David Lynch biographer Kristine McKenna accepts the McDowell Medal on behalf of Lynch at Medal Day in Peterborough Sunday. Photo by MEGHAN PIERCE


PETERBOROUGH — Filmmaker David Lynch looked directly into the camera and gave his thanks. Behind him were red curtains. Was he on the set of his Twin Peaks reboot? Lights flickered on his face as the sounds of 1950s horror movie lab equipment on overload came from off screen. The video ended with something crashing in and ending the shoot.

It was sweet and fun and playful and gracious. It was his acceptance of the 58th annual Edward MacDowell Medal in the Arts at the MacDowell Colony Sunday.

Most likely because this year’s recipient was not in there, attendance was noticeably down at Medal Day on Sunday. The big white tent on the MacDowell Colony grounds on High Street was not overflowing like it was last August when Toni Morrison accepted her medal.

MacDowell Chairman Michael Chabon said a long-planned family vacation kept Lynch from attending the ceremony in person.

Lynch did, however, send the video message, which before the ceremony felt like a letdown, but afterward felt like a gift from the iconic filmmaker.

“Thank-you very much to the MacDowell Colony for this beautiful Edward MacDowell Medal,” Lynch said in the video. “It is a real blessing to be on your list of great artists you have honored through the years.”

(Past recipients of the MacDowell Medal include Aaron Copeland, Robert Frost, Georgia O’Keefe, Chuck Jones, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.)

There were two other benefits to Lynch not being there, MacDowell Chairman Michael Chabon admittedly was able to “nerd-out” over his love of Lynch’s work and Lynch biographer Kristine McKenna attended to speak and accept on Lynch’s behalf, which was a joy. It’s as if Lynch, master director that he is, knew how to get the best out of them. By not being there McKenna was able to take the spotlight and shine.

Chabon admitted to being a huge fan of Lynch’s much maligned space epic Dune, saying he has seen it five times and has “never failed to dig it.”

“Lynch’s first feature film Eraserhead head blew my 17-year-old mind the first time I saw it at a midnight showing at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in early 1981. Blew it in ways I have yet to recover from. Twin Peaks forever re-wired the circuitry and apparatus I had used to scan and interpret American life,” Chabon said.

The work of painter Mark Gibson hangs on the walls of the Cheney studio during Medal Day at the MacDowell Colony on Sunday. Medal Day is the one day of the year the artist colony is open to the public. By Meghan Pierce

When McKenna took the podium, she spoke about Lynch “the person.”

McKenna’s story with Lynch began in 1980. She was a journalist for the L.A. Times when Eraserhead came out, intrigued she tracked Lynch down and set up an interview.

“So we met at a coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard called Ben Franks. During that period of David’s life he spent a portion of every day in a coffee shop basically looking at people, he’s a very good observer. And that day he had a slice of lemon meringue pie and coffee, of course, and he seemed very shy and humble and quiet and unusual,” McKenna said.

Lynch and McKenna stayed in touch. When approached for an interview by different publications, Lynch would often suggest McKenna for the job, she said. He also invited her to the set of the Elephant Man and Blue Velvet.

The work of painter Mark Gibson on display during the open studio tours during Medal Day at the MacDowell Colony on Sunday. By Meghan Pierce

McKenna and Lynch recently collaborated on the book Room to Dream, A Life in Art, which is part memoir, part biography.

McKenna said she interviewed more than 100 people when researching the book. And what she found was that Lynch had a way of bringing out the best in people and lifting them up.

“I think a big part of his brilliance is rooted in how loving he is and how much love he generates in the people around him. I can’t count the people that said to me ‘I owe my career to David.’ He’s just been very generous. He’s been very generous to me,” she said.

She read excerpts from Room to Dream, including funny antidotes about Lynch’s attempt to cast Marlon Brandon in an absurdist comedy and another eerie story from Lynch’s 1950s childhood that inspired his film Blue Velvet. In an effort to avoid quoting McKenna, quoting Lynch, I will refer you to the book, which is set to be released next year. It’s definitively a book I want to read.

The Veltin Studio at the MacDowell Colony is famous for being where Thorton Wilder put the finishing touches on his play Our Town during the summer of 1937. Photo by Meghan Pierce

Director and playwright Charles Morey introduces himself to current artist in residence in the Veltin Studio, poet Laurence O’Dwyer during the open studio tours part of Medal Day at the MacDowell Colony Sunday. Photo by Meghan Pierce

Picnic Baskets Vs. Diners

Husband and wife, composer Edward MacDowell and pianist Marian MacDowell, established the colony in 1907.
The 450-acre artist colony today has 32 studios. As the story goes, the couple summered on the property to get away from their hectic Boston life. Edward would compose in a cabin in the woods and at lunch Marian would deliver him lunch in a basket. It’s a tradition she continued when they began inviting other artists to create in the solitude of the Peterborough woods.

After the ceremony and a picnic lunch (that MacDowell provided for me in a basket) I walked into the woods of MacDowell for the open studio tour. It’s the only day of the year the public is allowed to walk the grounds and it has been many years since I have taken advantage of this aspect of Medal Day. The studios tours are always fun — you get to meet the artists in residence and and see their work.

But with Lynch and coffee shops on my mind I wanted to know how creative these artists could be without daily access to a diner. You see, MacDowell staff famously carry on Marion’s tradition and deliver lunch baskets to MacDowell residents so they don’t have to leave the  solitude of their studios.

When I came upon the Veltin Studio I met poet Laurence O’Dwyer of Tipperary, Ireland. While he has been writing for the past twenty years, it was only two years ago that he left his career as a neuroscientist to fully dedicate himself to his poetry.

He has been in residence for four weeks and will stay another four, he said. He told me it’s an emotional experience when you arrive and are presented with the studio space. The picnic baskets just mean you don’t have to think about anything but your work for the day, he said.

“It was really overwhelming when they give you this space to begin with,” O’Dwyer said. “The fact is everything is provided for you. So I don’t have to worry about anything other than getting my work done.”

He works from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. He’s an “ultra runner,” which means he has to move each day, which he does after 4 p.m.

His poetry has a focus on long journeys and he has an obsession with mountains and trails, places and names of places, he said, which often leads him to meet and talk with people along the trails of Mount Monadnock or Pack Monadnock in the afternoons.

Director and playwright Charles Morey also visited the Veltin Studio Sunday. He spent 6 weeks in residence in that studio in 2006.

“It was enormous. I think I accomplished more in that 6 weeks than I usually accomplish in three years or more. But I think the more important part about it was I think the sense of being part of a community that validated and valued your work,” Morey said. “So much of life in American society, artists are not valued. But here that’s what it’s about. So there’s just an incredible validation about it and support.”

Currently in residence at the studio dubbed Alexander is Brooklyn theatre artist Asa Horvitz. Like the other artists he was busy answering questions about his work during the studio tour. When you ask him about his experience at MacDowell he just beams, look I have video.

The happiness of these artists set free to create was good for my soul. While I admit I showed up at Medal Day disappointed Lynch would not be there, I left with a renewed sprint and a long-held belief I had forgotten — Medal Day only comes once a year, don’t miss it.

You can reach Meghan Pierce at meghan@monadnockbeat.com.