Frances Archipenko Gray, the elegant longtime Woodstocker who’ll be reading from and signing copies of her new memoir My Life With Alexander Archipenko at the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum at 3 p.m. Sunday, December 7, has written one of the more beautiful and effective books about life in this town, and life with, and as an artist, that’s been published for years.
And what a gem this handsome book is, published by the German publishers Hirmer. Richly illustrated, classically designed and crisply edited, it ends up mixing the best of memoir writing — with keen atmospheric detailing and emotionally resonant personal analysis — and an insider’s means of connecting readers to what could have been a lost body of modernist work.
Not, mind you, that Archipenko could ever be lost. Just never brought to life as in these pages.
What Gray does here that may be most miraculous is delve straight into the meat of what makes the narrative here so interesting. It’s like a fairy tale, this story of a Bennington art student in her early twenties, choosing between summer classes with the great abstract painter Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, or with this stocky, do-it-yourself Ukrainian-Greek immigrant in his hand-built home within a damp hillside quarry outside Bearsville. Yet it’s also a great experiential description of the many ways in which Woodstock, and its wider lifestyle inclusive of the City and Europe, can grow on one over time.
“The smell of mothballs when we arrived at Woodstock was reassuring. I can still feel the yellowed newspaper which we gathered off the mattresses, the dampness dispersing as the boards came off the windows and we opened the house to the summer sunshine. Alexander repaired water damage from the winter while I spent time and baking soda trying to sanitize the hopeless fridge,” she writes, catching what it feels like for anyone to return to a summer home. “Alexander always hated to see me cleaning or scrubbing. It didn’t fit with the pedestal he imagined me on. But I was determined.”
The student meets and grows fond of her 68-year old teacher’s deep experiential talents, his hard-won art. He finds in her fresh eyes…and a lover. There’s an invalid wife, much beloved. Great bursts of work and the frustrations of never having the money or fame to reflect one’s sense of self within. She battles with anxieties about the odd tilts and balances her life takes on. Has a breakdown. Gains her own artistic footing. Marries the man and then helps him through his final years.
By the end, her clear eyed vision of everything feels as well-earned as a heroine from the best of modern fiction.
“Eventually I gave birth to four children, each with a different father, but I never remarried. I believed it would be less complicated to raise my children as a single parent,” she admits in a final chapter entitled, “Fifty Years Later.” “The years I spent with Alexander so long ago have still not turned to ash…As I have matured, after briefly navigating my own career as a visual artist, the steady force and the anchor of my being has been my experience of Alexander.”
What great people get shaped herein. And what a strong world, and town, that held and nurtured them during such times of challenge, growth, great beauty, and deep love.
Frances Archipenko Gray talks, reads from her new book, and signs copies of My Life With Alexander Archipenko on Sunday, December 7 at 3 p.m. at the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum, 28 Tinker Street, across from the Village Green. The event is free. For more info call 679-2940 or visit ulsterpub.staging.wpengineart,org.