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Alums Revive a Tiny Town in Hudson Valley

11/09/2011

Sculpture alumna Bowie Zunino (far left) is one of the moving forces behind the Wassaic Project.

From the birth of The Steel Yard to reimagining downtown Providence through a major public art grant, RISD’s tradition of community engagement in Rhode Island and beyond runs long and deep.

grain elevator tower
Maxon Mills grain elevator, early '60s  

But the sustainable, multidisciplinary arts organization founded by two RISD alums in the tiny hamlet of Wassaic, NY, is different. The Wassaic Project, started in 2008 by Bowie Zunino MFA 09 SC, her husband Jeff Barnett-Winsby MFA 06 PH and collaborator Eve Biddle, began as an effort to restore a decayed seven-story grain elevator that had come to symbolize the decline of this former mill and ironworks town.

In three short years, the project has grown exponentially. It now includes an annual summer festival, a studio space, a printshop, a performance venue, a residency program, a workshop series, a garden and the town’s only bar, which the Wassaic Project reopened and now manages. “Not your typical art practice, I know,” Zunino says.

In some ways, the project is community-based art at its most experimental and expansive: It not only embraces a wide range of disciplines and partnerships, but slowly has come to be embraced by an entire town, on a very intimate scale – neighbor by neighbor, skeptic by skeptic.

“[Wassaic is] a really interesting place to make work, because it’s so small that we can tangibly feel how we’re impacting the community. But it also has this very unique set of circumstances,” says Zunino, one of a handful of RISD alums now living and working there. “It’s surrounded by all these wealthy communities, but Wassaic itself got skipped over. They moved the train line and the highway and a lot of the industry left, and it became kind of a time capsule.”

Zunino was still a student when she and Biddle had the idea to use the grain elevator and some nearby structures as the site for a summer art festival. At first, they envisioned the festival as a one-time event; they organized it between Zunino’s first and second year at RISD. By the time she had earned her degree, Zunino, Barnett-Winsby and Biddle all realized the project’s potential. But they also sensed that its true promise lay in forming a meaningful collaboration with the town.

“We realized the importance of inhabiting this project and really living it,” Zunino says. “We didn’t feel right parachuting in in the summer and putting on this big event and then leaving. That was a pivotal shift.”

 Summer Festival image
Henry Klimowicz, local artist, Bottle Caps and Bee Hives, 2009 summer festival 

Almost immediately, the project started growing by leaps and bounds. The first summer art festival in 2008 drew 40 artists, 15 musicians and about 500 visitors. The very next year, it attracted 2,500, with over 100 artists and 25 bands. This past summer, 3,000 converged on the festival, a four-day feast of art and performance that is both cutting-edge and family-friendly, with on-site camping and free admission.

 The festival is the culmination of a year-long calendar of art programming, including workshops for children and adults and a residency program headquartered at a converted livestock auction barn. Some visiting artists have since made Wassaic their home – including Lauren Was MFA 05 SC and Adam Eckstrom MFA 05 PT, the couple behind Ghost of a Dream, and multidisciplinary artist Breanne Trammell MFA 08 PR, who now runs the project’s print shop.

But the growing forums for artists aren’t the only markers of success. One of the project’s biggest achievements, Zunino says, has been launching a series of programs with the town fire department. The Wassaic Project may draw art-world phenoms like Doug + Mike Starn, but it also prints the posters for the department’s spaghetti suppers and pancake breakfasts. Zunino beams whenever she sees them around town.

“So all of a sudden we have this amazing archive of prints, and we could not be more proud that they are willing to work with us,” she says. “It’s challenging and scary learning to defend this work and being as honest as possible about what we’re doing. So to find these unexpected friendships, this unexpected trust, has been extremely rewarding and wonderful.” 

related links: 
Wassaic Project
Elevator for Grain, Reinvented for Art (New York Times)


tags: adaptive reuse, alumni, local/regional, entrepreneurship, interdisciplinary, public engagement, Photography, Printmaking, Sculpture, sustainability

Sculpture Foreground 3
  Crystal Ellis, Untitled - Eyes, wood, silverpoint, paint, latex