Back from the brink of having to give up its longtime home at 68 Mountain Rest Road in New Paltz, the Unison Arts & Learning Center is in a period of flux, with a fresh, committed Board of Directors and a new executive director, Heather Ohlson, who just this week went from a part-time employee to full-time. Talks are on for the not-for-profit that runs the operation to acquire the site for posterity. Day campers from the Wayfinder Experience — an important income stream in years past — will be back this August, thanks to the simple expedient of trucking in bottled water and a porta-potty until a new water purification system can be installed. All systems seem to be go.
So the mood was upbeat at the opening reception last Sunday for Unison’s 17th annual Sculpture Exhibition. “I think this sculpture garden looks a lot more interesting this year,” Gardiner-based artist and frequent Unison volunteer Annie O’Neill enthused on a tour of the outdoor exhibit. She estimated that about 65 percent of the pieces on view outdoors were new, while other, existing artworks were expanded or simply changed their aspect as a result of time and weathering. “Some people completely refurbished or switched pieces,” she said.
One of the brand-new sculptures is O’Neill’s own Osprey, a magnificent painted steel raptor poised in midair above a pond in quest of a fish. Volunteers had cleared away the pond’s “brambly covering,” she said, and Steve Spencer had invested considerable time and effort in constructing a canopy of tree limbs, resembling a giant spoked wagon wheel, from which her sculpture could be hung.
Along with fellow artist Kaete Brittin Shaw, O’Neill curated the indoor portion of the sculpture show, which will be up through August 9. The outdoor portion can be visited year-round from dawn to dusk, until it comes time to rotate out some of the works in another year.
Both parts of the exhibit showcase works of surprising diversity, especially in terms of materials. There are plenty of works in the familiar stone, cement, steel and wood, but also interesting applications of fabric, plastic, paper and a whole lot of ceramics, which look to be the up-and-coming material even for outdoor sculpture. Assemblages of found and repurposed materials abound. There’s even an eerie, evocative surround-sound sculpture by Kazuo Kawasumi, Mirage IV, that sounds like a mixture of dripping water and bouncing ping-pong balls.
Subject matter and tone of the works vary widely, from determinedly cool abstractions to humorous humanoid figures to kid-friendly kinetic sculptures. Around every bend in the trail one encounters something poignant, whimsical, unsettling. A great deal of the outdoor work has a site-specific feel, like Susan Togut’s Circle of Trees, in Time, which could easily be a bower for faeries when no humans are about. Even if you’ve been here a number of times before, it’s worth rediscovery.
Also taking the walkabout on Sunday, while other visitors snacked on a tasty spread of hors d’oeuvres provided by Gomen Kudasai and wine from Wine World Wide, was one of the new board members, Gardinerite Mark Rausher. “People don’t realize what would’ve been lost” if Unison had pulled up roots from its Mountain Rest Road home, he said, but he also expressed hope that the organization would seek ways to make it easier for young people to revitalize its greying core audience demographics. “I wish there were more student involvement. We need to be inclusive… People who come here [to attend SUNY New Paltz] are often arts-related. We should be a resource for them.”
In that respect, Rausher thought that Unison’s location on the outskirts of town has worked against diversification. “A lot of students don’t have transportation. It would be nice if we had some kind of shuttle,” or could persuade UCAT to provide bus service, he said.
A steady ramping up of programming since the beginning of the year, both in terms of workshops and concerts, seems to signal a new commitment to reach out to new audiences while remaining the educational community hub that Unison has long prided itself on providing. Volunteers are still needed, and of course donors and sponsors. Come on out and see the delightful array of sculptures; but also think about lending a hand however you can. For more information, call (845) 255-1559 or visit https://unisonarts.org.