Stephen M. Silverman, author of The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America, published by Knopf in 2015, spoke at the Erpf Center in Arkville, Saturday, April 2 in front of an audience of about forty animated Catskills fans. Co-written with Raphael D. Silver, who passed away in 2013, the book covers all the turning points that shaped the region and made it into a popular attraction. The Catskills have been known as America’s First Wilderness, First Vacation Land, and also the place where American Art was born. The event, organized in partnership with the Woodchuck Lodge Foundation, also celebrated John Burroughs’ 179th birthday: the beloved naturalist was born on April 3, 1837 in Roxbury, Delaware County. Also Washington Irving, who helped popularized the Catskills, was born on April 3, 1783.
Silverman spoke about the history of the region going back to Henry Hudson’s discovery in 1609. He talked about the Hardenbergh Patent, signed on April 20, 1708, and how that changed the region. And then he talked about the naissance of an authentic American art movement, which took place in the Catskills in the early 1800s, and manifested both in literature and visual arts.
Washington Irving, who wrote from an urban perspective (he was born in Manhattan, but spent quite a bit of time in Tarrytown), and James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote from a rural perspective (growing up on the shores of the Otsego Lake in Cooperstown), both helped shape a narrative that was genuinely American, a narrative that dealt with American realities, American customs, and American social mores.
Likewise, Thomas Cole, who was born in England, but moved to America with his family when he was a teenager, started the first authentic American art movement after visiting the Catskills in the 1820s. Catskill Mountain House, the first major hotel, opened in 1824 when hotels were rare even in New York City. That was a game changer for the area: visitors would come by steamboats on the Hudson River, and then take a local stagecoach from the town of Catskill to the Catskill Mountain House. The expansion of the railroad system supported a growing tourism industry: the Catskills became the model for what was to become the typical American resort town.
Grossinger’s Hotel opened in 1919, thus marking the beginning of a Golden Age for tourism in the Catskills. That ended in the 1970s for several reasons: the expansion of air conditioning, cheap flights, and suburban lifestyle – all these factors changed not just how people lived but also how they chose to vacation.
Silverman spoke about the region’s potential to keep re-inventing itself. He then talked about the Woodstock Music Festival which took place in 1969, and what the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts has to offer today. He mentioned places like The Roxbury Motel, which have become international destinations in and of themselves, and new businesses, retreat centers, so forth and so on.
I asked Silverman what surprised him most when he sat down to research and write this book. What surprised him most was the extent of gang criminal activity in the Catskills throughout the 1920s and the 1930s.
Jen Dragon is the director of Cross Contemporary Art in Saugerties, a gallery dedicated to showing mid-career artists with a connection to New York City, the Catskills and Hudson Valley regions. Dragon has background in online marketing, but she’s also had an extensive career in the arts – over the years she has curated numerous exhibits for non-profit spaces, and organized various community-wide art projects. Dragon holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Purchase College.
Simona David: Please, talk a little bit about your background, your education, and interest in art.
Jen Dragon: I studied at Purchase College in the early 1980s. And there I was trained as a printmaker and painter. I also had a scholarship to study fine arts in Italy for a year. I was trained there as a restaurateur of antique maps and prints. Afterwards, like many artists, I was drawn to the Catskills. Together with my ex-husband I bought a tavern to use as a studio – we fixed it ourselves; this was near the Phoenicia area. I lived there until about a year and a half ago.
SD: Talk about your curatorial experience, and your vision when it comes to putting together a new art show.
JD: I got into curating with non-profit spaces like the Kleinert / James Center for the Arts in Woodstock, and under-utilized spaces like this place at the Emerson Resort that at the time was not being used. It was a challenge, because I was interested in showing large abstract art, and in the country, like where we live, it’s very difficult to find houses that have really big high-ceilings. I was always on the look-out for a loft, a good space to show big paintings. A year ago I had the opportunity to take over a lease on a gallery in Saugerties. It’s tiny – it’s only 650 sq ft, but it has high ceilings, and it has a lot of wall space. And I am now able to show the kind of art that I have always been passionate about. I much prefer to be in the gallery and act as a docent introducing people to art rather than trying to rally everybody behind a large community arts project.
SD: Talk about the curatorial process: where do you start, what is your vision, and how do you get where you want to be with a project?
JD: It’s interesting, because I get to live with an art show for about a month – each show is four week long. And I really get immersed in the artist’s work. At the end of each show I can probably write a dissertation on it. A lot of my choices are governed by the location of my gallery. Given the fact that I’m in Saugerties, which has extraordinary landscapes, I don’t feel like it’s appropriate to show urban art. The artists I tend to choose have an obsession with nature, and I also look for human drama. In sum, the criteria for choosing art have to do with where I am, but I also consider myself as some sort of an educator. It’s more about creating a beautiful show than being a salesman. I encourage the artists to really own the space, and create an installation.
SD: How do you look for artists, or is it the artists who approach you?
JD: I’m always looking at art. It’s important for artists to have their art seen. Because of my limitations, I can only show as many artists. But I keep a file, and I also refer artists to other places. A lot of time artists that I show are referred to me by other artists. The artists that I have been generally showing are in museum collections, or have shown in museums, and to show with me is a certain investment on their part. And they take very seriously who they want to be seen with. And they also refer people to me that they think that I would like. Sometimes I come up with something that I discover on my own. I have shown over eighteen artists so far. I’ve only done one group show.
SD: I like what you said before, that artists like to be seen in the company of other artists, and that’s why art communities are so important. We often judge people by their associations or affiliations, or by the company they keep. Are there any commonalities of themes or styles amongst the artists that you’ve shown? You did mention before that you looked at art centered on nature or human drama.
JD: Yes. I also have a sweet spot for printmaking. I was trained as a printmaker when I was in college in the 1980s, and what was trending back then were these Neo-Impressionist like prints. There were these intense, dynamic painters like Julien Schnabel, Gregory Amenoff, Richard Bosman – these guys were powerhouses. In retaliation to the abstract art, they were going back to figurative painting. And just like the German expressionists, they were also into printmaking. What I learned from artists like these is that the power of the wood cut supports the power of the painting. I knew I was doing something right with my gallery when I approached Gregory Amenoff and Richard Bosman, who were like my rock stars when I was a student, and they agreed to show their work with me.
SD: And I should add that when people think nature, they shouldn’t necessarily think representational art or landscape painting. It could be non-objective art as well. Take for instance Heather Hutchison, who you’ve shown in your gallery.
JD: Yes. What’s fascinating about Heather Hutchison is that her subject matter is light, so she is probably more of a landscape painter than anyone else that I’ve shown. Even though it doesn’t look like landscape, and it looks like a box that is constantly changing colors because of the way the light is coming through it, Heather’s literal subject matter is the changing light itself.
SD: Her work has been shown in many prestigious locations like The Smithsonian in Washington D.C., and she’s also received numerous awards including The Pollock-Krasner Foundation Award.
JD: Yes. She’s also very active locally. She’s in the James / Kleinert Center for the Arts in Woodstock. Her husband Mark Kanter teaches at Columbia University. All the artists that I show are actually very active in the community. In addition to being educators and making art in their studios, these artists are also great art communicators.
SD: What kind of experience do you want your visitors to have when they visit your gallery?
JD: What’s really interesting about showing all these artists is that they work so well together – I can easily have a group show with any of them. Even though they have different styles, they all seem to have the same sort of fascination, the same sort of obsession with art. The common denominator is that they all create amazing spatial environments that the viewer can occupy. That’s my criterion for what I consider art. The mark making is also terribly important. A gestural mark is a brush work with intention, and a certain kind of velocity to it, and these kinds of creations need to form a space that you can inhabit. If art doesn’t have gesture, and it doesn’t have space, it becomes illustration, which is a fine thing, but it’s not deep enough for me. What I look for in art is the space, the intent, and the passion. What I find beautiful is the thing that changes me by looking at it, and changes my relationship to where I am.
SD: You hosted recently a show by Iain Machell. Let’s talk about that.
JD: Iain Machell is the head of the Visual Arts Department at SUNY Ulster. Last summer he got a grant to study at Platte Clove arts residency near Saugerties. And created all these drawings, and paintings, and even some photographs enameled in metal, that were inspired by Platte Clove – he did it in a very short period of time as well. The show at Cross Contemporary Art Gallery included close to thirty pieces of art that Iain created at Platte Clove this past summer. It was an installation – some sort of meditation of ground and water and rocks and crevasses.
SD: I do want to mention that Platte Clove played such an important role in the formation of the Hudson River School of Painting in the 1820s. What is your next show?
JD: My December show is Shira Toren, an Israeli-American artist, who works in New York City, but also has a place in Great Barrington, MA. She does abstract paintings, and also makes prints. Her show is called “Eternal Return.” It opened December 5, and will remain on view through December 27.
SD: What are your plans for the holiday season?
JD: I have been invited to participate in The Decorator’s Holiday Show at the Senate House in Kingston. The Senate House Museum owns a large Victorian house that is being made available to interior designers to decorate it for the holidays. I am the only gallery that was invited to participate. The grand opening was December 4 as part of The Snowflake Festival. I am featuring artists that I have shown over the past year.
SD: What are the gallery’s hours?
JD: The gallery is open from Thursday to Monday from 12 noon to 5 pm. And also by appointment.
For more information about Cross Contemporary Art Gallery, visit