“Yes, all that is true,” a former Yaddo resident tells me after we have discussed the colony for a few minutes. “But even more important than all that, in terms of popularity and longevity, is the fact that both places baby the artist. MacDowell and Yaddo are probably the last places in this country where an artist — particularly a relatively unknown artist — is treated as if what he is doing is important. Most people, understandably, view the artistic temperament as something to be discouraged; at Yaddo and MacDowell they glory in it — the quirks, the passion, the fervor....Artists haven’t had it so good since they were supported by the Medici.”
He had a point, and later I found myself nodding in agreement with an artist who summed it all up. “The secret to these places,” she confided, “is that they treat artists the way each one secretly thinks he deserves.”
At MacDowell, each deserving artist gets a private room in one of the four residence halls, as well as a secluded studio (one of 32) in the woods, each one out of sight and earshot of the others. Yaddo, with fewer studios, scatters guests through the 55-room mansion, a garage with living quarters, three smaller houses, and two independent studios. At both places, the artists are given an early breakfast (8 a.m.) and a box lunch, and then sent off for a full day of undisturbed, productive efforts. At least that’s the idea (or, as Katrina Trask would say, the Idea).
In fact, no one knows (or, presumably, cares) what the artist does with his or her time in the studio: neither colony demands progress reports or finished projects at the end of a stay, and there is an unwritten rule in both dining halls that the question “How is your work going?” is never asked. Not surprisingly, all this freedom has an effect on the artistic temperament. Some colonists have been known to sit for days in their studio, watching the grass grow. Others start drinking; at MacDowell, one well-known artist had to be dried out every week.
Even the most industrious artists, in fact, sometimes have trouble adjusting to the colony experience. “It was stark at first,” Bobbie Carrey, a Cambridge photographer who was a Yaddo guest last fall, tells me. “I had thought I was a hermit, a recluse — but when I got to Yaddo and confronted the silence, I was surprised by my reaction. The walls were bare and unfamiliar, there was no mail, no phone calls — nothing to bounce off, so to speak. For the first few weeks I spent a lot of time taking self-portraits just to confirm that I was still there. Then, once I got used to it, I began to appreciate the situation. The whole environment was so simple, so stripped, so clear — that everything I did stood out, as if in neon. It was like a drying out, and I learned a lot about how I work.”