How Art Is Made: In the Catskills is a collection of interviews with some of the world’s most accomplished artists who live and work in the Catskill Mountains, New York. Five painters and illustrators, two ceramicists and printmakers, one sculptor, one weaver, and one writer discuss what inspires and moves them, what draws them to their medium of choice, what materials they use, how they approach a new artistic project, how they deal with setbacks, and how they celebrate success. Nine are formally trained at prestigious art schools; one is self-taught. What they all have in common is a rigorous studio practice, discipline, and the desire and curiosity to learn new things, and share them with the world.
In December last year The New York Times reported that Miss Manhattan and Miss Brooklyn, two replicas of Daniel Chester French’s original sculptures re-created by Brian Tolle, were installed on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn by the Manhattan Bridge.
Read excerpts from my interview with Mr. Tolle, conducted in November 2015 when we discussed this project among others. Mr. Tolle is one of the artists featured in our upcoming book How Art Is Made: In the Catskills.
Brian Tolle has exhibited his work in galleries, museums, and public spaces around the world. His projects include Skid Rows for the Queens Museum (2005), Witch Catcher at City Hall, New York City (2003), The Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City, New York (2002), Waylay for the Whitney Biennale and the Public Art Fund in Central Park (2002), Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe for Crossing the Line, Queens Museum of Art, New York (2001), and Eureka for Over the Edges in Ghent, Belgium (2000), as well as more recent projects such as Outflow in Calgary, Canada (2015), and Origin at the University of Houston in Texas (2015). Brian’s work emphasizes a formal and iconographic dialog with history and context to produce striking and subtle works that engage the public. Using a variety of media, his works draw themes from the scale and experience of their surroundings, provoking a re-reading by cross-wiring reality and fiction. Brian received his MFA from Yale University, BFA from Parsons School of Design, and his BA from SUNY at Albany. He is currently on the graduate faculty at Parsons School of Design, and is the recipient of the Art Commission of the City of New York Award for Excellence in Design in 2008; the Irish American Historical Society, Irish American Heritage Committee – Irishman of the Year in 2003, and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award, also in 2003. He is represented by CRG Gallery in New York City. Brian has a studio in the Catskills, in the historic town of Roxbury, Delaware County.
Simona David: Let’s talk about the Manhattan Bridge project, which will be completed soon.
Brian Tolle: It’s eight years in the making. If any of you have been on the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge, until very recently it was a very chaotic spot. About ten years ago the City decided to create a green belt across Flatbush Avenue, and created more order there. I was the first to be commissioned to make what we hope to be a series of sculptures that will be introduced along the Avenue in future years. As part of my research, I wanted to understand why it was that on the Manhattan side of the very same bridge there is a more elegant entry, while on the Brooklyn side there was this no man’s land. As it turned out, it wasn’t always the case. There once was a very grand entrance, so grand in fact that included two sculptures, two allegories by Daniel Chester French, who some of you may know sculpted Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, among other noteworthy sculptures. Those two sculptures were removed, and brought to the Brooklyn Museum when Robert Moses, the great power broker, was planning the trans-Manhattan expressway, which would have destroyed what we know as the SoHo neighborhood. On the Manhattan side the historical preservationists were far more organized, and they prevented that from happening there, but on the Brooklyn side they weren’t so organized, and Moses went away, and destroyed this grand plaza. And then the project was halted, and we were left with this mess. In the 1960s Moses saw history and art as an obstruction to progress. And here in the 21st century I am being asked to enhance the neighborhood by bringing art there. It made perfect sense to me that we bring the two ladies back. The two sculptures that Chester French sculpted for the bridge are allegories: one represents Miss Brooklyn, and the other one represents Miss Manhattan. They currently sit on the façade of the Brooklyn Museum which cooperated greatly with us to make this project happen. So I’ve re-created the two sculptures, cast in a beautiful translucent, white acrylic. I’ve set them on top of a pedestal that is 26 feet high – the design is inspired by the footing of the Manhattan Bridge. In fact the base is being painted Manhattan Bridge blue, to make the connection back to the bridge. The two sculptures sit on top of this pedestal, very close together. Miss Manhattan and Miss Brooklyn will dance over Flatbush Avenue because the two figures actually rotate, and they can survey their surrounding area, and gaze into each other’s eyes periodically. And they’re lit at night. I have to say, this entire project is made by crafts people in New York City.
SD: Do you ordinarily work with many crafters to help you materialize your ideas? Is it you who decides what materials should be used, and how to be used? Do you have lots of engaging conversations with these crafters to see your work completed the way you envision it? I know you don’t start a new project with preconceived ideas, but how does it work?
BT: I know what I’m looking for when I see it, but I rely on people who are spending a lot of their time doing certain things, like this man Ovidiu at Colbar – he’s the most remarkable craftsperson, and he’s committed his life to making beautiful things. Once I saw the material, I opened up to learning more about the material, what its capabilities are, what the possibilities are. So, it’s part of this fortification process where the craftsperson is actually teaching me something. The biggest mistake an artist can make is to force people to make something they may know it’s not going to be optimal. My position has always been “speak to the people who know better, let them show you what they can do.” Every instance the project is better than if I had gone ahead with what I thought I had wanted.
SD: When we allow ourselves this kind of freedom, we discover things we couldn’t have imagined before.
BT: Precisely. We make changes until the very end, which is a little nerve-racking for the clients.
SD: You’ve created quite a few public art projects as well as museum and gallery pieces. How do you feel about showing in public spaces as opposed to galleries and museums?
BT: It’s very different. I teach a course at Parsons on public art. We go through the different art movements, let’s say from the 1960s onward when artists who have influenced me like Agnes Denes and Robert Smithson were making art in public spaces by choice. These are people who rejected the gallery system, because they understood that it was commercially driven and in some cases limiting. I came out of school after the economy had collapsed in the late 1980s and well into the 1990s, and graduating even from a place as prestigious as Yale in 1994 there wasn’t a whole lot of hope to get gallery representation. There wasn’t something that we expected. I guess the difference is that when you show in a museum or gallery you have a captive audience – you have people who frequent these places, you have a collector base who supports these places. There is no way of controlling, nor would you want to control the audience in a public space, so you never know who is going to come across a project, and how they might respond to it. In the case of The Irish Hunger Memorial, it’s been a privilege that so many important writers of our time have written about, Simon Schama wrote a piece for The New Yorker magazine, Roberta Smith did a wonderful piece for The New York Times, but Verlyn Klinkenborg, who is on the editorial board of the Times, wrote a beautiful piece, and the most resonant thing he said was that the power of The Irish Hunger Memorial is that it trusts the intelligence of its audience.
Read full interview at https://artinthecatskills.com/2015/11/30/featured-artist-brian-tolle/.
© Simona David
Anique Taylor holds an MFA in Poetry from Drew University, and an MFA in Drawing from Pratt Institute as well as a Diplôme from Sorbonne University in Paris, France. She has co-authored works for HBO, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, and others. She has given featured readings at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Dixon Place, the Speakeasy, Cedar Tavern, and group readings at What Happens Next, Tompkin’s Square, Charas, and The Knitting Factory. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Rattle, Common Ground Review, Stillwater Review, The World (St. Mark’s Poetry Project), Adanna, Cover Magazine, Cheap Review, Southern Poetry Review, Earth’s Daughters. She has published several chapbooks, including Where Space Bends, chosen Finalist by both Minerva Rising’s and Blue Light Press’ Chapbook Contests, and Under the Ice Moon, also a Finalist in the Blue Light Press Chapbook Contest. Anique has taught The Creative Journal at Bard LLI and the Poetry Workshop at the Benedictine’s Oncology Support Program. She teaches a Creative Nonfiction Workshop for Writers in the Mountains.
Simona David: Anique, talk a little bit about yourself.
Anique Taylor: I’ve been a visual artist most of my life. I’ve also written all my life, and have been involved in St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York City, doing poetry readings for quite a while. A few years ago I re-committed myself to writing, and enrolled in a MFA program at Drew University, which has some of the most accomplished poets in the country. They’re deeply devoted, and have exquisite knowledge of craft. They opened up my whole life.
SD: You started a Poetry Reading series here in the Catskills, in the town of Phoenicia.
AT: Yes. Phoenicia has a population of around two hundred. We started a marathon reading during the summer, and had about one hundred and thirty people on the lawn, sitting in lawn chairs. They sat for hours listening. It was wonderful.
SD: You have been teaching for Writers in the Mountains, for quite a while now, a popular Creative Nonfiction Workshop. Let’s talk a bit about the genre of creative nonfiction.
AT: I think we each come to writing however we can, and from wherever we can. For some it’s easy, for others it’s difficult. But most of us come to it because we have a desire, and the desire continues. Each time we write, we venture into the unknown, and it’s always a risk. I’ve been writing ever since I could write, and before that I used to write stories in my head. I didn’t consider myself a writer, because I didn’t make up stories. The real writers were the ones who made up stories. I liked to write about things that happened to me or around me, and the things that I felt and thought. When I studied poetry, that gave me tools to write better. Afterwards, I discovered that what I was writing all along is called creative nonfiction.
SD: Lee Gutkind, who founded Creative Nonfiction magazine in 1993, defines the genre as “true stories well told.” How would you describe creative nonfiction? And what does it cover?
AT: Creative nonfiction can be memoir, personal essay, journal, poetry, research papers; it can be almost anything. I’m working on a manuscript now of creative nonfiction poetry. It’s based on stories about non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during World War II. It’s poetry, it’s also creative nonfiction, because the poems are all crafted from true stories. Lee Gutkind also said that in some ways creative nonfiction is like jazz: it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas and techniques, some of which are newly invented, and others are as old as writing itself. Creative nonfiction can use the tools of writing forms such as sound, diction, metaphor, rhythm, description, dialogue, even plot. When you write something that is true, you still need to decide how to frame it, where it begins, where it goes, what to put in, what to leave out. The art is to make it come alive, to make it matter. There are two parts: what you say, and how you say it.
SD: What do you think makes this genre so popular?
AT: I think people are fascinated with other people’s lives. There are so many possibilities – you can do anything you can think of in the world with creative nonfiction.
SD: Biographies, for instance, have always been popular. Please, share some of the best names in creative nonfiction.
AT: There is Thoreau, who wrote Walden. That’s a memoir. A biography covers a whole life, a memoir covers a part of a life. Emerson’s essays are really wonderful. Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion – Didion’s work is exquisite; Anne Lamott, David Sedaris – very funny and popular. Virginia Wolf, Truman Capote, Susan Sontag, so many. What I find interesting is that it’s very usual for novelists and poets to also have essays or memoir pieces.
SD: Let’s talk a bit about your approach to teaching creative nonfiction. I’m looking at a note you sent out to class at the beginning of the semester: “Write about love. Do not directly describe the person (animal companion, place, house, friend, group, etc.). Avoid emotional adjectives and adverbs. Let your nouns and verbs give substance to your writing. Let details, action, dialogue, description speak for your emotions. It doesn’t have to be about cozy, kissy love. It could be about unfulfilled love, loss, confusion, betrayal, the excitement of beginning love. See where it takes you. Have fun. Your work can be personal or shared with the class.” What is the structure of your class, and what are your goals as an educator?
AT: What we do in class is that we start with a silent writing prompt. And everybody writes for about ten minutes. It’s work that they never have to show anyone. Then we usually have a discussion about the readings – I send out beforehand a few essays or a story piece. And we talk about the craft, we talk about what makes the piece work, what are the issues that the writer uses and are strong, what’s the structure. Then we listen to each other’s current work. I give a class exercise. In the end I assign homework.
SD: One piece of advice you give your students is “Avoid clichés, and overused expressions.” And I often hear experienced writers say “write as you speak.” In other words, just be natural and authentic, and don’t strive to find the perfect phrase.
AT: I think it’s very important, especially with the first draft, to just write and let everything come out. Don’t focus on trying to have a voice. Focus on speaking out as yourself. When you look at the piece a few days later, you will edit. Yes, on the one hand, be authentic; on the other hand, you want to take out phrases that weaken or slow the process and lose the reader. There are writers who write very simply and plainly, and that is riveting. And there are other writers who write in very complicated ways, dealing with very difficult, philosophical questions.
SD: Absolutely. And each of this kind of writer has his or her own readership.
AT: Exactly. And some of us love both.
SD: You mentioned voice. On the first draft, you say, don’t focus too much on developing your voice. What is voice, and what is tone?
AT: My advice is to write the first draft with passion, then come back when it’s cool, to be able to bring in the editor in you, and tighten things up. Your voice is who you are. We’ve also had long discussions in class about tone and viewpoint. Are we writing from the first person? Is it intimate? Are we talking to someone close to us? Is it a gentle tone, or angry or resentful? Is the first person omnipotent? You can write from the second person. The third person can be very familiar. It can also be an omnipotent third person. We take a piece and write it from various points of view. These are all tools that I want my students to have in their toolbox.
SD: I know that at the beginning of your class, you ask your students to clarify their goals – why are they taking the class, and what do they seek to accomplish? You ask them to think about their strengths, and what they want to write about, their voice, and also what they think holds them back. Talk about this experience.
AT: I want my students to become aware of what they had really wanted but never verbalized it before.
SD: Let’s talk about writing a personal essay. You recommend a piece by Tim Bascom, Picturing the Personal Essay, A Visual Guide. How does diagramming an essay work?
AT: Most people assume that, because it’s creative nonfiction, you just tell the story. But there are infinite possibilities in a way you tell a story. So, in class we started to diagram the structure of each essay, and that gave us a visual sense of how to form an essay.
SD: I think this is helpful from the reader’s point of view too, because we’re all visual learners to some extent, and once we see a story in our head and the story makes sense to us, it’s easier to remember it as the time goes by.
AT: Yes. As a writer however, I don’t think you start with a form in mind. I think, as a writer, you just have to let it go, and then come back to it later to see what you’ve gotten.
SD: In essence, your advice is to focus first on what you have to say, then how you say it, and then look at the overall structure – the visual representation of your story.
AT: Yes. The visual representation is something you would come to later to look at. It’s also important to read other people’s work to see what they do.
SD: One last piece of advice for writers.
AT: I constantly read, and do it as a research for class. What I look for are pieces that will inform us about how to write, and what choices to make when we write. I want a literary piece to be beautifully crafted. I care about what the writer is saying. I look for humor, wisdom, and scope. I want the writer to give us something that we can take with us, and will open us up, and change us.
© 2016 Simona David
Leslie T. Sharpe is an author, editor, and educator. She began her editing career at Farrar, Straus & Giroux and is currently an editorial consultant specializing in literary nonfiction, literary fiction, and poetry. A member of PEN American Center, she is the author of Editing Fact and Fiction: A Concise Guide to Book Editing (Cambridge University Press, 1994), which is regarded as a “modern editing classic” and “On Writing Smart: Tips and Tidbits,” featured in The Business of Writing (Allworth, 2012). Leslie has been a regular contributor to Newsday’s “Urban ‘I’” column, and her essays and articles have appeared in a variety of publications including the Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Global City Review, International Herald Tribune, New York Times, New York Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, and Village Voice; The Villager; The Writer; and Psychology Today. She recently finished her memoir, Our Fractured, Perfect Selves, and her new book, The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills, a lyric narrative look at the wild animals of the Catskill Mountains, will be published by The Overlook Press in the spring of 2017. Her poems for children have appeared in Ladybug Magazine. Leslie has taught writing and editing at Columbia University, New York University and the City College of New York.
Simona David: Leslie, you are well-known to the Catskills literary community as an instructor for Writers in the Mountains. You also taught for MediaBistro. And of course, for a long time, you taught at Columbia University in New York City. Your new book The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills will be published in the spring of 2017 by The Overlook Press. Congratulations!
Leslie T. Sharpe: Thank you. I am delighted to say that my book The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills is set to be published by The Overlook in spring 2017. The Overlook Press started in Woodstock, but their offices are now located in Manhattan. Since the 1970s the press has had a wonderful specialty area for Catskills books, Hudson River Valley books; that’s why my agent and I really wanted to be published by them. They have a large list, including literary fiction, literary nonfiction, history, and other parts of that genre. For instance, Alf Evers’ The Catskills, From Wilderness to Woodstock was published by The Overlook in 1972.
SD: You’ve been a naturalist all your life, very much involved with Audubon Society. What is a naturalist, and what does he / she do?
LTS: The thing that I’m proudest of with regard to my environmental credentials is that I was president of Junior Audubon when I was in the 2nd grade. I’ve also been the vice president of New York City Audubon Society, and editor of the Urban Audubon. And like most people who love nature, I’m a lifelong birder and naturalist. Of course, there are many definitions of naturalists. In a large sense, a naturalist is just someone who observes nature. This could be a backyard birder or a wild life biologist. Everyone who looks out their window, and watches their bird feeder, welcomes the hummingbirds, puts out sunflower seeds for the chipmunks, and watches their antics and often records them – this is what a naturalist is, and the basis of our knowledge about nature really comes from people like you and I who are not trained as scientists but watch and observe and record. And there are many events that honor this. For instance, National Audubon and other organizations have what they call “bird counts” such as the Christmas bird count in December: people are urged to go out and count the number of birds they see, which species, the number of birds in each species; and this kind of anecdotal information is an incredibly important part of our knowledge of birds and animals, and our sense of population rise and fall, and the effects of the environment on them, the effects of winter on them, and the effects of summer on them. So, yes, basically a naturalist is someone who just observes, and keeps a diary, and writes down his or her observations.
SD: One doesn’t have to have scientific training in order to be a naturalist. Is that right?
LTS: A naturalist has a very personal and deeply felt connection to the natural world. To be a naturalist in essence all you need is a pen and a notebook, perhaps a recorder. But the most important tools are your senses. It’s not really a division however between a naturalist and a scientist. For instance, Rachel Carson who was a scientist was also a naturalist. These are not mutually exclusive occupations. My point is that anyone can watch, anyone can observe, anyone can record. And those are very valuable insights.
SD: You teach a Nature Writing workshop for Writers in the Mountains in the tradition of naturalist writer John Burroughs, a Catskills native. Participants range from memoirists and essayists to journalists and scientists. Let’s talk about various approaches to nature writing.
LTS: There are so many aspects to nature. We think automatically of critters, and that’s largely what I’m writing about. But in my upcoming book I also have a whole chapter on wild flowers. Without dandelions in early spring what would the bees do? It’s the first thing bees find once they come out of their hibernation. Everything in nature has a purpose. And there are so many aspects to nature writing, not only the genre it can take, but also what you’re writing about. For instance, in my class we had people writing essays, journals, poetry, and some fiction as well. We had someone working on sketches for a book. A photographer, working on a multi-media project, brought his photographs to class, and shared some other angles.
SD: Let’s talk about the writing process. How does your routine look like? How do you alternate between observing nature and then writing about it?
LTS: It’s really organic. For instance, all the chapters in my book The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills are about different creatures. And they’re all marked by two things: it’s my direct experience with the critter, but it’s also the latest science on the subject. Because there is so much that is being discovered. And although my book is described as a lyric narrative book about the wild animals of the Catskill Mountains, it’s also informed by the latest science. One of the hardest things to do when involved with these creatures is to remain objective and not to become sentimental. Another struggle is to not interfere and not to project our own emotions on them. They have their own emotions.
SD: Have you done a lot of research for the book?
LTS: Yes. There are many sources, but you have to weigh them carefully. For instance, All About Birds, which is from Cornell Institute of Ornithology, that’s a fabulous resource. Audubon also has its own online resources. As a trained classicist, I very much enjoy doing research as part of the learning process. But I’m also scrupulous with my sources, both in print and online.
SD: Would you like to expand a bit, and talk about the genre of creative nonfiction?
LTS: The Quarry Fox, as narrative nonfiction, is themed to the wild Catskills, but every chapter is essentially a different personal essay. That is very much in the tradition of John Burroughs, the founder of the nature writing genre in America. One of the things that I do in my book, is that I dedicate each chapter to a nature writer that I love. The first chapter is dedicated to John Burroughs, a spiritual father of mine. I have a chapter dedicated to Edward Abbey, another one to Annie Dillard. I believe Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is the best nature writing book ever written. Dillard, on the other hand, is a mentor to anyone writing creative nonfiction.
SD: You have taught for Writers in the Mountains a workshop called Selling Your Nonfiction Book: The Art of Proposal Writing. Would you like to share a few tips?
LTS: Nonfiction is such a popular form, a lot of folks are working on memoir and personal essays. To sell a nonfiction book, whether you hire an agent or not, you need a book proposal to show it to the publisher. When it comes to nonfiction, publishers don’t want to see a whole book right away; what they want is a proposal. The proposal breaks down into certain aspects, including a marketing plan, a literature review, and some sample chapters. It’s important for the publisher to know who the book is for and how they can sell it, also if there are other similar books out there, and what credentials the author has. In my case, there are very few other books out there since John Burroughs that really cover the Catskills’ wild life. It’s important to know that everything you write when you submit to a publisher or an agent is a writing sample. The query letter is a writing sample, and is a sample of professionalism. The proposal itself, and the description of the chapters mirror the quality of the chapters themselves.
SD: What makes a naturalist also a good nature writer?
LTS: I am a writer, and I believe that we humans are hard-wired for stories. That’s what compels us. We tell our stories, and pass them down. Most people who write about nature are most certainly naturalists, they observe nature. Most naturalists are not necessarily nature writers. But what drives us as naturalists who are also nature writers is our desire to tell stories. How you tell your story is completely up to you. Nature writing is a great American form, not uniquely American, but this country is so extraordinarily beautiful, and there is such a diversity of landscape and critters and birds of all kinds that we’ve been shaped by it.
Leslie tweets at https://twitter.com/catskillcritter.
© 2016 Simona David
Writers in the Mountains presented at the Woodstock Public Library, as guest of the Poetry Barn, Thanksgiving Literature, Friday, November 18, 2016. Readers included Lillian Browne, Geoff Rogers, Sharon Israel, Lissa Kiernan, Bonnie Lykes, Carrie Bradley Neves, Nina Shengold, and Anique Taylor. A feast for the soul! In 2017 Writers in the Mountains will celebrate a quarter century of creative writing and community in the Catskills.