MacDowell Downtown

MacDowell Downtown is a free series of presentations open to the public by MacDowell Fellows. It typically takes place on the first Friday of the month from March to November in downtown Peterborough. Each season of MacDowell Downtown features a wide array of programming, including film screenings and workshops, readings, and writing seminars, art exhibitions, performances, talks, and more. MacDowell Downtown begins at 7:30 p.m. typically at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture in Peterborough.

June 2:
Tanya Marcuse Marries Fiction with Reality in Her Mesmerizing Large Photographs

By Jonathan Gourlay

Tanya Marcuse, who makes large photographs of incredibly detailed and fanciful scenes, will talk about the lengths she goes to construct setups for her art during the next installment of MacDowell Downtown tomorrow, June 2, at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture. The photographer, at MacDowell for her second residency, will take a break from her MacDowell studio, to speak about her newest project, “Book of Miracles.” She’ll show images and explain her elaborate process. Doors open at 7:00 p.m., with Marcuse presenting at 7:30.

“The title, ‘Book of Miracles’ references the 16th century manuscript by the same name that inspired my project. It’s a compendium of biblical, astronomical, and apocalyptic miracles,” says Marcuse. Borrowing the title made sense to the artist because her project is “very much born of catastrophe. I’ve been working intensely and feverishly for three years on this. It’s about beauty and terror.”

Marcuse is an artist in residence at Bard College, and her photographs are in many collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the George Eastman Museum, and she’s a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She began “Book of Miracles” during the lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic.

She describes her approach as being in conversation with the original manuscript. “The project aims to visualize phenomena that defy the laws of nature, using fire, paint, and the staging of fantastical scenes,” she says. “Photography often walks a thin line between fact and fiction, or dwells in a realm where the two cannot be distinguished; my work takes part in this pendulum swing between belief and doubt.”

To do this, Marcuse may scout a location where she knows the next full moon will rise against the horizon and hike to it a few hours before dark carrying her camera gear as well as a large bag of materials such as mushrooms, mosses, wildflowers, and deer antlers. She’ll then spend hours setting the stage to shoot the rising moon in the distance with her carefully staged tableau in the foreground. The results are mesmerizing, colorful, and remarkably detailed.

The work requires intense focus as well as the physical strength to carry gear around forests and swamps. Both are aspects of the photographer’s process that are aided by her study of Tang Soo Do, a Korean martial art. “In some ways, my art practice and my training couldn’t be more different. For example, I’m not trying to be original as a martial artist. But they both require discipline and a commitment to the present moment. Martial arts is a method for me to cultivate extreme focus that helps in my work,” says Marcuse. “It also helps me physically, when I’m hiking a couple miles with all my equipment, and maybe working long hours into the night.”

“Book of Miracles” consists of three parts done at different scales and employing distinct methods. Part I, “Kingdom,” are huge five-foot X 10-foot works composed on a wooden frame using found flora and fauna, augmented by paint, glitter, and sometimes by fire. The photographs in Part II, “Portent” (32-in. x 40-in.), are comprised of fantastical scenes staged in swamps, rivers, and orchards. Part III, “Emblem” (7-in. X 9-in.), are small symbolic works. “I’m working on this third part here at MacDowell,” says the artist.

The large works can take weeks, even months, to compose. Marcuse weaves together materials she’s collected from the natural world, layering tree roots, mushrooms, wildflowers, and the occasional dead animal found during her excursions. She’ll sometimes use gold paint, pigments, or even richly hued spices to add counterpoint to other materials. When it’s finished, Marcuse photographs the tableaux. The artist hopes that the slowness and labor in her work gives viewers an immersive experience that invites slow looking and conveys her sense of wonder, as well as painful concern, for the natural world.

We hope you’ll join us for a fascinating look into Tanya Marcuse’s process of creating vivid, thought-provoking photographs both immense and small. Please let your friends know, and join us Friday, June 2nd, at 7:30 p.m. at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture for another unique presentation of MacDowell Downtown.

If you go:

  • Who: Photographer Tanya Marcuse
  • What: MacDowell Downtown
  • When: June 2, 2023 from 7:30 – 8:30 p.m.
  • Where: The Monadnock Center for History and Culture at 19 Grove Street, Peterborough, NH

(Below, see a slideshow of the 2019 season. Keep an eye out for our “At MacDowell” monthly column appearing the first Thursday of every month in The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and visit our Facebook Events page for the latest information on upcoming MacDowell Downtown events.)