The Wassaic Project: A Festival, a ‘Beautiful’ Flood and Now Art

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Spreading out among the grain elevator and mill, a century-old former hotel and bar, a schoolhouse and a cavernous livestock auction house/barn, the Wassaic Project’s elements to date include a summer camp, a haunted house, arts programming in the local school and an annual parade, along with its festival, residencies and exhibitions.

Last year’s festival drew 5,000 attendees. There’s a print shop, a bar and a pizza restaurant (with pies created by a Roberta’s of Bushwick alumnus) and perhaps, next year, a brewery.

They already have the equipment to start one, stored in the barn near the lunch counter where they’ve worked “performing” pancake breakfasts. The other day, the chilly space was brightened by a row of vintage aprons on wall pegs.

The Wassaic Project is a toothsome example of how artists schooled in social practice — that is, art that combines education, community engagement and social activism — can re-energize not just structures but entire towns like this tiny hamlet of just over 1,500 people that is the last stop on the Metro-North Harlem line.

One snow-flecked morning last week, Ms. Zunino and her husband, Jeff Barnett-Winsby, 35, drove a reporter through the eerie campus of the former Wassaic Developmental Center, a 1930s-era institution that was decommissioned a few years ago, half of which may some day — if the labyrinthine ways of Albany can be untangled — hold Wassaic Project offshoots, including housing.

“We’d like to make this place fertile,” said Mr. Barnett-Winsby, an energetic man with a stupendous beard. “Continue the energy of what we’ve been able to do in Wassaic.”

Ms. Zunino was in her first year of graduate school when her father, Tony Zunino, and Richard Berry, longtime preservationists and builders whose company, the Zuberry Development Corporation, has developed historic properties in the South Street Seaport, among other areas, finished stabilizing the old Maxon Mills in Wassaic, which they had bought as an act of preservation.

Mr. Zunino has a house in nearby Kent, Conn., and he loved the stately, wildly vertical structure, his daughter said.

At the time, Ms. Zunino and Ms. Biddle, who had done community work in Providence, R.I., were contemplating life after graduate school.

“We were reflecting on what communities were generous communities,” Ms. Zunino said. “I had grown up going to music festivals like Bonaroo. I wasn’t remotely a fan of the music, but I loved the spirit. People camping and sharing their food. So that was the inspiration. If we created a festival where the art wasn’t hippy stuff but serious contemporary art, could we create that kind of generous spirit, too?”

At the first Wassaic Project festival, 40 artists in various disciplines made installations among the grain bins and conveyor belts of the mill, and 15 bands played on a borrowed semitrailer truck. It was free (it still is), and drew more than 500 people. “We went door to door,” Ms. Zunino said, “handing out fliers.”

For the second festival, 2,500 people came, many camping on the rectangle of lawn in front of the old barn and livestock auction house that Zuberry had also bought.

At this point, Ms. Zunino and Mr. Barnett-Winsby, a fine-art photographer who had gone to Rhode Island School of Design as well and was also doing work that was not gallery-bound — documenting the lives of prisoners, shooting in a school for the blind — had fallen in love and were living in Providence, R.I.

A neighbor of Mr. Zunino’s who had donated some furniture to the Project offered them some advice along with his donation: “If you’re really going to do this,” he told Ms. Zunino and Mr. Barnett-Winsby, “you are going to have to live it.”

The first winter was punishing. Ms. Zunino, Mr. Barnett-Winsby and Dana Bunker, an artist who had finished a residency with them, began shoring up and readying the unheated auction barn for the following summer, living among a few buildings that Zuberry had bought to add to the Wassaic portfolio. (The Project rents the barn and the mill from Zuberry for $1 a year; the other properties, four houses including a former schoolhouse, rent for $1,000 to $2,000 each.)

Ms. Bunker’s boyfriend, Angelo Womack, a chef at Roberta’s in Bushwick, helped out, too, as did Lauren Was and Adam Eckstrom, married art collaborators who work under the name Ghost of a Dream. (Mr. Womack and Ms. Bunker left a few years ago to open a pizza restaurant in California.)

As the Project picked up steam, Zuberry bought the Lantern building, a century-old former hotel and still-running bar. (Ms. Bogarin, who started that first festival with Ms. Zunino and Ms. Biddle, had left early on to work on film projects; Ms. Biddle, still a co-director, works winters in Brooklyn and spends her summers in Wassaic.)

In the spring of 2011, a drenching rainstorm hit the frozen ground, and the hamlet was flooded. Mr. Barnett-Winby and Mr. Eckstrom of Ghost of Dream bought every pump they could find at Home Depot, and after they had pumped out the Wassaic Project’s nine buildings, they began pumping out the rest of the town.

It was a watershed moment, if you’ll pardon the expression. It took almost a week to drain the town, and the pumps that Mr. Barnett-Winsby bought ran continually, as he and Mr. Eckstrom worked in shifts with their neighbors.

“Everyone in town suffered,” Mr. Barnett-Winsby said. “And I think people started to see us as people, not just weekenders or what have you. That was really important.”

Ms. Was and Mr. Eckstrom, who have made installations and “paintings” out of used lottery tickets and the covers of romance novels, which look like exotic quilts or mosaics, kept most of their material in the basement of the Wassaic Project’s schoolhouse, where they were renting.

Lost in the flood were bags and bags of paper, including some of the stubs donated by the son of a man who had lost everything to a gambling addiction. “He wanted some good to come out of his father’s addiction,” Mr. Eckstom said.

“It was a beautiful flood,” Ms. Zunino added.

Nonetheless, that summer, Mr. Eckstrom and Ms. Was bought a house here, too, a 1934 cottage for just under $125,000.

Real estate prices are part of the calculus that may make Wassaic work as an artists’ community. Costs still range “from the mid-100s to the mid-200s,” said Arleen Shepley, a broker in the Millerton office of Elyse Harney Real Estate.

The Lantern building has been completely renovated, its upstairs reconfigured into two modern, airy apartments designed by Damian and Britt Zunino, Ms. Zunino’s brother and sister-in-law, who have a design-build company called Studio DB.

Ms. Zunino and Mr. Barnett-Winsby now live in one side. But there was a point, she said, when she, Mr. Barnett-Winsby, Mr. Eckstrom and Ms. Was, Ms. Bunker and Mr. Womack, and Scott Anderson, the Project’s music director, and Jeila Gueramian, the artist responsible for the Project’s haunted house, their two children and four dogs, were living in the unrenovated space, with plastic tarp where the exterior walls had been and just one bathroom.

They were in the weeds last spring, too, when their second daughter, Fenner, was born.

The Lantern restaurant was up and running, with Mr. Barnett-Winsby cooking and managing, at the same time he was project-managing the Zuberry and Wassaic Project’s buildings. He, Ms. Zunino and Ms. Biddle, who still works from Brooklyn, would seem to have vast reserves of energy.

“We’ve gotten better about taking some time to exercise, or be with the kids,” he said. “There’s a lot to deal with. Running the bar is my compensation,” by which he means the profits, if any, accrue to him, and he and Ms. Zunino live rent-free. “The restaurant is a wash, but not for the long term. We’re trying to create the place we want to be in. We don’t want to lose money, but we’re all willing to make a long-term commitment to this place. Logically, financially, maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But that comes back to social practice. We are doing things that are interesting and dynamic. Art is not completely rational, and that defines a lot of this.”

Art can be magical, said Nato Thompson, chief curator at Creative Time, an organization devoted to public and social practice art. (Last year’s collaboration with the Weeksville Heritage Center, at which artists opened health clinics and made other community-based work, is a good example.)

“It’s magical to experience things as a community together,” he said. “Even when the art goes, the relationships stay around. I think of the arts as a complex ecosystem. Social practice is a nice eddy in there. Wassaic may be just close enough to New York to survive. And I think what they’re doing is fantastic.”

Linda Gregory, 54, grew up in the area and runs the local auto repair shop with her husband, Jack. Ms. Zunino, Mr. Barnett-Winsby and their collaborators, she said, “have been such a positive influence. It’s been a beautiful transition of bringing buildings back to life.”

Last year, Zuberry bought half of the former institution from the architect Allan Shope, who had owned it for 10 years and had hoped to do some sort of sustainable housing there.

He grew tired, Mr. Zunino said, of waiting out Albany. At issue, he explained, is what the state is planning for the half it still owns: “There was talk they would put a prison up, and the last thing I’ve heard is they want to see some economic development up there. It’s all hearsay. We can’t find anyone to talk to, and nobody has been able to introduce us to anyone that will talk to us.”

He added: “We bought it to protect the investment we had already made in Wassaic. We didn’t want the campus there to become something that would compromise what we had done.”

Zuberry’s half (200 acres and 25 buildings) cost about $1.4 million, he said. “Maybe we’ll start piecemeal and organically, like Wassaic. Stabilize one building, and see what might work in there.”

“It was our dream that something like this would happen,” Mr. Zunino said of the Wassaic Project. “Left to our own devices, I don’t think my partner and I could have pulled it off. Their energy, that’s the magic they bring. The heart of any revitalization is not superimposing your vision, but engaging a community and working within the existing framework of what’s there.”

It was freezing in the mill last week as Ms. Zunino and Mr. Barnett-Winsby climbed the seven stories to one of the topmost grain-bin galleries.

In one, Manuel H. Márquez, an artist-in-residence from Mexico, had used the climate to his advantage, spraying water on moody black-and-white photographs so that they were frozen to the walls and embellished with glistening icicles. Ice chunks were displayed like sculptures on shelves hammered between the exposed studs.

It was a fine expression of adaptive reuse, this reporter thought. Ms. Zunino grinned.

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