Warning: Celebrating the life and career of a renowned artist when they reach the age of 80 may turn out to be premature. They might just decide to stick around, doing what they do best, for another ten years. Then you’ll need to celebrate some more.
The last time HV1 (then the New Paltz Times) checked in at any length with Barbara Leoff Burge, in 2013, she was being fêted by Women’s Studio Workshop as the honoree of the Rosendale-based art collective’s annual gala at Mohonk Mountain House. There was a retrospective exhibit and a big auction of her artwork. The eldest of WSW’s legendary four founders (along with Ann Kalmbach, Tatana Kellner and the late Anita Wetzel), it was at Leoff Burge’s house on the corner of John and James Streets in Rosendale that this revolutionary experiment in creating a participatory arts space just for women first came together in 1974.
Etching went on in the living room, papermaking in the attic and screen-printing in the basement. The hands-on workshop atmosphere, where aspiring women artists didn’t have to worry about competing with male students to be taken seriously, soon began to entice applicants from across the country and eventually around the globe. WSW relocated in 1983 to the former Binnewater Post Office and General Store, near Williams Lake, and invested heavily in renovating the historic building. Over time, paper arts became a WSW specialty, including making their own paper from locally harvested materials. The organization is now known worldwide as a publisher of original artist books, and the place to go to learn the requisite skills, regardless of your sex or gender.
Babs, as she’s known to many friends, has made a lot of art since then, much of it bursting with pointed sociopolitical commentary. Her work uses diverse media and has been acquired for university and museum collections, including Yale, Harvard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. She took up ceramics at age 80, continued to teach classes and to serve on the WSW board. But to her neighbors in New Paltz, where she has lived for many decades, she’s the Queen of Grove Street. And on Sunday, September 10, two days after her 90th birthday, they made sure she knew it, with a parade, speeches, presentations and a party at her home.
“Barbara is a very friendly person and often sits on her front porch, and will call out to people as they walk by,” says Reva Wolf, who teaches Art History at SUNY New Paltz and lives in the neighborhood with her partner, Philosophy professor Eugene Heath. “We met Barbara and got to know her when we moved to Grove Street in 1999…. She has such an open way about her, which we really adore, and we love her art. Plus, she has this wicked sense of humor. She and I have a history of exchanging Jewish jokes.”
It was in a conversation earlier this summer with a former colleague, Art professor Amy Cheng, that Wolf discovered that Leoff Burge had a milestone birthday coming up on September 8. She started approaching the neighbors about organizing a party. “I think it was Eugene who inspired the idea for a parade,” Wolf says. “He really got into it, and ordered a drum major uniform. Then he decided they needed a police escort, so he contacted the Village and then the Town about getting a parade permit. It was a big deal, but everything started to fall into place.”
The couple’s enthusiasm proved contagious, and many other neighbors got involved with the preparations. Wolf made a crown emblazoned with the words “Babs” and “Queen of Grove Street,” and another neighbor, Helen Prior, made a sash bearing the same legend. Tom Olsen and Marinella Garatti supplied sparkling wine and cider; Caren Fairweather baked special cupcakes.
“It was supposed to be a surprise,” Wolf relates. “Barbara was not feeling well the day before, and we almost had to cancel. So, I told her to stay on her porch at 2 o’clock.” Luckily, by Sunday morning Leoff Burge was feeling perkier. (At 90, she uses a walker, but is “still her own lively self, still clearheaded and full of her sharp wit,” according to Wolf.)
At 1:45 p.m. the celebrants assembled and stepped off, led by a young neighbor playing the trumpet and Heath in his gold-braided blue uniform, wielding a color-coordinated toilet plunger as a baton. “We crossed John Street, and the police escort was in front. Then we marched down Grove Street until we got to Barbara’s house. Eugene had a whole presentation about how we were her subjects.” The police car didn’t stick around after the parade, Wolf says, but flashed its lights during the parade and gave a single whoop on its siren before driving away.
Babs was ceremonially crowned and presented with her sash, sweets and sparkling beverages. There were many toasts. “Then we all hung out for awhile, and had a great time,” says Wolf. “She was really thrilled. We did all have a lot of laughs.” A thank-you e-mail from Leoff Burge to the parade organizers afterwards expressed her delight and used the signoff, “XO HRH.”
No one who knows Babs is likely to contest this regional treasure’s right to her crown or her title. But they should probably start planning now how to top these honors when she turns 100.