Ron Naar had vowed to make his living as an artist and he did, carving a life in the theater out of Manhattan’s hard, unforgiving stone. It was the ’70s and anything seemed possible. The brash young man from Detroit made a living in advertising by day, but spent his nights writing and producing and directing plays; dozens of plays, mostly comedies and satires, mostly written by him.
By the end of that decade, Naar decided to bring down the curtain on his theatrical career. But he didn’t say goodbye to his hardscrabble days as an artist. Instead, he “retired” from the commercial / corporate world to devote himself to what he called “the totally free, creative environment of ‘pure art.’”
His paintings sold at prestigious galleries. His work reflected the cold, harsh world he’d become all-too-familiar with while living in the city.
Then he met Gerri Ryan, who was working in the garment industry. It was 1984 or so when they became a couple and began sharing each other’s lives. Ryan owned a home in Saugerties that she visited on weekends.
“And Ron would commute between the city and Saugerties,” she recalled.
By the end of the decade, Naar quit commuting and made Saugerties his home, joining legions of refugee artists, the sung and the unsung, who have left a legacy of the works they created in the mid-Hudson region.
Naar became one of the sung ones, an artist whose works reflected his political concerns in an antic, though provocative way.
Like any artist, Ryan said, Naar wondered if his works would survive him, and if so, what would they be. In 1999, two years before he died of a heart arrhythmia at age 59, Naar became convinced one unusual commissioned work — a public mural — would be his legacy.
This wasn’t a piece that any of the galleries that carried his work ever presented. He painted it on the exterior wall of The Smokehouse of the Catskills, a specialty butcher shop on Rt. 212. Its title reflected the antic nature of the kitschy-looking images he painted: “Pig-Rapture.”
“One of his concerns, as he was painting the mural, was that it would fade away… and I guess his own reputation and status would disappear along with it. It’s been 15 years since he is gone and yes, the mural has been disappearing.”
Which is why Ryan commissioned Kelli Bickman, another Saugerties artist, to restore Naar’s playful image of grinning, happy pigs on their way to hog heaven. She said the financial support and credit belongs to the Smokehouse, Mike and Heidi Ferraro of the Smokehouse.
Anyone who knew Naar might be surprised at his belief that “Pig-Rapture” would be the work by which future generations remembered him. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have plenty of other works that were better known. Nor was his impact on the community easy to forget.
Naar was a key figure in one of Saugerties’s biggest environmental battles: the grassroots effort to keep the Winston Farm from becoming a garbage dump. It was he who arranged for nearly 100 artists to gather at the property and capture, each in his or her own way, the natural beauty that was under assault. And, when the battle was over and the dump had been dumped, wasn’t it Naar, spurred by those paintings, who opened the Buttonhole Gallery, whose first show benefitted the Winston Farm Alliance?
As for the flying pigs, anyone who knew his work knew Naar’s favorite totemic animal was not a pig but a rabbit. A bunny, to be exact.
Bunnies were to Naar’s work as melting timepieces were to Salvador Dali’s. They evoked happy childhood memories Naar spent at a Michigan vacation lake called “Bunny Run.” He used his bunnies as symbols of innocence threatened, never more successfully nor outrageously than in his antic take on Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The painting, which shared the same name, showed a herd of 13 bunnies gathered around a single carrot, in the familiar poses of dismay and confusion captured so indelibly by Leonardo.
People still associate Naar with that painting, especially since his show at Kingston’s Donskoj Gallery in 1991 caused a stir among the religiously inclined.
But “Pig-Rapture” is hardly as notorious as “The Last Supper.” So why would he expect it to become his legacy work?
Turns out, Naar had as strong an interest in porkers as he did in bunnies, though he didn’t live long enough to express it.
“He had started writing a series of tongue-in-cheek short stories called ‘Pigasus,’” Ryan said last week. “These stories related to his love for food, his obsessions with it even as a child… He even gave the Smokehouse owners a sketch of a suited Pigasus Pig holding a glass of wine.”
If “The Last Supper” was his best-known work, it was also rarely seen. His flying pigs could be seen by anyone driving down Rt. 212. In that sense, they belonged to everyone.
Ryan’s decision to restore the painting is far easier to understand and requires little explanation. It’s a story as old as the hills, a song that’s been sung in a million ways, none more simply or directly sung than by Buddy Holly:
I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be
You’re gonna give your love to me
A love to last more than one day
A love that’s love and not fade away
A love that’s love and not fade away