Colonial Power: An exploration of America’s most prominent artist colonies



Daniel Felsenfeld in the woods.
Rear Screen Projection by Randy Nordschow

In her seminal novel A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf famously wrote: “…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” That was then, in post-Victorian England. Now, here in America, all artists—not just women—need these things; we need money, space, freedom, a lack of distraction, stimulation. In Europe or Scandinavia or Asia, the government chips in a good amount to the arts; in America, we are all pretty much on our own. But once in a while, there is a reward, something (or somewhere) where being an artist is not a liability, not just what one does after the day job is done, but “the” thing that clearly defines you—I cannot tell you how often, when telling people I am a composer, the next question is something along the lines of “what do you really do?”

“Intellectual freedom,” says Woolf, “depends on material things.” A blunt statement, guaranteed to raise an eyebrow or two in the high-art (holier than thou) set, but sadly true. Creating takes time, energy, and space. Especially in this cultural climate, composers face all manners of challenges and, for most, just finding the time or headspace to get to the piano is the greatest obstacle. Life gets in the way. The phone rings; the bills pile up. The jobs we do—like writing criticism, copying, or teaching—are consuming of both time and energy; and of course, money is always a problem, to say nothing of inspiration. Plus we have to be our own personal cheering section, working as hard (or harder) on the “career” as we do on the work itself. Not that the lot of us have illusions—nobody ever told us this would be easy—but it is nice to get away to a place where there is composing and only that.

For many, a visit to any of the numerous available artists’ colonies is a breath of air, a chance to get reacquainted with one’s work and self. America is full of colonies, little bits of temporary refuge from daily life. I offer a sampling of some of the more established refuges: Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony are the oldest and most reputable; Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Millay Colony are relatively new. Some, like the American Academies in either Rome or Berlin, are wonderful, but not located in the states; others, like Tanglewood, the Wellesley Composer’s Conference, or the Atlantic Center for the Arts, offer amazing opportunities to work as a student under “master” artists, but are not colonies per se, not places where one is alone with work and nothing besides. They are discussed here, but not at as great a length.

An experience at a colony is a deeply personal one, and my story is likely similar to the thousands of composers who have had the benefit of one of these places. Facts and dates and processes are all important to understand how they came about, but the ability to spend that much distraction-free concentrated time on work (the real work, not the stuff you do to get paid) is such a rare gift that one cannot but react in an emotional way. Whether it’s the way the light plays off or the wind rustles thorough the trees, the people with whom you converse every night, or the much-needed break from whatever outlines your daily grind, these stories are all from the heart—individual, yet somehow all the same. As a friend of mine from MacDowell said, “It is, of course, inevitable that you do the best work of your life there—but it’s also so damn fun!”

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