Medal Day, a peek inside MacDowell Colony studios

  • Artist Em Rooney (center) speaks to visitors in her studio, surrounded by completed and in-progress work. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton

  • Artist studios are open to the public during Medal Day at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough. Abbe Hamilton—

  • Artist studios are open to the public during Medal Day at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough. Abbe Hamilton—

  • Above: Artist Laurel Sparks speaks to visitors in her studio on Medal Day at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough. Top: One of the MacDowell Colony studios that was open to the public for the only day of the year on Sunday. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton

  • Visitors peruse the crowd-sourced contributions to the storyline that playwright Kathryn Hamilton (left) is developing during Medal Day at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough. Abbe Hamilton—

  • Artist studios are open to the public during Medal Day at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough. Abbe Hamilton—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 8/14/2019 9:22:51 PM

During a residency at MacDowell Colony, an artist is the only person permitted to set foot in their studio building. Medal Day is the one exception to that rule, and artists who happen to be in residence during Medal Day set aside the afternoon to receive members of the public. There were 29 studios open to the public this year, each with a resident artist on hand to field questions from curious viewers.

David Macy, the resident director of MacDowell Colony, described an artist’s experience at MacDowell as a “reprieve from the condescension and apathy” that grinds down creative instincts. For many working artists, the appeal of a MacDowell fellowship is a work environment optimal to creative productivity.

ENOUGH TIME

Kristen Case is a poet and writer from Maine. At home, she typically wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and writes for a half hour. This keeps her skills from atrophying, she said, but it is not enough time to produce a larger body of work.

She came to MacDowell to make headway on writing a book based around the Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo. When she arrived a week ago, Case said she felt pressure to write around the clock. Gradually, she said she began to relax as she realized how much additional time is available to her. Case has two children and works full time for the University of Maine in Farmington. She said that at MacDowell, she doesn’t need to set aside any of the time she usually does for cooking, commuting, taking care of her kids, her job, or emails. She realized she could put in long days writing, and still had time to socialize in the evening, or explore small printmaking projects to refresh her creativity.

ENOUGH SPACE

Case’s studio consisted of a small, gently lit room with a twin bed in a corner, a restroom, and a screen porch. One wall was lined with the wooden “tombstones” visible in every studio, bearing the name of every resident that previously occupied that studio. “Everything just felt right” she said of the space. The desk faced a tall window that faces a wall of green. “It’s not officially a live-in [studio] but I don’t want to leave, ever.”

Laurel Sparks, a visual artist from Brooklyn, described her tenure at MacDowell as “the best studio experience of my life.” She is a painter producing pieces on woven canvases, plotting their shapes and colors with patterns inspired by math and geometry. Her studio at MacDowell was bright, with a high ceiling and a loft for sleeping. She had arranged an impressive collection of tiny tubes of oil paints in a line along a shelf. “I have a quarter of this studio space in Brooklyn,” she said.

PREPARED

Case prepared for her residency by spending several months researching for her book, and drawing down her personal and professional to-do lists. She arrived at MacDowell with a decent plan of what she wanted to write. She envisions the book she’ll produce as a combination of prose and poems, describing poems as, to her, “more about the mindset you were in when making it than its ultimate form.” Another resident writer, Eileen Myles, said they brought a collection of books to the residency, selecting titles that would “support the creation of the world” they planned to write. Myles is writing a book that will be based around moments from various relationships.

Em Rooney, a visual artist in the cathedral-like Alexander studio, had a substantially different preparation process for her residency. Rooney rented a U-haul to bring most of her home studio’s supplies to MacDowell. She is preparing for an upcoming show in Amsterdam, and constructed many of the sculptures for the show over the past month of her residency. Certain pieces needed to be kiln-fired in advance, and she needed a substantial and varied number of tools to complete the other pieces. This included a heavy vise, which occupied a central space in the workshop on Sunday. Rooney said she didn’t truly appreciate the magnitude of her undertaking until she had to move it to MacDowell. “It’d been a part of that table for forty years,” she said. Ultimately, though, Rooney said the residency was absolutely worth the logistical trouble. “It was a lot, but it helped me take care, in advance, of [tasks] I’d otherwise be doing last minute.”

The new environment allowed her to produce art decoupled from the usual thoughts and feelings associated with her home studio, which is attached to the school where she works. She usually has to travel to a separate building on campus to complete the welding components of her pieces. At MacDowell, her welder rested on the floor amid her tools and unfinished work. Rooney still has a lot to do to be ready for the show, but is pleased with what she was able to accomplish during her residency.

DEVELOPING A NEW SHOW

Kathryn Hamilton used Medal Day to help her develop a new performance. She is a playwright based in Brooklyn, New York and Istanbul, Turkey, and completed the first draft of her new show’s first act on Saturday after a week and a half in residence. She found herself in an inspirational rut, and decided to seek ideas from the rich source of passersby on Medal Day. The wall of her studio was plastered with visitors’ responses to her questions, which included both written and illustrated components.

This approach is representative of Hamilton’s style of theater. Her most recent work was a highly participatory, part-performance-part-lecture on DNA extraction. During the shows, attendees consumed cocktails containing DNA extracted from a hat in the costume collection of the Berliner Ensemble, and, as Hamilton explained, thus literally absorbed the unidentified Berliner Ensemble actors’ genetic information, and the performance as a whole, into their bodies.

Hamilton is modeling the storyline of her new show on a strand of DNA: She envisions that certain parts will provide clear information in a structured format. Other parts, the “junk DNA” segments, will be less structured. While she spoke to visitors in her studio, a video played footage of a cluster of visibly pulsing heart cells. Hamilton plans to use microscope projections during the show, and bacteria in a petri dish will be presented as co-performers. She refers to herself as a self-trained biologist, and has spent the last year and a half in a lab, learning to splice and extract DNA.

Hamilton said she had only ever developed work in collaborations before, and was nervous about working alone at MacDowell. She said she was enjoying the solitude, so far. “I never want to work with anyone ever again!” Hamilton will spend five and a half weeks total at MacDowell, and hopes to complete the new performance in that time. Immediately afterward, she’ll workshop the piece with students at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs to prepare it for performing.

COMMUNITY

Danielle Spencer, an essayist from New York City, just finished the conclusion to her book on dealing with retrospective diagnoses. “It feels amazing,” she said. She said several other artists have announced milestones in their work over dinner, and that the greater group greets accomplishments enthusiastically.

Case also appreciated the simultaneous experiences of deep solitude, and community at MacDowell. “There is a sense of mutual understanding that we’re all having similar experiences,” she said. “We’re all in our own heads every day. There’s a sense of solidarity.”

OUTREACH DURINGA RETREAT

As visitors filtered beneath the vaulted ceilings of her workspace, Rooney hastily affixed a “WORK IN PROGRESS” sign to her coat, which was draped over an unfinished sculpture on the wall. She said visitors had been asking whether the coat was a part of the sculpture, and it was important to her to distinguish what was and was not intentional in her working space.

Sparks described her experience with Medal Day as “intense,” an adrenaline-fueled day after two weeks alone in her studio. Sparks said that, as compared to gallery openings that are usually filled with friends and colleagues, Medal Day visitors were mostly strangers unfamiliar with her work, and she had been fielding work-related questions all day.

“It’s exhausting,” said Rosalyne Shieh, an artist developing a multimedia archive of her family’s history in Taiwan and the United States. “My work is hard to explain, but that doesn’t mean [explaining it is] not worthwhile.”

She likened engaging with visitors on Medal Day to her goal of making her work as relatable as it is personal.


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