A Personal Look at Woodstock Artists’ Cemetery
I started visiting Woodstock in 2002, and have lived here since 2007, yet it was only this spring that I became aware of Woodstock Artists’ Cemetery. Wow! Talk about an open secret
It is tucked away down a side street off Rock City Road, which has a “Dead End” sign at the entrance (no pun intended), and once down the road you have to walk through a “regular” cemetery to get to it. But it is worth the effort. Apart from the fact the hillside on which it rests is peaceful and bucolic, it makes a great location for plein air painters wishing to paint stands of large trees on sloping ground. And the chances of being disturbed by passers by, tourists or joggers is about zero – a definite virtue in a plein air site.
This is not to negate the historical interest of the place, as it gives us the chance to ruminate on the fragility of life and look-where-these-once-famous-artists-are-today. Some of the artists in the cemetery are still famous, others were famous during their lifetimes, and some have names that still resonate locally.
There are two gravestones and a memorial structure for the people who originally put Woodstock on the artistic map back in 1902: the founders of Byrdcliffe Arts Colony. Without them all the cultural institutions and events that followed probably would never have happened–including the famous 1969 Woodstock Festival (which actually didn’t even take place in Woodstock).
Woodstock became a Mecca for artists from the Byrdcliffe colony’s inception. Of all the artists who came to Woodstock and stayed and died here, perhaps the best known today are Milton Avery and Philip Guston. Both are buried at the cemetery, although I could only find Guston’s grave stone, which looks as if it has been renewed. Most of the gravestones are so covered in lichen that it is impossible to tell who they commemorate.
Although there is now a lot of creative history in Woodstock other than just art—music, drama, writing—it was Byrdcliffe’s artist colony that was the catalyst that started it all. The colony was the brainchild of a wealthy British couple – Ralph and Jane Whitehead – who had decided to create an artists’ colony in America, based on the utopian art theories of John Ruskin, which emphasized the connections between nature, art and society. They hired Bolton Brown to find the location for it.
Without Bolton Brown, Woodstock as we know it would not exist. It was Brown who chose Woodstock for the Whiteheads colony, due to its proximity to mountains and the Catskills/Hudson Valley landscapes. At the time – 1902 – Woodstock was just a small farming village with nothing outstanding to recommend it to the world at large.
Brown was an interesting character. He was a serious mountaineer—there is a mountain in the Sierra Nevadas named after him, and he often hiked with renowned naturalist John Muir—He lived in California for about 10 years prior to moving to Woodstock, where he headed the newly formed art school at Stanford University to be fired when he introduced mixed classes using nude models. The Whiteheads hired him because of his mix of mountaineering and artistic expertise.
But his relationship with the Whiteheads didn’t last long, as they hired novelist/poet Hervey White to be director of the colony. After major arguments with them Bolton was yet again fired, and shortly afterwards White also walked out. Interestingly, both men stayed in Woodstock.
Brown started painting landscapes in the then-experimental tonalist style, and his work was shown in the pivotal New York City Amory Show of 1913. However, he never achieved success as a painter, and in 1915, when he was 50 years old and 12 years had passed since leaving Byrdcliffe, he went over to England to learn the new art of lithography, returning in 1916. Once back he introduced this process to America, and became obsessively involved with the medium. He successfully transferred the tonalist style of his paintings into the print medium, and is best known today for his lithography work.
When he died in 1936 (at 71 years) he left a legacy of hundreds of paintings and prints, 12 volumes of notes on his experiments with lithography, and scores of published articles and books. In today’s parlance, he “pushed the envelope” in all he did, whether it was mountaineering (he pioneered new techniques), painting or lithography, and clearly he was not averse to taking risks.
And in his typically independent style, he created his own gravestone in the last year of his life. I think it is the most interesting object in the entire cemetery.
It’s a boulder from his back yard.
He carved his name and date of birth on the boulder before it was transported to the cemetery. Today most of the writing is either worn away or obscured by lichen–all I could see was a W and an N carved in the rock (see photos below). It was placed at the crest of the hillside slope that makes up the cemetery, and today is it obscured by three very large pine trees. I have no idea whether they were planted there at his death or just grew there wild. But the man, his fabulous gravestone, and the beauty of that vignette in the cemetery inspires me, far more than the more polished memorial to the Whiteheads in the valley below and the top-of-the-hill sculpture by Thomas Penning.
Here is what is left of Brown’s carving:
It is also interesting that Brown’s passion for lithography and printmaking still resonates in Woodstock today. One of the major areas of focus at the Woodstock School of Art is its state-of-the-art printmaking studio spearheaded by locally born artist and school president, Kate McGloughlin. Kate is certainly a spiritual descendant of Brown, and artistic printmaking continues to be alive, vibrant and flourishing in this valley.
Given all the characters who inhabit this graveyard, I have focused on Brown because, apart from his “founding father” status, he is typical of many of the creative types who have consistently moved to Woodstock ever since those early days. He was a maverick, highly creative and productive, and was always exploring. In other words, an inspiration to others and certainly to me.
It seems fitting to me that Brown’s gravestone/bolder is on the ridge of the hill at the top of the cemetery land, and the Whiteheads’ memorial is in the valley below at the other end. Hervey White’s grave stone is between these two markers on the other side of the cemetery. Between them, they make a triangle that traverses the entire space. Fitting for the three men (and one woman) who founded Woodstock as we know it today.
White’s gravestone is the only one of the three that is typical of the gravestones here—it lies flat on the ground. Apart from Brown’s bolder, all the other markers in this site are horizontal, so the dead have a view of the hills around them.
Today we ask, What hills? But back in 1934, when the cemetery was founded (as the Woodstock Memorial Society), the Catskills were still being extensively farmed—there were very few trees. When you look at the landscape paintings of the area from before World War II, they show hills and valleys completely covered in a patchwork of fields, it doesn’t look like “our” Catskills at all. The new growth forest that fill the hills and valleys today were yet to appear. Now the hills are obscured by large trees that have probably been growing for the past 50-70 years.
Other than Brown…
If you’re wondering what happened to Hervey White and how the major artistic institutions in Woodstock got started, here’s a brief rundown:
Hervey White became the founder of that other artistic institution in Woodstock: music. He started the Maverick Art Colony in 1905 which became famous for its outdoor music festivals—the first taking place in the early 1910s. By the 1930s such classical music luminaries as Benjamin Britten would be staying in Woodstock for extended periods, while by the 1960s, such musicians as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Levon Helm, were spending a serious amount of time here, which of course lead to the 1969 concert that was named after this town.
But that is another story. Our focus here is art. In 1906, Byrdcliffe teacher and tonalist artist Birge Harris left the colony to become director of the newly formed Art Student’s League of New York’s Woodstock School of Landscape Painting, which today is the now-independent Woodstock School of Art.
Post impressionist painter, Frank Swift Chase (actor Chevy Chase’s great uncle), lived in many different areas of the country, but always seemed to return to Woodstock. He was an early member of the Byrdcliffe art colony. In 1919 he and several other artists cofounded the Woodstock Artists Association (now Woodstock Artist Association and Museum), a now-venerable arts organization in the town.
If you are interested in looking further into the history and characters involved with the cemetery, or Woodstock’s numerous artistic institutions, here are some websites that may help.
There are several good sites discussing the cemetery and its inhabitants, as well as some recent newspaper articles worth reading. Of the entire list, the best is William Bjornstad’s well researched article in Find a Grave, which also includes excellent bios of all the major characters buried there.
Find a Grave: www.findagrave.com/cemetery/1512079/artists-cemetery
Woodstock Artist Cemetery: https://www.woodstockartistscemetery.org/
Times Herald Record: http://www.recordonline.com/article/20120527/NEWS/205270335
All art and photos are by Linda Lynton