Bannerman's Big Year

Meet Melissa McGill, the Local Artist Behind the Bannerman’s Island Art Show

Constellation, Melissa McGill’s major new art installation, is lighting up Pollepel Island — and the entire Hudson Valley


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Artist Melissa McGill’s curiosity about the crumbling castle on Pollepel Island sparked the idea for her large-scale public art project

Photograph by Kate Ornie

Like countless other Metro-North riders before her, Melissa McGill used to wonder about the crumbling castle perched on the edge of an island in the middle of the Hudson River. “I would see it from the train,” said the artist about riding the Hudson Line from her Beacon home into New York City. “What is this strange ruin? It spurred my curiosity and inspired me to examine the site.”

Still, even McGill, a Rhode Island School of Design grad who, in 2014, became the first artist-in-residence at Manitoga in Cold Spring, could not have conceived where her explorations would lead. On June 28, her work Constellation — a large-scale public art project more than two years in the making — opened to much fanfare on the 6.5-acre Pollepel Island just south of her hometown. Even the mighty New York Times scrambled for the exclusive rights to quote McGill in a major article published on the eve of the opening.

So, what’s it all about? Every night as the sun sets on the remnants of Bannerman Castle, a grand, Scottish-style structure built by an eccentric arms dealer in the beginning of the 20th century, 17 points of light, all at different heights, emerge one by one in the evening sky. “My work has always been about absence and presence, what is there and what is not,” says McGill, a married mother of 10-year-old twins. “So these stars mark a path that refers to the original full structure that was once there. It also refers to a Lenape belief that spoke of the ‘White Road,’ or the Milky Way, which connects this world to the next. The project connects the two sides of the river; it connects the sky to the water; it connects the past to the present. It acts as a path of stars connecting all these different ideas.”

pollepel island
Pollepel Island. Photograph by Rob Penner

The project has also connects the entire community. “Many different people, businesses, and entities have come together to make this happen,” says McGill. The renowned Polich Tallix Fine Art Foundry installed the poles and lights, and Beacon-based lighting company Niche Modern crafted the hand-blown orbs. It was Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney who helped McGill secure a $20,000 NEA Grant.

“One of the lighting engineers recently said to me, ‘I remember when you first told me about this. It seemed so pie in the sky, and now we are looking at it.’ ” says McGill. “It started out as a constellation of people and now it has become a galaxy of people. There are a lot of people involved at this point, and they are mostly local.”

The project can be viewed at various vantage points on both sides of the river; Storm King Adventure Tours, based out of Cornwall, is leading special Constellation kayak tours around the island every Friday and Saturday night. The cost is $100 per person.

Constellation sunset boat tours, which include a brief guided walk on the island, are also available every weekend on the Estuary Steward ($45 for adults, $40 for children). Private group tours, for a maximum of 40 guests, can also be arranged. Call 347-244-3044 or visit www.melissamcgillconstellation.com/visit/book-boat-tours to book a tour.

Of course, Constellation is not the only thing lighting up this mysterious island. Neil Caplan, executive director of the Bannerman Castle Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the castle as an educational, cultural, and recreational facility, has been promoting the island for years, and a slew of events will be happening there this season. On August 8 and 9, the Newburgh-based company Just Off Broadway will present the musical Man of La Mancha. And for the very first time, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Company will venture offshore to present An Iliad on August 22 and 23.

We’ll be covering Bannerman’s Big Year with frequent online updates. Want to know more about the history of the island? We’ll fill you in. Cool old photos? We’ve got those — and much more — at www.hvmag.com/bannerman.

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