JEFFREY BROWN: The sounds of samba in the woods and mountains of the Monadnock region of southern New Hampshire. Billy Newman, a jazz and Brazilian music performer and composer, grew up and still lives in Brooklyn. These days, he's taking advantage of a month of solitude at the MacDowell Colony to work on new compositions.
BILLY NEWMAN, Musician: I'm working a lot when I'm back in New York. I'm teaching; I'm playing; I'm jamming; I'm rehearsing. And the time for writing, it's just hard to clear the time to actually write. It's a lot of things. And here, you know, basically the focus is on composing.
JEFFREY BROWN: Newman is one of 29 people currently in residence at MacDowell, the nation's oldest haven for writers, composers, visual and other artists, now celebrating its 100th anniversary. Spread around 450 acres in the town of Peterborough, 32 studios house the so-called "colonists" for residencies from two weeks to two months.
Applicants are chosen by a panel of their peers. And once selected, they live in the cabins without TVs, Internet access or phones, though cell phones have put a dent in that old tradition.
Is this pretty much like the way you work at home? I mean, you've got this kind of set-up?
BILLY NEWMAN: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: So what's the difference here? What's the difference being here?
BILLY NEWMAN: The difference here is I can work all day and night. I can wake up in the middle of the night; I can wake up early in the morning. It's about working.
JEFFREY BROWN: Through the years, more than 6,000 artists have worked here. Walk through the woods and you're bound to come upon a piece of American cultural history. In this cabin in 1937, Thornton Wilder wrote his play "Our Town," based on the small town life of Peterborough.
Aaron Copland came often, beginning in the 1920s. Among much else, he worked on the music for his ballet "Billy the Kid." James Baldwin wrote "Notes of a Native Son" here in 1954. More recently, Alice Walker wrote her first two novels, and Michael Chabon worked on his Pulitzer Prize-winner, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay."
History has seen some unusual turns here, as well. Alvin Singleton is now a highly regarded classical music composer based in Atlanta. But as a young man studying music in New York, he worked as an usher for the philharmonic and would take its then-music director, Leonard Bernstein, up and down the elevator before performances. In 1987, they met again at MacDowell, this time as fellow professionals.
ALVIN SINGLETON, Composer: I hadn't see him in many years, and then all of a sudden we're face to face here at the MacDowell Colony, and a huge embrace. And that was really exciting.
JEFFREY BROWN: And now you're here in a room that he himself worked in?
ALVIN SINGLETON: Oh, yes. This studio has been worked in by Bernstein, as well as Aaron Copland and many others.
JEFFREY BROWN: Those are some high-level ghosts you have here.
ALVIN SINGLETON: Yes, but I try not to notice that they're there. It's a lot of pressure.
I mean, these are just giants in our culture, and I'm thrilled that I could work where they worked. But I have to do like they did. I have to do what I do, you know, just continue working on what you're working on, and you don't know what history will say about what you've done. You know, we have no control over it. You just have to love every moment that you're on this Earth and that you can create, in my case, compose music.
JEFFREY BROWN: It was, in fact, a composer, Edward MacDowell, who started all this. An important musical figure at the end of the 19th century, MacDowell and his wife, Marian, who was herself a fine pianist, bought a summer home in Peterborough. Marian had this log cabin built as a place for her husband to work, and he wanted to do the same for others. Edward died in 1908 at age 48.
MARIAN MACDOWELL, Founder, MacDowell Colony: I am so glad to be here.
JEFFREY BROWN: It was Marian who turned the artist colony into a reality and remained deeply involved until her death in 1956. Among the long traditions here is the care and feeding of the resident artists. Meals are elaborately prepared in the kitchen. Lunch has always been packed up and delivered in picnic baskets.
For many years now, that's been the task of Blake Tewksbury, himself a MacDowell institution, who makes his daily rounds, leaving his offering -- no knocking or interruptions -- at each artist's doorstep. Breakfast and dinner, served at Colony Hall, are the only set times that people here can interact with fellow artists, if they choose.
Poet Jean Valentine has been at MacDowell nine times.
JEAN VALENTINE, Poem: I usually don't have breakfast, but I always have supper. I like to rub elbows with my kind, you know, once in a while.
JEFFREY BROWN: You do?
JEAN VALENTINE: I go for supper every night.
JEFFREY BROWN: When you say "your kind," you mean not just poets?
JEAN VALENTINE: No, I just mean humans.
JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, humans.
JEAN VALENTINE: Humans, you know.
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean occasionally you like to have contact with other humans?
JEAN VALENTINE: Yes, call me crazy.
JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, for Valentine and the other writers and artists here over the years, who sign the so-called "tombstones" in each cabin in which they've worked, there is a serious side to the experience.
JEAN VALENTINE: Poets, you know, we're pretty no-count in this culture, as you know. And I think anybody here, not just the poets, but just, not in words, but you feel that it's a place that respects people who are doing the kind of thing we're doing.
I didn't get it for years. So I say, I just felt, "Well, gosh, when kids were little, it gave me a couple of weeks of quiet," and things like that. And then slowly I realized, "They think we're worth it, you know?"
JEFFREY BROWN: One day a year, MacDowell opens itself to the outside world for its Medal Day celebration.
ROBERT MACNEIL, Chair, MacDowell Colony: Our celebrations this year have a special purpose: to guarantee that we're healthy and vital for another century and that everyone we can reach understands what the arts mean to America and what MacDowell uniquely means to the arts.
JEFFREY BROWN: This year, the festivities, including honoring documentary filmmaker Les Blank, were led by a man well-known to NewsHour viewers: Robert MacNeil, our longtime co-anchor and executive editor, has served as chairman of the MacDowell Colony for 15 years. He says the role of MacDowell and other artist colonies goes well beyond the nourishing of individual artists.
ROBERT MACNEIL: The real importance of art is that it is the greatest expression of American ideal of freedom. Artists are intellectually and creatively freer than anybody. I mean, it's the essence of art to do what your inner demon or angel tells you to do, regardless of what other people think about it. And so these colonies -- and MacDowell especially -- I think provide a shelter and an atmosphere where that kind of freedom is available.
JEFFREY BROWN: And your sense is that that understanding of the role of art as expressing American freedom has been lost, diminished?
ROBERT MACNEIL: I don't know whether it's seen as acutely in the public consciousness. Winston Churchill said, back in the late '40s, "The empires of the future are going to be empires of the mind." And so much of what this country, the face that this country presents to the world is the face that expresses its ideas and its ideals.
JEFFREY BROWN: On Medal Day, MacDowell's residents open their studios to some 1,500 visitors.
MORGAN CRAIG, Artist: From photographs, from sketches, from my imagination...
JEFFREY BROWN: Morgan Craig, an artist from Philadelphia, showed his large paintings of abandoned industrial buildings and institutions.
BOBBY NEAL ADAMS, Photographer: This is his grandfather.
JEFFREY BROWN: Bobby Neal Adams has been photographing residents of Peterborough, then combining shots of immediate family members -- here, a father and son -- into one portrait. For all the emphasis on privacy and individual work, in fact, everyone we met -- young artists and veterans like Alvin Singleton -- spoke of the communal experience here, the interaction with other creative people.
ALVIN SINGLETON: One of the most important things is that you come into contact with other artists. I thought that I was the only one having difficulty starting a work. Everyone has difficulty starting a work, regardless of whether they're composers or they're painters or not. They said, "That is the most difficult thing."
JEFFREY BROWN: Whether a start is made and whether the work done amounts to anything is up to the talents and tenacity of the artist, of course. The opportunity here is to go into the woods and see what one can do.
JIM LEHRER: Robert MacNeil will be answering your questions on the MacDowell Colony on an online forum. To participate, go to PBS.org.