Wilder & MacDowell: A Remarkable Creative Relationship
Thornton Wilder’s remarkable creative relationship with MacDowell spanned more than a quarter of a century. In 1924, Wilder was just 27 and a teacher at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey when he first arrived at the bucolic New Hampshire campus.
Ensconced in Veltin Studio, he wrote, at least in part, many of his best-known works including The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth and The Long Christmas Dinner. He described the invaluable creative camaraderie among artists at the Colony: “the friendship, the good will, the urgency that really flows from studio to studio.“ Across the next three decades, Wilder returned to MacDowell for eight more residencies.
Over the years, Wilder also became close with Marian MacDowell. In April of 1928 he wrote to her: “I am one of your loyalest and most indebted boys … I hope it will not be long before one of these Sunday evenings you will again be trying to shoo me out of the kitchen. I am a Peterboroughvian for good….”
And, on August 13, 1960, 36 years after his first arrival in Peterborough, Wilder became the first recipient of the Edward MacDowell Medal. In his acceptance, Wilder said: “I came here when I had had nothing published at all, except in undergraduate publications, but their kindness had found me out; and, oh how I needed it, needed to hear myself think and to get out of all this tumult with which I both was deeply engaged and not unhappy in, but in which there was no chance, really, to explore oneself. “
Since 1960, the MacDowell Medal has been given annually. Medal Day has now become one of the Colony’s most treasured yearly celebrations. “In 1960 I bet the Colony had no idea how huge this event would become” says Colette Lucas, Librarian at MacDowell. Artists who have received this honor since include Leonard Bernstein, Merce Cunningham, Nan Goldin, David Lynch, Toni Morrison, Georgia O’Keefe, I.M. Pei, Sonny Rollins and Edward Albee.
On Medal Day The Colony, an entirely private retreat for artists the rest of the year, opens its lush grounds to the public. Art lovers from around the country are invited to participate in this free public celebration and to catch a glimpse of what makes this setting so special and fertile for artists. Following a picnic lunch and medal presentation on the lawn, the studios open and the artists-in-residence, working in seven disciplines, are available to speak about their art.
In 2019, on August 11, the 60th MacDowell Medal will be presented to visual artist Charles Gaines. All 32 studios will be open for visitors, including Veltin Studio, Wilder’s home when he was in residence. His signature can be found on the wooden tablets or “tombstones” that decorate the cabin walls, alongside those of many other artists, including another Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Paula Vogel. In her forward to the Harper Perennial edition of The Skin of Our Teeth, Vogel highlights this MacDowell connection. It would seem that Wilder’s creative energy at MacDowell was so great that sparks still flow from his studio and inspire fellow Colonists even today.