Monday, August 13, 2007



This weekend was Medal Day at MacDowell Colony, an artist's retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire. It was also their centennial celebration so there was lots of extra fanfare. Even though I drive by the colony almost daily in some form, as it is just fifteen minutes from our house on a lovely back road to Peterborough, I have never been on its grounds. Growing up, my grandmother always spoke of it in hallowed tones: of how Thornton Wilder was a friend of her older brother and wrote OUR TOWN there, of how this incredible woman named Marian MacDowell, who died in 1956, had been the driving force in fostering this arts colony in the New Hampshire hills. I think, like myself, my grandmother secretly longed for such a place to go and write or create.


My daughter and I had the opportunity to participate in a unique public art installation project called "Landlines". Conceived by artist Anna Schuleit, the project placed 100 telephones of all eras and styles throughout the forests and edges of fields in the 450 acres of the colony. At certain times throughout the weekend, former colony fellows and others were asked to call in from anywhere in the world on a toll-free number and were routed through two old-fashioned switchboards (where switches were used to link calls). Visitors wandering the grounds could call from tree phones to talk with anyone on another tree and incoming callers could talk with tree phones (or hear a recording of something written or composed by a MacDowell fellow). The wiring and orchestration that went into this was boggling.


Chris Ricciotti, the partner of an old colleague of mine, John Burrows (who is a Victorian design merchant), organized the mechanics of the installation with the use of his expertise and collected switchboards. A large team of volunteers coordinated the phone placement and the vast wiring that was needed around the grounds. My friends Rosemary and Edie also participated in the switchboard project: Rosemary was a cook at MacDowell a few years ago and was delighted to tour their renovated kitchen and Edie was also employed there in the 1980s. [Edie's husband Jeff also helped with the wiring and their son Ko, almost 12, was a whiz at the switchboard.]


The MacDowell Colony, even in this modern age, does not allow telephones (and I believe politely requests that residents do not bring cell phones but I am not certain of this--my guess is that they don't come in well there any way as coverage here in the Monadnock foot hills is sporadic). The idea is for the artist or writer to compose freely without distraction in small private studios. The only existing landlines on the property are the ones in the administrative buildings (and all electric powerlines have been buried between studios). The thirty or so studios are connected by footpaths as in an idyllic woodland camp.


Breakfast and dinner are provided in the main building--but a lunch basket is packed and quietly left on studio porch doors--and days can be planned and carved freely around the creative impulse. No one is there to tell you what to do, but like college or the parental embrace, your every need is met while you are there. Your time is your own.


So to have this immense network of phones throughout the forest and connected with the world--in a non-computer driven or cellular way--seemed a fitting tribute to a place that has done so much for the arts and culture of the world, that is connected and yet apart from it.

I have come to loathe talking on the phone since the invention of e-mail. I don't like to spend a lot of time conversing on it and find it a constant intrusion. So this project intrigued me on a variety of levels. When we had our switchboard training, I was overwhelmed by left and right, different wires, procedural order, etc. So I gladly allowed my daughter to fill in for my 15 minute shift while I observed. I wanted to talk but was leary of the mechanisms which I seemed unable to understand (John told me that it normally takes several months to train a switchboard operator in the old method). I was amazed how the younger volunteers, especially, handled themselves with the mechanics of it so effortlessly.


We had a bit of time to visit one studio before we were at the switchboard. I was drawn to a contemporary looking studio, Calderwood, at the edge of the field where we parked. Designed especially for writers, apparently by I.M. Pei or with his blessing, it was the size of a small and comfortable house complete with a large light-filled workspace, kitchenette, bedroom (with bathtub under a window seat that my daughter noticed through the window), a reading loft and even an inglenook with a fireplace and more cozy spaces for reading or visiting.


I could have moved right in. [Most studios just have work and napping spaces with dormitory space provided near the dining hall but this one had a complete bedroom.]


But inside was Ruth Reichl, writer and editor of GOURMET magazine. I enjoyed her first two memoirs: TENDER AT THE BONE and COMFORT ME WITH APPLES. She was surrounded by well-wishers and I was too shy to say hello (even though I'd kicked myself for not bringing her books to have signed). I would think such a situation would be so awkward: all of these people in your private writer's space. I felt permissably intrusive as if seeing the space and her in it was enough. So I smiled and snapped her photo--perhaps an invasion in itself, also.

Even though the grounds were bustling with people from all over New England and New York, even the world, it seemed, and many locals whom I knew, I did feel somewhat transported by my brief time there. My daughter Addie felt it, too. It reminded me of a hushed outdoor library with much creative energy infused in the forests and fields and footpaths.

And the "Landlines" installation furthered that creative buzz. The forest is quiet again. The place can withdraw from the world as it does on every other day of the year except for Medal Day. Ruth Reichl said she was leaving today to go back to work in Manhattan. I wonder if she was ready.

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