Lessons from Olana and painting on hallowed ground...
For the past month I've been teaching a plein air pastel class at Olana, this historic home of Frederic Church from the Hudson River School. Many of you who know me, will understand the gravity of my love for this place. I have always felt a cultural heritage to Olana and the Hudson River School because of my belief in Transcendentalism and deep connection to the regional landscape.
The Hudson River School was the inspiration for the Wallkill River School, which was founded to continue the environmental and artistic work of the Hudson River School. The school I founded faced different challenges the school Cole founded almost two hundred years earlier. Cole wrote poignant and poetic letters to railroad tycoons and newspapers decrying the trampling of nature and the indigenous people. Here's an excerpt from one...
Cole died young at 47 but made a life-long friend in Frederic Church who built Olana across the river from Cole's house. The two knew each other only 4 years, during which time Cole taught Church some basics of oil painting and the two bonded over a shared love of the land and a fierce desire to protect the wildness from the hand of man. The legacy was continued through their daughters, who were art school friends, and life-long friends as well.
History is written by the winners, so often what we hear is not the full story. At some point, most Americans have heard something about the Hudson River School, and may even recognize a few key players; Cole, Church, Gifford, Kensett, Durand, etc. What is left out is these men were the tip of the iceberg and that there was a whole movement of men and WOMEN who were Transcendentalists and considered America's first environmentalist movement (among white people-the native populations were always environmentalists!)
Imagine how difficult it must have been back in the mid1800's for a woman wearing full skirts and heels, with children in tow, to hike up the Catskills and paint? Yet many did, and made careers, fed their children, sold their work, and were equal to their male counterparts yet are rarely mentioned. Same is true for people of color who joined in. History was not as progressive as the movement to preserve the remaining wild beauty of nature.
What was important then, was that these groups of people would band together and exhibit work, write letters, paint and gather as a movement. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), William Cullen Bryant and others were among the Transcendentalists. Today, it might not look as if they were very successful. If you travel to the sites where they painted (as I have done) you'll see that most of them look nothing like the paintings anymore. Almost all the sites have been developed and reshaped by the hand of man.
However, the kinship of this group affected other places. Church's landscape design at Olana influenced Vaux and other landscape designers to include parks in urban places including NYC's Central Park, and Downing Park in Newburgh. People began to think about the long term affect of development on the landscape and take a different approach. The Transcendentalist movement, while considered woo-woo and out-there at the time, influenced the tide of development in our country, and used art as a tool for social change.
Today we face the most daunting environmental challenges of all time. I'm glad Church and Cole are not alive to see what has become of our country and our planet, as it would break their hearts as it does mine, (and probably yours). As a long time environmental activist, it can be discouraging to see the head-long race to extinction we seem to be on. I've written for national newspapers as a syndicated newspaper columnist on sustainability (just as Cole and Church did), I've lectured with slide presentations on climate change, (just as they did as well) and many other things, alongside many other activists, and still the devastation continues.
It's hard not to lose hope.
What keeps me going is Kindred Spirits. This is a painting by Asher B. Durand of painter Cole and poet Bryant standing in the Catskill Clove. The two are talking in a way that makes you feel as if they truly understand, love, and support each other.
Just as then, this is the key to moving into the final stages of our planetary crisis. The problem is way bigger than one person can manage, even a country. But if we band together more, as a movement, that doesn't see sex, race, or geographic boundaries, we become spiritually and ideologically connected. Kindred Spirits.
Art is a tool for social change. It has happened before and is happening now. It may not seem like much in the face of climate change, but it's something that leads to a deeper understanding. Art has a way of reaching hearts and minds that is different than facts and figures. You can read a newspaper article and forget it by lunchtime, but a painting may haunt your dreams.
When you stand on hallowed ground (anywhere in nature) and paint, you are consciously slowing down and connecting to the landscape at a spiritual level. You cannot help but feel it. You fall in love with every tree and blade of grass as you see it the way an artist sees it. It's a level of mindfulness that most people never reach, glancing at the landscape through a car window.
Once connected to nature, if you open your heart to her, it transforms how you live. One cannot help but become an environmentalist, preserve nature, become conscious of carbon footprints, eat lower on the food chain, and other take political action for change that guarantees a future for our species and our planet.
Join me, and the movement. We need each other.