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Problem Solving at the MacDowell Colony

A #VQRTrueStory Essay


[clock] 9-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 2016


1.

Illustrations by Danica Novgorodoff Brent Watanabe has hung a system of cables and wires in a cat’s cradle that spans his studio. Suspended in the web, inside a plastic bag, something cat-sized is writhing—a creature fashioned from trash and tape, animated by a toy-car motor and programmed to interact with a whole system of other ersatz creatures. Holographic birds lunge on tethers, projected onto a wall. Another plastic bag sits at the bathroom door, banging its head against the wall. These are animals with longings and frustrations, without nature.

“It’s definitely not activist work,” Watanabe says. “It’s just, if I get upset about factory farming, it’s not about the millions of chickens—it’s every single individual one. For me, it’s the specifics that make something wonderful. The problem with simplistic activist stuff is that it’s so broad. Once you get the über-message—‘Don’t kill our planet!’—there’s nowhere to go. When you’re making art, you want the idea to tickle your brain, to stay in there.”

Watanabe’s work is narrative, but he eschews a typical arc. One action follows the next (a cat writhes in a bag, which causes a chained bird to take flight from a dumpster).

“Maybe that is activist work,” he says. “Rather than trying to lead you through a narrative or illustrate a point, I want you to feel that point. Some of the most extreme cases of activism—like a monk lighting himself on fire—don’t explain the issue. You have a visceral reaction to it, and that’s more moving than having things explained.”

Watanabe closes his laptop, and the writhing cat goes still. “I mean, I’m not going to light myself on fire or bang my head against the wall,” he laughs. But his creatures might. In one recent installation, he built a ferocious mechanical dog out of an electric scooter and chained it to the wall. Due to a glitch in the programming, it lunged and lunged until it burned itself out. It had to be put down before it set the building on fire.

 

2.

Marty Pottenger enters the breakfast room with a wry smile and a calm presence—but don’t be deceived. “I feel hysterical every time I enter the hall,” she says. “It’s an excellent workout at confronting that absolute panic of just being with people.” Performance artist, writer, puppeteer, and activist: Ironically, being with people is what Pottenger’s work is all about.

Her current project is a “puppet-driven musical historical extravaganza” that tells the ecological history of Maine from the Ice Age until now, through the voices of three living Mainers (a Passamaquoddy woman, a Sudanese immigrant, and an English Irish old-timer whose family has lived in Maine since the seventeenth century).

After surviving breakfast, Pottenger returns to her studio, which overlooks a grove of white pine. “I had the kind of childhood that they make genuinely horrifying movies about,” she says, sitting at her desk. “There are many powerful books written for survivors, and I’ve never personally wanted to make that. But since being here, I’ve realized that the confusion, isolation, and disconnect that I accumulated growing up has yet to be fully healed, and stands in the way of remembering the unbreakable connection I have with other humans and living things all around me—and facing whatever I need to face to take decisive action on climate change and the Earth.”

The walls of her studio are pinned with printouts of what she describes as the “creepy scary wonderful”—rainbow-colored slime mold in the form of mushroom clouds; fungi whose subterranean systems form the largest living organism on the planet. She reads from something she wrote yesterday after two weeks in the woods, surrounded by fungi, trees, and thirty other often-hysterical artists: “Is it possible that isolation—the appearance, the hurt, the devastating misconception that we are alone—is how we’ve gotten to this brink?”

 

3.

Before arriving at MacDowell, all Nigerian writer Pwaangulongii Dauod knew about snow was what he’d gleaned from films and books. The actual fact of the cold is startling to him. Midwinter in New Hampshire, and the colony sprawls over four hundred acres of ice-packed dirt lanes and fields covered in powder. “My first day,” he says, “I walked to my studio. My hands were so cold I couldn’t hold the key to open the door.” So Dauod stays inside Colony Hall, where the dining room and administrators’ offices are located, leaving only to sleep in his room at night. The rumor is he doesn’t sleep.

Dauod grew up in Kaduna, Nigeria, and left his family when he was just nine years old. He now lives in Zaria, in a compound with 300 others. “As you’re working, you hear cars moving, something breaking in the neighbor’s house, a man and his wife quarreling, the call to Islamic prayer. Those things put me in the mood to write, help create the rhythm.”

Dauod came here to work on a collection of stories called The Uses of Unhappiness, but since arriving has found it difficult to adjust to the quiet and, frankly, the abatement of his own unhappiness. “I love to work in a chaotic space, where things are loose. I like a bit of disorder. There’s a certain anger that makes the writing thoughtless. When I came here, I couldn’t get into the mood to interrogate my theme of unhappiness. I think I’m a bit off the pace of my own anger.” Writing in a peaceful environment is “like trying to rap freestyle, without a track,” he says.

In the Colony Hall basement there’s a windowless cubicle with a computer, known as “Pwaangulongii’s office.” He spends the day listening to music, scanning the Internet, and letting the bustle of maintenance workers, housekeeping staff, and administrators flow around him. He fills up on these sounds, then writes at night.

“The chaos in Nigeria has a system, and if you grew up in that system, it’s in your imagination,” he says. “You construct your reality through that chaos. It’s difficult to go to a place without it.”

 

4.

When Julie Alpert hits a wall in her creative work, it’s a literal wall—twenty vertical feet of whitewashed Homasote interrupted by a row of windows near the roof, a few track lights, and a stovepipe.

Alpert—whose wild curls and tortoiseshell glasses give her the mien of an eccentric mastermind—came here to create an improvised, large-scale, site-specific installation. After long days of doodling, color tests, and collage-making in her sketchbook—as well as stalling, doubt, and anxiety—Alpert decided it was time to abandon these endless preparations and begin creating the thing itself.

Alpert stands now with a plastic cup of whiskey in her hand and surveys the work in progress. The terrifying expanse of white has been plastered over with a wallpaper of hand-drawn and photocopied patterns. Giant cellophane bows and duct-tape ribbons unfurl across the space. A paper cutout of dripping, psychedelic sludge oozes from the stovepipe. The work is so large and in-your-face that she can’t ignore it when she enters the studio; it isn’t a project she can put down when she gets frustrated. “I experience a lot of avoidance in my art practice—and in life—and I have a sense for when the piddling around starts to become un-useful. I basically become annoyed with myself and just make one big gesture on the wall or floor.” Making a first bold move—the stovepipe sludge, in this case—gives her the confidence to make bigger gestures until the art takes on a life of its own.

Alpert’s installation suggests an extravagant wrapping on a gift, a carefully designed layer that took hours to create, only to be ripped apart by the recipient in seconds. When Alpert leaves MacDowell, the installation will be torn down and discarded. “If I can’t own this work,” she says, “then no one can.”

She sips her whiskey and regards her now-festooned wall with no regret over its impermanence. “I’ve felt more like a vessel this time than in previous installations,” she says. “It’s a thrilling sensation.”

 

5.

Honor Moore is writing herself into existence through a book about her mother, the third in a series of memoirs about her family. In a previous book, Moore had “gotten her parents married.” Now her mother is pregnant with Moore, the first of nine children.

“I started writing these books because my grandmother, the subject of the first one, wouldn’t fit into a poem. Twelve years later…” She spreads her hands open: Here we are. She’s been reading through her parents’ courtship letters and her mother’s unfinished writing, which Moore inherited when her mother died at the age of fifty. “I’m twenty years older than she was when she died,” Moore says. “It seems like she’s a kid.” Moore’s mother was a published author who poured her creative energy into letters to Moore’s father while he was overseas during World War II. “All their friends were dying all the time. Every letter was about friends dying, wounded, or missing. That’s what they were living in.”

The second book in the series is about Moore’s father, a bishop who’d led a hidden bisexual life. She began writing that memoir soon after her father died. The book about her mother, who was born in the early years of suffrage and died early during the second wave of feminism, has taken much longer.

“This is my residency in the womb,” Moore says. “Once in a while I think, ‘I’m never going to finish this.’ Then some days I get excited and I’m hooked into it.” The challenge, she says, is how to turn the raw material—love letters, the facts of a life, and historical events—into a narrative. “What’s the trajectory? Where’s the heart of it? Whenever I go back in, I have to find the heart again, the energy of it.”

If all goes well, she’ll soon finish the scene of her own birth. If she gets stuck with the memoir, she might take a day to write poems. “I just sit and write something by hand. I write what I imagine I might write if I weren’t blocked. I start to write what I really think.” 


This essay is part of our #VQRTrueStory project, a social-media experiment in nonfiction that delivers stories across platforms. Each week, a contributor takes over our Instagram feed, @vqreview, to post original dispatches that tell the stories behind the pictures. The dispatches are then published on our website, and two are selected for inclusion in each issue of the magazine. You can visit the #VQRTrueStory archive to read all the contributions so far. And be sure to follow @vqreview to keep up with the project as it unfolds.

 

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