Art gallery owner and ceramicist Elena Zang dies at 74

Elena Zang

Woodstock and the upstate New York art community lost one of its brightest lights this summer with the passing of Elena Zang. Co-owner of the Elena Zang Gallery, she died at home from cancer on August 20. She was 74.

Zang was a driving force behind one of the most prominent contemporary fine art galleries in the region, representing some 20 artists of both international and regional renown in the gallery she founded in the early 1990s with her life and business partner, Alan Hoffman. Situated in a sprawling and idyllic streamside setting that displays outdoor sculpture, the gallery building features paintings, drawings, and prints as well as the functional ceramic artwork made by Zang and Hoffman.

Given her inimitable style, all lines seemed to blur between the business side of things and the close friendships that developed through the gallery. “We talked endlessly about gardening, plants, birds and food — always food,” recalls Mary Frank, the first artist Zang represented. “One of the essential parts of the gallery was that it overlooked her garden and people always walked away with food whether they bought art or not. She had such generosity.”

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Before Zang had even renovated the property’s former garage into the gallery, she visited Frank’s studio and persuaded the artist to give her two charcoal drawings to sell. “I was crazy about her,” says Frank. “She was a lively, fearless person and she created community in a way that was very special and natural.”

“When someone walked into the gallery, she always greeted them like an old friend,” says the artist Donald Elder. “She was a ball of energy and always did good things for others. She brought a lot of people together. If it weren’t for Elena, I wouldn’t have the friends I have here.”

The painter Joan Snyder, who met Zang in the early 1990s through Frank, also remembers the unique and gracious circle Zang created. “She represented me for a long time and was an amazing dealer,” says Snyder. “It wasn’t like she had gotten a degree in art. She was honest and kind of small-town in some ways. She loved what she did and would wine and dine her artists and collectors. I don’t think she ever signed an artist without serving them an amazing meal. People really trusted her.”

Zang was a frequent visitor to the artists’ studios, observing how they worked, gauging when they would have sufficient work for a show. She and Hoffman would deliver the art to the collectors themselves. “She did things in a personal way that other dealers don’t,” adds Snyder. “We were close friends, like family, but I think 200 other people in Woodstock would tell you the same thing.” Snyder has been grieving her friend by painting a four-and-a-half-by-six-foot painting in oil and acrylic currently titled Oh Elena, that she plans to show in a memorial exhibition by the gallery’s artists tentatively scheduled at the Elena Zang Gallery for next spring.

Kerrie Buitrago and Zang in a friend’s garden reveling in the fennel.

Elena never met a stranger

Elena Zang made friends the same way she sold art, gardened, took up piano in mid-life, did African dance, and organized two hugely successful Planned Parenthood benefits in Woodstock in recent years: with joy, curiosity, and ease. “Most people have one or two close friends,” says her sister, Beth-Ellen Zang. “Elena never met a stranger.”

The artist Judy Pfaff co-chaired the art department at Bard College in the early 1990s when Zang was taking an art history course there. Zang asked to visit Pfaff’s studio, and soon was taking Pfaff (who claims to be far less gregarious than Zang), to concerts from Levon Helm to chamber music. “She loved my dog and I loved her dog; she was a great cook. It was a much bigger relationship than art,” says Pfaff.

Pfaff is another who appreciated the gallery’s personal touch. “They would put a lot of the artists’ work in their own house so collectors could see what it looked like in a home,” she says. “They had people take the work and try it, and if they didn’t like it, they could bring it back. It was more than just business.”

Hoffman met Zang 27 years ago in the early 1990s at an erotic art show at the Wally Petrucci Gallery in Saugerties. “I was leaving and Elena was walking in,” Hoffman recalls. “I did a 180-degree turn and followed her.” A painter, art restorer, and ceramicist with the formal art background Zang lacked, Hoffman had a studio in Stone Ridge at the time. “I came to her house the Wednesday after the party. She came to my studio on Friday. And that was it.” Chided that he didn’t waste any time making his move, Hoffman responds, “I did. I wasted four days.”

The pair became a partnership in every sense. While they each continued to throw their own pots, Hoffman did all the glazing. Zang was the spunky and outgoing powerhouse, Hoffman the ground that made the gallery hum. “I think her naiveté [about art] was important because she did things other people might not have done,” he says, adding, “like going up to Judy Pfaff at Bard and asking to visit her studio.” Hoffman will continue operating the gallery on his own.

Zang and Hoffman at Art Basel Miami.

Kerrie Buitrago, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and her son Oscar Buitrago, director of business development for the global law firm White & Case, met Zang in 1995 when they leased The Forge, one of the cottages in Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe Art Colony. “We were going around to all things art and she was certainly the center,” recalls Kerrie. Soon Oscar began purchasing art from the gallery for his private collection. Reflecting about Elena, Kerrie says, “Elena had a true passion for life. Art, music, health and wellness, and a genuine curiosity about people and their lives were among the many beautiful qualities that connected us. She was family.”

To honor their friend of many years they have created the Elena Zang and Alan Hoffman Fellowship at Byrdcliffe to support one ceramic artist each year in the organization’s artist-in-residence program. “A fellowship enabling artists to come to Woodstock and make art here and become part of the community is pretty Elena,” believes Oscar. Zang and Hoffman had also been past recipients of the Byrdcliffe Award honoring their impact on the region’s art community.

A passionate fellow gardener who often shared seeds, plants and ideas with Zang over the years, Oscar was among several close friends who gathered to weed Elena’s garden several days after her death, a way of saying goodbye.

Zang was born in Kingston on November 25, 1945 to the late William and Lillian Zang and grew up “in a pretty typical orthodox Jewish family” of the time, according to her sister, Beth-Ellen.  One of seven siblings, Zang was the daughter of an architect who developed homes in the Hillside Acres section of the Town of Ulster. He named a street there for each of his children. Zang’s street is called “Lainey Lane” because it was later that she changed her name from Elaine to Elena. Life at school could be difficult for an orthodox Jewish child in those days and after Zang was called a “kike” one day, her father taught her to box.

Zang studied liberal arts at Stanford University but never completed her education there. When she returned to Ulster County, it was as a potter. “My buddy Elena Zang was a bad ass,” says her friend Linda Winnick, owner of Shakti Yoga, who shared stories Zang told her of riding a motorcycle around California in the 1960s and depending on the Hells Angels to protect her. “She was a wild woman then.”

“I first met Elena when she was 15 and she would hightail it to Woodstock to the Espresso Cafe, where I was a waitress,” says Eve Baer, who later became the matriarch of a close family that absorbed Zang as if by osmosis when Zang married Baer’s first husband, the late John Kehrl. Kehrl’s children became Zang’s: a daughter, Christine, and two sons, Gregory and Geoffrey. The couple also adopted a three-day-old baby they named Jedediah. Kehrl and Zang bought a property on Rose Mountain Road in Big Indian, where they homesteaded in the late 1960s, calling it Potter’s Farm. “When my two sons were teenagers and being difficult, I sent them to live with their father,” recalls Baer. “I knew it would be all right because Elena was there. She made them decent. I think everyone could do with a second mother.”

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“The step-title quickly faded,” says Christine. “I sometimes referred to these two [Baer and Zang] as my ‘Mother Collection,’ always knowing this universe had showered upon me a double blessing.”

“Elena becoming my mother on Mother’s Day 1979 was the best thing that ever happened to me, not only did I gain a loving mother but a loving family as well,” says her son, Jedediah. 

At Potter’s farm, “Elena made pottery, usually naked, and gardened, usually naked, but it was magical,” recalls Baer. “She also seemed to have this magic that drew people up the mountain to buy pottery.” When Zang and Kehrl separated, Zang moved to Woodstock and remained part of Baer’s growing family, continuing to making and sell her pottery. In 1989, Zang bought the gallery property, partly with loans from friends.

A nature child

Zang and her partner, Alan Hoffman in their garden.

“Elena was a nature child,” says Patty Livingston, a close friend of Zang’s and widow of the artist Tom Gottsleben, who Zang represented. “By the close of most gallery openings, Zang was generally barefoot,” notes Livingston. “Her vegetable garden was so impressive and she introduced us to all sorts of new plants way before they became well-known or easily available: tromboncino squash, shishito peppers and mizuna.” Livingston also points out that Zang had “a tremendous eye for the placement of things” and that Gottsleben never sited a sculpture without consulting her.

Zang’s belief in women’s rights made her a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood. The 2019 benefit she organized for Planned Parenthood of the Hudson Valley (now Planned Parenthood of Greater New York following the recent merger of five affiliates), raised some $50,000, according to Hoffman. Despite her progressing illness, she was organizing another benefit for this year until Covid-19 put those plans on hold. 

“We lost a champion for sexual and reproductive health care and education with the passing of Elena Zang,” says Karim Becker, vice president of individual giving and events for Planned Parenthood of Greater New York. “Her dedication to the annual Woodstock Benefit helped countless people access quality, affordable health care. It was a privilege to have Elena in our corner. She will be greatly missed.”

In the final days before she died, her close friend and neighbor Victoria Balentine, brought her baby goat, Miss Daisy, to visit Elena several times. Balentine would place Miss Daisy in Zang’s arms and the two would reportedly cuddle that way in bed for two or three hours. Says Balentine, “Miss Daisy is a little head-butter in the barn but she knew a goat person when she met one. Elena was a goat-whisperer.”

Zang is survived by her partner, Alan Hoffman of Woodstock; a son, Jedediah Kehrl of Athens, New York; a daughter Christine Summers of Kingston; two step-sons, Gregory Kehrl of Colorado, and Geoffrey Kehrl, of Mt. Tremper; two grandchildren, Cheyenne Baer of Gardiner, and grandson Elijah Wilder of Tivoli; and a great-granddaughter Talula Baer Houston of Gardiner. She is also survived by four siblings: a brother, Dr. Kerry Zang; and three sisters, Sari Powazek, Beth-Ellen Zang, and Lynette Zang, all of Arizona.

In addition to her parents, Zang was predeceased by two siblings, Norma Goldsclag and Dr. Stephen Zang, both of Arizona; a grandson, Evan Wisniewski of Saugerties, and a great-grandson Valen Baer Houston of Catskill.

The family requests that all donations in memory of Zang be made to Planned Parenthood of Greater New York. For more information, visit: https://www.plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-greater-new-york. Family members plan a memorial for Zang in the spring that will also serve as a benefit for Planned Parenthood, when Covid-19 permits people to gather safely.

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