Patrons of the arts from the Rondout Valley and beyond turned out on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 22 at Mohonk Mountain House for the annual gala dinner and auction for the Rosendale-based Women’s Studio Workshop (WSW). The festive event celebrated the arts organization’s 39th year of operation, announced a major capital campaign and honored WSW “founding mother” Barbara Leoff Burge, as well as local philanthropists Laurel and Tim Sweeney.
The gala kicked off with a cocktail hour and silent auction. Mohonk’s main dining room was abuzz with happy chatter as approximately 100 attendees admired and placed their bids on artworks donated by local artists — among them Judy Sigunick, Nancy Ostrovsky, Keiko Sono, Lauren Sandler and Cyndi Wish — along with gift certificates and treats of various kinds from dozens of local businesses. Among the auction items were a number of highly collectible drawings, paintings, collages and ceramics created by gala honoree Leoff Burge herself. In another corner an animated slideshow of hundreds of works spanning her entire eight-decade career was projected throughout the evening.
At one table, samples of artists’ books — the medium for which WSW is most renowned in the art world — were displayed for the attendees to examine hands-on, along with handmade papers created from fibers grown by WSW’s ArtFarm project. Among the imaginative book art offerings were a box of recipe cards by Carissa Carman and Gretchen Hooker titled Good Eats; Heidi Neilson’s sci-fi-flavored Orbital Debris Simulator, which needed to be viewed through 3-D goggles; How I Lost My Vegetarianism, a book of black-and-white cartoons and reminiscences collected by Katherine Aoki; and Pistol/Pistil: Botanical Ballistics, a classic work of visual puns linking warcraft and horticulture by WSW co-founders Ann Kalmbach and Tana Kellner.
Another table displayed plans for WSW’s current architectural expansion, in which a former boardinghouse next door to its Binnewater Arts Center headquarters is undergoing historic reconstruction. WSW co-founder and development director Anita Wetzel pointed out the components of the project in a lovely watercolor rendering by Staats Fasoldt. “The porch should be all done by next week,” Wetzel explained. “We’ve got the chimneys back on, and it’s all painted.” A two-story addition at the rear will eventually connect the two buildings to each other and to a third new structure, she said.
As dusk deepened behind the dining room’s spectacular panorama of the Catskills, the arts supporters filled their dinner plates from a sumptuous international buffet (oddly light on meat-free selections) and gathered at elegantly appointed tables. The evening’s presentations began with the emcee, WSW board vice president Steve Andersen, introducing a video collage of hundreds of photographs by WSW intern Abby Uhteg, which documented every step in the creation of an art book from start to finish. “It took two months to make 35 copies of that book,” Andersen noted.
A recent recruit to the WSW board, Gary Swenson, then introduced Barbara Leoff Burge, recounting how Babs, as she is known in the WSW community, helped acclimate him to the organization by walking him through its history and philosophies. A film of interviews with Leoff Burge by Jim Fossett was then screened, in which the honoree proceeded to charm one and all with wry anecdotes from her very long career as an artist. She had never been taken to art museums as a child, she recalled; but when she saw her first de Kooning, “I said, ‘Holy ___! That is art? I want to do that!”
In the film Leoff Burge went on to describe the “intervention” that her working-class Massachusetts family had done to try to keep her from going to art school at the Art Institute of Chicago, as if she had announced her intention to become a drug addict. Her parents forced her to live with her grandparents while in college, and when she began bringing home the products of her first life drawing class, “They threw me out of the house, shouting ‘Naked vimmen!’”
“Art is so wonderful, because you can do bad things and you get rewarded,” Leoff Burge joked. “But the best work that happened came when I was suddenly caught off-guard.” She talked about her lifelong struggle to keep her guard down and let art happen in an intuitive and natural way, both before and after she brought together the initial group of women who founded WSW in 1974. Beaming and with a cocktail in hand, Burge briefly took the podium following the screening — to a tremendous outpouring of applause from the crowd — and proposed a toast to her co-founders Kalmbach, Kellner and Wetzel.
The lovefest continued as Andersen, Rondout Valley Business Association (RVBA) president Richard Travers and Mohonk Preserve deputy executive director Joe Alfano took turns singing the praises of Laurel and Tim Sweeney. The public-spirited couple co-owns Prudential Nutshell Realty, and Tim owns Stone Ridge Wines and Spirits. Laurel sits on the boards of directors of both WSW and the Mohonk Preserve, while Tim is a board member at both SUNY Ulster and the RVBA.
Alfano called the Sweeneys “a fundraiser’s dream” and “shining examples of how one couple can really make a difference.” Alison Quin, rector of the Sweeneys’ congregation at Christ the King Episcopal Church in Stone Ridge, called them “connectors” and “the kind of people who help the ties that bind stay bound,” recounting how the couple would personally check in on people who hadn’t shown up at church lately to make sure that they were okay.
“I have incredible admiration for women who are successful in business,” said Tim Sweeney when he took his turn at the podium. He described the work of WSW over the years as a model of sustainability, and Laurel Sweeney concurred, saying, “Women from all over the world come to Rosendale to do their art.” “It’s easy to say yes and to give,” said Tim. “We’re proud to call ourselves stewards.”
Before introducing Jay and Joyce Werbalowsky from JMW Auction Gallery to conduct a live auction of several high-ticket items, including vacation rentals in Vermont, Mexico and Tuscany, Andersen announced the official kickoff of WSW’s $1.5 million capital campaign to complete the reconstruction project. “Women’s Studio Workshop is poised to make the biggest advance in its history,” he said. “The expansion essentially doubles the size of what this organization is able to offer.”
Part of the new space will be named the Barbara Leoff Burge and Kenneth Burge Library, Archive and Study Center and will house a permanent collection of artists’ books produced at WSW, Andersen said. Pledges toward the construction of the new library were among the auction items on offer as the capital campaign got underway to wrap up the evening’s festivities.