We often hear there are not enough jobs in the Catskills for our young people, who tend to leave and not return. But there are some who do return, who go off to college and other explorations, then find creative ways to make their lives work in the community where they grew up, embracing their parents’ values and seeking the comfort of long-familiar haunts.
It hasn’t been an easy path for mask-maker, costume designer, and performance artist Anna Hafner, but she came back to the area in 2013 and has found a supportive network among the creative kids she knew in high school, the oddballs who are now carving out niches for themselves. She’s living at The Pines — formerly Tiso’s Restaurant — in Mount Tremper, where she will soon become the innkeeper when new owner Jeremy Bernstein has completed the renovation of the building’s lodging section.
We sit in the empty bar of The Pines on a Monday afternoon, the almost-30-year-old Hafner wearing sparkly gold shoes and a slinky velvet hooded dress she made herself. “This area has birthed a second wave of counterculture,” she declares. “We’re aware of other ways of being than this capitalist madness. I barely ever sell my art because it makes me crazy. Art should be for everyone, not only a pasttime of the wealthy.”
Hafner’s grandfather, Robert Angeloch, co-founded the Woodstock School of Art in 1968. Her grandmother, Nancy Summers, an artist and printmaker, taught at the school, and her uncle Eric Angeloch still teaches there. “My grandmother is responsible for how I wear clothes and carry myself,” says Hafner. “She had amazing kimonos and embroidered vests from the Maverick crafts era. She was a strong, creative female artist — my inspiration.”
It was a natural progression from dress-up to studying fashion design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but she soon rejected the industry’s ethics and took time off from school to rethink her path. During this time, she gravitated toward the New York City club scene, adopting a persona she called Anna Rexia, inspired by drag and punk pseudonyms. “I was dealing with my own body dysmorphia and eating issues,” she says. “My friends and I were not comfortable in our bodies. Self love was not taught to female-bodied people. I took this deeply uncomfortable name and went out with intense make-up and outrageous outfits. I created an alter ego. It frees you from the mask your upbringing has put on you.”
She was introduced to the club scene by Woodstockers a decade older than herself — her sister Rebecca, a nurse and talented dancer, and Heidi Sjursen, her sister’s best friend and filmmaker at I Do Movies. “Heidi is a contemporary Renaissance woman, a blonde amazon who fearlessly dressed however she wanted. She showed me an example of what it means to be living as a free, creative individual,” recalls Hafner. “They took me out to clubs, and I got a taste of old New York as it was dying, before it became a playground for the rich.” New York was where she met her best friend and creative confidante, Brad Walsh, who encouraged her make-up and costumery. He began photographing Hafner in 2006 and the two still work together, continuing to document Hafner’s art and their “strange, lucky lives.” They currently have a book in the making.
Over the next few years, she studied sculpture and performance art at SUNY-Purchase, lived in an off-grid cabin in Mount Tremper, and spent some time in Asheville, North Carolina with her Woodstock friends Molly Riddle and Trevor Grassi. Riddle was busking in gold paint and a gold costume, a living statue who would sing when someone tipped her. Her example prompted Hafner to return to New York and go out on the street in her own costume, a horned moon goddess, the “High Priestess of the Moon,” with Kabuki-inspired makeup. Soon she was deep into making costumes. She had found her medium.
All sorts of opportunities have opened up since her return to the Hudson Valley. Her projects for the O+ Festival in Kingston included performing on the street with a troupe of ten friends dressed as Catskill forest spirits. She also choreographed a performance of women as rainbow-clothed mountains, with herself as the moon. At the Green Palate Community Center, also in Kingston, she leads mask-making workshops, organizes clothing and costume upcycling events, and hosts monthly clothing swaps. Since 2015, Hafner has been a company member of Arm-of-the-Sea Theater, touring in all of their shows. Arm-of-the-Sea presents mask and puppet theater with a environmental message. Hafner has also brought her signature troupe of costumed creatures to Mountain Jam for the last two years.
While the art gigs aren’t especially lucrative, she has had day jobs at Joshua’s, the Woodstock Inn, and the Graham & Co. in Phoenicia. And she is embedded in a community of friends and fellow artists she has known since adolescence. Musician Trevor Grassi now has a printing company, where he prints posters and T-shirts. His best customer is Thorneater Comics, a.k.a. Will Lytle, whom Hafner calls “an integral part of my life, creatively and personally.” Trevor’s brother Garrett is involved in Kingston’s underground club scene and turned his apartment into a wildly creative environment called Aether. Juda Leah, who has a couture atelier in Hudson and is head costume designer of Castaway Players, has pulled Hafner into numerous costuming projects. Most recently, she did make-up and costumes with Juda and Paloma Mele for Ziggy Stardust, a tribute to David Bowie, by the Castaway Players at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck.
Other creative friends include Anastacia Bolina, Bernstein’s partner, who makes masks, costumes and sculptures, contributing to the shadow puppet theatricals of Studio Reynard. Molly Riddle performed with Bolina and Hafner in February at 11 Jane, a new gallery and art space in Saugerties founded by performance artist Jen Hix. “All of these people inspire me,” enthused Hafner. “They are my family.”
When our conversation winds down, Hafner brings out a sampling of her creations: highly decorated animal masks — a warthog, a bull, an owl; layered, fanciful dresses; boas made of tulle, net, and ribbon; a brightly painted backdrop of leaves, stars, and a moon with a big eyeball. I ask what her performances are like, and she says they’re hard to describe. “They’re ethereal, ephemeral moments. I break down social constructs through simple movement and elaborate costume. It’s a little bit of clowning, a little bit of butoh, mostly improvisation. Some performances are uncomfortable but they also transport you to an alternate reality. But also, I just like to fuck with people and normal life.”
She has no idea yet what she’s going to do for her next show, scheduled for April 8 at 8 p.m. at the Green Kill Gallery in Kingston, but she explains, “I treat performance as ritual. You have to put your intention into what you’re doing when you perform. Your intentions will then manifest in reality. There’s magic to ritual.”++
Follow Anna on Instagram @annahafner and visit www.annalaurahafner.com.