Why MacDowell NOW? It Has Space to Forge a New National Vision

Susan Choi - July 27, 2020

Type: Artist News

Novelist Susan Choi (12, 13, 15, 18) at her desk in Mansfield Studio in 2018. Joanna Eldredge Morrissey photo

MacDowell Has Space to Forge a New National Vision

Today is June 10, 2020 – a day on which it is particularly impossible to disregard the exact moment at which I am writing. When I was first invited to write this essay, only five weeks ago, a quality of timelessness pervaded my life. In New York, I had been living under quarantine since mid-March. As an inessential worker, each day felt to me much like the last, and it was briefly possible for me to believe there was little to do. It was possible for me to forget that we are all essential workers when it comes to the shared responsibility to make the world safe, just, and even happy for all people, not just ourselves. That bubble burst on May 25, 2020, with the murder of George Floyd – the latest in a string of such murders extending back four centuries. Abruptly, for those such as me who had been privileged to feel time had stopped, time restarted, and since that day every day, every date, has been seared on our consciousness. I guess that will still be the case by the time this is published. I hope so.

Before the murder of George Floyd on May 25, I had been thinking about this MacDowell essay – which I felt I had ‘all the time in the world’ to write – in terms of Time’s frequent dance-partner, Space. When invited to answer the question Why MacDowell now?, my first thought had been of space, of my experience of physical space not only while at MacDowell but afterward, after MacDowell had made space inside me for itself. I had been musing on the exquisitely enhanced appreciation of physical reality I experienced at MacDowell, the way MacDowell made me not only far more attentive to my immediate surroundings, but far more attentive to the effects of the physical in general, to the ways in which things and spaces structure our experiences, thoughts, and values. Mindful that space tends to afford those of us who aren’t physicists an experience of constancy, whereas time tends to afford an opposite experience of change, I spent a lot of my time musing on constancy and regarding it as a positive thing. After all, the world was on fire with a pandemic, a very unwelcome change, and so constancy was a quality I craved.

But George Floyd’s murder reframed my thoughts like a lens switching focus. Now my interest in constancy struck me as, at best, the desire to bury my head in the sand, and, at worst, as my capacity to actively do harm by failing to actively do good. How could I possibly write about constancy? How could the constancy of MacDowell not equal oblivious privilege? How could the changelessness of MacDowell, viewed in light of this moment, constitute anything but proof that there is no good answer to the question ‘Why MacDowell now?’

These unhappy new questions of mine, layered atop the original question, rang in my head and scrambled my thoughts, just as the too-low-flying police helicopters persistently intimidating my neighborhood with their presence scrambled my peace. But perhaps it was that very noise and distress that furnished me with an answer. I found myself going back to the physical space of MacDowell, just as I had first wanted to do – in my mind, of course, as physical travel to MacDowell remained impossible due to the pandemic.

I first received a MacDowell fellowship in early 2012, January. My studio was Veltin, and I loved it so much, was so touched and awed by that magical place being mine for the two weeks I would spend there, that I couldn’t imagine being apart from it and immediately started to sleep there, though I also had a bedroom in Pan’s Cottage, a residence dorm. And so when I think back to the physical experience of MacDowell that so transformed me, though I’ve since had the good fortune to reside in other studios, it’s always Veltin that I recall first. The dusting of snow limning its roofline and the boughs of the surrounding pines; the cloaked grand piano I never used – not having played since childhood – but that, like the tombstones, testified to the work that went on here before me and would continue once I’d left; and the tombstones themselves, which of course I pored over, reeling with amazement when I found Thornton Wilder’s name. Every person who’s had the gift of time at MacDowell knows well this magic of sharing space, if not time, with the scores of writers and artists who have come before, and knows how this sharing of space consecrates not just the space, but ourselves, sending each of us the powerful message that what we do matters. Walking to and from Veltin, I seemed to see everything in my environment more clearly. The mystery of a caterpillar in winter?! making a question mark in the new-fallen snow, is an image that impressed itself so deeply on me that I wrote a (very bad) poem about it. And so the experience of physical reality at MacDowell was not just affirming me in my work, it was affecting my very ways of working – for though that poem was really bad, the heightened vision of which it was a symptom was good, and I wrote prose that I wasn’t ashamed of.

Yet all these experiences of space are still highly individual, and though that doesn’t rob them of their value, it implies MacDowell is a site of sequestered privilege for the lucky few. That is not the answer that I’m seeking to the question of ‘Why MacDowell, now?’, but another of my experiences of physical reality at MacDowell might be.

Because it was winter, and very cold, it felt cozy to congregate with the other artists-in-residence in the main hall, especially on the nights they shared their work. On one such night Josh Zeman screened his documentary Cropsey, which told the horrifying story of a string of murders of children on Staten Island. The killer had turned out to be a man named Andre Rand who had worked as a janitor at the notorious Willowbrook State School. Just as Rand was a real-life bogeyman, Willowbrook was a real-life house of horrors, an institution built for children with developmental disabilities that was the subject of one of the most shocking exposes in television history when in 1972 a young Geraldo Rivera essentially stormed the gates with television cameras to reveal children living in squalid conditions and suffering systematic abuse.

The film was riveting and terrifying, and afterward, for the first time since arriving at MacDowell, I struggled to sleep. It was an exceptionally windy night, and the pines standing guard over Veltin audibly groaned and creaked as if warning that they might not withstand the assault. Veltin, built as it is of beautiful round smooth stones, didn’t issue so much as a squeak, and I knew I was utterly safe, yet I felt a harrowing vulnerability, even more devastating for how uncalled-for it was, unlike the vulnerability and harrowing pain the children of Willowbrook must have felt.

Blessedly different as MacDowell is from the Willowbrook School – one viewed as a paradise on earth by its transient residents, the other revealed as a living hell by those consigned there – they became linked in my mind, and not only because I learned about Willowbrook from the work of a fellow artist at MacDowell. Though Willowbrook, unlike MacDowell, was founded by the state with public funds rather than by a single visionary, not so unlike MacDowell, Willowbrook was intended as a transformative force for good. Completed in 1942 as a facility to care for children with developmental disabilities from the New York City area, Willowbrook was immediately commandeered for the war effort, at the end of which the federal government determined to continue using the facility to care for war veterans. New York State Governor John Dewey, in fending off this pressure, insisted the facility be returned to the use for which it was originally intended: the care of children “who never can become members of society…with a high degree of tenderness and attention.” [Krugman 158] The Willowbrook building, an enormous brick structure resembling a cross from above, sitting at the center of extensive lawns and crowned by a cupola, is not exactly beautiful, but it is certainly monumental; after the scandalous closure of Willowbrook the building eventually became a part of the campus of the College of Staten Island.

In making physical spaces – buildings and landscapes, public and private, beautiful and ugly, intimate and monumental – we as a society also make meaning. We affirm worth, of people and of practices. We expand possibility or deny it. We protect and reassure bodies or we present the appearance of doing so, while doing something entirely different. The shocking betrayal of Willowbrook was most immediately about the systematic abuse of its residents, but it was also about the incomprehensible disconnect between the message conveyed by that grand building – that the care of those children was an absolute social priority, and that we as a society had resolved to do it “with a high degree of tenderness” – and the horrific reality, that the grandeur of the building ironically hid. Buildings are only ever as important as the tangible good that they realize for people, but they realize this good not just in the obvious literal, but in many figurative ways. They tell us who and what matters. Willowbrook purported to tell us that children with disabilities are valued and regarded as essential; in the end, it told us the opposite, and to this day, we see no tangible signs anywhere in our society that the care of these children is an absolute priority. Even the monument to its own failure has been erased in the renaming and transformation of the former Willowbrook School into a college for typical learners.

Like Willowbrook, MacDowell at the time of its founding represented a conspicuous designation of space and resources for a particular good, the creation of literature and art. Unlike Willowbrook, MacDowell never betrayed its mission, and if the question I were trying to answer was simply ‘Why MacDowell?,’ that would be an answer right there: because MacDowell has fulfilled a crucial mission since the time of its founding, and that’s a rare and great thing. But that’s still only looking backward; that’s not addressing the question, Why now?

Immediately fostering creativity through material support of an ever-changing roster of fellows is part of the mission of MacDowell, which it can fulfill in its highest sense by making sure that that roster is ever-more diverse. But its mission is also to affirm artistic creativity as an essential social good, to a society often prone to forget this. Of course MacDowell does this through its support of those fellows and through its public programs. But, thinking again about that monumental Willowbrook School building – constructed with so much confidence as to suggest hubris, then reduced to a graffiti-covered disgrace, then folded into a college campus with its notorious name scrubbed away – I’m reminded that MacDowell also powerfully fulfills its mission through a stubborn occupation of space, its very delegation of resources – its visible physical existence, as literal structures, on literal, valuable property. That those structures haven’t yet become luxury condos in turn creates the metaphoric structures of our experiences, thoughts, and values. It tells us, literature and art are urgent social enterprises. It tells us, as a writer or artist, I am valued.

MacDowell’s physical existence has powerfully materialized this message, again and again and across the decades, performing transformative work that there’s no way to measure – who can gauge the works of art and literature and music and the careers and collaborations and solutions that might not have happened, had there been no MacDowell? Who even wants to think about this? – yet for all that the space of MacDowell has accomplished, even more transformation resides in that space, in its potential. MacDowell can feel like a refuge from the world, but it’s far more important, I think, as a visible part of the world. MacDowell must always support the people who already write and make art – but it can also invite people to write and make art. Let MacDowell’s writers and artists work in splendid isolation, yes – but get that splendid isolation – which affirms what they’re doing – to be far more seen. Why MacDowell now? Because in a society that seems ever more constricted, ever more committed to the single goal of wealth accumulation, ever less interested in freedom and justice and access and affluence for all, MacDowell is a visible resistance, a capacious site of possibility.

Do I want to see schoolchildren brought to MacDowell in yellow buses from places unlike Peterborough and given the run of the meadows, and shown the funny little houses where the writers and the artists do their thing? Not all the time, obviously, or MacDowell wouldn’t get its work done. But, why not sometimes? Do I want to see MacDowell find other ways to bring non-artists and non-writers into its space, so that they might talk about its idea, and about whether space exists for writing and art in their own communities? Yes, I would like to see this, and more. One of the remarkable juxtapositions brought on by our current crisis is that as I began to write, emergency medical workers had replaced the artists and writers at MacDowell, and they too inscribed their names onto the tombstones so that we’ll never forget the indispensable world-saving work they’ve performed in these times. Would I like to see these workers invited back to MacDowell when this crisis is over, along with the writers and artists, so that everyone can share their experiences, and make meaning from this disaster? I would love to see that – and to see other people who probably have better ideas along these lines than I do weigh in on how else we can share MacDowell’s space, and by doing so, expand fulfillment of its mission. I’m just a fiction writer, and policy isn’t my niche, but I know that MacDowell is powerful, and that its power does good, and can do even more. Why MacDowell now? It’s June 10, 2020. Our country has declared itself desperate to forge a new vision, and new visions take space to get made – emotional, intellectual, artistic, and literal physical space. MacDowell has them all.

Visit Susan Choi's (12, 13, 15, 18) MacDowell page.

Read other essays from the MacDowell Now series:
Nell Painter: Why MacDowell Now?

Vijay Seshadri: Whitman, Melville, the Virus

Emily Doolittle: On Lockdown, Wood Pigeons, & Creativity