Making art in the Catskills

Brian Tolle showing Simona David his replicas of Miss Manhattan and Miss Brooklyn in his studio in Roxbury

“Creativity does not happen inside people’s heads, but in the interaction between a person’s thoughts and a sociocultural context.”–Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, quoted in How Art is Made in the Catskills

As Roxbury writer Simona David points out in the introduction to her new ebook How Art is Made in the Catskills, our region has nurtured creative people from Washington Irving to John Cage, from Thomas Cole to Bob Dylan. Since the advent of the Hudson River School painters and the founding of Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe Colony of the Arts, artists of all kinds have gathered upstate to create and collaborate.


David is a marketing consultant, president of Writers in the Mountains, and a dedicated booster of local artists and writers. She probed the creative process in a series of interviews with nine visual artists who have set up studios in the Catskills, as well as one author who writes about nature in these mountains. The interviewees described how they got started as artists, what they make, and how they work, often delivering delightful surprises.

Sculptor Brian Tolle incorporates history in the works of public art he creates, such as the Irish Hunger Memorial at Battery Park in lower Manhattan. The half-acre memorial represents a rural Irish landscape with an abandoned stone cottage, stone walls, plants, and fallow potato fields. It contains stones from each of Ireland’s 32 counties and incorporates texts combining the history of the Great Famine with contemporary reports on world hunger, cast as shadow onto illuminated frosted glass panels. Viewers might read a Quaker soup recipe that was used to help starving people in Ireland in 1847, or statistics about the amount of dog food consumed in the United States, shaping the experience of wandering around the memorial.

Tolle remarked, “I grew up in a place called Glen Cove in Long Island, a town established in 1668. So there were a lot of historic buildings in that town; I was the youngest member of the local Historical Society. I’ve always been interested in how history is represented, how it’s repositioned…How do we see things at different times? How do our opinions change over time?

His project for the Whitney Biennial was installed in Central Park, where Tolle was loath to violate the principles of the park’s designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who saw the park as an artwork and didn’t want art occupying the space of the park. Tolle created a reasonably subtle disruption by installing 75 pumps below the surface of the great lake near the Boathouse. A computer controlled the pumps, causing them to flash in different patterns, giving “the impression maybe of a fish jumping…or a stone skipping. And then occasionally they’d do something maybe less benign — all of the fountains would go out simultaneously — in a kind of explosion of water. It was like testing the expression of water.”

Painter Lisbeth Firmin started drawing at the age of three: “I could draw since I could remember. I could always draw something that looked like something…So I kept doing it.” Because her father refused to send her to art school, she is largely self-taught.

Explaining the effect of her hyperrealist work, Firmin commented, “I know that I’m emotionally repressed, but I think it comes out through my paintings. People tell me that they get an emotional reaction to my paintings.”

Abstract artist Adam Cohen, discussing the sources of his creative ideas, commented, “I spend a lot of time on Instagram these days. For instance, this painting was inspired by a photo I saw on Instagram with shimmering flowing water. I wasn’t trying to copy, but rather use these reds in a way that inspired me.”

Peter Yamaoka and Gerda Van Leeuwen are a married couple, both printmakers turned ceramicists. Van Leeuwen makes small sculptures, often involving animals or creatures that are part human, part animal, echoing a Victorian fashion. Yamaoka, in contrast, works on a pottery wheel. He explained, “I make two different kinds of vases: some are inspired by the Catskills landscape, and others by ancient mythology. I make a lot of vases that have buildings on top; they are inspired by the Tang dynasty funeral ornaments. I know funerals sound morbid, but these vases were meant to entertain people in the afterlife, so they’re very whimsical.”

Didier Crémieux discussed how the art of illustration is always a collaboration with the writer. He is especially interested in the interaction of music and art, having designed album covers and concert posters. He started designing posters at the age of 14, growing up in a village in southern France: “I started a print studio with friends. We really had to come up with something to entertain ourselves.”

Molly Rausch’s specialty is postage stamp paintings, in which she glues a stamp down and extends the subject into the 3” x 3” area around it. People often take quite a while to discover the stamp in the middle. She also paints larger works, but she likes the intimacy of the stamp paintings: “I like having something small that’s going to make someone walk up to the wall and get very close to see what’s going on. It changes the way one relates to the artwork….You’re going to relate in a completely different way to a large oil painting. You step further away.”

Author Leslie T. Sharpe has a book coming out from Overlook Press in spring 2017, entitled The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills, a series of Burroughs-esque essays on her experiences of nature. Since holding the office of president of Junior Audubon when she was in the second grade, Sharpe has considered herself a naturalist, which isn’t necessarily a scientist, although she incorporates scientific findings in her essays. She defines a naturalist as someone who “has a very personal and deeply felt connection to the natural world. To be a naturalist, in essence all you need is a pen and a notebook.”

To purchase a copy of How Art is Made in the Catskills, see