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Nicole Carroll Art Consulting

Everybody is an Artist: The Woodstock School of Artby M. R. Smith

Nestled in the crook of a turn on Rte. 212 just a few miles east of Woodstock, the school compound could be easy to miss, were it not for the sculpture: a clutch of oversized multi-colored straws positioned out front. But we make the turn into the driveway, the neutral white of the new snow throwing into stark relief the six bluestone and timber structures that comprise the Woodstock School of Art, all of which are humming with artistic activity on a cold January afternoon.

“Art School,” some sniff, like it’s some luxury, hardly useful in this blink-and-miss digital era. But if there is one thing the WSA folks know, is that there is an artist inside each of us—for some, cowering in a psychic corner—that could use some breathing time. The school offers a unique blend of freedom and seriousness, where artists at all levels can find top-flight instruction, equipment and resources, alternate modes of expression, with a naturally beautiful artist-friendly environment to create in.

Since Roll started in 2007, we’ve often relied on word-of-mouth and reputation when selecting featured artists, which have so far included Robert Angeloch, Eric Angeloch, Mariella Bisson, Jenny Nelson, Lois Woolley, and Hongnian Zhang. All are—or have been—instructors at WSA. To say it’s the premier private art school in the region would not at all be an overstatement. So this being our education issue, how could we not check it out?

“You’ve gotta be nuts,” WSA Executive Director Nancy Campbell tells me. No, she’s not giving me a personal rebuke for an impertinent question, she’s matter-of-factly telling me the academic requirements for enrollment at the school. Artist/instructor/”WSA lifer” Eric Angeloch nods agreement. “I’ve got high school students who really don’t know much of anything, and in the same class I’ve got a guy who has been a professional illustrator and designer for perhaps 30 some-odd years, he can draw like crazy, he’s great. But he needs a different environment for the more painterly things he wants to do. We get everybody.”

The lack of pedagogical canon makes it easy for students to dip into their discipline of choice, be it drawing, painting, landscape and figure study, abstract, watercolors, graphic design, lithography, printmaking, collage, portraiture, whatever. Weekly classes with faculty are enhanced with monthly daylong workshops in a wide range of disciplines; Woodstock is and always has been a hotbed of artistically talented folks, willing to share. Students are predominantly regional, though the school has a (unheated) dormitory/barn available for lodging in the summer.

And in spite of the tepid economy, student count has been up recently, the most since 2007. Internationally known artists Hongnian Zhang, Eric Angeloch, and Staats Fasoldt have increasingly popular painting, drawing, and watercolor classes respectively, and Kate McGloughlin’s graphic design programs—covering printmaking, collagraph, monotype, carborundum printing, etc.—have been taking off lately. It’s all a fitting extension to the history of the bluestone buildings, built right after the Great Depression by an offshoot of the Work Progress Administration, to help youths 18 to 24 learn some sort of viable trade. In fact, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt personally attended its dedication, in 1939.

In the late Thirties, The National Youth Administration was a New Deal agency charged with the mission of helping young people retrain for new employment, and for their New York program the Woodstock area was chosen—“the center for arts and crafts for America,” according to director Richard S. Wallach—for a crafts school, teaching skills such as metal and wood work, stone quarrying and carving, blacksmithing, weaving, and wool processing. In 1939 local sculptor Tomas Penning was tapped to design the compound of buildings at the old farm off Rte. 212, and the students themselves quarried the bluestone, using it to build the structures under the supervision of Penning and regional artisans and instructors. The program was a success, but thanks to World War II, enrollment vaporized, and the school closed down in 1942, as most of America’s youth suddenly found itself otherwise employed overseas.

Five years later, the buildings still stood dormant. Enter the Art Students League of New York, which though originally established in the city in 1906, had a satellite school in Woodstock that played a big part of establishing the town as an art mecca, having a successful run there until its last class in 1926, when they pulled back to their New York City base. But as the post-war art scene was starting to flag in Woodstock in the late 40s, several artists—particularly painter Arnold Blanch—wanted to re-establish the League at the old craft school, and with their help leased the buildings and property from then-owner,the City of Kingston Water Department.

The revived school opened in 1947 and was a hit, thanks to esteemed faculty including Blanch, Fletcher Martin, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Paul Burlin, and sculptor Paul Fiene, even providing a setting for three national arts conferences in the first years, sponsored in part by the Woodstock Artists Association. But as attendance began declining in the late 60s, the Kingston Water Department still refused to sell the land to the League, which needed to build dormitories on the property to attract and keep non-local students. The school couldn’t afford to keep losing money, so the League left when the lease ran out in 1979. Once again the buildings stood vacant.

Flashback to 1968, where five young artists—Robert Angeloch, Franklin Alexander, Lon Clark, Wallace G. “Jerry” Jerominek, and Edward Chavez—decided to form their own school on the second floor of a one-time stagecoach stop and tavern, overlooking the creek in the center of Woodstock. Though the town was hopping with the hip, music and art were in full blossom in the run-up year to the seminal concert at Yasgur’s Farm in 1969, the brand new Woodstock School of Art promised in their catalog an environment for those not needing “stimulation by bombardment.” The school eventually had to leave the village location—the new landlord wanted to capitalize on the boomtown—managing to survive intact through the partnership and artists’ individual studios.

But when the bluestones were vacated in ‘79, Robert Angeloch—who had been a student instructor there during its heyday—saw a unique opportunity, rallying together the local citizens into an ad hoc committee with the purpose of preserving the school site for the use in the service of art, keeping it safe from commercial development, and in the process secured a five-year lease on the property. In 1980 the Woodstock School of Art incorporated as a not-for-profit, and moved in to find they had a lot of work to do, “which I did!” says Eric Angeloch. When the ASL left, “they took everything out of here. The buildings had not been maintained to speak of; the grounds were a mess.” During that transition everybody was pitching in with the refurbishing, often between classes. The greater Woodstock arts community stepped up, funds were raised, donations of money, time, and needed equipment made. Within a few years of opening in 1981, they had doubled their student body, and in 1985, they had winterized enough to offer classes year-round.

Finally, in 1993, the Kingston Water Department indicated a willingness to sell the property and buildings. That same year, the complex was accredited by state and federal officials with a listing in the Register of Historic Places, insuring that the character of the site would be preserved; now the city couldn’t sell it to commercial developers even if it wanted to. The price was set at $250,000, a pretty stout price for an organization pretty happy to just break even annually. Though eighteen months of heavy fundraising netted $50,000, things were looking grim for the balance, until an anonymous donor came forward with an interest-free loan of the remaining $200,000—to be repaid over five years—and the sale was completed. The loan was eventually repaid on time, thanks certainly to the ongoing generosity of regional art patrons, and with full ownership and control of the property, the school has survived and thrived ever since.

New projects abound in the new year, starting with a monthly critique session led by school instructors titled “Wednesday Afternoons With…”, where students and artists can bring samples of their work to be critiqued with a “blend of honesty and compassion,” giving insight to help artists understand their individual stylistic direction. Every Saturday afternoon all artists have access to a group nude model session (no instruction) for a small fee. And starting in February figurative painter Keith Gunderson will be offering a class in Ecorche: an intensive human figure study that involves using an armature—provided by the instructor—to construct a sculpture of an entire human body, from bones, to muscle, to skin. Gunderson also teaches a companion Artistic Anatomy foundation course for all artists interested in working with the human form, using a live model. Outside of NYC, it’s the only access an artist has to this level of anatomical study.

But it’s not all so serious here. Nancy points out: “People are afraid of art and art schools. So many people have said to me, well, I don’t know if I can go there, I’m not an artist. But then as soon as you get in you realize this is just fun, it’s non-challenging, non-confrontational, not competitive. People don’t see if they can do better than the others. One big message we need to get out is: this is for everybody. You don’t have to be able to draw a straight line, most of the time, we don’t.” “I have a ruler,” Eric chimes in helpfully.

And an art education tends to elevate the students’ quality of life, wherever they end up. Eric—who for many years has been teaching his drawing/painting/composition class “Thursday afternoons, 1 to 4…for the rest of my life!”—knows its real value. “I’ve actually gotten quite a few emails from former students, who were grateful to have studied here, and how it’s affected their professional lives. High school kids too, who ended up going off to college, (some) ended up as flower artists, design professionals, whatever. They all seem to really credit the school with helping them.”

Indeed, the bluestone buildings—cheerily lit by abundant north light through skylights and wide windows—seem alive with a positive purpose not too far distant from the buildings’ original New Deal intent some 70 years ago—with a (thankfully) much smaller Depression preceding. As Eric says, “I always tell people, if you’re ever in a class where you’re not having fun, you should probably try elsewhere. And very rarely do people leave.”

Please visit www.woodstockschoolofart.org for more information about the Woodstock School of Art, 2470 Rte. 212, Woodstock, 845.679.2388

Special thanks to Polly Klein for additional historical information.



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