A Woodstock parking lot becomes an art installation

(Photo by Michael Lavin)

Having done some ad hoc public art projects in Woodstock herself, artist Gay Leonhardt thought it would be cool to curate town projects that “are ephemeral, nonpolitical and lots of fun – works that in an interesting way change our view of public space.” So, after getting permission from the Woodstock Town Board last February, she launched the Woodstock Public Art Project: Park the Art, which uses the gravel town parking lot off Rock City Road as its canvas and nontoxic chalk, applied with a little wheeled field marker borrowed from the head of the local Little League, as the medium. Working with curator/juror Sara Lynn Henry, she posted a call to artists on various arts-related websites and got a knockout proposal from Manhattan-based artist Jesse Lee Wilson, who has a background primarily in sculptural installations.

Wilson and two assistants installed the first of four planned artworks on the site last week. Titled The River, the piece consists of a series of thick white wavering lines, akin to the rivulets in a stream or the lines on a topographical map, covering nearly an acre of parking lot. The actual lot is an acre-and-a-half, but unbeknownst to the planners, the New York State Department of Transportation got permission from the town to use the lot as a staging area for roadwork on Mill Hill Road and moved a bunch of heavy equipment and piles of gravel onto a portion of it just before Wilson installed the piece. Such are the vagaries of public art projects on parking lots.

Wilson structurally based the piece on a single line copied from a topographical map of Kaaterskill Falls, a site that inspired the Hudson River School of landscape painters before him. He recreated that line (“a form that particularly hugged where the water carved the most distinct features through the falls,” as he described it) on the crushed stone of the parking lot, and then – assisted by two recent graduates of the Bernard & Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, part of the City College of New York – drew parallel lines that repeated the pattern of the topo line, creating a kind of giant-scaled map, using 1,200 pounds of chalk. “We’d take turns rolling the cart that left the chalk line, each one of us doing it in a slightly different way,” he said.


It took five hours on a hot, steamy day to complete the piece. Despite the fact that a parking lot is the last place you want to be when the heat index is 102, Wilson said that his helpers had fun: “As architects, they think about things in a determined way, so they enjoyed this more flowing, organic process, which is more like poetry and a dance.”

Freshly drawn – or rather wheeled – the bright white lines were in stark contrast to the dark-gray stone, a graphic effect that fulfilled Wilson’s aim of “activating an underutilized space.” “It was a stunner,” said curator Sara Lynn Henry. Leonhardt recruited her neighbor and friend Michael Lavin to take photographs with his drone of the piece as it was being made and right after. Almost immediately, one section began to blur, as heavy trucks drove in and out. Five days later, however, the wavy lines were still every much in evidence, even as the parking lot was full of cars due to a sold-out concert across the street at Colony.

Leonhardt admired the way the squiggly lines, running in a diagonal across the lot, defied the grid of parked cars, dissolving the rough gravel surface, as if the cars were instead floating on water. Later that night, when the cars were leaving, the sweep of headlights further dematerialized the gravel, which took on the transparency of the brown river. Off to one side loomed the heavy equipment, whose brute bulk provided an absurdist contrast to the lyrical earth drawing of fading chalk lines, noted Wilson.

Though some sections of the lines were smudged, their movement was still insistent, suggesting natural forces. Indeed, Wilson said that he hoped the effect would be “like a drawing of topographical lines in India ink that had spilled water on it, which washed across the lines. I’m interested in memory traces and marks left by geological and meteorological forces. Those forces act at such a slow rate of time…[the activity of] driving, walking and the impact of the excavation equipment mimic those forces in a faster way.”

Leonhardt and Henry initially considered erecting a banner or sandwich board to direct people’s attention to the site, but settled on a discreet plaque – it’s located to the left of the entrance . “Rather than announcing ‘This is art,’ we’d rather people go into the lot and discover it,” Henry said.

“I love the surprise of it,” commented Wilson, adding that the piece stands out when viewed from the sky. A couple of years ago, he installed a large inflatable sculpture on a farm in his home state of Wisconsin, which can be viewed on Google Earth.

The feedback has been good, and has come from unexpected quarters, including the Highway Department staff, whose superintendent “came by twice,” said Leonhardt. “People do notice it, and they think it’s cool. Part of the pleasure of working on the project is it’s pure fun. People enjoy it without taking on a heavy load.”

Wilson’s piece is the first of four that are planned for the site. Initially, Leonhardt and Henry intended each installation to last a month; but come July 18, they’re not sure, should Wilson’s piece still be decipherable, if they will commission another piece in conjunction with what’s left of his or have him erase it. “The timing is a little loose,” said Leonhardt. “A lot of the current work is still on the ground, so we might add more time or ask the next artist to do a smaller piece.” She noted that there aren’t any dollars connected with the project (except for the $5.50 cost of each bag of chalk, which she and Henry covered).

Unexpectedly, the site, despite being a parking lot, has turned out to be spectacular, said Henry. “It’s not an urban or town site, but a nature site,” she said. “It’s fully surrounded by trees and foliage and you have a view of the mountains in one direction.” Plus, “the slight hillock when one drives in” puts the whole parking lot in one’s vision. “Anyone who hikes in the Catskill Mountains Preserve will see the nature of that place in this piece. It gives a sense of the land and its connections to humans as a living structure. I’ve realized, ‘Wow, this is really an effective spot to do something for the public.’”