How Woodstock got to be an arts colony

Like William Morris in News from Nowhere, Whitehead laid out his own ideal community and social order in his essay “Work.” It was a vision that placed a special importance on making the benefits of the arts available for all. Unlike Ruskin and Morris, Whitehead did not look to medieval Europe for his models, but rather to the ecstatic futurism of the American bard Walt Whitman, who had caught the ear of Whitehead and his Oxford buddies in the 1870s.

In the 1890s, Whitehead headed toward America with a mind toward making “Work” a reality. He married a kindred spirit in the Philadelphian Jane Byrd McCall. After a false start in California and a lot of visits to embryonic arts communities nationwide (including Ruskin, Tennessee), Whitehead and his two closest collaborators – the young writer Hervey White and the painter Bolton Coit Brown – chose Woodstock as the site of Whitehead’s experimental community, at Brown’s urging. “Well, all right then, let’s have it here,” Whitehead is reported to have declared while sitting with White and Brown atop Overlook Mountain.

Whitehead had met Hervey White through the agency of the prominent writer and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whom White had gotten to know at Hull House, a famous settlement house and a center of progressive thought in Chicago. Gilman wasn’t alone in regarding White as one of the most promising novelists in turn-of-the-century America. Another Midwestern writer, Theodore Dreiser, declared White’s Differences “one of the six great novels of the world.” Whitehead, Alf Evers suggests, found in Hervey White the perfect expression of Whitman’s America: educated but unpretentious and practical, committed to nature, experience and a life “off the grid,” as we would say today.

At great expense of money and effort, Whitehead realized his dream, founding the expansive Byrdcliffe Arts Colony in 1902 and quickly attracting a high grade of art teachers, students and residents, producing furniture, pottery and textiles and delivering affordable art to people of few means via printmaking. Byrdcliffe – on the surface, at least – modeled the harmony and productivity of a modern arts guild.

But the seeds of Whitehead and White’s falling-out were planted even before ground was broken on the seven farms that Whitehead acquired in Woodstock. White and Bolton Brown had both supposed that the fickle attention of their wealthy British friend would eventually tire of communalism and move on to other things, leaving White to assume management the arts colony as he envisioned it and Brown to be its head painting teacher. Whitehead, for his part, had perhaps given White the misimpression that he was an equal partner in the venture, which turned out not to be case once the ambitious 30-building Byrdcliffe settlement was up and running and Whitehead was fully ensconced as its unquestioned leader and “dictator” – a label that he reportedly enjoyed. Evers argues that, for all his reformer’s zeal and infatuation with the possibilities of Whitman’s America, Whitehead could never fully shed the old top-down class structures that he was heir to.

Whitehead’s dictatorial tendencies gradually chased away many of his core community members, including his prize catch, the landscape painter Birge Harrison; and eventually Bolton Brown, who was dismissed; and Hervey White, who slipped out of Whitehead’s circle, using a squabble over milk supplies in the dry summer of 1904 as his occasion for setting out on his own. With money borrowed from his fleets of loyal friends and admirers, Hervey White and several friends, including the mysterious Captain Van der Loo, bought a 102-acre farm on the West Hurley side of Woodstock. Here, White would establish the Maverick: his own more modest, democratic and genuinely welcoming take on the arts-colony model.

While the Maverick grew and prospered in its own shoestring way, welcoming artists and especially musicians and radical thinkers to its humble cabins, another development sealed Woodstock’s centrality in the story of 20th-century art. Inspired by a student who had been to Byrdcliffe on a scholarship, the Art Students’ League of New York City moved its summer school from Lyme, Connecticut right into the middle of Woodstock, where the bohemianism and wild behavior of these early Modernists shocked the old guard in ways that Whitehead and White never had. Together, these three institutions, cohabiting in Woodstock, formed the basis what would become known as the Woodstock Arts Colony.

Although Hervey White would have preferred to have been remembered as a novelist first and a social reformer second, the concert series that he started merely to pay for digging a well and that still bears the Maverick name is his chief claim to immortality. Ironically, although White’s wildly successful August festival paid the Maverick’s bills for years, it had to be shut down in the 1930s because it had gotten too well-attended – drawing upwards of 6,000 revelers – and too wild, foreshadowing that next chapter in Woodstock’s unique history.

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