Monday, March 24, 2014

Barbara Fairbanks comes to Opus 40

We may not know exactly what Harvey Fite's first thoughts were when he saw the abandoned quarry which was to become his life's work, but we do know Barbara Fite's first thoughts, because she told a friend, years later.

 Barbara Fairbanks Richards, recently divorced and with two toddlers, had moved from Washington, DC to New York, where her mother lived, and then up to the small village of Woodstock, because (well, this was 1943) friends had told her it was a cheap place to live. She didn't know much about its reputation as an artists' colony, but her father had been a well-known artist, and she soon met some of the local arts community, including, at a couple of parties, Harvey Fite.

 In a world of odd ducks, Harvey Fite was a particularly odd duck -- a self-taught sculptor, a Texas plainsman, part of the arts scene but separate from it, building something no one knew much about, in a wilderness of his own. He had lived on the Maverick, that center of Woodstock's creative community, but now he had separated himself from it, living some ten miles away in a time when roads were rough and flivvers were lucky to average 30 miles an hour-- if you had one. As Henry Morton Robinson wrote, "Some of the local artists cocked a supercilious eyebrow, others called him 'bluestone crazy.'" But for the beautiful young mother, with a background as a model and and actress in Rome, a debutante's life in Italy and New York, then marriage into the strait-laced formal world of the US diplomatic corps, there was an instant attraction. They crossed paths at a few parties in town, and one night he asked her to come see his place in the moonlight
  Whatever else that invitation may have meant, it was certainly an invitation to see his place in the moonlight. This was 1943. The amount of work that had already been done was amazing; the rubble that surrounded it, the work that was still to be done, staggering.

  As Barbara stood on the balcony of Harvey's beautiful but primitive house, still without such amenities as plumbing or electricity, the one thought that went through her mind was:

  "There'll never be room in this man's life for me."

  And I've always imagined Harvey standing next to her, saying to himself, "I'll never be able to get this beautiful, elegant woman to come and share my rough and ready life."

  And also, perhaps, less romantically: "Two little boys? Running around here? No way."

  But love, as it has a way of doing, conquered all. Barbara became not only the love of Harvey's life, but his aesthetic collaborator. They were to spend many more evenings, over the next 37 years, standing on that balcony, or sitting before the picture window, looking out on the work, as "month in and year out Harvey Fite continued to lift, cut, drag and chisel bluestone, until an enormous stage had been built against the backdrop of pines and mountains," and then as that stage became a sculptural work of unprecedented ambition and beauty.

  It was love that inspired Opus 40: love of a man and a woman, love of art, love of humanity. And we have a chance, now, to give some love back, by donating to the cause of restoring the hurricane-damaged area. Please consider a donation to our IndieGoGo campaign. You can make it here.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Harvey Fite and Opus 40, circa 1945

(This is believed to be the first article ever written about Opus 40. It's by Henry Morton Robinson, Harvey Fite's close friend and a major novelist of his time. We don't know where it originally appeared. There are a few minor errors -- Fite began his work in 1939, he taught full time at Bard -- but all in all, this is a fascinating look at Opus 40's early days.)

From an abandoned stone-pile, an American sculptor is quarrying immortality.
Henry Morton Robinson

Harvey Fite has a dream. Being a sculptor, his dream naturally follows the contour of stone -- preferably American bluestone. He is familiar, of course, with the classic sculptural materials -- Italian and Belgian marbles carrying imported traditions of beauty and durability. But it is bluestone, the native rock of Ulster County, that excites him most deeply, and has sustained him in the gigantic task of building, single-handed, a modern Acropolis at High Woods, New York. 

Fite combines with his passion for sculpture a desire to found an American craft colony. Two men have been his tutors: Hervey White, pioneer idealist of Woodstock, and Thomas Hart Benton, the noted American artist. From Hervey White, Fite learned the not-so-simple trick of living virtually without money. From Thomas Hart Benton, he drew the inspiration of an American Acropolis -- literally a "high citadel" in which sculpture could be exhibited on an outdoor stage worthy of its permanence and grandeur. 

The cornerstone (figuratively speaking) of Fite's Acropolis is his ability to stretch tiny sums of money a long, long way. This ability is not unique among artists. In Woodstock, as elsewhere, painters, poets and sculptors all live very close to the ground. Instances of a man subsisting on $200 a year are not uncommon. Food, shelter, and clothing are reduced to bare levels of simplicity. Corn-meal, lentils, home-grown vegetables and small game such as rabbit and squirrels, are augmented in the summertime by fishing; sometimes a few chickens are kept. Plumbing is unknown. Leaky roofs are patched with sod or tar paper; fuel is obtained by cutting down trees and sawing them into drumstove or fireplace lengths. Canvas paints and brushes make up the single greatest item of expense in a Woodstock artist's life. 

Fite's vision is as spacious as his life is simple. Always he has despised dusty indoor museums run by fussy curators; it was his ambition to build a platform on which the work of contemporary sculptors could be exhibited in the sunlight against a backdrop of rugged mountains. 

Harvey Fite had no capital but a pair of muscular hands and two eyes which never ceased to search for the ideal pediment on which to base his dream. Walking one day through a second-growth forest near the Hudson River he found an abandoned bluestone quarry, a vast man-made gash in a terrain of desolation. Actually, it was nothing more nor less than a dump, heaped high with jagged rubble. But Fite saw the horizon of round-shouIdered Catskills framing the quarry dump. “Here,” he said, I will cast my first stone." 

The asking price was high: $325 for twelve acres of rock that no one else wanted. He paid the owner $25 then and there; to earn the remaining $300 he taught sculpture at Bard College, directly across the river. With nothing short of immortaility in view, Fite began to clear his property in the spring of 1940. Before he lifted the first stone he planned exactly what he intended to do. In his own words he wanted “to create a sculptural landscape at the foot of Mount Overlook." To accomplish this he lifted with his own hands thousands of tons of bluestone rubble—not only lifted the jagged pieces, but carried them distances up to 100 yards to fit them into his scheme. Pieces too big to be lifted were either mounted on homemade wooden rollers or laboriously broken by sledge hammer. It was a titanic operation that a traveling crane might well have quailed at; Fite lost 30 pounds that first summer, but developed, incidentally, the finest pair of shoulders in Ulster County. And in the meantime he had transformed the chaos of rubble into a series of level terraces which were to be the pedestals for individual pieces of sculpture; his own, as well as the work of others.

Some of the local artists cocked a supercilious eyebrow, others called him "bluestone crazy." A few mockers seeing him stripped to the waist dubbed him Superman. But month in and year out Harvey Fite continued to lift, cut, drag and chisel bluestone, until an enormous stage had been built against the backdrop of pines and mountains. 

Then, on that stage, he placed three gigantic statues of bluestone, each a masterwork of the sculptor's art. The stone for these figures had been quarried in huge blocks by hand, using tools that Fite had picked up at local auctions. These figures each weigh upwards of a ton; the largest is 12 ft. high and weighs 6000 Ibs. They were lifted into place by a primitive but ingenious "chain-and-tackle" -- an indispensable part of Fite's equipment. The tripod of this hoisting mechanism consists of three enormous logs hewn from Fite’s own trees; the chain and blocks were salvaged from his quarry dump. When this contraption takes hold of a piece of stone it lifts! Fite swings a stone into its desired position, then rests a ladder against the face of the stone and begins to carve with chisel and mallet. A wealthy sculptor once presented Fite with a pneumatic chisel, but after giving it a fair trial Fite cast it aside as mechanical and unsatisfactory. He spends a great deal of his time restoring the blunted edges of his chisels, sharpening them in a homemade forge and by means of a foot-driven grindstone.
What was the allure of this stone that had so charmed the young American sculptor? Well, in the first place it iss really a tough rock -- the toughest of all American stone says the Petographic Survey. Marble, that classic of materials, begins to wear away under the caress of the elements after 30 years. Limestone about the same. Granite, dubbed the "rock of ages,” begins to crumble back to dust after 80 years. But bluestone, say petrologic authorities, outlives man's ability to calculate its permanence. It's natural bluish color modulates to weathered gray and silver as the years pass. The only drawback to working with this ageless stone is the fearful challenge it hurls at the sculptor. Says Fite, “The man who carves bluestone must create a design of lasting dignity, or his work will live to mock him.”
Fite's first experience in carving a statue worthy of standing against the huge spaces of mountain and sky, was somewhat disillusioning. What had seemed in the studio a heroic figure of a sunworshipper with upraised arms, became strangely miniature when silhouetted against the iron knees of Mount Overlook. Ruefully Fite admits that the sunworshipper must come down; it just doesn’t possess the necessary dimensions to stand exposed under the blue canopy of the sky. 

But with subsequent pieces Fite has been more successful. The landscape has forced him to expand his ideas of magnitude and he now composes with all outdoors in mind. 

Hardy though he is, Fite could not live outdoors through the severe New York winters. He had to have shelter, and with characteristic ingenuity set about building a structure worthy to stand on the fringe of his Acropolis. He found an old barn in a nearby field, made a deal with its owner, took the barn apart timber by timber and hauled it to the rim of his glorified quarry dump. He pulled the old nails from the barn timbers, pounded them straight and began building a combined workshop and temporary gallery for sculptural pieces he had already completed. In a two months vacation from Bard, where he teaches part-time, he flung up the skeleton of the building, roofed it tight, then turned again to his bluestone dream. 

Summer and winter the project of the bluestone Acropolis goes forward., Thus far, only a single acre has been retrieved from chaos; in his mind Fite carries blueprints for the development of the remaining eleven acres. It is really a frightening undertaking. With the plan still in its infancy, Fite has been accused of trying to emulate Pharoah and his ten thousand slaves in one lifetime. But this young sculptor, just 40, has no touch of megalomania. He is well aware that the endurance of one man may be insufficient to complete the work, and is looking for other young men to assist him in his task of exploiting bluestone's loveliness. Part time helpers from Bard College occasionally lend a hand. Fite's hope is to establish a permanent school in which young American sculptors can carve native rock under his direction. 

The terraces and pedestals of the bluestone Acropolis are open to the work of any sculptor who can create a stone worthy of a place there. And to assist those needier than himself, Fite has established out of his meager funds the Bluestone Fellowship which will be awarded for the first time this year.
Fite occasionally exchanges a day's work on nearby farms for milk, eggs or a little cash. The sale of a carving to a museum or private collector, sometimes brings in a lump sum of money which is carefully husbanded. His teaching job at Bard College pays him a small salary -- three-fourths of which he plows back into his bluestone project. 

The Fellowship is within his modest means, since it provides only tuition and lodging in a neat shack adjoining the quarry. The recipient (preference will be given to a war veteran) will have to forage for his own food. 

Harvey Fite, though not a big man, is tremendously strong -- not muscle-bound despite his bulging biceps and extensors, but graceful in his carriage and movements (he is one of the best square dancers in the country and formerly earned a little money by giving exhibitions of country dancing with an organization known as the "Cheats and Swings. ") Exposure to the elements has bronzed his skin; his flesh tones and bone structure give him some resemblance to an Indian. His hands have callouses though as an armadillo. 

Until recently a bachelor, Flte has now complicated his economic existence by taking a wife. This romantic step obliges him to work harder than ever; he is now on a hard and fast schedule of seven hours a day with mallet and chisel preparing for an exhibition of his sculpture this summer. He works the whole seven hours without stopping for food. 

Fite's Acropolis is strictly non-commercial. He will not sell a foot of his ground and no amount of money would tempt him to exhibit a piece of statuary he didn't think worthy of a spot. He has twisted stubborn beauty out of the most recalcitrant stone, only because he is more stubborn than the stone itself. And he has transformed a quarry-dump into a minor wonder of the world because he had the vision to see beauty where others saw only a heap of ugly debris.

Harvey Fite’s work will be open to public inspection for the first time this summer.