"Utopia-Utopia": Artists capture the unique style and environs of Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony

Vase with Leaf Pattern Overall, White Pines Pottery
Jane and Ralph Whitehead, 1915-26

NEW PALTZ — Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony, the oldest continuing arts colony in America (founded 1902-1903), has been an alluring destination for an eclectic group of artists, writers, musicians, and social reformers interested in utopian ideals. Isadora Duncan danced at White Pines; Joanne Woodward was involved in the River Arts Repertory at Byrdcliffe Theatre; Bob Dylan lived at Byrdcliffe; and, other notable people including critic/artist John Ruskin, artist Edna Walker, author Thomas Mann and naturalist John Burroughs were residents as well. Better known, during its early years, for the dynamic creativity of its fine arts and craft artists, Byrdcliffe is examined in two exhibitions opening at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art located at the State University of New York at New Paltz. A Designed Life: Arts and Crafts of Byrdcliffe, and Interpreting Utopia both open at the museum with a reception on Saturday, June 23 from 6-8 p.m. A Designed Life will remain open through December 9. Interpreting Utopia will close October 7, 2007.

A Designed Life: Arts and Crafts of Byrdcliffe

A Designed Life celebrates the newly developed collection-sharing partnership between the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild (WBG) and the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art. Continuing the museum’s mission of presenting important works of art created by artists who have lived and worked in the Hudson Valley and Catskill regions, the partnership will bring significant works from the WBG collection to the SDMA on long-term loan, where it will be exhibited, researched, and studied.

The exhibition showcases a representative selection of paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, ceramics and furniture, created by resident artists of Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony, antecedent artists, and those artists who remained in Woodstock after their residencies. The impressive list of artists in the exhibition includes Zulma Steele, John Ruskin, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and his wife Jane Byrd Whitehead (co-founders of Byrdcliffe), Edna Walker, Carl Eric Lindin and Arthur Wesley Dow. Works in the exhibition were selected from the collections of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, the Historical Society – Woodstock, the Woodstock Art Association Museum, and three private collections.

Over one hundred years ago the Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony was established in Woodstock, NewYork, and it would prove to be the catalyst that would turn this small town into a haven for the arts. Conceived by Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and his wife Jane with the help of poet/writer Hervey White and painter Bolton Brown, Woodstock was chosen as the site for a utopian summer arts colony. The dream of this foursome expanded and changed, morphing into something more complex and ultimately more durable than the original concept. Today, the colony continues to provide a supportive and stimulating environment in which writers, artists and composers can focus intensely on their creative work.

Interpreting Utopia

Untitled from The Villetta Series
Isabelle Lumpkin, 2006-7

Featured in the Howard Greenberg Gallery is a selection of work from photographers who have examined or taken as their inspiration the environment, landscape, and buildings at the Byrdcliffe Colony. Selections for Interpreting Utopia were made from the Center for Photography at Woodstock Artist-in-Residence program. WOODSTOCK A-I-R is a workspace residency program designed to support artists of color, working in the photographic arts, with access to time, facilities, financial, critical, and technical support. This activity is created with an emphasis on supporting artists who are at the brink of their careers and exhibit promising talent. Each resident is provided accommodations at the historic Byrdcliffe colony – a quiet idyllic environment enlivened with a community of fellow artists.

Exhibiting artist Isabelle Lumpkin came to Woodstock under this program. Upon arriving at Byrdcliffe, Lumpkin was unable to settle in and relax in the historic Villetta house as a solitary guest. The vast mysterious house, inclement weather and strange sounds, set the stage for her picture taking. Wearing her nightgown and a mask found tacked to the kitchen wall; and, drawing upon her fear and imagination, Lumpkin started photographing herself, in various rooms in the house. Her Byrdcliffe experience gave birth to the “Viletta” series – an examination of the phenomenon of Occult photography using the surroundings of Byrdcliffe as her muse.

Other photographers exhibiting in Interpreting Utopia include Kira Lynn Harris who creates architectural and environmental interventions – by using light and reflective surfaces; Stephen Marc whose project is comprised of photographic composites that address strategies of the Under Ground Railroad; Xaviera Simmons, who uses tools of the Black visual and verbal vernacular as catalysts to delve deeper into America’s social history and art iconography; Karina Aguilera Skvirsky, and her Byrdcliffe Series of photographs that investigate the environs of Woodstock through self-portraiture and the study of motion and photography; and Kwabena Slaughter, who modifies and redesigns cameras to suggest what photography might look like if it had emerged from a different cultural context.

RELATED EVENTS – free and open to all

Saturday, June 23
3 p.m Interpreting Utopia gallery talk by co-curators Ariel Shanberg, executive director, Center for Photography at Woodstock and Brian Wallace, curator at SDMA, in the Howard Greenberg Gallery.

4 p.m. The Arts and Crafts of Byrdcliffe, gallery talk by Carla Smith, executive director, Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, in the Morgan Anderson Gallery

5 p.m. Performances by exhibiting artists Isabelle Lumpkin (Interpreting Utopia).

6-8 p.m. Public reception for all exhibitions

Saturday, July 21
Family Day at SDMA – July 21, 1-3:00 p.m. Learn about the Arts and Crafts of Byrdcliffe via a museum detective hunt and art-making activities; advance registration required. Call (845) 257-3844. The program is designed for children aged 5-12, accompanied by an adult. Free and open to all.

The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art is dedicated to collecting, researching, interpreting, and exhibiting works of art from diverse cultures. The permanent collection spans a period of almost 4,000 years. Areas of specialization include 20th century paintings and works on paper, Asian and Pre-Columbian art and artifacts, metals and photographs. SDMA has a special commitment to collecting and exhibiting important works of art created by artists who have lived and worked in the Hudson Valley and Catskill regions. The Museum is a major cultural resource in the Hudson Valley serving a broad-based constituency from both on and beyond the New Paltz campus.

Museum Hours

Tuesday thru Friday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday, 1 – 5:00 p.m.

Admission is free

(845) 257-3844



As an experiment in utopian living inspired by the arts and crafts movement, the Byrdcliffe Colony was an integral part.

Woodstock is surrounded by the Catskill Mountains of New York State. Byrdcliffe lay on 1,500 acres of south-facing mountainside above Woodstock. This location provided the rustic landscape meant to inspire and elevate this art community as well as its offering of close proximity to New York City.

Artists, writers, musicians, social reformers, and intellectuals came from across the country to stay at Byrdcliffe and gain inspiration from the setting and people with shared artistic goals. Facilities included studios for painting, weaving, pottery, metalwork, woodworking; cottages and sleeping porches; a library, and a rambling villa for Whitehead and his family. He built "White Pines" as his residence with a skylit cathedral ceilinged weaving room overlooking a picturesque view across the Woodstock Valley.

The artist colony of Byrdcliffe failed to fulfill its goals of a self-sufficient arts community. It became too expensive and Ralph Whitehead’s dominating personality became a confining force. Byrdcliffe survived for almost 30 years under Whitehead’s vision until his death in 1929.

After Ralph Whitehead’s death in 1929, his widow, Jane, and son Peter struggled to keep the colony alive. After Jane’s death in 1955, Peter sold much of the land to pay taxes and maintenance on the heart of the colony which he kept intact. The Whiteheads intended to preserve Byrdcliffe "for the purpose of promoting among the residents of Woodstock…the study, practice and development of skill in the fine arts and crafts, as well as a true appreciation thereof…"

Although the arts and crafts utopian experiment soon ran out of steam, the continuing magic of Byrdcliffe enthralled many notable people including the educator John Dewey, author Thomas Mann and naturalist John Burroughs. Isadora Duncan danced at White Pines; Bob Dylan lived in a house at Byrdcliffe in the ’60s and early ’70s; Joanne Woodward was involved in the River Arts Repertory at the Byrdcliffe Theatre.

Upon Peter Whitehead’s death in 1975, Byrdcliffe was left to the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen who have continued to maintain and administer programs at the colony. In 1979, the Byrdcliffe Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its historical and architectural significance. Byrdcliffe’s cottages have been rented since 1984 only to working artists, maintaining sympathy with the founder’s creative vision.

The Byrdcliffe Arts Colony received its name as a combination of Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead’s middle name and his wife’s, Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead, middle name. The colony is still in operation today and is located on 300 wooded acres with 35 unique Arts and Crafts buildings on country pathways in Woodstock, New York.

Now owned by the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild (WBG), a non-profit arts and environmental organization with over 600 members, Byrdcliffe is the oldest continuing arts colony in America. The Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild is a multi-arts membership organization. Its Kleinert/James Arts Center hosts local and national performing, visual and literary artists. The WBG offers a variety of classes in the arts.

Byrdcliffe is an important regional example of the movement to create various types of utopian enclaves in America. Today, under the management and restoration efforts of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, Byrdcliffe continues as a place for artists to gain inspiration, live, and