Photography by Eva O'Leary
Airbnb ads, cottagecore influencers, and lifestyle magazines sell “going upstate” to New Yorkers as if it is a relatively new phenomenon, or one dreamt up by romantic millennials looking to detox. But the truth is that urban defectors have always been a part of the Big Apple narrative. Upstate New York—a vast rural region that spans from the Finger Lakes to the trendy Hudson Valley—has long been the loyal foil to city life, providing idle shelter for its writers, designers, and artists when they need distance from the wider world. Some end up staying permanently while others make it a weekend ritual; however, it’s this interplay between the options of the city and the countryside that enables creativity to thrive. On an individual level, one can observe these effects in real time. For many, it is a super-sizer, offering artists the chance to scale up paintings and sculptures to new heights. Underlying it all, of course, the countryside becomes an oasis, a quiet retreat away from the societal and logistical requirements of “regular” life.
Tivoli, New York
Mika Rottenberg’s family didn’t spring for a COVID-19 dog—they already had Gigi—so, instead they got chicks. The baby birds meander through the artist’s barn studio and call an abandoned camper, an old set from the artist’s 2017 short film Cosmic Generator, home. Rottenberg carries a stick to shoo them away as the roosters occasionally bully her. Gigi helps too. A longtime resident of Tivoli, Rottenberg’s practice and lifestyle have slowly turned from her city habitudes toward something more sustainable. She confesses she is no longer interested in plastic bobbles, for instance, whose production and global distribution propelled the narrative of her camper project. Instead, the artist is at work on a new film in which all elements are getting recycled. “As artists and human beings, I think we have an obligation to move toward sustainability,” says Rottenberg. “Living in the country you have to reckon with that responsibility on a regular basis.”
Hudson, New York
Much of Tschabalala Self's trajectory as a young figurative artist was spent in New Haven, Connecticut.“It was more of a bubble than Hudson will ever be,” Self remarks, walking downhill from the Olana State Historic Site, the former estate of landscape artist Frederic Edwin Church. “In Hudson you aren’t isolated from other artists; you feel like you are surrounded by them." The psychedelically-colored trees engulfing the scene frame the artist. Their patchwork of autumnal patterns recalls Self’s stitched compositions that conjure figures from swatches of fabrics. The property now functions as a public park and is a favorite contemplation spot for Self, who recently bought a home in Hudson that she is slowly moving into. The studio isn’t done yet, but that’s the next step. Born and raised in Harlem, Self developed her love of open spaces while attending Bard College and then the Yale School of Art. Outside of the center where a frenzied market is hungry for her work, Self has carved out a niche where she can set the pace while still keeping in touch with her roots.
Pine Plains, New York
From the main road, the pastures of Dan Colen’s Sky High Farm blend into the agricultural surroundings of Pine Plains, but the project the artist is undertaking here is not a simple farm-to-table model. In fact, to Colen’s delight, Sky High Farms had just received its non-profit status. “I’m excited about what this means for the future,” he says, walking past a metal gate into a field heavy with grazing cows, sheep, and a donkey named Joy, the farmer’s first four-legged tenant. Expansion these days typically feels redundant—especially when it comes to contemporary art—but Sky High Farms’ mission to sustainably grow food for donation explains the artist’s anxiety. Food insecurity is an endless threat, especially in New York’s underserved communities. The way Sky High occupies Colen’s thoughts mirrors the way he thinks about his practice, too. As it happens, they even share a physical address; Colen’s main painting studio stands as a kind of gatehouse to the property. It is inside the barnlike structure that the painter’s large-scale works are being carefully looked after. The animals and vegetable beds receive the same tender care. “Everything began to click up here,” says Colen. The air feels fertile with potential; it’s easy to see how he has become seduced.
Kingston, New York
Dawn Kasper is hiking through the woods with cedar chips under arm. Rocky, her dog, stays close to her heels. She’s heading to a special clearing where she often goes. For Kasper, living upstate doesn’t provide a vehicle for isolation but rather for embedding oneself in a tight-knit community. An improviser who crosses all mediums to invoke communal moments of discovery, Kasper’s practice is by nature peripatetic, so, in a sense, sitting around a campfire at the artist’s final destination is akin to sitting in her studio. For the 2017 Venice Biennale, Kasper offered the public a similar privilege—she moved to Venice to reenact her best-known work: Nomadic Studio Practice. A performance of both endurance and divine tolerance, the project involved spending months drawing, dancing, and playing music in front of the tourists milling through the main Giardini pavilion of the art fair. It’s not surprising it’s taken her several years to digest the piece, and these therapeutic sallies into nature are one of many tools at her disposal.
Tamara Gonzales and Chris Martin
Catskills, New York
When it is high summer, Chris Martin drags his behemoth canvases out onto his lawn and paints on the grass. His partner and fellow painter, Tamara Gonzales, works her canvases similarly: on the floor, with full views of the sweeping mountains that engulf their Catskills home, visible through the churchlike windows of her studio. Gonzales’ paintings have a landscape quality to them—there is a lingering fear that if one looks too close they might fall in. Martin’s massive barn-door pieces often also create similar effects. The shared sensation feels tailored to the artists’ surroundings, which, like the ocean, can make its viewer feel impossibly small and lost. The couple commute to and from New York City, but have spent the majority of the past six months up here. They miss the balance of urban and rural, but have enjoyed watching the seasons sweep across the landscape. Martin is especially in awe of his neighbors. “The more time you spend up here the more you see farmers for what they really are—engineers and artists.”
Jason Fox and Huma Bhabha
Poughkeepsie, New York
Three dogs—two big retrievers and one short-legged puppy— rush out the door of Jason Fox and Huma Bhabha’s home in Poughkeepsie, the only urban strip for miles. This is where the painter and sculptor have found a happy medium living between the rural expanses of Hudson Valley and metropolitan clutter. “I can walk to the train station and go straight to the city,” says Bhabha. “It’s nice to feel more connected.” The couple annexed an old firehouse some years back and tailored it to their needs. Each occupies an entire floor as a studio, with a sunlit penthouse on top for living. This self-contained design points back to its inhabitants, who often conjure escapist fantasies through avatars in their individual practices. For Fox this is apparent in his colorful painted figures, whereas Bhabha articulates this in her extraterrestrial-inspired paintings and alien totems, some of which graced the Met’s roof in 2019 after being forged in nearby Kingston. Together the artists developed a space big enough for them to conjure new universes alongside one another. “When people see our work, they rarely notice what we have in common,” says Fox, smiling. “But we share a world.”
Cold Spring, New York
A self-proclaimed urbanite, Marilyn Minter began spending time upstate in the late 1990s when her partner Bill Miller asked for some distance from their fast-paced social calendars. Attracted to Cold Spring’s relative proximity to the city, Minter and Miller found a plot of green they liked, with a small stream roving through it. Enlisting the help of architect Stan Allen (the project was the first house for the former dean of Princeton University’s School of Architecture), they erected what Allen referred to as a “loft” in the country, which has since undergone several renovations to make way for a proper studio and more guest rooms. Today it is a breathtaking retreat, one in which Minter has spent the better part of the pandemic. A striking addition to the hillside neighborhood, their home is filled to the brim with works by friends and students: Sue Williams, Cindy Sherman, Chris Martin, and Austin Lee, to name a few. For Minter, whose idiosyncratic contributions to visual culture may only be outweighed by that to social justice—she is an outspoken Planned Parenthood advocate—the place feels like an organic armature of a deeper, more joyful generosity.
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