Exploring Chatham N.Y. in a thunderstorm

There’s something mysterious and unexpected about walking into a greenhouse in a thunderstorm. Leaves trail overhead, and the rain sluices down translucent walls. I came through a door in Chatham Berry Farm, into an almost silent space in the maidenhair ferns, and felt as though I’d walked into another universe.

I’m here looking for a cup of coffee for the road, and the farm store is open even in early evening in a downpour. They’ll have strawberries and early greens in a few weeks — and I leave with a three-berry pie from a local bakery, which is tangy with fruit and light on crust, the kind of find that lightens the afternoon.

Chatham N.Y. has more than a few unexpected corners. I started the day in bright sun in a place hidden in plain sight and halfway through a transformation. Around the corner from the main street, Arthur Anderson is re-creating a former trailer park as a gathering of tiny houses with murals and sculptures and wood-paneled walls.

Anderson took time to walk with me around the Art Park and explain the work in progress. He is upcycling vintage mobile homes into eco-friendly guest spaces (some already up on AirBnB).

Several are already remodeled, re-sided with wood and insulated for warmth. Re-lined with light wood and long windows, a mobile home becomes a long open room, a high-ceilinged kitchen and bedroom and living room with quiet spaces around it. What once was a shed becomes a studio or a quiet outdoor space for a book or a glass of wine. A courtyard shelters a garden bed and a deck with an outdoor hot tub.

He is working on several more homes, he says. He has plans in the works for a creative residency program, — he will invite creative people and makers in to re-invent a living space, and they will have room to work on their own artwork while they are here. Artist Timothy Kelly has already created work inside one of Anderson’s first renovated homes.

Anderson imagines artwork throughout the park, he says, inside and out, with a communal gathering space and art gallery. He looks up at the old stone train trestle and sees a rooftop garden. The hillside becomes a grotto and a site for sculpture.

As we talk, I’m looking into a cupped hand as high as my collar bone and large enough that I could sit comfortably in the palm. It’s on loan from the OMI International Arts Center and sculpture park up the road in Ghent, Anderson tells me. Last fall ArtOmi announced plans for a new 190-acre site near here in Chatham to host permanent installations of artists’ works. Some 18 artists will create their own pavilions to hold their works, so they can imagine the space from the ground up.

Anderson sees the art world growing around him. He nods to the Circle Museum, Bijan Mahmoodi’s found metalwork sculpture on Route 22 in Austerlitz, and Roy Kanwit’s mammoth and mythic Taconic Sculpture Park in Spencertown. And he is inspired by the Shaker Museum in Mount Lebanon — which is coming here.

And then, around another corner, a gravel road winds uphill through an old farm, and I’m looking out at the Catskills. Trails wind through the tall grass and the old apple orchard, up to the open-air theater that holds Performance Space 21.

Storm clouds gather in a brilliant sky over Performance Space 21.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Storm clouds gather in a brilliant sky over Performance Space 21.

Understand me, the theater has a roof, and when executive and artistic director Elena Siyanko takes time to talk with me, we can sit dry through the storm with the spring air moving around us.

We are here to talk about the summer season opening this week — South Korean puppet theater, QDance contemporary artists from Nigeria, Haitian music with Vox Sambou, the Ukrainian ethno-chaos band DakhaBrakha … (watch here for more.)

We talk about the shifts we see in the art world, and the rocketing energy and courage of a new generation of dancers in Africa — and how to make art in the community, with the community, by and for the community. Qudus Onikeku and QDance will hold an event called Middle Ground on June 1, in the week they are here in residency, before their performance — a free community hangout, a shout, a circle for storytelling and exchanging ideas with neighbors.

The sky shifts dramatically overhead from rain to sun, half light and half thunder. And as it clears for awhile we walk the path along the hilltop, looking out clear across the valley. We look through openings in an organic clay-red sculpture where she tells me children play. The paths run down to the public park from here, through the old orchard trees. In the fall, she says, local families pick the apples for cider. Today they are in full spring bloom.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

If you’d like to see the website grow, you can join me for a few dollars a month, enough for a cup of coffee and a cider doughnut. Members get access to extra stories and multimedia, itineraries a bookmark tool. Let me know what you're looking for, and we’ll explore together.

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