Woodstock, N.Y. Home to Artists, Writers, Musicians and Craftsmen

American Artisans, Iconic Communities, On the Road, People, This Week in History
on July 8, 2010
David Mudd Working in her studio, artist Katherine Burger cuts fabric to create one of her signature animal collages.

In neighboring studios, Katherine Burger, 58, cuts fabric into a bear shape for a collage while Erin O’Brien, 38, paints colorful geometric designs on a canvas with acrylics at Byrdcliffe Art Colony in Woodstock, N.Y. (pop. 6,241).

“Coming here is a gift,” says O’Brien, of Brooklyn, N.Y., about the isolated art colony in the Catskill Mountains. “There’s no stress. I read and walk and watch a wild turkey go by. I marvel at the raspberry bushes.”

Since 1903, when Ralph Whitehead founded Byrdcliffe, Woodstock has been a haven for artists and musicians, who stay for a few weeks or a lifetime. But since 1969, Woodstock has been more closely identified with peace and love, and the famous music festival that shares its spirit and name, though the three-day rock concert took place on a dairy farm 60 miles away in Bethel, N.Y. (pop. 4,362).

“We’re branded by the festival, but remain a community of arts,” says Joyce Beymer, president of the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce and Arts, a title that underscores the town’s history and identity.

Nearly 500 artists belong to the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, founded in 1920, and 20 other galleries showcase the work of local artists and sculptors. The town’s creative rhythms flow at drumming circles each Sunday on the village green and during poetry readings each month at Town Hall. America’s oldest continuous chamber music concert series began in 1916 in a barn-like concert hall built at Maverick, an art colony founded in Woodstock by Hervey White.

“Hervey was the first hippie,” says Weston Blelock, 60, vice president of the Woodstock Historical Society. “He owned a farm and would put artists up in cottages on his property for $5 a season. Artists who were struggling and starving could set up shop and conduct their business.”

Both White and Whitehead, Byrdcliffe’s founder, feared that the Industrial Revolution was killing the creative spirit.

“Whitehead’s mission was to get the artist back to nature so he could create these beautiful works of art,” says Carla Smith, executive director of  the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild.

In the early 1900s, Byrdcliffe craftsmen produced furniture and pottery. Today, about 40 artists-in-residence work in the original cottages and studios, creating everything from abstract paintings to photography, and writing novels, screenplays and musical compositions, which are performed at local venues.

In the 1960s, Pansy Coleman, a longtime supporter of the arts in Woodstock, held musical gatherings called Sound-Outs and helped spark organizer Michael Lang’s idea for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair: An Aquarian Exposition.

“Pansy had a farm and deli, and her place was the hub for young musicians,” says Julia Blelock, 56, Woodstock resident and co-author of Roots of the 1969 Woodstock Festival: The Backstory to Woodstock. “She was kind of like a den mother to musicians.”

Town officials nixed Lang’s plans to hold a music festival in Woodstock for fear of being overrun by crowds. Lang, however, retained the town’s name and leased a field on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel for the August concert, which drew an estimated 450,000 people.

Since the 1970s, Lang has allowed the town of Woodstock to borrow the iconic logo used to promote the concert. “It’s our symbol for everything,” says Beymer about the logo—a white bird perched on a blue guitar.

Woodstock shops abound with posters of famous musicians and former residents, such as Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, peace-symbol decals, tie-dyed T-shirts and other hippie-era mementos.

But the concert’s spirit of love and brotherhood continues to define the town. “Everyone pools their talents and resources,” Beymer says. “We had a walkway that was unsafe and for five Saturdays in a row, people brought equipment and laid a football-field’s length of stone. We hold benefits at the drop of a hat.”

Actor Dean Schambach, 77, is one artist who received an outpouring of community support and $9,000 at a benefit concert last summer to help pay his hospital bills after a car accident. “I was numbed by the love,” Schambach says. “It’ll take me forever to thank everyone.”

Such is the story of Woodstock, N.Y., where the arts, music and fellowship intermingle among kindred spirits.