Within the monumental work of bluestone sculpture known as Opus 40, some of the walls are listing. Extracted from the earth over the course of 37 years by Harvey Fite, a man of singular vision. This is only to be expected, for the long-laboring Bard College professor devised to fit each stone of the walls together with only hand, hammer and chisel, every piece placed without mortar.
While Harvey passed from the earth half a century ago, his 6.5 acre sculpture remains out in the open, under sky and cloud, waiting within a forest watched over by the impressive peaks of the Catskill escarpment which wall off the way to the west.
Opus 40 is tended to by a non-profit originally formed in 1978 by Harvey’s wife, Barbara Fite, and is a nine-person board of directors, assembled for the purpose of “supporting the legacy of the renowned artist and stone mason.”
Jonathan Becker, the current president of the board (and vice-president of Harvey Fite’s alma mater), was only too pleased to announce at the end of the year 2021 a $300,000 donation from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, intended to match a $300,000 grant earlier in the fall received from the National Parks Service/Save America’s Treasures program.
Conservation is the name of the game, with Opus 40 flush with this charitable infusion, Becker expects “to realize a multi-year program of sculpture repair and conservation at Opus 40.”
The New York State Council of the Arts got into the giving game as well, donating another $49,500 specifically for operating expenses above and beyond the revenue generated through sales of admissions.
All this funding portends a very good spring-summer-fall 2022 season for Caroline Crumpacker, since 2018 executive director of every moving piece of the daily operations at the 57-acre sculpture park, breathing or inanimate.
Crumpacker came onto the job in 2018, having previously run the Millay Colony for the Arts, in Austerlitz, one of the longest running artist residencies in the world, geared towards writers, visual artists and composers.
“It was really nice. I worked there for twelve years. And then, I had been talking with friends,” says Crumpacker. “I didn’t know what to do next. I wouldn’t mind being closer to home, and I heard about the job for offer here, which I guess was circulating around Bard, and that was it. I didn’t really know much about it. As in, I just thought it was this beautiful place. I didn’t really think much about the history and the heartbeat that Fite was.”
The green fence
There are a scattering of buildings on the property, the most prominent of which looks to be an old wagon barn far back up the hill from the quarry, painted the color of burnt umber and built tall. Long, rusting chains with links as thick as a man’s wrist are festooned all around the outside of the barn, attached to eye hooks, cast-iron wheels and cogs. This was the garage that Fite built to house his trucks. He built a second floor inside as a quarryman’s museum, a display room for his tools.
The chains and cogs wait to be attached to hand-cranked winches to haul the stone.
Fite’s house still stands. He built it himself right on the edge of the quarry. A long, flat two-story rectangle with roofs pitched at the barest of allowable angles in a region where the fear of snowfall piling up haunts many a roofer.
Around this house last summer there developed a row so noisy it eventually caught the attention of The New York Times.
Fite’s stepson owns the house, and his grandson entered into partnership with a local businessman to run the Fite house as a bed-and-breakfast.
The bed-and-breakfast devolved swiftly into the less innocuous reality of an Airbnb. As will happen with such establishments, a few spectacular parties were thrown that had all the trappings of what used to be termed among the square crowd as “raves.” Loud music, fire dancing in the darkness of the night. If the attendees of these parties weren’t taking drugs, they should have been.
The bed and breakfast idea devolved further as the Fite house began offering Hip Camping.
“Like you rent out part of your lawn,” says Crumpacker. “So that’s when the board started to really get worried. So we tried talking to them and it just kind of spiraled out of control. I really wish more we had been able to figure something out.”
Issues of liability came to the forefront. After all, there was a twelve-foot drop into a bluestone quarry near the house.
And so it came to be that a forest green hurricane fence with green opaque cloth was erected around the perimeter of the house. Erected with the blessings of the board of Opus 40. The fence drew the ire of the Fite clan and a noisy opposition objecting to the fence’s aesthetic effect.
In print coverage, the fence grew in size, as did the protests against it.
Caroline Crumpacker recalls:
“The New York Times thing was fairly even-handed, but I felt the coverage in Hudson Valley One was one-sided. The fence wasn’t the ideal solution, but it was a tasteful green-colored one which created a barrier to protect the Airbnb guests from falling into the quarry while also protecting the sculpture grounds from any further degradation.”
In the end, neighbors upset with the parties and transient campers took a petition to the town board. A cease-and-desist order was issued to the bed and breakfast and the fence came down. Since then, the Fite house has been mostly empty.
“I really don’t want to make this the centerpiece of the article whatsoever,” says Crumpacker.
What’s gonna happen
Crumpacker now sets the pace.
“We were hoping to open again for late March, right around the equinox, but it’s been so muddy and icy and snowy, there’s just no way. We’re waiting for the weather to stabilize, but definitely by early to mid April. Once it’s open again, we’ve got a bunch of things planned. Every Friday is a community thing, A lot of collaborations, performance and sculpture, partnering with an array of local groups.
“Radio of Woodstock, Hudson Valley Stories workshop. We’re doing a panel with Unison Arts, a group out of New Paltz. There’s a performance of Antigone in the works with the Bard College drama department. And that’s just the beginning. The Bindlestiff Circus will be a thing. Juggling, trapeze, music, you know, a circus with no trained animals.”
Last season Upstate Films came out a number of nights and set up a giant, inflatable movie screen held steady to the ground by guy lines attached to sandbags in a grassy glade near to Harvey Fite’s sculpture.
“It was a big affair,” recalls Crumpacker. “Sound ran through a mixing board out to speakers, so guests could set out a picnic blanket anywhere in relation to the screen and watch the movies from the grass. But it took so long to set up and tear down for just a weekend night that we decided this season we’re doing two full weekends with Upstate Films, three nights each, two little mini film festivals on the July 4 weekend and over the Labor Day weekend. I love working with Upstate Films.”
Live concerts are planned for Saturdays as well, all outdoors with the mountains looking on over the warm months. Billed as the “Stockade Saturday Cabaret,” the event will acknowledge both the rotating line of musical acts and the 1976 Dodge pickup truck converted into a cocktail bar on wheels parked up near the grassy field. Provided by Kingston’s Stockade Tavern, the truck has been retrofitted with an ice cooler under the bespoke constructed truck bed shell to run six lines of chilled pre-mixed cocktails out to taps on its side.
A variety of food options will be available.
“Last year it was Papa’s Best Batch Foodtruck serving BBQ brisket, sliders, salmon, macaroni and cheese. That’s not nearly all of it. The menu was outrageous. There are also vegetarian and vegan options available.”
The calendar of bands and genres provided will be diverse. A sampler of the musical program includes the Hungry March Band, described as a joyous processional brass band which roams free among the sculpture; Duloney Turkish Music, which will perform music from the former region of the Ottoman Balkans; and Milagro Verde Cumbia band, which as the name suggests will be steeped in the popular rhythmic traditions which began in Panama and Columbia.
A waking dream
“We’re going to be doing three years of sculpture repair and conservation. This year, the focus is on repairing three discrete areas. Listing walls. These expert stonemasons, The Standing Stone, LLC out of Vermont, is the lead group that’s running the conservation effort. And they’re going to be doing a whole project of restoration.
They’ll be working mostly on the weekdays. But actually, I think it’ll kind of add to it, because people can come and watch them do it. I was afraid they’d feel irritated by the public but they’re actually into it. And they said they would be happy to have definite times of the day, where they’ll talk to people and just answer questions. Actual artisans doing a lost art form for love of art. They’re affiliated with this place called the Stone Trust, which is an organization dedicated to the preservation of dry stone. And, basically, they’re going to certify dry stone as they work.”
Tours will be available, but one may wander free among the vast sculpture itself, roam over stairways and curving ramps of dry set stone, through the wooded paths and peripheral glades and half-suggested exterior sculptures until one wanders up to the great half-ton sculpted bluestone center of it all. An impossibly balanced trapezoid stone is standing longwise on a pedestal-like short chimney, lifted at the top of the entire sculpture, the center of Harvey Fite’s waking dream.
From that top platform, the separate chunks of chiseled stone flow gradually together like water, spilling down from level to level to eddy in whirls of organization or to descend suddenly down stairways. Rectangular pools of water wait at the bottom or pools of dirt from which birch trees rise. The sense of motion in the design is uncanny. There are no handrails. The rocks underfoot are jagged and flaked.
The suggestion of a plane of agreement is easier to recognize from a distance. That is the way to see it, flowing all together. The impact can be seen clearly then, like an orderly flow of stopped magma. Harvey Fite saw it all from across 37 years.
Calendar information and admission pricing is available on the internet at Opus40.org.