Photo by John Hession
My best friend during my formative years was steve bullock, who was first and foremost an artist (and still is). His father owned a scrapyard, basically a big pile of junk that he bought and sold. That field of rusting metal was like heaven for a couple of young creative minds.
I sometime marvel that we never lost an eye or a leg while climbing around there. We staged a few “happenings” in a huge, cone-shaped sheet-metal building Mr. Bullock owned that was once part of a sawmill. It was used to burn the bark and trimmed ends from the lumber, and had mountains of hard ash that we could climb. When we covered the ash with carpet scraps creating shaggy colorful hillocks and up-lit the slanting walls with flood lamps, it looked like a post-apocalyptic theatre in the round. We brought in a Moog synthesizer (Google it), hung old circular saw blades and other pieces of metal that made interesting noises and we’d invite friends down to “play” the building (that had wonderfully cacophonous acoustics).
By the way, all this took place in a small Northwest Florida town with a delightfully appropriate name: Niceville. I can only imagine what the Niceville neighbors thought when the sawmill concerto was in full swing on some of those hazy summer nights.
It might seem like a gross non sequitur to leap from a noisy 1970s happening to a prestigious woodland art colony in Peterborough, but whenever I visit the MacDowell Colony, that’s what comes to mind. Some very odd and avant garde art is produced there, true, but the real similarity is harder to define. It has something to do with freedom.
In the dozen or so Medal Days that my family has made the trek to witness, we’ve seen the sprawling grounds turned into a network of tree-hung telephones, all connected to a central switchboard where volunteers linked callers to prerecorded readings. We participated in a community art project of three-dimensional weaving, connecting a field of erect poles with a dense web of colorful yarn. There was the time that MacDowell fellow Meredith Monk, a brilliantly eccentric composer, performed a Tuvan throat-sung tribute for friend and Medalist Merce Cunningham, a leader of the modern American dance movement for five decades. We met a writer who was exploring the genesis of the US Interstate Highway system (spoiler: it predates Eisenhower) and a sculptor depicting what would have actually happened to a certain cartoon roadrunner if it was ever captured by a pursuing coyote. That’s just scratching the surface.
Maybe an art colony in Peterborough, NH, has very little in common with a sawmill incinerator in Niceville, Fla., but even without the Dionysian racket of young hippies banging on gongs all night, I think the rural New Hampshire neighbors must wonder from time to time what the heck is going on over there.
Medal Day (August 10), the one day a year when MacDowell is open to the public, is everyone’s chance to find out.