Nick Della Penna — One stone at a time

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

“If you’re not trained as an artist, there’s no right or wrong,” said sculptor Nick Della Penna, standing amidst the monumental yet whimsical structures of Rock Star Meadow in Lake Hill. “What you do can be a disaster, or it can be freeing. If you keep looking at it, it changes. Your eye keeps feeding back and tells you what to do.”

Over the past 28 years, Della Penna has built a stunning complex of walls, gates, and pillars, decorated with sculptures and mosaics. His muse and collaborator, Estelle Ross, died four months ago. “I feel so deeply lonely on the meadow without her,” said Della Penna. “When you work together with someone, you get very close — in a different way from a marriage.” He has inherited her dog, a sturdy bit of fluff named Reggie.

Ross and Della Penna met at a school in West Babylon, Long Island, where he was teaching third grade, and she was teaching fifth. They shared the same birthday, October 7. “Teaching public school, you have to have somebody,” said Della Penna. “You look for a person you can survive with.”


In 1980, Della Penna and his wife, Lorraine, bought the property near the western end of Woodstock for a summer getaway. “It was an apple orchard and a dump, full of bottles and junk,” he recalled. “I didn’t know what to do with myself all summer, so I started to stack stone, and it was so much fun. In 1988, someone told me, ‘They’re running motorbikes on your property.’ So I put up a wall.”

He hauled rocks from local brooks, piled them up, then added little touches, such as niches where he could put the little clay sculptures he’d been making in the pottery shop at school. “It was something make-believe,” he said. “Like when you were young, like living in a castle.” Ross came upstate to visit, and Della Penna asked her for help, to hold stones in place as he worked. Soon she was deeply involved in the building process. “She had a fine eye and a delicate touch, and there was a calmness. Anything could happen, and I felt safe, even when we got chased for taking rocks. We would go to a stream, walking with Reggie. It’s hot, and we walk into the stream. ‘What do you think of that rock? We could put it on that other one…’”

Ross was the first person to look at his early sculptures and tell him they were great. Later she encouraged him to start carving in marble, “a wonderful experience.” Recently, she insisted he needed a studio on the meadow. They found a structure at Farmer Jones Barns in Shandaken and finished putting it up two weeks before Ross died on the Ides of March. The room is beautiful, with polished dark wood floors and a cast-iron chandelier, but Della Penna hasn’t done any work in it yet; the grief is still too fresh.

Like the ruins of a medieval fortress, stone walls arc and ripple across the field. One wall is embedded with the white stucco star that gave the complex its Rock Star name. An archway leads to a circle of perforated walls, where sitting in contemplation would be as appropriate as conducting a pagan ritual. Behind the circle rises a stepped tower. “This was the most dangerous and the most fun to build,” said Della Penna. “I tapered it so it would stand even after the mortar breaks down.”

Everywhere the eye falls, stone mass meets fine-boned art. Niches and windows are filled with sculptures by turns bawdy, macabre, humorous, lovely. Ross made most of the mosaics mounted in the walls, creating elegant, complex floral or abstract patterns, dominated by a radiant shade of blue. One set of pillars is devoted to Della Penna’s mosaics: portraits of his children, Ali and Erik, and his grandchildren; a vivid likeness of his wife, labeled “Queen Lorraine”; a resplendent Estelle; a skeleton seated at a computer.

At the front of the property is the newest structure, a long brick wall with a stone gateway in the center, made of rocks Mike Stock cleared away after the Mink Hollow stream overflowed. On one of the tapering wings of the wall, two-story-high flowers undulate alongside a lion. Like everything else on the meadow, this wall did not come from a plan but evolved over time. “I wanted to use these Belgian blocks,” said Della Penna, pointing to the flower stems, made of pale gray stone from the Shultis stoneyard in Willow. The lion’s face is a piece of bluestone, carved and stuccoed. I asked about the unicorn horn on the lion’s head, and he said, shrugging, “You’re doing a lion, but it needs something.” He’s still working on the wing to the left of the gate. “I’m trying to top the other wing. It’s a competition with myself. This one will be focused around Estelle.”

Set in front of the wall is a slab of stone that will support a bronze plaque with a poem bearing witness to the work Ross and Della Penna did together.

Although the artist now lives in Woodland Valley with his wife, he comes every day to the meadow. “Even in lousy weather,” he said, “I come to touch it. It’s like a child — you protect it. If I see a crack in a stone that no one else would notice — it’s like a child chipping a tooth.”

Rock Star Meadow has occasionally been compared to the massive stonework complex at the other end of Woodstock, Opus 40. But the aesthetic of Harvey Fite’s meticulous work is completely different from the spontaneous, anarchic creations in Lake Hill. “I’m not a craftsman,” declared Della Penna. “I’m sloppy. I don’t measure.      I’m always having many ideas, and most of them are ridiculous. But if one keeps coming back, then it’s going to be a reality.” He pointed out how some of the walls have a little horizontal wave. “No mason would tolerate that. I didn’t intend it, but I went with it.”

Della Penna traces the impetus for the work back to his childhood in the Bronx, where he was a short, mouthy Italian kid in an Irish Catholic neighborhood. “All that leads into this,” he said. “Whenever something hurts, energy is triggered. It could be seeing Trump on TV, or being treated badly at a store. When I get angry, I could talk, yell, but the only thing for me that compensates is building, moving stone. It’s like an athletic event.”

I asked if he has thoughts about what will happen to his and Ross’s creation when he’s gone. “My son said maybe Woodstock could make a park out of it,” he mused. “I don’t know. I only think about now.” However, he wants the work to be seen. “People often stop by, and most of the time, I’m surprisingly good-natured.”

Rock Star Meadow is located at 4129 Route 212 in Lake Hill.

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