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JOAN WICKERSHAM

Ghosts of artists past

PETERBOROUGH, N.H.

THERE IS NO greater luxury for a writer than a residency at MacDowell, the artists’ colony founded in 1907 by American composer Edward MacDowell and his wife Marian. I am writing this in my studio, a little stone cottage in the woods where I have been working on a book for the past month. My desk looks out on enormous dark hemlock trees and the bare trunks of old birches and oaks. Occasionally I notice a squirrel or chipmunk, and in the afternoon a group of deer will wander by, nosing the frozen ground in search of food. But from morning until dinnertime, those are the only creatures I see. Nobody bothers me, nobody knocks. Lunch is dropped off on my studio doorstep in a picnic basket. There is no Internet connection, no phone service. On good days and bad days, I’m alone with my work.

But even alone, I have company. Like all of MacDowell’s 32 studios, mine is lined with peaked rectangular wooden plaques, known as “tombstones,’’ signed by all of the artists who have worked here over the years. Some of the names on the tombstones are famous - Thornton Wilder, Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, Spalding Gray - and some aren’t; but over the course of a residency you get very familiar with the names in your own studio. All the people who worked there before you become your comrades, sometimes friendly, sometimes daunting: your ghosts.

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The first signatures in my studio date from 1931; they are blurred, faded, and only intermittently legible, written on a wooden tombstone darkened by age and years of smoke from the fireplace. Aaron Copland worked in this room in 1935: He left behind a modest, very small “A. Copland’’ in black ink, identifying himself as a composer only by a ditto mark beneath the word “composer’’ written by one of his predecessors. There are writers whose work I know and love. There is a woman from 1991 who characterized herself as “pregnant poet’’ and put “and ?’’ after her signature; I wonder who “?’’ turned out to be and how he or she is doing now, at the age of almost 21.

But the most vivid and haunting signature is that of Louise Talma, a composer who worked in this studio almost yearly between 1943 and 1995, and who had more residencies than any other artist in the history of the colony. Her distinctive, florid signature recurs over and over on the tombstones, a triumphant repetition amid the variety of other names. I looked her up in the library. She was born in 1906, studied with Nadia Boulanger in Fontainebleau, collaborated on an opera with Thornton Wilder (whom she met at MacDowell), and, in 1974, became the first woman composer elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

There are people here who still remember her playing pool at night, or sitting in Colony Hall after dinner surrounded by admirers and smoking, long after smoking was no longer permitted in the building. In a 1986 interview with Chicago broadcaster Bruce Duffie, Talma said of MacDowell, “I owe my entire professional existence to it.’’ She went on to talk about making friends and professional connections during her residencies, but her main emphasis was on the freedom and solitude - “a place to work absolutely undisturbed, and with no obligations . . . it’s indispensable to me.’’

Talma died in 1996, at age 89, at Yaddo, the great artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She was due to start another MacDowell residency in a few weeks.

I have a printout of her obituary on my desk; after reading it I stand up to look at the last of her tombstone signatures. It is dated Sept.-Oct. 1995, and it is uncharacteristically faded, barely legible; she must have used a different ink the last time she signed her name. That name, for me, evokes hard work, as do all the names in here - years of patient, dogged, devoted work, the kind of work I am trying to do now, surrounded by all the other people who have worked in this studio, leaving behind ghostly signatures from the time when they felt most alive.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is joanwickersham.com.
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