A fire that took place on Aug. 17 destroyed a part of one of the Rondout Valley’s cultural gems when it raged through the 1885 barn that served as the Gallery Building of the Bradford Graves Sculpture Park on Route 209 in Kerhonkson.
Graves, who died in 1998, was a master sculptor who had traveled the world and taught at Parsons School of Design and Farleigh Dickinson University. Like many of the greats, his work has been reaching a wider and wider circle since his death, and the sculpture park – the repository of some 200 of his works – delighted those who visited, a free gift to the art world from his widow, Verna Gillis.
Gillis and her current life partner, jazz icon Roswell Rudd, were in the city when it happened, having temporarily swapped their home near the gallery building for a friend’s city apartment. The news of the destruction brought sadness and shock.
Graves’ stone pieces that had been sited outdoors survive, but all of his works on paper were a total loss. Lost, too, was all of Rudd’s written music – notated, as great improvisers do, in a system of his own creation. Gone were the collective ephemera – letters, sketches – of all three long, creative lives.
“There are times when you know you have a choice to go either crazy or not,” says Gillis, an ethnomusicologist, writer, and comedienne (to name but a short list of her various creative and intellectual endeavors) about hearing the news. “I really pulled myself back, and I got it. One difference between fantasy and reality is that when you imagine a crisis, you imagine everything as unbearably terrible. In reality, shit is fertilizer, and you get to see the upside of the downside.”
The cause of the fire was determined to have been mice gnawing on electrical wires. “(Expletive) mice!” says Gillis. “The fire inspector and the insurance people agreed that was what happened, so everyone should be aware. Apparently, rodents have to be constantly gnawing or their teeth get too long and they die. Which honestly sounds like a fine idea to me right now.”
Despite the understandable ill will toward the rodent population and a loss that will probably go down as a big one in the history of art and music, Gillis and Rudd have rolled with the blow in a style that gives clues to the coping skills of true artists, people who live with eyes and ears wide open. “This is not tragic,” says Gillis firmly. “Tragic is when you lose people. This is an emotional balancing act between gratitude and grief.”
Not everyone would find the emotional balance to admire the artwork created by the fire itself. “Some of it reminds me of Pompeii,” muses Gillis. “One old light box actually melted in a way that made it into something much more beautiful than it had been. We’re going to dig a burial mound for the remaining stone – archaeologists can find it someday and wonder.
“We’re enormously grateful to the firemen. Everything was tinder-dry and there was a wind; another building started to catch but they caught it in time. Right now, it’s just overwhelming, dealing with the insurance company and such. Of course, a lot of what was in there can’t be assigned a price. My father’s letters…We’re the last generation to leave a paper trail. People these days leave digital trails. But it’s all right. My father always did tell me the first 100 years are the hardest.”
Next spring, Gillis and Rudd hope to involve the community in raising a pole barn to shelter what was salvaged and whatever may yet be created. And even a sidelong glance at the sheer productivity of these creative souls at the top of their game gives a clue to just how worthwhile that will prove to be.
Since the fire, Gillis has received the news that she’ll be performing her one-woman show Tales from Geriassic Park: On the Verge of Extinction, directed by Eva Tenuto at yet more Manhattan venues: at the United Solo Theatre Festival this weekend, Oct. 5, and at the She-Devil Comedy Festival later this month. It’s not hard to see why the production is a hit. How many people can make you laugh when you call to inquire about their recent grievous loss?
“I want to organize an event called The Fuckits,” says Gillis. “A bunch of us just get together and ponder and go though what’s on our ‘fuckit’ lists…in the moment, I am okay. A fire was never even really on my worry list; this has been very educational. So we are simultaneously doing well and having a really hard time. All that work, gone! You have to look for the reasons to be grateful and we didn’t have to look that far.”
Gillis says that right now, as the couple does their best to document the losses and regroup, well wishes are all that’s needed and much appreciated. Watch this space in the spring for news about a pole barn rising for the nonprofit sculpture park. To learn more about the works of Gillis, Rudd, or Graves, visit vernagillis.com, roswellrudd.com, or bradfordgraves.com; prepare to be amazed.