No one has ever spoken as close to my face as Mr. Z. Willie Neumann. He looks right into my eyes when he speaks to me, like he’s staring through the back of my head. He taps my shoulder when he makes a point that he wants to emphasize, and he grabs my sleeve when he wants me to look at something. He’s excited to hang out, as if I were a long-lost friend. When we’re sitting, he hits my foot with a piece of freshly opened mail after I tell him that I haven’t read a book he’s particularly fond of.
And I just met the guy for the first time.
He’s a pretty enthralling dude, Z. Willie Neumann. He wears an impressive smile and talks to me as if he had a dialogue prepared. He’s a coiled spring, a proton of a human being, and an all-around ray of sunshine kind of character. He asks me if I’m from town. I say I’m not, and that I’m from across the river.
“Are you familiar with the Bible?” he asks.
“Enough to get by,” I respond.
“You almost remind me a little of Abraham.”
“Yeah? Is it my beard?”
“No, it’s because Abraham was from across the river, too. Your beard is a long way from Abraham.”
Neumann is an artist, specializing in public pieces. He comes to Saugerties by way of Woodstock by way of Brooklyn, by way of Israel, by way of Belgium. His Saugerties studio, Double Take, is on Livingston Street. He’s been in town for two years, and he’s hit the ground running; with several projects completed, a few underway and plenty in the offing, he has big plans for little Saugerties. His latest inspiration is to transform the parking lot at Reis Insurance in the center of the village into an open air hangout for locals. “We don’t have a green here,” said Neumann. “We don’t have a place where you can just sit, have a sandwich, and watch the traffic.”
Neumann plans to have live, acoustic music in the community area, and maybe even a larger than life chess set.
“I want to give kids a good place to loiter,” he said. “I don’t want them to hang out in front of the convenience store. When they commit their first cigarette crime, I want them to be someplace where somebody will say ‘Hey man, don’t do that.’”
Neumann said he’s not trying to promote himself or get recognition. He just had an idea he thinks would add something to his adopted home. “I saw the potential to bring something of my own to the village,” he said. “I was coming with kind of a ‘mission’ notion. I know that when you do something selfless, you receive so, so much more.”
His ambition is significant. Neumann wants to invite artists to create portraits and educate through weekly open air seminars.
Neumann’s work is very playful. As he chauffeurs me around his studio and ticks off the names of his pieces, it seems as though Willie was born with the talent of conjuring up any clever imagining he has and turning it into a piece of art. Nothing is too complex or overly detailed. Willie isn’t particularly interested in high-concept art. His pieces are refreshing and easy to understand; no stratosphere-concept piece about the mundanity of 14th century French peasantry, no risk of being looked down upon if you don’t understand a certain piece, no risk of being taken away by security if you bump into a piece. In fact, Neumann has a series of sculptures and woodworks called “Do Touch,” based on the idea of being allowed to interact with and touch pieces. Friendly, basic, non-puzzling – but at the same time, mentally stimulating. Brain toys for grown-ups.
Traipsing through Willie’s studio is like taking a slow, guided walk through someone’s hyperactive imagination. Based on the biblical passage “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” he’s created a piece depicting spears morphing into zanier shapes. One is a spear that has been morphed into a zig zag called “Shaken Spear” – another is a spear shaped into a cube. He takes me to his next piece, a heavy wooden ball that orbits on spring when you push it. Another is a slightly risqué creation called “Sit’n Duck” – I’ll spare the details, but it’s on Willie’s website.
Willie has several pieces on display around Saugerties. One work, an oversized Oakland Athletics hat, sits on top of the dugout in the baseball park. “When a friend visits from Israel,” he says, “I take him directly to the baseball park and walk around with him to give him a feel for America.” Another piece, Nest Egg, is simply an egg-shaped sculpture that sits on a spring at Snyder Farm on Route 212. He describes it as “an egg on the hill, and it wobbles in the wind. Just a lonesome egg on top of a hill.”
Willie’s got a serious side. Every year since 2002, he returns to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where his studio used to be, to outline in water-based paint the shadows that the Twin Towers once cast. He paints in water based paint so as the year wears on, the images fade. “How wonderful would it be,” says Neumann “if every street that had in their horizon the Twins –New Jersey, Brooklyn, Queens – the same piece, so that when you fly over with a copter, you can see the shadows.”
Willie’s most popular work employs large outdoor frames. By building them on site and placing them in particular vantage points, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Esopus River, he captures something special. “The art isn’t just what is in the picture, it’s what’s outside of the frame as well.”
Neumann is committed to public projects. “I came to Saugerties to create a buzz about art and culture,” he said. He has plans to tackle the local water chestnut problem, too. He hopes to recruit students out of Saugerties High to both assist in ridding local bodies of water chestnuts and creating a five-foot tall sculpture of a water chestnut – an object that he has a fascination with. He says of the water chestnut “It’s got a devil head. A cow face! It looks like a fruit that was conceived in the middle ages.”
Later, Willie takes me on a field trip. We’re going to Snyder Farm, just outside of town.
On the way there, we stop in Krause’s parking lot so that he can pick up a donated check for an upcoming project: a sign commemorating Saugerties’ 200th anniversary. He takes his time picking up the check and I look around in his van. The interior smells like a house under construction. There are heaps of building material scraps in the back. In front, some crumpled up grocery lists, a single, empty cup of coffee, and, in the console, something that’s a mash up of a miniature scythe and a scimitar. This is the car of a person who is just too busy to clean. An excuse I wish I could ever use.
I wait on Willie. Inexplicably, when he returns, he opens my door.
“Sorry! Did I scare you?”
“Nah, I’m cool.”
You horrified me, Willie.
We drive off.
The hill at Snyder Farm has hosted many of Neumann’s works, and we’re visiting the farm for two reasons. First, he wants to show me a piece he’s created: a few hundred mirrors dangling from an ancient tree. Second, he wants to chide me for not mentioning the same tree in last week’s article on the coolest trees in Saugerties. He seems, secretly, a little pissed that I gave the tree no hype.
He’s right to be upset. The “Devil Tree,” as he calls it, is a dead and friendly-looking old tree that once had two hornlike limbs sticking out of its canopy. Now, only one pierces the leaves. The other has fallen to the ground. The mirrors dangling from the branches give it a surreal vibe. We walk around the grounds of Snyder Farm; he takes me to look at another tree, a sinister, enormous dogwood with branches shooting off in any direction.
“You should have had this in your piece.” He says.
“It’s fine. I just wanted you to see it. I don’t use the word awesome that much, but this is the only way to say it. It’s awesome.”
Like his work, Willie is colorful and whimsical. An artist by trade, he seems to have the energy and inspiration to leave his mark on the culture of the village. But is Saugerties ready for Willie? Only time will tell.
Check out Neumann’s work at zwneuman.com or visit his studio at 45 Livingston Street. He’d love to see you.