called “a stinging indictment of pernicious pop culture racism.”

Saar’s hunt is her constant search for those icons and images, once packaged thoughtlessly and marketed to the masses, that cut to the core with their careless racism. It’s an ongoing search for the 88-year-old artist, who even sent emissaries out to local flea markets on the morn of her award ceremony.

Her transformation comes as she reimagines and repurposes those items as something new, something sad or fierce or simply something that is, something that one must confront when it is presented to them — or ignore, only to wake up restless with a needling presence in the back of one’s mind. A red room, walls adorned with mementos of slavery and reconstruction, or Aunt Jemima armed to the teeth — “an outfitted terrorist with a grenade and rifle ready to take back her dignity,” as Medal Search Committee head Lowery Sims said during the ceremony.

And her release? That moment when her creations are unleashed, smoldering, seething or raging.

So, too, go all of our lives, as Chabon put it. We’re all on the hunt for something, whether we know it or not; sometimes, we realize that what needed to be transformed is ourselves. And our release?

“We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” Chabon said.

Saar herself kept her remarks brief, but poignant.

“I feel this medal says to me: ‘You go, girl!’” Saar said at one point, to thunderous applause. “And my reply is: Thank you.”

The Edward MacDowell Medal is given annually to an individual artist who has made an outstanding contribution to his or her field; this one, said Chabon — with the caveat that he meant no slight to the selection committees — was “long overdue.”

After the award ceremony — the 55th in the MacDowell Colony’s history — visitors took part in a picnic lunch and then roamed the 45-acre grounds for the once-a-year chance to explore the pristine property and visit with the artists in their cottages and cabins and studios. Some visitors chose to use the new portablemacdowell.org website on their phones to navigate the grounds.

Jennifer Paige Cohen, a Brooklyn-based visual artist, showcased some of her sculpture in the Cheney house, while her visiting niece and nephew played peekaboo from under the covers of the cottage’s daybed.

Fellow New Yorker Eileen Miles was working in the New Hampshire cabin. This year marks her fourth time staying at the MacDowell Colony.

“It’s the best place I’ve ever been to work,” Miles told a visitor. Miles, a writer, requested a space usually reserved for visual artists; she needed the open space, she said, to finish editing the rough cut of her latest book, pages strewn on tables and tacked on walls.

“The first time, I was just writing new stuff straight out,” Miles said. “Each time, it’s been different.”

Miles just finished the first week of her month-long stay; she’s spending the time working on “Afterglow,” a book based on the life and times of her beloved pit bull Rosie — sort of.

“I wanted to write a dog memoir that blew the whole genre out of the water,” Miles said. She started working on the book when Rosie’s life appeared to be coming to a close; at the same time, she said, she started reading science fiction books for the first time in her life, quickly becoming engrossed. After Rosie died, she thought, why not tell those sci-fi tales with Rosie woven in?

“I wanted to tell her story, because I love her, but I wanted to make it trippy.”

Today, Miles and the rest of her fellow MacDowell Colony artists are back at work, undisturbed, the grounds barred to the public for another 364 days. There will still be plenty going on at the Colony, however; during the ceremony, a new Art of Journalism initiative was announced, which aims to bring in writers working on long-form journalism projects. The program is expected to launch this fall.

“We believe that journalists are artists who can change the way we see the world,” Young said in a press release. “That’s a different reception than they may get in a newsroom. And for that reason, we see MacDowell as a place where long-form journalism can, not only survive, but thrive.”

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