Pia Öste-Alexander, artist, activist, matriarch, and proud Woodstocker, died in her Wittenberg home after a brief illness on New Year’s Day at the age of 86.
Born on June 28, 1931 in a small town near Stockholm, Sweden, Pia was raised to believe that liberalism and community service were not choices but duties. Her father, Alfred Öste, was a journalist and author (whose books included a bio of FDR), both her brothers became journalists — one serving long in Washington, DC. Pia’s mother, Giggi, devoted much of her life to volunteerism; Pia even had a sheep farmer for a nephew who employed recovering addicts until the Chernobyl disaster shut him down.
Placed on skis by her father at age four, Pia appeared at school each morning, came home for lunch, reappeared for afternoon class, and completed the trip home at day’s end — all on skis — a lifelong love. A tapestry woven at 19 attests to Pia’s early ability to push tradition towards a potent, personal narrative. That narrative found her studying textiles, painting, and printmaking in Vienna and Florence into the late 40’s. While attending Venice’s first Biennale in 1950 she fell, first, into conversation and then in love — with Frank Alexander, a young American studying art on the GI bill. Two years later their trusty motor scooter transported the couple to Sweden where, with the approval of Pia’s parents, Frank and Pia married and moved to New York City.
After two years in a cold-water, walk up on the lower East side, Woodstock beckoned. They first saw their solid, well-lit, and spacious house atop its Wittenberg hill in May of ’55. Pia never forgot the lilacs in bloom surrounding the charmer; this would be her home for life.
As was the norm, Pia’s art had gone into hiatus while her husband’s stood front and center. When Paul — the first of the couple’s two sons — was born in ’58, Frank found night work at Rotron (the since-departed local manufactory), and painted days. However, soon after John’s birth in ’62, Pia slowly made her way back to hand-crafted fabrics — starting at the roots.
She procured raw wool from Reynolds’ Farm, then washed, dyed, and spun it by hand. A loom appeared in the corner — rugs and wall-hangings the result. In the later sixties Pia began assembling collages in homage to Braque. (An early work finds the syllables “Kub” and “ism” juxtaposed either side of the clearly pre-established style.) But while Braque and Picasso fomented revolution, Pia folded their one-time radicalism back into tradition. Soon Matisse and masters of Japanese print-making were invited into her studio. Her influences obvious, Pia’s collages resembled piano works transposed for guitar. Nothing was changed until — from the opening note — everything was.
Taste is a dirty word in art. It sounds both tame and provincial while implying an almost genetic predisposition towards realizing an indefinably-apt composition. Yet to assign a tiny immortality to this modest artist, instead of merely agreeing that “Pia Öste-Alexander had taste” — take the jump and grant that “Pia has taste” and always will. Her work is important for the fact it doesn’t try to be.
Woodstock’s prestigious Elena Zang Gallery has represented Pia’s work since opening in 1992. Here expositions of Östes have resulted in ever-mounting sales represented in numerous collections, including one in Manhattan consisting of no less than eleven pieces.
The festival that didn’t happen here in August of ’69 created an influx of troubled young men and women who did and wouldn’t leave. Woodstock met the crisis by transforming “People’s Place” into “Family,” which instituted the first round-the-clock emergency hotline of its kind. After working for twelve years as a lab technician at Northern Dutchess Hospital, Pia signed on at Family as a volunteer, a duty she’d serve for 25 years. Pia even received a tiny salary for the Sunday nights she’d nap on the couch between taking desperate calls from as far away as Queens. By then Pia had somehow gotten herself to Selma in 1965, to join that brave group of black and white Americans marching behind Dr. Martin Luther King.
In 1968 Frank Alexander [1925-07] co-founded The Woodstock School of Art. Frank’s attentions were increasingly distracted, the marriage suffered, and by ’72 it ended with mutual regret in divorce. Pia’s response was to join the Woodstock Library staff, her evermore radical politics — local, global, and increasingly feminist in nature — soon shook things up considerably. She worked at the Library for 30 years.
Then as now, many utilizing the services of Family also sought the well-heated sanctuary of the Library. Pia soon found herself cooking for several of town’s more colorful characters, including a daily lunch for “Silent Mark.” (Elsewhere her ginger-glazed carrots “disappeared in minutes” at Woodstock’s communal Thanksgiving dinner.)
Paul and John Alexander have long marveled at their mother’s political fearlessness. Both accompanied her to Washington in ’68 in protest of the Viet Nam war, where Paul recalls being tear-gassed and witnessing a police car explode before his ten year old eyes. But in fact all oppression enraged Pia, including the oppression of circus animals, slaughtered horses, and trapped wolves. Yet the radicalism Pia is best remembered (and among some reviled) for involved her outspoken opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and the associated blockade of Gaza.
In January of 2011 Pia and eleven other Woodstockers attempted to protest that blockade on site. Then, only days before their arrival, Egypt closed its point of entry to Gaza. Frustrated but undeterred the Woodstockers joined an estimated one thousand protesters from around the world who took to the streets of Cairo, though public demonstrations were banned by law. Wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with “We Will Not Be Silent” in English and the same writ below in Arabic and Hebrew, the group was harassed by the very police who, within a year, would face the short-lived fury of “The Arab Spring.”
Cheyrl Qamar, Pia’s room-mate, recalls pedestrian’s hasty whispers of thanks and encouragement. A hunger strike was called and the oldest member of the movement — Pia at 80 — fervently abstained from nourishment for the remainder of her week in Cairo.
The contradiction of Pia’s outrageous politics placed against the subtlety of her art barely approximates the complexity of this all-Woodstock-woman, whose robust health slowly declined in recent years — a decline Pia accepted not one bit.
But as this past December slipped away so did Pia’s strength. She chose to remain in her gorgeous home where the ever-more precious work of her late-blooming career illuminated every wall. Pia was buoyed by the kindness and care of her daughter-in-law Sharyn Alexander, and the love and obvious artistic gift of her grandchild Ana. The devoted presence of both her sons, visits from dozens of friends (among Pia’s wildly varying “circles”), and the ever-dependable ministrations of local Hospice, resulted in a relatively painless and quietly triumphant end.
A few years ago, having found she was unable to right herself on skis after a fall, Pia said, “I think I’m done.” For 24 hours she was inconsolable. Then something shifted and she announced. “I’ve skied for 75 years — I think that’s a really good run!”
Concerning a life consisting of 86 extraordinary years we agree with your earlier estimation, Pia. Once and for all — yours was truly “a really good run!”
Pia is survived by her sons John and Paul Alexander, daughter-in-law Sharyn Alexander, grandchild Ana Alexander and numerous nieces and nephews in Sweden. A memorial retrospective of Pia’s work will be held at the Woodstock School of Art in the Spring.