The Irish Hunger Memorial, a public art project designed by sculptor Brian Tolle in Battery Park City, re-opened to the public late last summer after undergoing major renovations to address damage caused by water infiltration in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Originally built in the early 2000s, the monument opened for the first time on July 16, 2002. Roberta Smith from The New York Times described the monument as a “typically postmodern blend of existing art styles — Realism, Conceptual Art and Earth Art — bound together by historical fact and physical accuracy.”
A methodical thinker, Tolle had spent plenty of time in Ireland doing research for this project which occupies half of acre overlooking the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island. The centerpiece is an 1820s stone cottage brought from Ireland. Also, stones from Ireland’s 32 counties and Irish flora were incorporating into the project, a reminder of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52.
Tolle had installed two miles of historical references on the base of the Memorial, in the form of a lightning shadow. The text, lit from behind with the shadow cast on glass, is changed and updated periodically, so visitors approaching the Memorial on one day might happen to read a Quaker soup recipe that was used to help starving people in Ireland in 1847, and on another day statistics about the amount of dog food consumed in the United States. The artist believes that this textural engagement with the Memorial ultimately shapes visitors’ visceral experience as they move through the monument itself.
Tolle, who teaches a course on public art at Parsons, is alert to the fact that art shown in a museum or a gallery space is dedicated to a captive audience, an audience of interested gallery or museum goers. When it comes to public art, the artist explains: “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.” With that in mind, the artist envisioned a memorial that trusts the intelligence of the audience in interpreting the event of the famine and its historic significance.
By its very nature, public art is free and accessible to anyone. When it blends well with its surroundings, it gives meaning and shapes the identity of the space. Public art is also a reminder of the shared community values and aspirational goals.
Tolle will lead a special tour of the Irish Hunger Memorial this Saturday, October 28 from 2 to 3 pm, and discuss the history of the Memorial, as well as its recent renovation. A staff horticulturalist will be on hand to discuss the Memorial’s native Irish plantings as well.
Launched in 2012, AMR Open Studios Tour has grown into a major art destination, forging new and unexpected connections between artists, and their patrons from near and far. Given its success in previous years, in 2017 AMR – Artists Making aRt ™ – Open Studios Tours 2017 expanded to include some 40 artists from Margaretville, Roxbury, Stamford, Delhi, and surrounding areas. The tours took place on two different weekends in July: Saturday and Sunday, July 8 – 9 in Stamford-Delhiart community, and Saturday and Sunday, July 29-30 in Margaretville-Roxburyart community. Both weekends attracted a myriad of visitors, many artists as well as collectors from the Catskills, New York City, and abroad.
On the first weekend, watercolorist June Lanigan who, at 91, continues to paint and make collages, showed recent works and discussed what moves her these days. Although Lanigan works in other media as well (i.e., oil, and acrylic), she is most fond of watercolors; and everywhere she goes she brings along a sketchbook to take in the environment. The portrait of a flapper draws my attention in Lanigan’s immense home that she shares with her family while painting in the Catskills. Lanigan is the founder of MURAL Gallery in Hobart, and has had a long connection with the area.
Both Lanigan’s daughters Tracy Jacknow and Toni Layden-Rodgers as well as her grandson Jess Zimmerman are painters; each has a distinctive style, and is attracted to different subject matters. Jacknow, for instance, paints abstract and impressionistic like landscapes, while Layden-Rodgers is interested in domestic scenes, still lifes, and portraits, whereas Zimmerman paints bold, urban scenes.
Jacknow is married to stained glass artist Barry Jacknow, whose work is inspired by the Art Deco movement, and the work of architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright. Stained glass has had a long tradition in New York going back to Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Art Nouveau lamps and decorative objects that became synonym with sophistication. Jacknow sources his stained glass locally in Stamford, and works meticulously to create patterns and contrast colors for most effect.
My next stop was at Robert Schneider and Susan Goetz’s mansion in Stamford. Husband and wife, Schneider and Goetz had studied at the Art Students League of New York, and also privately with accomplished painters. While Schneider specializes in landscape, Goetz dedicates most of her time to still life and portrait. Her studio is filled with family portraits and domestic scenes signifying opulence and good taste. Goetz was commissioned by West Point’s class of 1931 to paint a series of portraits which included Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Bush, and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Goetz comes from a family of artists – her father Richard Goetz, who passed away in 1991, was an accomplished painter as well. A portrait of her mother by famous painter Nelson Shanks illuminates the hallway.
Both Goetz and her husband Schneider were featured in American Artist in November 2007.
Schneider, who is very much fascinated by the Hudson River School of Painting, captures through his plein airs spectacular views of the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson Valley as well as the Leatherstocking region where the family has spent a lot of time. Schneider was featured at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown in 2016 in a one man show called “A New York View.”
My last stop that weekend was at Solveig Comer’s ceramics studio in South Kortright. Located in the basement of a former church, the studio has three electric kilns, and lots of fine porcelain for many bowls and cups to come. The artist patiently explains the difference between using an electric kiln versus a gas one, and the differences in output each creates. It is a laborious process, but Comer doesn’t seem to mind.
The second weekend was a marathon of exhibits, demonstrations, conversations, and parties centered around Roxbury which had a stellar participation this year with the likes of Adam Cohen and Brian Tolle opening their studios as part of the AMR Tour for the first time.
Brian Tolle showed several of his works at Roxbury Abbey including three Levittown style houses made of platinum silicone rubber. Also, visible in his studio was a head sculpture of Benjamin Franklin, as seen by Brian Tolle. In 2016 Tolle exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia as part of “Commander in Chief” art show dedicated to American presidents.
In addition to works by Tolle, Roxbury Abbey also hosted that weekend a group show curated by Ace Ehrlich who brought several artists from the city just for the event, including German artist Thorsten Brinkmann.
The youngest participant in the tour was Sophia Maduri, who showed her work at the Grange in Halcottsville, and sold her first drawing right there – the beginning of a career. My book “How Art Is Made: In the Catskills” was also for sale at the Grange, and provided more context for some of the artworks shown during the tour, a symbiotic relationship.
Also in Roxbury painters Esther De Jong and Michael Guilmet opened their studio for the first time. De Jong showed some of her oil paintings and pencil drawings, while Guilmet displayed two dozen oil paintings in various styles, and depicting various subject matters – winter landscapes, abstract compositions, and lots of portraits, many of those on commission. Recently De Jong and Guilmet curated an exhibition at Orphic Gallery in Roxbury that included some of the best artworks produced in the region from painters like Adam Cohen, Ann Lee Fuller, and Christopher Durham.
Lisbeth Firmin was one of several artists participating in Margaretville area – her studio is located in the Commons Building. This year Firmin showed some of her urban landscape paintings as well as monotypes produced while studying at Scuola Internationale di Grafica in Venice this past spring. Later this month Firmin will lead a one-week drawing workshop at MURAL Gallery in Hobart, designed as an intensive combination of lectures, demonstrations, and studio exercises.
AMR Open Studio Tour 2018 will include even more artists and activities to showcase the abundance of artistic endeavors our region is known for.
This weekend, Saturday and Sunday, July 29 – 30, from 11 am to 5 pm over twenty artists in Roxbury, Halcottsville, Margaretville, Fleischmanns, Halcott Center, and Arkville will open their studios to the public, and show their working spaces as part of the AMR – Artists Making aRt ™ – Open Studios Tours 2017.
A good place to start the tour is the Wawaka Grange in Halcottsville, which is true to its original function as a Grange and General Store. Refreshments, bathrooms, and handicap access are available at this location. Several artists will be showing at the Grange, including painters Sophia Maduri and Oneida Hammond.
For the first time this year Art in the Catskills will participate, and present and sell books at the Grange. “How Art Is Made: In the Catskills” will be offered at a discounted price. The book pays homage to the Catskills’ vibrant artistic life, and its long tradition as a magnet for artists and writers from all over the world. The region is known as the place where American art was born, through the works of landscape painters Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church, affiliated with the Hudson River School of Painting, and writers Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote specifically about American realities.
Alix Travis, one of the founding members of the tour, will once again open her studio located at 103 Bragg Hollow Road in Halcottsville. An established plein air painter, Alix has received several awards and recognitions, including signature status in the Pennsylvania Watercolor Society and the New York Plein Air Painters. In 2014 she published The Catskill Coloring Book, which includes twenty-six plein air watercolor paintings. This weekend, during the open studios tour, Alix will paint en plein air, and demonstrate some of her techniques. Alix’s website is https://alixhtravis.com/.
Urban realist painter Lisbeth Firmin will be showing oil paintings and monotype prints at her studio in the Commons Building in Margaretville. Lisbeth is known for works such as Fifth Avenue (1995), and Woman on a Train (2014). This past spring Lisbeth traveled to Venice, and enrolled in Scuola Internationale di Grafica where she perfected her monotype printing technique. Lisbeth explains that her work is really not about the colors, but about the light and shadow in the composition which she captures masterfully. Lisbeth is featured in “How Art Is Made: In the Catskills.” Her website is http://lisbethfirmin.com/.
New this year, internationally renowned sculptor Brian Tolle will open his studio located in a repurposed Catholic church in Roxbury. Brian is known for The Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City (2002), and more recently for Miss Brooklyn and Miss Manhattan, two replicas of Daniel Chester French originals that sit on the façade of the Brooklyn Museum – Brian’s replicas were installed on Flatbush Avenue by the Manhattan Bridge in December 2016. In 2015 The University at Albany’s Art Museum hosted a retrospective show titled Bordering Utopia: Sculptures by Brian Tolle, exploring the artist’s evolution over time. Brian’s studio is located at 53266 State Hwy 30 in Roxbury. He is one of the artists featured in “How Art Is Made: In the Catskills.” Brian’s website is http://briantollestudio.com/.
Abstract painter Adam Cohen will also open his studio for the first time this year. Adam is known for works such as Intuition (2015), a finalist in the Art Olympia International Competition in Tokyo, Japan, and Mystic Marsh (2014), shown at the Morren Galleries in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Adam is an intuitive painter whose style has been defined as Gestural Abstraction; his paintings are very much sculptural, and have a visceral look and the kind of inexhaustibility that the artist strives to achieve in his work. Adam’s studio is located at 53856 State Hwy 30 in Roxbury. He is also featured in “How Art Is Made: In the Catskills.” Adam’s website is http://www.adamcohenstudio.com/.
Poet and painter Esther De Jong, a former fashion model, will be showing her watercolors, oil paintings, and charcoal and pencil drawings at her studio located at 50 Maple Lane in Roxbury. Esther, who is formally trained at the National Academy of Art and Design, co-founded by Thomas Cole in 1825, refers to her paintings as “lyrical images” of her poetry: she often creates haikus accompanied by images that reflect her daily life experiences in the Catskills, a mood, or a feeling that is thus being immortalized on paper or canvas. Although Esther loves figural painting, she is also very much attracted to botanical themes, and finds inspiration in the Catskills’ changing seasons, particularly in the spring. Esther’s website is http://www.estherdejongpoetics.com.
Although not formally trained as a painter, Michael Guilmet has been painting still lifes, landscapes, and portraits pretty much his entire life, growing up with family and friends interested in art. Trained as a magician, Michael had lived in Beverly Hills, Dallas, and New Mexico before moving to the Catskills in 2014. His interests in art theory, history, and philosophy are ubiquitous in his paintings which he says must “evoke an unexpected emotion.” Michael does not think as having a style of his own – he can do works on commission in any style, and can approach any subject; but design is always the idea behind all his drawings and paintings. “A strong design is the driving force behind my work,” he explains. Michael shares his studio at 50 Maple Lane in Roxbury with Esther De Jong. His website is http://www.mcguilmet.com.
Artists Peter Yamaoka and Gerda Van Leeuwen met in a Boston airport in the early 1980s as they were both traveling to and from Provincetown. They married three years later. Peter studied at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, while Gerda received a degree in art from the University of Utrecht in her native Netherlands. In college both Peter and Gerda studied painting. Later in their artistic careers, they specialized in printmaking: Peter chose lithographs, while Gerda directed her attention to etchings. Since moving to the Catskills in the early 1990s both artists switched to ceramics: Peter prefers voluminous mythology-inspired vases, while Gerda makes small porcelains inspired by animal life. Both artists are featured in “How Art Is Made: In the Catskills.” Their studios are located at 777 Carroll Hinkley Road in Roxbury.
Also in Roxbury, painter Ellen Wong is the recipient of many grants and fellowships, including the New York State Council on the Arts Decentralization Grant Program, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She studied in the Art Department at Brooklyn College with Philip Pearlstein, known for reviving realist figurative painting in the 1960s. Initially trained as an abstract painter, in time Ellen discovered that what she really wanted to do in life was landscape: “I noticed that every time I went somewhere I always brought with me my watercolors, and I always sketched where I was; somehow that’s how I got to understand, absorb or take in a new environment – I felt very sensitive to place. And it was a good way for me to get to know a place.” Ellen’s studio is located at 121 Shephard Lane in Roxbury. This year she will be showing some studio drawings and still life watercolors as well as plein air work. Ellen currently has a show at Longyear Gallery in Margaretville which will remain on view through August 7. Ellen’s website is https://ellenwongfinearts.com/.
Studio visits trigger questions that aren’t often asked in formal settings such as galleries and museums, and provide access to an intimate space that the artist doesn’t often share with anyone else.
The AMR – Artists Making aRt ™ – Open Studios Tour 2017, sponsored by MURAL Gallery in Stamford and participating artists, is made possible, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) Decentralization Grant Program, with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, administered in Delaware County by the Roxbury Arts Group (RAG), and additional funding from The A. Lindsay & Olive B. O’Connor Foundation.
The University at Albany’s Art Museum celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The Museum opened in October 1967 with an exhibition titled Painting and Sculpture from the Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection, which featured over fifty works by some of the most prominent artists of the 20th century: Picasso, Miro, Braque, Klee, de Kooning, and Calder, among others.
In 2015 the Museum hosted a retrospective show titled Bordering Utopia: Sculptures by Brian Tolle, dedicated to alumnus Brian Tolle, an internationally acclaimed sculptor known for The Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City (2002), and more recently for Miss Brooklyn and Miss Manhattan, two replicas of Daniel Chester French originals that sit on the façade of the Brooklyn Museum – Tolle’s replicas were installed on Flatbush Avenue by the Manhattan Bridge in December last year. He is one of the artists featured in our book How Art Is Made: In the Catskills.
To learn more about the University at Albany’s Art Museum, visit www.albany.edu.
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.