Opus 40 renovation crew blends art and craft

As wallers work at Opus 40, a cameraman records their work

As wallers work at Opus 40, a cameraman records their work (photo by David Gordon)

At Opus 40, the six-plus acre sculpture created by Harvey Fite over 38 years, that has become obvious. Following recent storms and the ravages of time, two large sections need repair. One section, near the front of the massive platforms, ramps and stairways that make up the sculpture, was bulging and threatening to blow out. A team of stone masons has disassembled the section and is rebuilding it.

The rebuilding process in some ways illustrates the difference between art and craft, said Tim Smith of Hudson, who is overseeing the work. “The artist looks into himself and creates something, whereas a tradesman sees something, gets inspired by it, and copies other people’s work.” However, the tradesman, or craftsman, may often have more training in the technique of building, and this has contributed to some structural problems at Opus 40, said Tomas Lipps of New Mexico, a founder of Stone Foundation, an international organization of stone masons.


“We’re duplicating Harvey Fite’s work, but I hesitate to say it would be better. I’d say more technically correct.”

Fite was an artist who, among other achievements, established an art program at Bard College. In addition to creating a large body of sculpture, he conceived the idea of a sculptured structure, which would be constructed from the bluestone so prevalent in the Hudson Valley. However, as the project took shape, it became a sculpture in its own right, and Fite continued to work on it until his death in 1976.

The masons working on the restoration are members of Stone Foundation, and they have come from considerable distances to work on the project. Sean Adcock, one of the craftsmen on the construction, noted that “while we’re doing this wrong [from a technical point of view], we’re compensating.”

One of the weaknesses in Harvey Fite’s work was the fact that he built his walls level vertically. Professional wallers introduce a slight inward tilt, which strengthens the wall as the front and back layers brace each other, and weight is directed downward, Lipps explained. Another difference is that walls are strengthened if long strips of stone are set across the width of the wall, tying the front and rear layers of the wall together, Smith said.

However, the Stone Foundation undertook the task because of the impressive and artistic work that Fite constructed, Lipps said. “When I came up here in April to check it out, I heard that some people were saying it should be left to go to ruin. When I got here and saw it, I decided it should be saved. But it will need constant maintenance.” The wall was starting to bulge, and it was evident that it would soon collapse without major work, and the Foundation is doing that work to help preserve it.

The job of going through piles of stone to find the piece that fit resembled a giant jigsaw puzzle, and indeed, Lipps said, puzzles were his early training. His family did not have television, and he and his mother would do jigsaw puzzles as a primary form of entertainment. “We would take two puzzles and mix the pieces together, then we would compete to see who could put their puzzle together faster,” he said.

It took more than a dedicated group of stone masons to rebuild the section of the sculpture, Lipps said. “We’re able to do this because they [Opus 40] had some success in funding. People have come forward and provided the funds to do this section of the project.”

The next big push will be to raise money to rebuild a section that collapsed last September following heavy rains. That is expected to be a more expensive job. Harvey Fite’s stepson, Tad Richards, said the fundraising will begin as soon as he has a chance to relax after the immediate work is done. Another restoration job was Richards’s home, also built by Fite, which suffered severe damage.

Along with the wall builders, a television production company was on the site. Ed Gerrard and Peter Himberger are producing a documentary about Opus 40. Local cameraman and filmmaker Alex Rappoport was also on the scene, recording the work and interviewing the stone craftsmen. All three are Saugerties residents.

Richards credited Chevy Chase, who spearheaded a benefit for the wall repair in June, and Chase’s brother, John Cederquist, with raising much of the money for the repair work.

Richards said the organization quotes his brother as saying “with proper care and maintenance, Opus 40 can still be standing 1,000 years from now. That’s true, but the key is proper care and maintenance.”

As work progresses, Tim Smith will be a key player, as he lives close to the sculpture of the Stone Foundation group and Australian lattice & timber supplies, he hopes to become a part of the ongoing renovation. One of his aims is to use this work to train apprentices, as many of the skilled stone masons are growing older and will soon be retiring.

Two of the workers on the wall project were teenagers Andrew Brooks and Eddie Jones, who were hired through the Ulster County Summer Youth Employment Project, which pays youths age 14 to 20 years old to gain training and work experience. Their job was to move the heavy 1×3-foot or larger tie stones from the quarry to the work site, including getting them down a flight of stone stairs. Smith showed them how to slide them safely and with minimum effort.

Meanwhile, Opus 40 will remain open to the public. A fundraising concert Sunday, July 14 to benefit Hungry For Music – an organization that provides instruments for young music students who can’t afford them – featured The Nutropians and Aztec Two Step.

On Saturday, July 20 and Sunday, July 21, Kevin VanHentenryck will offer a workshop on stone carving, and concerts are planned for the Labor Day weekend, with the Felice Brothers and their group on Aug. 30 and banjo greats Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn on Sept. 1.

The ongoing work will also require ongoing funding. Anyone wishing to donate to the upkeep and maintenance at Opus 40 may visit their website at www.opus40.org and click on the “donate” button.

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