Why MacDowell NOW?

Philip Himberg - April 2, 2020

Type: Artist News

Letter from the Director: In COVID Times

In our first 2020 MacDowell Newsletter, published in January, we introduced a new series of essays written by our Fellows, intended to interrogate the transcendent relevancy of the American artist residency at this particular moment in time. We dubbed these “Why MacDowell NOW?” In the first, our incoming board chairman, author and visual artist Nell Painter, rendered an exquisite essay about her recent residency at MacDowell that contemplated – under the gaze of Beauford Delaney’s spectacular James Baldwin portrait in our library – just what role the artist might play in a less-than-stable world. Specifically, Ms. Painter resonated with Baldwin’s awareness that while in Istanbul, he felt “the freedom to stop, and do nothing in order to start a project anew.” For Nell, that observation paralleled the rare opportunity of a MacDowell Fellowship. A chance to re-open. To renew.

And then COVID-19. The closure of our Peterborough campus. The ensuing isolation and distancing of our planet. The very real threat to the artist community. The stress, fear and unknowingness.

There exist sentiments that an artist residency is very much about isolation, about the power to create while solo in nature. And yet query virtually any MacDowell Fellow and they will convey that detachment is but half of what makes their stay in Peterborough vital and productive; the other half is the joy of their cohort, their community of 30 other art makers who gather together each day, dine and converse, and veritably influence and inspire one another’s creations. So, sitting by oneself in a Brooklyn loft or Austin flat or Ames, Iowa, abode categorically fails to reflect the full richness of MacDowell.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivak Murthy has written passionately about the disease of loneliness. In 2017, Dr. Murthy focused much of his attention on chronic stress and loneliness as prevalent issues with profound implications for health, productivity, and happiness in America. In my work in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was a doctor of Chinese medicine during the height of the AIDS crisis, my practical experience confirmed that clients who lived alone often fared more poorly than those with on-site support and kinship.

However there also exists the notion of hibernation. Of pause. A natural phenomenon across countless species. Trees of course have their own cyclical dormancies, which then enable them to continue their generative cycles. So how might we embrace this incongruity and make room for what it means to “siesta” in the wake of a pathogen that can make us very sick or even kill us? I look to the Taoist principle of Balance.

The MacDowell staff and board are working hard to define our roles. Our Why MacDowell NOW? inquiry has given rise to MacDowell: We Are Here. And our website and social media have transformed one way to stay in touch. On the website, you will find a range of “storytelling” with an aim to support our MacDowell community. If you venture to our constantly updated Resource Page you’ll discover opportunities for artists to access information, for communications, for grant applications, for online performance and publication. In addition, our MacDowell family of Fellows are adding their “Playlists” each week – music, novels, poems, visual art, plays, and film and video recommendations – art that individuals are finding personally helpful and inspiring at this unprecedented time.

We will soon be adding a “Legacy Series” online as well. It will showcase a range of MacDowell Fellows across history, many who made work in the midst of America’s most difficult chapters: The Great Depression, two World Wars, the shadow of a president’s assassination. The work is evocative, insightful, and reminds us of a longer arc of history. It prompts us to recall how art has and always will lead us forward.

In this month's e-News, I am proud to include the second essay in our series, by MacDowell Fellow and Board Member, and Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Vijay Seshadri. Our hope is that these deeply thoughtful pieces allow time for provocative reflection.

In these almost unspeakable times, we send you our embrace, and our hope that we will all make it through this dangerous and uncertain time. We, together, are an army of Global Artist Citizens, and we imagine that we will collaboratively illuminate the pathway forward to a new Renaissance.

Read Nell Painter's essay "At MacDowell with James Baldwin"

Read Vijay Seshadri's essay "Whitman, Melville, the Virus"