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Woodstock's Ups and Downs

ART TIMES June 2008

THE TOWN OF Woodstock, New York, has had a long and varied life. Beginning as a small farming town along the banks of the Sawkill River in what was once called the “Woodstock Valley”, it has changed its face many times over the years, from sleepy, backwoods village to some notoriety after the famous “Woodstock Festival” in 1969. But even long before the Festival had “put it on the international map”, Woodstock had waxed and waned, its shift from quiet backwater begun way back in 1902 when Byrdcliffe was founded up on the slopes of Guardian Mountain just outside of town. The brainchild of Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, Byrdcliffe was a Utopian haven for artists and artisans, the location chosen based on a description of the “perfect” place for such a colony by none other than John Ruskin. A scant four years later, in 1906, the Art Students League of New York opened its summer sessions right in the midst of town, and thus Woodstock was well on its way to international fame as America’s premiere “art colony”. When Hervey White, a breakaway from Byrdcliffe, started his own style of “utopia” — calling it “Maverick” — in West Hurley (just beyond the town’s borders opposite Byrdcliffe) — Woodstock was indeed the major attraction for creative types, its concentration of artistic notables of all stripes second only to those found in New York City. Back in its heydays, art critics from all major newspapers covered the Colony’s “doings” as avidly as they did those in the Metropolitan area, including reviews of exhibitions held at the Woodstock Artists Association (itself founded in 1921) in the New York Times — and, on any given summer day, one might encounter a George Bellows, a Juliana Force, a Robert Henri, a Thorsten Veblein, an Edward G. Robinson, and even a Charlotte Perkins Gilman walking along Tinker Street, Woodstock’s main street. Both World Wars managed to put dampers along the way, but almost always, the town would re-invent itself — just as it did after the Festival (which, in fact, was held some sixty miles away and in a different county!) — managing to keep its name “in the news” in one way or another. Like art itself, Woodstock has often been declared moribund by the nay-sayers, the current put-down that it’s nothing more than a tourist-trap for weekend browsers of artsy little boutiques. Over the years, “saviors” have come — and gone — to declare their intentions of “putting Woodstock back on the map”. Woodstockers have heard it before and merely shrug off both snubs and well-meant promises. But Woodstock has even survived floods — and as any old-timer can tell you, Woodstock will continue to be Woodstock because, as it has done since the turn of the 19th Century, it still attracts those creative souls who cannot resist its charms (still bucolic in spite of the cheek-to-jowl boutiques lining Tinker Street). Someone always seems to come along to shake the old town up, to cause enough excitement to show — well — that Woodstock will always be Woodstock. Two such movers-and-shakers on the current scene are Christina Varga and Mery Rosado, Christina, the owner/director of Varga Gallery on Tinker Street and Mery, owner/director of Café Mezzaluna, Bistro Latino/Gallery, a short ways out of town on Route 212. Both women — Christina hails from Hungary, Mery from Manhattan — are fully-charged dynamos that seem to tirelessly promote the area’s creative resources. I was recently caught between the electricity that flows from these two while a visitor on Christina’s Cable TV Show “Apocalypse Varga” (along with a wriggling, tattooed lady named Elissa Jane Mastel, the “Empress of Chill” and Peter Aaron, the dapper, young music editor of “Chronogram”, a local arts ‘zine) and the experience left me more than a little dazed. Varga’s super-charged energy and openness to anything creative spills outside her gallery and into her weekly cable-TV show, and for this conservative, seventy-five-year old, I could do little more than sit as if pole-axed for the entire frenetic, one-hour show. Ostensibly, I was there to promote my new novel The Mountain and to announce an upcoming reading at Mery’s Bistro Latino — I think all I did was keep my head down during the maelstrom of “Apocalypse Varga”. Whatever. My point is that Christina and Mery are the very “stuff” that keeps Woodstock forever in the creative spotlight. Come find out for yourself — either visit Varga’s gallery (or watch her TV show) and do stop in at Mery’s Bistro on Route 212 — you’ll find not only great food, but an ever-changing scene of art, poetry readings, music — and yes, even an occasional event like an old man reading from his novel!

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