Creative Confinement

Since 1907, artists have been retreating to a little colony in the woods of New Hampshire. All they want is some peace and quiet.

My guide slows the Jeep to a halt as Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones, tiptoes into the weeds after a flock of wild turkeys. The turkeys eye her warily. Sebold eyes the Jeep. Pausing just long enough for the birds to make their way across the dirt road, the Jeep accelerates and plunges on through the New Hampshire countryside. And I'm left with the distinct impression that we've interrupted something.

I've taken up temporary residence at the MacDowell Colony, whose wooded 450 acres have, for nearly a century, offered creative refuge to the likes of Thornton Wilder, Leonard Bernstein, and Alice Walker. All told, some 5,500 artists have made their way to this corner of rural New England—basically, like Sebold with her turkeys, to be left alone. But also for something more.

How do organizations foster creativity? It's a vital question in business and elsewhere. At more than 250 colonies in the United States supporting 12,000 artists a year, the answer is fairly simple: Let people interact with other artists from different disciplines, and they'll pick up new ideas. Give them space and time to work, free from the distractions of daily life, and their productivity will soar.

MacDowell has worked this formula with particular success. Since 1907, its alumni have won more than 65 Pulitzers, 12 MacArthur Foundation "genius awards" and, it claims, "scores" of Academy Awards, Grammys, Guggenheims, and National Book Awards. Composer Aaron Copland was a fellow, as were historian Barbara Tuchman and painter Milton Avery. Recent residents have included Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides) and Michael Chabon, who worked on his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay while holed up in the Heyward studio.

MacDowell's fellows spend weeks or months in one of 32 spartan studios scattered throughout the woods—each one centered around one large room and outfitted with a thin rug, a desk, a chair, a fireplace, and perhaps a bulletin board (and on request, with a piano, sculpting tools, or other gear). Most artists sleep in central dormitories and take breakfast and dinner in the main hall, where tables come alive with conversation. Lunch, by contrast, arrives silently around noon in a basket at the door, so as not to interrupt artists at work. Says resident director David Macy: "Everything we do signals respect for the creative process."

That ethos has guided the colony for nearly a century. Its founder, composer Edward MacDowell, retreated to this spot near Peterborough during the summer from his teaching post at Columbia University to write new scores. When the 18th-century barn he had retrofitted as a summer home became too busy, his wife, Marie, had a one-room cabin built farther out in the forest, where he could work in peace. Edward enjoyed the solitude so much that he and Marie began opening up their land to other artists. Today, roughly 1,500 artists a year apply for the colony's 250 annual slots.

Solitude is, of course, just part of MacDowell's appeal. Anyone who has tried turning off the phone and shutting his office door knows he can't just plug his ears and wait for genius to come bubbling up. "Anybody can go rent a cabin and be a hermit," says photographer Rachel Sussman. "But here you see other artists at breakfast and dinner, and you get familiar with different creative processes." Sussman says the creative climate at MacDowell, where artists often hold evening "open studios"—showing, discussing, and critiquing one another's work—drives her thinking in new directions.

When the artists mingle, their discussions inevitably are rich with metaphor. One piece of installation art, not quite finished, is qualified by its maker as "in its third trimester." A rough passage of text is dismissed by its author as "still fermenting." The language bridges the gaps between disciplines that, while all artistic, are nevertheless quite distinct. "Each art has a slightly different vocabulary," says Joanne Metcalf, a composer working on an opera about a Venice orphanage in the 16th century. Metcalf, 47, is on sabbatical from Lawrence University, in Wisconsin. "Conversation here is provocative," she says. "It suggests to me new ways to approach my own work."

The weight of history at MacDowell also plays a role in the creative process. The studio walls are decorated with "tombstones"—wooden tablets featuring the handwritten names of artists who have resided there. In Metcalf's studio, the names go back more than 60 years, far enough that the earliest are no longer legible. Pointing to the walls, she indicates some recent composers as her contemporaries, then gestures further back through the years to those she's only known from textbooks and concert halls. How could she not create in their midst?

At its essence, though, MacDowell is all about the silence. While artists are free to socialize day or night, colony decorum requires that they make appointments in advance. Studios have no phones or Internet access. It's that isolation, and the absence of external demands (including financial, since artists pay nothing for their stay, thanks to the colony's $22 million endowment), that fuels creative output.

Mark Winges, in his third visit to MacDowell, is working on an 18-minute concerto that will require between 60 to 80 musicians. At home, he says, balancing composing with daily chores and "appointments with the dentist and the vet" is daunting. Here, he can work at his own pace. "I may only write 2 notes today, but I can take 12 whole hours tomorrow and write 3 or 30 or 300 notes. And then there's the day after that and the day after that. . ." Sighing, he leans back in his chair and looks out to the forest surrounding the porch of his studio. "I like to say this piece is writing itself despite my best efforts," he says with a grin.

Residents at MacDowell often note that one day here is equal to four in the outside world. By my third day, I've reverted to a circadian rhythm, turning in by 9 p.m. and waking up by 7 a.m. Cultivated by vast stretches of uninterrupted silence, my idle thoughts about not returning to Manhattan, ever, seem increasingly rational. By the time an administrator casually slides an application across his desk toward me—"You should think about it"—I'm thinking, Yes, I really should. Standing outside the colony's main hall, I exchange a ruminative glance with Josh Marsten, the writer and director of Maria Full of Grace. Jake Slichter, the drummer from the alt-pop band Semisonic, smiles and nods. A bell rings in the distance, calling the artists to dinner. For tonight, anyway, I'm with them.

Lucas Conley (lconley@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company staff writer. Despite his best efforts, this piece wrote itself (on deadline) while he was in residence at MacDowell.

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