Cliff-top creatives & the artist colony of Cragsmoor

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The history of the Hudson River School of painters is a familiar one. So is that of the Byrdcliffe art colony that took root in Woodstock. But in between the Hudson River School painters and the emergence of Byrdcliffe in 1902, there was another enclave of artists who settled in the region seeking artistic communion with nature and refuge from industrialized city life.

The first artists who came to live and work in remote Cragsmoor arrived in the 1870s, drawn to its rural landscape of valleys and mountains and its ever-changing light and weather. Cragsmoor is located atop the Shawangunk Ridge, in the southern part of the Town of Wawarsing near Sam’s Point Preserve, prized for its rugged beauty and outstanding views of the surrounding region. The hamlet was originally called Evansville, but when its residents petitioned for a post office in 1893, one of the colony’s early artists, Frederick Samuel Dellenbaugh, persuaded the other inhabitants to change the name to Cragsmoor.

Its four square miles of winding roads are populated by fewer than 500 people today, with a disproportionate number of those being practicing artists. A diverse sampling of work by this second wave of Cragsmoor artists can be seen currently in a group show at Wired Gallery in High Falls. “Cragsmoor Artists Today” will remain on view weekends through Sunday, May 24.

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Participating artists are Richard Arnold, Roger Baker, Tom Bolger, Charles Broderson, Ann Butter, Kuhn Caldwell, Chuck Davidson, Fritz Drury, Irene Dunn, Morgan Dunn, Joan Goldberg, Lori Grinker, Hattie Grifo, John Hart, Ellie Hollinshead, Beat Keerl, Jeff Kraft, Joan Lesikin, Pat Peters, Bernhard Roze, Phil Sigunick, Judy Sigunick, Howard Smith, Natalie Stopka and Clover Vail.

The Wired Gallery’s Sevan Melikyan first encountered Cragsmoor several years ago when he went there to visit the studio of Judy Sigunick, whose work he was considering for an exhibit at his then-new gallery. “I got totally lost on the way, but saw that there was this community perched on top of the Shawangunk Mountains,” he says.

Melikyan set out to find out about other artists in the hamlet. But Cragsmoor is a difficult place to visit, he found. “There’s no road going through it; nobody just passes through Cragsmoor,” Melikyan says. “You need to get off the main road, which is already climbing the mountain, and find your way into the hamlet. The residential community is built around the library, which seems to be the heartbeat of this community.”

In deciding to put together a show of work by contemporary Cragsmoor artists, Melikyan found some of them through recommendations. Others he discovered through incidents of pure serendipity, such as when he was searching for one artist and ended up asking for directions at the home of another, who showed him work that was so good, he says, he couldn’t believe he’d just stumbled upon them.

Cragsmoor isn’t an easy place to live. Between the isolation, the harsh winters and the lack of basic amenities like a grocery store or restaurants – there’s not much there beyond the library and the post office – it takes a hardy soul, and a motivated one, to live and work in Cragsmoor. But the shared difficulties and the isolation have made for a tightly knit community, and the artists who have settled there have stayed for much the same reasons as the original Cragsmoor artists: the camaraderie of fellow artists and the beauty of the land. “The majestic views provide them an endless source of inspiration,” says Melikyan, “and that hasn’t changed much over the centuries.” And the remoteness of the location is actually part of its appeal for some of the artists, he says.

Fascinated by the community that he found in Cragsmoor, as he put together the exhibit at Wired Gallery, Melikyan asked each of the artists in the group show the question, “Why Cragsmoor?”

Painter Joan Lesikin found the area through a friend who knew of the region’s artistic heritage and thought it “just on the edge of a reasonable travel distance” into the City. She says she “really had no idea what I was getting into: the isolation, the long cold winters. But I was swayed to buy the house because of the two-car garage that had already been converted and would make a studio with a few more improvements. The breezeway between the house and the studio would make a handy gallery to display work; inadequate wall space being the bane of any artist’s house.” Lesikin is now in her 13th year of living in Cragsmoor.

Natalia Stopka works with hand-dyed fibers and papers. She finds Cragsmoor “my antidote to city life, the place where I can indulge in artistic processes that are not possible in New York City. Cragsmoor has become the place where I grow and forage natural plants and lichens and experiment with eco-printing techniques. Following the traditional cycle of harvest, I stock up on these materials throughout the summer so that I can draw from them in my studio all winter long.”

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