The Hudson Valley helps the Big Easy, the County Players go golden, and windy work.
Helping Hand for the Big Easy
New Orleans on the Hudson
It’s been two years since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated The Big Easy, but a group of Valley residents with close ties to New Orleans are making sure the still-crippled city isn’t forgotten. “We feel strongly about the situation in New Orleans,” says Deborah Schell Macaluso, a founding member of the Hudson Valley Levee Board, a grassroots organization started after Katrina to offer support to the hurricane-ravaged region. And it wasn’t just about popping a donation in the mail. “We’re dedicated to having a personal relationship with the city,” she says. Since most of those who created the Levee Board are supporters of the arts, or artists and musicians themselves, they particularly wanted to help the city’s creative community. “It’s very important that people have art and music to nourish their souls,” Macaluso explains.
Soon after the deadly storms hit, Macaluso, who was born and raised in New Orleans, and college buddy Michael Pillot — a fourth-generation New Orleans resident — joined up with Valleyites Paul Antonell, Terence Boylan, Kenneth Cooke, Georgia Dent, and Kristine Hanson. They formed the Levee Board and sprang into action, arranging a huge benefit concert in just 10 weeks. Bard College agreed to donate use of the Fisher Center auditorium; the December 2005 sold-out show, Build A Levee, featured Natalie Merchant and Dr. John and raised more than $50,000 for the Louisiana chapter of the Salvation Army.
Bard has helped the relief effort in other ways, too. Led by then-Bard student (and New Orleans resident) Stephen Tremaine, more than 150 students spent spring break 2006 providing cleanup and support in the city. Projects ranged from renovating badly damaged buildings to offering free medical aid to setting up a community radio station and Internet access. Even though Tremaine has now graduated, he remains director of Bard’s New Orleans Initiative, which helps with ongoing relief efforts.
Macaluso, who taught arts-related programs in New Orleans public schools for more than 25 years, revisited the city in July with noted photojournalist John Rizzo to document its residents’ stories. She says it’s important to remind folks that the Big Easy still faces big problems.
“New Orleans isn’t a hot news story anymore. It so easily drops off the nation’s radar,” she says. “But the city is suspended in time. It looks like Katrina just happened. It’s still life-and-death for the survival of New Orleans — including its arts.”
To that end, another admirable project aimed at keeping the city’s plight in focus — and a reminder of its enduring spirit — has sprung up in the Valley.
Time and Space Limited, a gallery and arts center in Hudson, invited the Levee Board to cohost several Big Easy-themed events in September, featuring artists, writers, and musicians who will celebrate New Orlean's heritage and update the public on its status. And next spring, a group of young people from T&SL’s youth arts programs will join the Bard initiative to help with rebuilding the city.
Macaluso, who lives in Rhinecliff, notes similarities between the Valley and the Big Easy. “The river is really a force of life here, just like in New Orleans.” And, she adds, Hudson is a perfect place to hold a celebration of New Orleans. “Hudson is a river town, too. It’s very active in the arts, with a long history of supporting grassroots art and music. Just like New Orleans.”
Never underestimate the power of creativity, she says. “Art can change the world. And art can help transcend catastrophe.” — Rita Ross
Putting The Wind To Work
Sure, a bitter wind can dampen a day’s fun on the slopes. But the folks at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock, Massachusetts decided to stop battling the elements and work with them instead. They’ve constructed a $3.9 million, 1.5 megawatt GE wind turbine to generate electricity for the resort — the first ski park in North America to utilize this technology to power chairlifts, base lodges and snow-making machinery. Not only is this an environmentally friendly move, but the resort hopes to save more than a half-million dollars on energy costs each year.
More than 500 people entered a contest to name the turbine, which has now been dubbed “Zephyr” (the Greek god of the west wind). “It’s obvious that we’ve inspired people to think about how renewable energy can help kick our dependency on foreign oil and help the planet breathe easier,” says Jiminy’s president and CEO Brian Fairbank.
Zephyr, which sits on the mountain’s western side 350 feet below the summit, will generate about 33 percent of the total electricity consumed at the resort. Although the turbine, which was dedicated with great fanfare last month, will be visible to town residents, the location was carefully chosen to allow the top of the mountain to be the scenic backdrop and also so that the turbine can utilize the prevailing west-northwest winds to maximize efficiency.
Local residents have been watching the building process the whole way. In July, a crowd turned out to see a massive crane lift the three 122-foot Brazilian wind blades into place atop the 260-foot tower.
“We intend to prove that using a renewable resource like this will be an option for any energy-intensive business looking to reduce their impact on global warming,” says Fairbank.
— Jennifer Leba
Walking in to Catskill’s Variegated is like entering the bedroom of a close friend: you’re immediately treated to a wealth of colorful, one-of-a-kind items that demand further inspection. There are ceramics and hand-thrown bowls in the middle of the room, ringer shirts hanging on the wall, a small table full of handmade jewelry — and even a neatly made bed in the corner.
Co-owners Jim Deskevich and Corbett Marshall aim to hold on to that air of friendliness. After making a name for themselves in New York City’s booming textile industry, the partners opened a successful wholesale design studio in Hudson in 2003. But after a few years of commission work, the duo realized that they were spending more time on meeting their production deadlines than on designing their products. “We never wanted to be a factory,” Deskevich says. “So we made the decision to stop the wholesaling and switch over to retail.”
They wanted a space to create and showcase a stylized vision of their own colorful, uniquely patterned textile work. (For all you vocabulary buffs, the word “variegated” means something streaked or marked with several different colors.) But that focus doesn’t mean there isn’t room for others to join in.
“The whole vision of the store (which opened in June) now is how we see our work incorporated with other people’s work,” Deskevich says. “Everything else that we carry in the store is from local or family-owned businesses.” Examples abound, including rugs woven from sheep’s wool from Anchorage Farms in Saugerties, hand-forged iron chandeliers by Arrowsmith Forge in Millbrook, and a homemade jewelry line designed by shop assistant Emily Marquoit and her family.
“It was that sense of community — people coming together and making things — that drew us to the Valley in the first place,” Deskevich says. “Once people move upstate, they tend to slow down a little bit, actually talk to people, and get to know them. We feel like we’re making those connections here. We’ll chat up anybody who walks in.”
And how. While some of Variegated’s custom products can easily cost several hundred dollars, there is also a selection of items that will only set you back about five dollars.
“The idea is that someone can spend the money for new bedding, and we’ll customize it to make it work with their room,” says Deskevich. “But we’re also here for the people who just want to buy a new tote bag or a toy for their dog.” — Daniel Holden
Variegated is located at 377 Main St., Catskill. Hours are Thurs.-Fri. 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m., other days by appointment. For more information, contact the store at 518-943-1313 or visit www.variegatedinc.com.
This local artisan elevates everyday objects into high art
By Ian Crovisier
Not all is as it seems when it comes to Claverack-based children’s author-illustrator Joan Steiner. Her Look-Alikes books depict realistic-looking scenes — a suburban kitchen, the front yard of a house — which have been meticulously crafted from the most common of everyday objects. Porch railings, for instance, are fashioned out of birthday cake candles, and jigsaw puzzle pieces are arranged to look like a sidewalk. With her fourth book, Look-Alikes Around the World (Little, Brown & Co., $15.99) due out this month — and Look Alikes: The Amazing World of Joan Steiner, an exhibit of her models now on view at the New York State Museum — there’s no disguising the fact that Steiner's professional life is looking good.
How did you start doing Look-Alikes?
I was working as a three-dimensional illustrator. I was taking regular illustration assignments, but instead of drawing or painting them, I would build little models that were photographed. In the course of taking my portfolio around, I went to Games magazine. They told me, “If you think of a puzzle or a game, we might commission you to do it.” I had the idea to make a scene out of common everyday objects. I called Games and proposed it, and they said, “Go ahead!” And that was how I did the first Look-Alikes.
There wasn’t too much call for this kind of work in the editorial area, but then someone suggested that I think about doing this as a book instead. I worked up a proposal, and eventually that turned into a contract.
How do you get your ideas? Do you see an object and think “I could make something out of that,” or do you have the larger construction idea first?
That’s one of the most commonly asked questions, and the answer lies somewhere in between. I do get these eureka moments sometimes. I’ll be driving down the street and see a cement mixer and all of a sudden it will come to me: “Ah, mustard bottle.” And then I think, “How can I use a cement mixer? Maybe I’ll do a construction site.” It’s a back-and-forth between individual, specific ideas that I’ve had and then doing research and growing the idea.
How long does it take to make one of these scenes?
They take forever! My last book came out in 2003, so that should give you some idea. They’re very time-consuming. It’s not so easy to, say, glue a cheese doodle onto a dog biscuit. And I spend a lot of time doing research.
What happens to the pieces after you’re done? Do you keep any of them?
If you go to the museum, you’ll see 14 dioramas that are made with the original art from the books. But when I photograph the scenes they are not assembled into dioramas; they’re in sections. In the beginning I used to demolish the scenes after I [photographed] them because they were not in a condition to be stored. I would save the parts that had involved the most labor, and break down the things that were easy to reproduce. But then, as a whole separate step, I made some of them into dioramas, which are now on display at the museum.
Not all of the scenes lend themselves into being preserved. I have to get rid of the things that are the most perishable. You’d be surprised: things like cookies and pretzels seem to last forever, but other things like slices of salami and burritos last about half an hour. So when I make them into dioramas I have to do a certain amount of substitution.
What else can visitors expect at the museum show?
The exhibit also has photographs, and there’s a little film as well. You don’t actually see the boxes that the dioramas are in. There are walls with cutouts; you look through the cutouts and right into a scene. Sometimes I’m behind the wall working, and I’ll hear people laughing and telling each other, “Hey, come and see this!” “Come and see that!” And the guards are really into it, too. It really seems to tickle people’s fancy.
Do you have a favorite Look-Alike you’ve done?
People ask me that, and it’s like asking which of your children you love the most. There are scenes that I like more than others, but I don’t have one favorite.
Were any of them particularly difficult to construct?
Almost all of them were really difficult to construct. But the most difficult was probably the cathedral scene in Look-Alikes Christmas. I guess they were all hard, but it really is worth the trouble. I’m trying not just to make a puzzle, but to make a beautiful picture as well.
The Play’s the Thing
Dutchess’s County Players turns 50
Bill Peckham has never forgotten his first review. “I played a Buddhist priest in a show called Roshomon,” he says about his first acting gig with the County Players 30 years ago. “The Poughkeepsie Journal called me ‘one-dimensionally bland.’ I think that was a pretty good assesment.”
But Peckham brushed off the negative feedback (“it was a learning experience,” he says), and has been actively involved with the group ever since. It’s that kind of commitment that has led Dutchess County’s very own all-volunteer, nonprofit community theater to a very grand milestone: they kick off their 50th season this month. Celebrations include an open house, a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a theater tour, and weekend performances of the comedy, I Hate Hamlet. “It’s a very exciting time for us,” says Peckham.
The troupe mounted its first production, the comedy Bell, Book and Candle (directed by Peter Edman, who’s still an active member), in May 1958. Since then, they have performed everything from well-known productions like Grease and Jekyll and Hyde to smaller, relatively unknown plays. Lacking a permanent home, the company had to improvise to find spaces to perform in during the early years. Neverthless, attendance steadily increased, and the profits from each show were used to improve their technical capabilities. In June 1977, the group purchased the old Academy Theater in Wappingers Falls. “It was a rat trap,” says Peckham. “There were no seats in there.” But dozens of volunteers worked to renovate the building; over the years, air conditioning and a new ceiling have been installed, as well as two mini-stages, new lighting, and seating for 400.
Each year, the group produces a comedy, a drama, a musical, and a rotating fourth play.
“The musicals usually sell out fastest,” says Peckham, who adds that they now have 1,200 to 1,500 regular subscribers. Rehearsals take about three months, followed by three weekends’ worth of performances. For musicals, the cast is accompanied by a complete 12- to 14-piece orchestra. For each production, a core group of about 20 volunteers delegates various tasks — set construction, lighting design, sound management — to the rest of the crew.
So what’s the secret to their success? A constant talent turnover, regardless of their experience. “We’re devoted to constantly bringing new blood into the organization,” says Peckham, who long ago jettisoned acting for directing and set design.
And of course, a passion for the theater is essential. After directing 17 shows, acting in 20, and managing 10, Peter Edman still performs one of the most basic functions of the theater — cleaning the bathrooms.
“It’s his life,” says Peckham of Edman’s dedication. “And you can say that about any one of us.” — Daniel Holden