Matt Bua’s places to come in out of the rain

Matt Bua’s “Catamount Museum” on West Bridge Street in Catskill.

Matt Bua’s “Catamount Museum” on West Bridge Street in Catskill.

Matt Bua – the Catskill creative force who built the two-story wooden cat alongside one of his adopted village’s main entrance roads, has a new book on imaginary architecture receiving kudos, and is organizing a 105th birthday celebration for the late boxing legend of a trainer, Cus D’Amato – says that when he was starting out as a collaborative visual/music/transmission artist in the 1990s, the term that he and his Williamsburg-based crowd used to describe their aesthetic was “crapsmanship.”

“New York was a great place to run around in with your head cut off,” he says, describing how his partner (and mother of his one-year-old child) always used to ask him to slow down while walking the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, lower Manhattan or wherever his next collaborative creative work was arising. “I had no interest in the gallery world; music was my number-one thing, and I’d be playing in seven bands at once… We were the second wave to hit Williamsburg, and we just plain kept busy coming up with stuff to do.”

Bua moved to Catskill about six years ago, after working on a project at Wave Farm, the free103point9 rural space that has since spawned the new WGXC-FM community radio project based in Catskill and Hudson – for which Bua serves as a council member and producer, and built the station’s wooden Catskill studio. He grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, where David Lynch shot his films Blue Velvet and Firestarter. His Dad, a teacher, liked to paint, shoot wedding photographs and build things. His mother has since become a dance teacher.

“I was around 10 when I pulled an old dresser outside and put a piece of plywood over it and realized I had a place I could hang out in and stay dry when it rained,” he recalls, talking about the genesis of what has become his key artform: the building of crazy temporary structures on an improvised, no-budget basis. “I figured that was a great thing to have created…and later I envisioned a little house park, which I made a drawing of, which would be made up of every type of building one could imagine, made small and non-threatening.”

Bua says that 1996 drawing and idea came back 11 years later, when he picked up a copy of the Pennysaver while he was spending time at the Catskill Center’s Platte Clove residency, following his stint at Wave Farm building a sound sculpture out of an old trailer, and decided to put in a “ridiculously low bid” on a piece of property adjacent to power lines on the outskirts of Catskill. “There was a shack, some junk on the site,” he says, looking back. “I brought up all these materials I had accumulated building things in the City, and made myself a cabin I could live in over the winter.”

Bua, you should realize by now, is hypercreative, fast-thinking and acting, and one of a new type of artist whose key motivation comes from the thrill of improvisation. He moved up from North Carolina in 1996 with his eye on the downtown music world of the time, intent on collaborating with the likes of Fred Frith and Bill Laswell. With luck, he happened into a regular gig at the Knitting Factory – the hotbed for such music at the time – and had a song picked up by guitar wunderkind Marc Ribot. For money he worked as a bike messenger, until he found work as an art mover, which he did three days a week for years.

For fun, he started making crazy flyers for bands. Slightly psychedelic, awesomely complex and chimeric in design and wording (“dense and unreadable” is how Bua likes to describe them), they fostered a following of sorts. Meanwhile he was collecting stuff off the streets and building structures in his Brooklyn loft, including whole inner cave/villages made from packing crates.

“I started collaborating with Jesse Berkowitz, doing 12 projects a year in public spaces that included a museum space on Governor’s Island that was like some building which had spilled its guts out; or a whole history of Roosevelt Island,” he recalls. Later collaborations included a “parasitic museum” attached to the rear of the Brooklyn Museum; a stage construction for a Richard Foreman Ontological Theater production; a clubhouse made of junk at the Socrates Sculpture Park along the East River in Queens; a soundproof crate world and later “space station” moved out to Islip, Long Island; an observatory; and eventually a mass of construction alongside the massive MassMoCA factory buildings in North Adams, Massachusetts.

“I just kept making things you could hide out in and not get wet in when it rained,” Bua summarizes. “We’d get given studio spaces, build in them and then have to take out every screw we’d put in and move it on somewhere. We were constantly getting invited and uninvited, working with places that would let us do things on our own without interfering…”

Was it easy for Bua to move his worlds upstate? “It’s cool for a while to destroy what you’re making,” he replies, “but then you want to take longer building them, do a bit more. I needed some place to keep my materials, my stuff.”

We are sitting in the WGXC studio that Bua has built, complete with cardboard mixing boards and doodle reproductions of great album covers, when a new project arises: some calls about the upcoming D’Amato event (see page 14 of this week’s Almanac for more information). Bua explains that it’s part of his emphasis on community-building in his new town, which has allowed him to build local fun spots (and take them down). There’s also his home, now expanded to at least two dozen structures (and always growing), including a central rocket stove, stream refrigeration and one of the best spots for mingling with the most interesting musicians and artists one can meet anywhere in the region, East Coast, nation or world when the weather’s welcoming.

“My ideas are endless,” he says after we take a glance at his book collaboration with Hudson-based artist Maximilian Goldfarb, a collection of fantastically fabulist no-boundaries spatial idealism, Architectural Inventions: Visionary Drawings, which stems from, and also feeds, their online archive at “I like things to be fun” – as they always are around Matt Bua.

For more on Bua and his building, visit – or just come to Catskill. He’ll be there.

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