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MacDowell Connects Artists and Public: To the Benefit of Students, Residents, and Fellows

Jonathan Gourlay - July 20, 2014

Type: Artist News, Events

MacDowell in the Schools and MacDowell Downtown brings together almost 2,000 local residents with artists every year.

Founded on the principle that the best way to nurture the arts is to increase production and appreciation of the arts, since 1907 the MacDowell Colony has provided direct assistance of time and space to thousands of artists, and has reached tens of thousands of individuals through its public programs. In the early days of the Colony, Marian MacDowell went on speaking tours and encouraged the establishment of local arts clubs across the country. In the last two decades, MacDowell has reached out to the local community and students with the help of artists who discuss their work on through presentations in downtown Peterborough and in the local school district.

Resident Director David Macy has worked with local board members, teachers, and community leaders to pilot various programs intended to build local connections and advance the arts. Nearly 20 years ago Macy recognized MacDowell’s natural opportunity to connect artists with students. With a quiet start in 1996, MacDowell in the Schools has today introduced more than 100 artists to at least 1,600 students and their teachers.

”As far as I could discern from my Midwestern schooling, artists were historical characters from a bygone era rather than living, breathing humans. Bringing MacDowell Fellows to the classrooms seemed a great chance to help demystify a small-town illusion that I understood too well. So we set out to give a peek at the artists and the creative work being done in studios just a couple of miles from school. Participating artists get a lot out of the experience and the students recognize that it’s possible to carve a path through life as a working artist.”

Primarily in the ConVal school district with occasional forays to other schools and academic summer camps in the region, MacDowell in the Schools aims to match-make between volunteering artists and the curricula of students in grades 3 through 12. Some Fellows present their work to multiple classes assembled by cooperating teachers while others lead more intimate workshops or help with portfolio reviews. This summer Devika Rege, a fiction writer from Pune, India, has been meeting weekly with about a dozen ConVal Regional High School Summer Academy students in Angela Hartmann’s crime writing class.

“For me, it’s important to go out and into the community,” she says. “It’s wonderful to hang out with other artists, but it’s important to see how other people view the world.” Engaging with the young writers helps her to look outward, which, she says, is “important for my work.... and I’ve always enjoyed teaching and working with kids.”

Near the end of her program with the budding crime writers, she brought along another MacDowell Fellow, Gregory Sale, a visual artist who has worked on various visual, written and dance-inspired projects with incarcerated men and women in prisons from Arizona to New Hampshire.

“Besides the hours put into craft, fiction is, after all, an exercise in empathy,” says Devika. “I thought it would enrich the ConVal students' perspective to meet Gregory.”

“Some of the students were writing about serious crimes, including murder. I was able to offer a bit of a window into that world,” says Sale. “We talked about the complexity of various situations ... from a man on death row who was found innocent after 27 years to another who grapples with self-hatred about what he did in a drugged-out state. And we looked at art made with incarcerated youth who were about their same age. It was good research for all of us and offered a chance to widen our empathy and understanding.”

If you ask the students, it worked. According to Hartmann, their teacher, “our collaboration with The MacDowell Colony is wonderful.” She adds her students “have grown as writers through conferencing with Devika and love the writing process.” Many if not most of these students, she says, initially disliked writing. One called the program a “unique experience” and said the visit “inspired me … to work toward finding success in my own writing.”

In 2013, ConVal High School art students have met sculptors, dancers, composers, poets, and filmmakers to talk about and view their art. They visited painter Aleah Chapin in Shop Studio to discuss her process and technique of figurative painting. They also met Brent Watanabe, a computer programmer and interdisciplinary artist who welcomed a group of students into Adams Studio to show his sculptural installation using custom computer applications, motors, sensors, and video projectors. Fiction writer Kendra Langford Shaw met with creative writing students at ConVal and conducted a workshop on beginning short stories, and nonfiction writer Meehan Crist met with a large group of anatomy and physiology, and honors biology students, and talked about neuroscience, philosophy, and the book she is currently writing about traumatic brain injury.

Another MacDowell program designed to foster community connections is MacDowell Downtown. Debuting in 2002, this program has built a following among area residents interested in who and what is happening at The MacDowell Colony.

In what has become a Peterborough tradition, on the first Friday of the month, from March through November, a MacDowell artist presents his or her work and enters into dialogue with the audience at The Monadnock Center for History and Culture. There is no charge for admission, and The MacDowell Colony kitchen provides snacks and beverages.

“MacDowell Downtown presents a delightful variety of composers, performers, playwrights, filmmakers, and writers,” says Macy. To begin the 2014 season, visual artist Anna Schuleit Haber, a three-time MacDowell Colony Fellow, showed video and talked about her recent projects. Most recently, Composer Andrea Clearfield, whose orchestral and choral works have been performed around the world, and who hosts an extraordinarily popular music salon in Philadelphia, talked about her active projects at the Mariposa Museum in Peterborough, NH, during a special edition of MacDowell Downtown.

Sixty-five people crowded into the museum’s presentation room to listen to Clearfield, who was in Peterborough for her fourth MacDowell fellowship, as she spoke about her fieldwork in Lo Monthang, Nepal, and shared audio and film footage from her treks to the region.

Since the beginning of the year, MacDowell Downtown and MacDowell in the Schools have combined to connect 35 MacDowell Fellows with nearly 1,200 students and members of the community.

“People love to hear about the ideas behind the works of art and what artists are thinking about,” says MacDowell Colony Executive Director Cheryl A. Young. “Making it possible to meet the artists and hear about what goes into making art helps increase appreciation for the artwork and the value of what artists do on a daily basis. That’s a plus for everybody.”

Peterborough town librarians have been generously supporting MacDowell Fellows for more than a century, and just about 14 years ago, the Colony began asking writers, filmmakers, and composers – who have been donating books, records, and films to The MacDowell Colony library since the beginning – to include an extra copy for the stacks of the nation’s oldest publicly funded library. As a result, more than 900 books, CDs, and videos have been donated since the program’s inception in 2001.