Featured Destinations: Thomas Cole National Historic Site and Olana State Historic Site

I interviewed Betsy Jacks, Director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, Greene County. The Thomas Cole National Historic Site in partnership with Olana State Historic Site are co-hosting River Crossings: Contemporary Art Comes Home, an exhibition that will open this Sunday, May 3, and run through November this year. The exhibition, featuring twenty-eight contemporary artists inspired by the works of Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church, is the first major collaboration between the two institutions, and the first event since the 19th century when contemporary artists are invited to present works in these settings.

Simona David: Before we talk specifically about River Crossings, let’s briefly talk about the Thomas Cole National Historic Site and the Olana State Historic Site, the homes of 19th century landscape painters Thomas Cole, and Frederic Edwin Church respectively.

Betsy Jacks: The two homes are just two miles apart, so they make a great one day or a weekend trip to both of them. They’ve been connecting for centuries with history and with each other. Because the Thomas Cole National Historic Site is of course the place where Thomas Cole lived and worked, but perhaps people don’t realize, it’s also the place where Frederic Church first came to this area to live and work as a student of Cole’s. Frederic Church was just a teenager when he came to live and learn from Cole. Later in life Church built Olana across the river within viewing distance from the Thomas Cole’s site. So they had a history together from the beginning.

Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Contributed Photo.
Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Contributed Photo.

SD: You are currently in the process of re-building Thomas Cole’s New Studio, originally erected in 1846, and demolished in 1973. What is the status of this project?

BJ: It’s under construction. We raised the funds for it except for the last bit; we’re still looking for some contributions to finish the capital campaign. We’re almost there. We have 90 percent of the funds. And the building I would say is 90 percent complete as well. It can be visited from the outside at the moment. You can see the construction – the windows just went in last week; and that was an exciting moment. We anticipate announcing the ribbon cutting soon.

SD: Thomas Cole had two studios: the Old Studio, built in 1839, and the New Studio, built in 1846, currently under construction. But the Old Studio is still in its authentic condition, and can be visited from May to October, right? 

BJ: Yes, it’s a beautiful barn like structure built in 1839 that Thomas Cole painted in for seven years of his life. And he did many of his statement works in that modest building. He did The Voyage of Life series of paintings there, which he called “my great series” – he considered it one of his greatest accomplishments. And finally he built the New Studio, which is a much more elegant building – Thomas Cole designed it himself. It was designed in the Italianate style, with beautiful moldings; it’s a really beautiful place to work in. Cole got to work in that building until the last year of his life.

SD: Cole’s paintings are in museums all over the country. How many of his paintings do you still have at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site?

BJ: We have about 16 or 17 of his paintings on view at any given time. His paintings can be seen now in museums all over the world.

SD: Let’s talk about River Crossings. Whose idea was to organize this event, and how did you go about putting it together?

BJ: It was all conceived by an artist by the name of Stephen Hannock. Hannock is a landscape painter who lives and works in Berkshires, Massachusetts. The former head of Olana, who just retired, Sarah Griffin, and I went out to visit his studio on Halloween in 2013, and he said “I would really like to do something to help your sites.” Stephen Hanncok has long been inspired by Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, and has been supporting our sites in a variety of ways. We are a big fan of his as well. He wanted to come up with a way to help us – in a bigger way, and he proposed this exhibition. He’s brought in a co-curator – Jason Rosenfeld, who is a professor of art history and curator. And then Stephen went about calling all the artists that he knew and loved – a really incredible collection of artists that are highly sought after and celebrated today. They all said “yes” to Stephen. Then Jason reached out to some additional artists, so it became a collaborative effort from then on.

SD: The show is co-curated by art historian Jason Rosenfeld and painter Stephen Hannock. Rosenfeld curated major shows at Tate Britain in London, and the National Gallery in Washington DC just recently. Hannock is a painter whose works are actually included in this exhibition.

BJ: Yes. Stephen has two paintings that are currently hanging in Thomas Cole’s parlor.

SD: He must be very excited about that.

BJ: It’s a visually stunning exhibition. We knew it was going to be very special because these artworks are very special anywhere. But putting them in this historic context has just had so many repercussions we didn’t anticipate. The artworks and the surroundings magnify each other beautifully.

SD: I’m interested in the curation process, and the kind of experience that the curators had in mind for visitors. It’s important to say it’s a multi-media exhibition – it includes a wide range of works in a variety of styles and media by very diverse artists.     

BJ: Correct. It’s a very mixed-media exhibition. It feels like you don’t know what to expect when you go around the corner. It’s full of surprises. It’s really fun that way, to walk around and just discover what’s been installed.

SD: There are a total of thirty artists included in this exhibition, among them painter Chuck Close, sculptor Martin Puryear, photographer Lynn Davis, Cindy Sherman  – who is a photographer and stylist, and Kiki Smith, a multi-media artist. Some of these artworks are on display at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, and others at Olana estate across the river. Would you like to talk about these artists and their artworks?   

BJ: There are thirty artists if you include Thomas Cole and Frederic Church – so there are twenty-eight contemporary artists. It’s such a wide variety of things that you see here. At Olana for example there is this incredible piece by Maya Lin, which is called Silver River – Hudson. She has taken a topographical study of the Hudson River and cast the shape of the river in solid silver – recycled silver. At the Thomas Cole site there is an artist Jerry Gretzinger who has been for the last forty years of his life creating a map that is now up to over 3,000 pieces, and each piece is the size of eight by ten inch. He installed this map so that it wraps along the whole stair hall – so, when you come up the stairs, you suddenly catch sight of this map that surrounds you on all sides in the most vivid colors imaginable, like a kaleidoscope. When you walk up, you’re in the middle of it, and enter this colorful world. On your way up you’ll pass a sculpture by Kiki Smith called Wolf with Birds, which is made out of bronze with gold leaf, and is such a beautiful piece which brings the wilderness inside this domestic space. Which is what Thomas Cole was doing as well – painting the wilderness – paintings that he would then bring inside. There are so many connections between the past and the present in each artwork. The process of walking around this exhibit is a process of discovery.

Olana Estate. Contributed Photo.
Olana Estate. Contributed Photo.

SD: And it’s interesting, because when people think of Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, they think of representational art, landscape painting, and I’m looking at Maya Lin’s silver piece, the style is so modern – I wouldn’t make a connection between Thomas Cole and Maya Lin’s work. It’s interesting to see what kind of conversations will emerge when people see these contemporary artists’ works side by side with Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. Now let’s talk a bit more about Stephen Hannock, who is a luminist painter – he is a co-curator of this exhibition as well.

BJ: Stephen has two paintings in the Thomas Cole’s main parlor. One of them is called The Oxbow, which refers to a bend in the Connecticut River in Massachusetts that Thomas Cole painted quite famously in 1836. And that painting is now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the most beloved paintings by Thomas Cole. If people know any paintings by Cole, they may know that one, it’s a very famous work. So Stephen has painted the same bend in the river: it’s very recognizable. He painted it many, many times now. Its simplicity is deceptive: when you look at it first it just looks like this incredibly luminous landscape painting, but the closer you get, the more you realize that a lot is going on in this painting. What looks like rose of crops in a field, are actually scribbles of writing, lines of written script. In another place, what you may think it’s a grove of trees, when you get closer you see the photograph of Stephen Hanncok and some people who were important to him. Stephen inscribed his life into this landscape, literally and figuratively. It’s a stunning work. It explains a lot about the rest of the exhibition, if you see this artwork first.

Across the way there is another Hannock painting called River Keeper, which has been featured on the postcard. It’s a view of the Hudson River.

SD: It’s good to know, there is a website http://www.rivercrossings.org/ where people can go and see all the participating artists. There is also a companion book published by The Artist Book Foundation which includes commentary by historian Ken Burns, and also by Maurice Berger, Marvin Heiferman and Adam Gopnik. Where will this book be available?

BJ: We would have loved to have it for the opening, but we had to make a difficult decision. We wanted to have installation shots. Just to put the artwork in the book without any context, it really wouldn’t be in the spirit of the show. Part of what makes this show so special is the context – that you put this artwork in a different room where it would be normally seen in. Today we’re used to seeing artwork on a white wall in a gallery or a museum; but the traditional way to display art in the 19th century was in a home. So we wanted to hold the book until we can get installation photography. We anticipate that we will have the book by the end of June. It will be available on the website as well.

SD: Let’s talk about the opening reception on May 3, and the hours of visitation throughout the summer.

BJ: The official opening day is May 3. Both Olana and the Thomas Cole site will be open regular hours that day, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For the first time this year, visitors will have the opportunity to visit the interiors of both homes without a tour guide Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. Olana will provide this “explore at your own pace” opportunity on Saturdays. The other option for seeing the show is to take one of our guided tours, which is a great option, because then you’ll have a person with you who can answer questions. Guided tours are offered during our regular hours Tuesday through Sunday, at all times, except when “explore at your own pace” is going on.

Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848) is the founder of the Hudson River School of Painting, the first authentic American art movement. Frederic Edwin Church (1826 – 1900) was Cole’s most famous student. Church is best known for paintings such as Heart of the Andes (1859), Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), and Aurora Borealis (1865). Cole’s paintings include: The Titan’s Goblet (1833), The Course of Empire series (1834 – 1836), The Oxbow (1836), and The Voyage of Life (1842). For more information about Cole, visit http://www.explorethomascole.org.

For more information about Thomas Cole National Historic Site, visit thomascole.org.

For more information about Olana, visit olana.org

© 2015 Simona David

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