As a part of Red Hook Community Art Network (RHCAN)’s Sculpture Expo 2015, local history buff Larry Thetford and metal sculptor Conrad Levenson will be at the Elmendorph Inn in Red Hook on Thursday, July 30, to talk about ice harvesting on the Hudson River and at other bodies of water in New York. “Intersection of Art and History: Ice Harvesting in the Hudson Valley” will explore the brief period of time when the cutting of chunk ice for the preservation of foodstuffs flourished in the region, only to be cut short with the invention of electricity and refrigeration around 1910.
Thetford, who lives in Upper Red Hook, says that harvesting ice was once a big local industry, one that employed farmers, bricklayers and other laborers whose regular employment was restricted to good weather. His extensive research into the economic impact that ice harvesting had on the area indicates there were literally thousands of workers up and down the Valley, and at least 75 icehouses along the Hudson River. “The industry thrived for 60 or 70 years,” he says. “Ice was abundant, free and nature-made. It was magical. But when it stopped abruptly after 1910, there was a ripple effect on the economy; the loss of jobs for icecutters affected everyone. The people who worked where ice was stored, the drivers of horse-drawn wagons, the toolmakers and suppliers – everyone.”
Instrumental in managing the history gallery at the Elmendorph, Thetford has responsibility for exhibiting artifacts, photographs and other materials. To augment this RHCAN event, the exhibit includes antique tools, such as plows, pulls/pikes, axes, pry bars and a model of the process of cutting ice on the river – known as the icefield – and moving it through an open channel by pulling horses, to where it was cut and stored in the icehouse. He has also invited Germantown resident Jim Haroldson, who at 90 years old is thought to be the last living person to have worked in an icehouse on the Hudson River.
The art of harvesting ice is one thing; taking the rusted tools of the industry and turning them into art is the domain of one-time architect Conrad Levenson. He uses found scrap materials to build sculptures. “The first piece I found at a barn sale. I wasn’t looking for ice saws – but they’re not like any other kind of saw. They’re long and heavy with an offset handle, very dramatic-looking. You think about these things and their potential – not just their shape but that they’re flexible, dynamic, they move in the breeze. I wanted to capture that energy.”
For more than a decade he has created outdoor pieces and series of sculptures that experiment with form and movement. One, titled Commotion, is four equally spaced vertical blades with steel spheres on the top of each one, “so when the wind blows they bang into each other and make this music. I’m not done yet. I’m testing the limits of extracting this embedded energy of old objects relegated to the junkheap. I salvage a lot of abandoned stuff. You study it and tease out its story – I’m like a storyteller, giving the material new form and meaning. My sculptures force people to think of the past.”
Sculpture Expo is a public art exhibition of large-scale outdoor sculpture, a community arts project that includes tours, talks, workshops and related events over a period of six months. Levenson, who has been creating art for more than 40 years and is exhibiting eight of his own works, has been involved with the event since its inception three years ago. He says that the number of artists and works being shown has more than doubled since the beginning, expanding the opportunity for artists to get public recognition in a very community-based way.
This year 18 pieces are being shown in and around Red Hook, covering approximately a half-mile radius from the center of the village. Exhibition brochures and maps are available to guide pedestrians along the sculpture route. All events are open to the general public at no charge. “Intersection of Art and History: Ice Harvesting in the Hudson Valley” is sponsored by the Red Hook Public Library.
“Intersection of Art & History: Ice Harvesting in the Hudson Valley,” Thursday, July 30, 6 p.m., free, Elmendorph Inn, 7562 North Broadway, Red Hook; (845) 758-3241, (845) 758-1920, https://redhooklibrary.org/calendar/?mc_id=338.