Discover more from Richard Goodman's Newsletter
Joining the Salon des Refusés
Thirty years ago, I was at the MacDowell Colony for an artist residency. It was the summer of 1993. It was my first time as a MacDowell Fellow, as they’re called. It was strange, wonderful, intimidating. Very intimidating.
In case you don’t know about MacDowell, it’s a place where artists of all genres can go and work and not have to worry about mundane things like making lunch or dinner, or rent, or finding a place to do their work. That’s all provided for you. That is, if you get a fellowship. The competition is fierce, especially for the summer residencies. MacDowell is located in Peterborough, a pretty town in southern New Hampshire. I’ve heard it’s the town that Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners from Our Town is based on. Who knows?
Many famous artists have been in residency there. Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Alice Walker, Jonathan Franzen, to name a few. The only other place with the same prestige and pedigree is Yaddo, an artist colony located in Saratoga Springs, NY.
I went to MacDowell as a forty-eight year-old first-time author. Each artist is given a studio to work in that is theirs and theirs alone for their residency. Mine was a small but warm cottage at the end of a tree-lined fifteen-minute walk from the main building.
I was completely overwhelmed at MacDowell. It was a remarkable feeling to be part of an artistic dramatis personae and tradition of the highest order. But that was part of the problem as well. Everybody I met had so much more confidence and accomplishments than I. Not everyone was famous, but most everyone seemed more confident.
All the artists met for dinner, and it soon became clear there were cliques, just like high school. I say just like high school, because I found these cliques to be just as excluding and aloof as those in high school. I remember I went to sit at a table with some artists—there were two or three vacant chairs—and I was told not to sit there. Outright. Others were coming, I was informed. There were officially no reserved seats at MacDowell. Yet, it appeared there were. I remember one writer, a well-known poet from New Jersey, celebrated for his humor, was particularly nasty about it. I felt small.
I retreated to a table in the far reaches of the dining room. There, as it turned out, were fellow artists like myself who were, or felt, excluded. It was there I found my people.
One of them was the poet Renée Ashley. She’s one of the most delightful artists I’ve ever met. She, like me, had felt rejected. But, unlike me, she was more than up to the challenge of that rejection. She started a group she called the Salon des Refusés, the “salon of the refused,” named after the famous French Salon des Refusés of 1863 in Paris. That exhibition included works by Manet (Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe) and others that had been rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts. I, and a few other similarly rejected artists, happily joined her salon.
I loved being part of the Salon des Refusés. Renée was one of the drollest people I’d ever met. She took the idea of the Salon and ran with it, creating events for us that satirized our own outsider-ness and those who excluded us. We had our own readings, and we gave ourselves names reflecting our Refusés status. I was “the refused nonfiction writer, Richard.” She was “the refused poet, Renée.” We became very proud of our group. I wish I remembered the other members of the Salon, but I do not.
Every night, we would meet for dinner at our own table of Refusés. Anyone who wanted to join us was welcome. They would be granted honorary Refusés status. I never concerned myself with any of those other tables and their cliques again. I had the best table in the house and the best company. My time at MacDowell was defined by being in that lovely non-exclusive club.
Sidebar: Renée is a very fine poet. She published her first book, Salt, in 1991. She had a copy, and I read it there and loved her work as much as I did her.
She’s had a distinguished career as a poet and teacher. I hear from her from time to time, and I am always happy when I do. I don’t think I’ve ever needed to laugh more than those weeks I spent at MacDowell. I remember bending over in laughter with her. She had the driest delivery, and I adored her for creating a refuge for we who were refused. I am still grateful to her.
I’ve always been proud to have been part of the Salon des Refusés. I consider that I still am a member. Sometimes being rejected may be the best thing to happen to you. It was for me.