Michael Asbill is still getting used to the number of trees, amount of bugs and richness of community that he has been experiencing as a Hudson Valley artist since moving from the San Francisco area 12 years ago. We’re seated in the home he shares with his wife Carrie, a social worker, on one of those moody winter days mottled by snowmelt and mud.
Asbill lives on what was once a Ukrainian summer camp in Accord, and before that a resort. It’s a terrain of many structures in various states of renovation or decay. Fields are half-filled with fallow trees; a pool hints at past glories and future scientific studies. We’ve been speaking about the ruinous nature of the landscape that is attracting new generations of visual and literary artists to this area. One could look out these windows forever.
No wonder this man – and the Hudson Valley Seed Library, also based here on this property – are so prolific and yet so grounded in the region and its long history. You can feel the same qualities that have inspired Martin Puryear to mold giant dream-shapes out of trees and James Lasdun to reinvent his ideal of masculinity in terms of chainsaws, Clarence Schmidt to build a junk house or George Bellows to mix the homey and haunted in his painting here – or Cole to place Indian dances and ancient ruins in these parts, just as Irving put laggards to sleep for decades.
Asbill gained fame on the local scene with a series of lenticular windows that juggled the past and present in the Poughkeepsie train station. Other Asbill projects include a bullet-riddled rowboat at the Dorsky Museum’s regional invitational and years of curating at the Kingston Museum of Contemporary Art (KMoCA) down in the Rondout. He has been one of the region’s New York Foundation for the Arts’ (NYFA) MARK artists, is art manager for the Hudson Valley Seed Library, and an assured figure whose every move, and appearance in or putting together a show, indicates thoughtfulness and a playful sense of art as both a conceptual and active element in regional consciousness.
Asbill has become one of the Valley’s creative movers and shakers. He’s working on a solo exhibition at SUNY-Ulster’s Muroff Kotler Gallery in September, where he’s also jurying a regional show set to open in March. He’s helping put together a new art space in a donated church space in the Rosendale area, with the help of SUNY-Ulster graphic design and marketing classes and the Women’s Studio Workshop.
“Our first house up here felt a little too grown-up for us,” Asbill says of what drove him to move to the 27 acres in Accord, “although this did take some convincing to get Carrie into it.”
When the couple moved East, they did so alongside longtime friend Ken Greene, who has since started the Hudson Valley Seed Library. They were living in Silicon Valley, Carrie working with a tech company and Michael as a teacher. They felt priced out, and wanted to reconcentrate their lives on the creative endeavors that they were each pursuing while Michael was attending grad school at the University of California at San Diego.
“We packed up the car and quit our jobs,” he says, noting how he had been born in Kansas, raised in Utah and Idaho and schooled in Arizona as an undergrad: a kid from the West. “We had long been looking for a rural setting to do our work in, and this seemed great. Ken came out first to see if he could handle a winter here.”
Asbill thought that the closeness to New York City would play a factor, but laughs now when he considers how often he actually gets down there.
Artwise, Asbill started out by creating an installation with railroad ties by the Walkill Valley Rail Trail in Gardiner. Then he got the opportunity to do the windows at the Poughkeepsie train station, which opened up a relationship with the Dutchess County Arts Council (after teaching himself lenticular photography). That led to a commissioned work in Portland, Oregon, and then an invitation to be part of the shared GAS gallery in Poughkeepsie, which introduced him to an active arts scene and sparked his creativity and concepts into higher gear.
“I started to feel, however, that I wanted to be working with a gallery that showed other people’s work, too,” he continues, noting how he was asked to collaborate with KMoCA curators Deborah DeGraffenreid and Adam Snyder. He was accepted into the NYFA MARK program, aimed at taking mid-career artists several steps further in their art careers (and sustainability, to use the term du jour), and as he puts it, “Then it all snowballed.”
He has a main studio beyond the house, but also outdoor workspaces. I ask Asbill how money works into this creative life. “We had a nest egg when we came East, but that’s evaporated,” he says. “I cobble my living together from curating fees, stipends, the occasional paying job to make ends meet…I’ve given up worrying.”
The great thing, he goes on, is that he has reached a point where all he does is now part of the same thing, without segmentation. Furthermore, he has allowed himself to become “a creature of my environment” – meaning that he works with what he finds, what is around him. And it’s a continuum, in his mind, back to a childhood lived in the presence of “fishing and rowboats and garages filled with old tools and junk.”
And community: Has he found it here? “Part of what’s so terrific about this area is that there’s a lot of people leaving the City and coming up with interesting ideas here that they’d never have come up with there, as well as people from here hatching their own things. I’m home.”
Artist Michael Asbill, Mettacahonts Road, Accord, www.michaelasbill.com.