Nyack Sketch Log: Exhibition Shows the Seeds of Modern Art Sowed in Rockland Soil

by Bill Batson

A current exhibit on South Greenbush Road in West Nyack  features the work of a group of Rockland residents who introduced America to radical new ideas in expression, including impressionism and cubism in 1913.  This 2012 Nyack Sketch Log tells the story of how Rockland County has long been the home of major figures in American culture, leaving us a living institutional legacy: Rockland Center for the Arts.

In the contest to draw an audience for the arts, Rockland County is David to the Goliath of New York City. But when it comes to attracting artists to take up residence, the region has assembled a pantheon of American cultural deities worthy of Mount Olympus. Figures like actor Helen Hayes, composer Aaron Copland, painter Edward Hopper and writer Ben Hecht, to name a few, made their home in our neck of the woods.

American Modernism: 20th Century Influencers in Rockland


On view through February 23rd this exhibit features the work of men and women who broke from the norm and forever changed visual art in America. Artists include Maurice Heaton, Richard Pousette-Dart, and Mary Mowbray-Clarke and Arthur B. Davies, organizers of the pivotal 1913 Armory Show.

RoCa is located at 27 South Greenbush Road, West Nyack.

One Good Story

with Bill Batson

photo by Kris Burns

On Tuesday, February 11, from 6:30 – 9:30p, I will be filming interviews with local artists and community members inviting them to share their favorite story in front of a live audience.  Witness first-hand the interview process with the hope that you will replicate the format and tell your own stories. The interviews I record on the 11th will be looped together and shown in The Media Space during RoCA’s spring exhibit, Perspectives, which opens on March 8. Workshop participants will be encouraged to send in their interviews to be looped onto RoCA’s website. All ages are welcome, open to the community.

In 1949, Hayes and her talented contemporaries helped erect a temple to the creed of culture, staging  a benefit performance of the Glass Menagerie at Nyack High School. The play’s author, Tennessee Williams, drove from Manhattan to attend the performance.  On his way, he picked up his friend, author and South Nyack resident Carson McCullers. Joining Hayes on stage was the young actress, Julie Harris.

The performance funded the work of the Rockland Foundation (the organization would change its name to Rockland Center for the Arts or RoCA in 1970). Hayes was joined in this effort of cultural institution building by some of the most celebrated names in the arts including Copeland, Paulette Goddard, Kurt WeillMaxwell Anderson and Lotte Lenya. Mary Mowbray-Clarke, who with husband John Fredrick and abstract artist Arthur B. Davies organized the 1913 Armory Show in New York City that introduced French Impressionism and launched the modern art movement in America (and included the work of Edward Hopper), described their mission in a 1946 essay:

  • “To share with their neighbors whatever insights and power of expression they possess,
  • to help in the quickening of talent among children,
  • to take advantage of the presence in Rockland County of so many creative people”

The energy released by this big bang of talent continues to propel RoCA.   For its first few years, the organization operated from the basement of a building at 35 North Broadway. The group found a permanent home when Ms. Anne Emerson bequeathed her property in West Nyack to RoCA in 1949. The parcel included a stone and clapboard house dating from the late 1800’s, a small barn, and a chicken coop situated on 10 acres. Hayes headlined a fundraiser in 1970 at the dedication of a new building for RoCA, designed by local architect Charles Winter to accommodate galleries, studios and offices. The sprawling grounds have been transformed into the Catherine Konner Sculpture Park, which currently features 14 pieces of outdoor and site specific sculpture.

RoCA employs 45 instructors who offer 200 arts classes annually for everyone from the advanced practitioner to the hobbyist.  For 56 summers, RoCA has offered a day camp style arts program for children ages 5 – 12.

The face that frames the building in my sketch is part of an installation titled “Red Faces” by Monica Banks. This work was part of a series of dozens of faces exhibited in Times Square from 1996 – 2009. Like many of the sculptures that are on display in the Catherine Konner Sculpture Park, the Banks installation was made possible with the cooperation of New York City’s Public Art Fund.

Henry Varnum Poor

One of Monica’s sculptures was discovered in the yard of local blacksmith James Garvey, who fabricated the works for Banks.  RoCA was able to re-purpose Red Faces thanks to the generous contribution of talent and material from welder Peter Artin, who built the stands that support the sculptures.

With a 260-slot summer art camp, children’s winter classes, a year round Sculpture Park, an art school and a seasonal schedule of world-class exhibits, RoCA continues to honor the legacy of Hayes, Copland and their contemporaries.

We need to continue the tradition of investing our creativity and philanthropy in the local cultural organizations that were inspired by the world renowned artists that called this place their home. When we do, we can harness the brilliance of these luminaries, attracting cultural tourists and audiences from around the world to Rockland County, enriching our lives and rejuvenating our local economy.

Rockland Center for the Arts is located at 27 South Greenbush Road, West Nyack (just south of the intersection of routes 59 and 303) 845-358-0877

An activist, artist and writer, Bill Batson lives in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: “Exhibition Shows the Seeds of Modernism Sowed in Rockland Soil” © 2020 Bill Batson. Visit billbatsonarts.com to see more.

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