PETERBOROUGH — The MacDowell Colony celebrated its annual Medal Day Sunday afternoon, inviting guests onto the grounds to honor a renowned artist and peek inside studios where art is being created.
The Edward MacDowell Medal, named for the colony’s founder, is awarded annually to an artist who’s made a significant contribution to American culture, according to the event program. The 2019 medal was awarded to Charles Gaines, a conceptual visual artist who teaches at CalArts School of Art.
Hundreds gathered beneath an expansive white tent to hear The MacDowell Colony’s leadership deliver poetic speeches leading up to Gaines’ award.
Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, N.Y., introduced Gaines as a friend and a colleague.
Golden met Gaines in 1993, she said, when he asked her to participate as part of a roundtable discussion on black art through mainstream criticism.
“What Charles was proposing that day, as he has throughout his career, was a more complex conversation with new and multi-layered terms that upended any sense of the possibility of the narrow dialog of any moment,” she said.
Noting his influence on culture as well as art, Golden made clear that her work, along with many others’, wouldn’t be possible without Gaines.
Shortly after he took the microphone, Gaines told the crowd he’d “come to terms with the fact that this is not an April Fool’s joke.”
He began with his love of Sonny Rollins, a jazz musician and the 2010 MacDowell medalist.
“My commitment to music starts with him,” Gaines said. “He was the reason I started studying percussion. ... So, the idea that I am receiving the same medal that Sonny Rollins received is simply jaw-dropping.”
Gaines talked about his fascination with systems and constructs, and how at times his tendency toward objectivity and rationalism conflicted with his passion for politics.
“Back in the day, I had been asked often by some of my friends who were invested in black-power ideology why I made white art,” he said. “Although disturbed by the accusation, I felt it was a legitimate question.”
Over time, though, Gaines said it became clear to him that abstract concepts also have political dimensions that are drawn from personal experience. In his case, he noted, that came from his childhood in the Jim Crow-era South and being unable to understand such cruelty and seemingly arbitrary laws.
“I hope that it can be recognized that my work is fully invested in the world and that it is part of the necessary moral investment that it is the responsibility of art to make,” Gaines said. “... Art is one of the few disciplines that can exercise moral authority and judgment because it is built into the practice itself.”
Following the ceremony, people scattered about the 450-acre colony grounds to tour the artists’ studios and snap photos on the picturesque landscape. Medal Day is the only day of the year when studios are open to the public. The colony, founded in 1907 by composer Edward MacDowell and pianist Marian MacDowell, hosts fellowships for artists who are accepted solely on talent and attend for free.
The white walls of the Eastman studio were lined with photos of buildings in various stages of construction and diagrams of development, many with handwritten notes on the edges.
Matt Burgermaster, an architect based in Brooklyn, N.Y., told the small groups cycling through about his project in New Jersey that consisted of disassembling an abandoned three-story warehouse brick by brick as a creative solution when the owner didn’t have enough money to develop the whole structure.
By disassembling it, nearly all of the 70,000 bricks were reused, he said, many in the new open-air courtyard that was created.
His goal as an architect, Burgermaster explained, is always to do more with less, whether that’s with fewer resources, money or waste. At MacDowell, he’s been working on conceptualizing and drawing the process of disassembling the building. The goal is to measure how much of a structure can be recycled and to be able to show that to a developer at the beginning of a project, he said.
In another studio next to an open field, a wall over a desk was covered with sheet music. Each page featured highlighted sections, and French composer Philippe Bodin explained they corresponded to the tone of the song — a dark color means it’s a dark sound.
The piece is called “Anges Nus,” which Bodin said translates to “Naked Angels.” He felt it was appropriate because of the angelic vibe of the song, but it’s also nearly an anagram for “clouds” in French, the real subject.
There are no lyrics, but Bodin uses tricks like volume and major and minor chords to help the listener envision light and fluffy clouds versus a dark mass in the sky. And his color-coded sheet music tracks that, too.
A software program plays Bodin’s composition from his computer using synthesized voices singing vague “ah” sounds. He said he intends to add vowel sounds, but no words.
Bodin has been at MacDowell for five weeks and said he wrote the piece in about three. He’s not sure when it will be performed, though he guessed maybe sometime in February.
He’s not new to the colony — this marks his third time at MacDowell. He said he appreciates the staff and the quiet environment.
He sticks to a rigid schedule: He wakes up at 6 a.m. and — after breakfast, yoga and some socialization — works 9 to 5 every day.
“It’s very productive.”