Visiting Old Field Farmespañol
10 AM on Saturday: It’s a beautiful Saturday morning on the final day of September. I am riding an Amtrak train northbound from New York City to meet my friend Peter Nadin in Hudson, New York. The plan is that he will pick me up and drive me to his farm across the Hudson River in rural, mountainous Green County in the northern Catskills. I will then spend a day or so sauntering around his environs in hopes of getting a sense of his First Mark paintings. Although I have been writing an expose about his new work for nearly six months, I keep hitting the proverbial wall. Something about them resists the conceptual language I use to describe what they do—or don’t—mean. Peter is under the impression that a foray into the locale central to their creation will help. What follows are notes I scribbled into my journal From Saturday September 31st through the evening of the following day...
11 AM on Saturday: The late-morning sun sharpens the leafy variations of yellow and green from the window of the train as it zooms toward Albany. The Hudson River is placid and brown, calling out the rust colored trees on the opposite bank. I watch a cormorant spread her pterodactyl-wings and swoosh upward from a marsh beside the tracks near Garrison, New York.
12 PM on Saturday: Peter is waiting for the train, which is 15 minutes late into Hudson. He is wearing sunglasses, a denim button- down shirt tucked into same colored jeans, and brown leather boots. He is driving a brilliant blue 64 Ford pickup that looks he lovingly maintains. He greets me warmly and we drive across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to Cornwallville, the hamlet where his farm is located. Peter tells me a little about its history as we drive. Old Field Farm has the same boundaries as when it was cleared from the wilderness in 1790. Purchased by Peter and his wife, Anne Kennedy, in 1989, it sits on 155 acres on the northern slope of the Catskill Mountains (most of which are forest). The remainder of the land is wild bee pasture, habitat for goats and chickens, and vegetable and fruit gardens. David, a former student and friend of Peter’s, helps maintain the land from May to November.
1 PM on Saturday: Upon arriving, I am struck by the rickety elegance of the colonial farmhouse, situated a mere 50 feet from the road. Off to one side of the house is a mowed field in the middle of which sprawls a cluster of pines. The field houses a yard and shelter for six cashmere goats and a gaggle of chickens opposite a large fenced area for Peter’s two 150 lbs hogs. On the other side of the road opposite the house, a craggy, wildflower meadow stretches down into a forest through which a creek runs. Peter and Anne have just put up a tepee on the near bank of the creek. You can sit there and hear the clay- scented water cascade over the mossy brown stones.
2 PM on Saturday: Much of Peter’s art takes place around a small barn on the perimeter of the meadow across from the house. Stand- ing outside the barn, Peter surveys the Catskill Mountains, many of which are splashed with early foliage. He inhales the scene through all his senses, smiles, and then motions toward several black vats to the side of the barn. A small propane fire burns beneath one of them. Peter removes the lid and reveals its contents: indigo. The ingredi- ents boil down into a viscous paste that turns blue once exposed to oxygen. The other vats have cochineal and black walnut paste. Spread across the grassy slope upon which the barn sits are several 12 X 3 ft strips of Polish linen that will be used as canvas. Peter pulls one of them into his arms and dips into the vat of indigo, waiting several minutes before pulling it out and unfurling it across the grass to dry. The other strips have already been dipped in indigo or cochineal, or both; several bear sporadic imprints of the black walnut paste. Peter may soon affix clumps of dyed cashmere wool onto the linen with beeswax from his apiaries (which are located between the goat shelter and the willowy pond below).
3 PM on Saturday: I ask Peter what dictates his decisions when it comes to dye and the arrangement of materials chosen for each painting. He says that his aesthetic choices have little to do with ocular decisions. The smells, textures, colors and sounds of the farm, its animal population, and the surrounding mountains move him to add layers until he feels a painting is complete.
4 PM on Saturday: Outside it has begun to drizzle. Peter, Anne, and I are relaxing in the teepee gossiping about politics and animals. The sound of the creek filters through the smoke flap. A small ember fire burns. The earth beneath the floor rocks is cool and smells like clay.
8 PM on Saturday: Peter, David and I are sitting around the fire inside the house eating dinner and talking about the adventures of raising two hogs to maturity. Peter explains to David that earlier in the day the hogs escaped from their pen and plowed their way into the goat yard, reeking havoc and terrorizing its residents. Peter coaxed them back across the lawn with an ear of corn, which they followed hungrily. The whole farming endeavor has been an ad hoc experience, and Peter and David talk about it poetically. In addition to diet and shelter, they speak of getting to know the animals as fellow beings. Whether it is David, Peter, Anne, their teenage daughter Anna-Paige, Lulu (their terrier), the goats, pigs, chickens, bees, or deer, coyote, fox from the outside, the farm aspires to function around an ethos of interdependency.
10 AM on Sunday: I wake up rested to the sound of rain. The walls of the guestroom are lined with paintings of Peter’s from an earlier period. The paintings, most of them colorful abstractions with juxtapositions of image and text, feel removed from First Marks. I hobble out of the antique bed, dress, and within twenty minutes am driving with Peter (and Lulu) through the drizzle in a small farm RTV around the property that stretches behind the house (on the near side of the road). Lulu howls as we watch two musty deer leap over some brush, disappearing into a holler beneath a cluster of elms. We stop at structure that looks like an oversized hunting stand, but turns out to be a painting station Peter used in previous years. Over the hum of the engine he explains the role his frames play in the process. Peter does virtually all of his painting outside. He will hang the empty frame from a branch, or prop it against a tree or boulder as he works. The dimensions of the frame will help him make aesthetic decisions. He will stare into a copse of birch. He will hear the goats bleating, or the hogs rutting in the wet soil. He will smell the wood sorrel, the pungent odor of Cashmere wool drying in the barn, or wood smoke burning from the chimney. These emanations move him to make marks on linen using ingredients from the farm: honey, wax, bee propolis, black walnut, elderberry, chicken eggs, and cashmere wool. The final product moves beyond representation of the land- scape; it is the landscape, in a sense.
5 PM on Sunday: Peter and I are driving the Ford back to his home in New York City. The truck is full of wood for the winter. We are wearing muddy boots, jeans, and work shirts. I open a jar of fresh honey I was given and it fills up the cab with an ancient aroma. The smell triggers a question, which I ask: “Are First Marks like relics?” Through the Christian middle ages, the relic of a saint was much more than a symbol of the holy man or woman; it was the saint. The reliquary held a fragment of the saintly corpus, whereas the painting or icon was mimetic. Similarly, First Marks are the imprint of a pre-conceptual experience of nature pressed upon a surface using the ecosystem as paint. Just as the jar of honey filled the cab with the smell of the bee habitat, First Marks will fill the rooms of a gallery or museum with the essence of Old Field Farm in Green County in the State of New York at a certain moment in time. The viewer cannot help but find them familiar.