Up until last year, arts organizer Helen Toomer and her husband, art-fair producer Eric Romano, split their time between their Brooklyn apartment and Stoneleaf Retreat, an artist residency they co-founded in 2017 in the Hudson River Valley of New York.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shut down the art world, the couple decided to give up their Brooklyn apartment and completely relocate to the peaceful upstate retreat. But Toomer, a veteran arts professional who has directed several mega-events including the PULSE Contemporary Art Fair and IFPDA Fine Art Print Fair, couldn’t just sit idly and enjoy the picturesque views of the Catskill Mountains. An organizer by blood, she had to get busy with something.
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That’s when Toomer decided to launch the Upstate Art Weekend, which celebrated its second edition last weekend (August 27-29). From 23 participating arts organizations in the inaugural edition of 2020, the festival grew this year to 61 museums, galleries, and artist residencies, which all opened their doors last weekend to droves of visitors from across the country.
Stoneleaf is the epicenter and was the launching pad of the weekend festival. Located on a verdant pasture overlooking a scenic pond, the 20-acre complex includes a stone farmhouse and a wooden barn that were transformed into studios that host three artists at a time. A maternally welcoming place, Stoneleaf was created for women artists and their families, who are invited to two-week-long residencies that include accommodation in a wood cabin next to Toomer’s home.
In 2020, Toomer also created the organization Art Mamas with Katy Donoghue, editor in chief of art and design magazine Whitewall. It’s a supportive community for mothers in the arts, offering programming and networking opportunities.
“We wanted to create an inclusive place for parents to come and to be able to create,” Toomer told Hyperallergic in a conversation outside the studios on the second day of the festival. “When I had my son Harry, I really realized how incredibly difficult it is to be a functioning human and a parent, let alone for artists to have the time to make work, especially when there are so many residencies that don’t allow children.”
At Stoneleaf, artists are not expected to produce any particular work or contribute to a show. “Artists aren’t just about what they produce,” Toomer said. “If they just need time to relax and recoup, that’s important too.”
In one of the studios, Stoneleaf hosted a show by BEVERLY’S, an exhibition space and a bar in lower Manhattan, featuring hanging fabric pieces that resemble hammocks and a suspended chained metal piece that spells out the slogan “CHAOS ALLOWED.” In the other studio, an exhibition by members of the Female Design Council, a collective founded by Lora Appleton in 2016, presented works varying from conceptual ceramics to wearable sculptures.
In an expansive barn atop the studios, Brooklyn-based artist Hiba Schahbaz, a 2019 Stoneleaf alumna, showed a large-scale installation of paper cutouts featuring a group of seven, life-size, nude women figures painted with black tea. Two of the figures are winged and a third combines the head of a woman with the body of an animal. Some of the figures cup sleeping white doves in their hands and others hold flames or light. Titled “Garden,” the work carries Schahbaz’s signature style of nude female figures set in a dream-like environment somewhere between heaven and earth; but the use of paper cutouts is a relatively recent development in her work.
To prepare for the show, Schahbaz was invited for another two-week residency at Stoneleaf. “It’s been a blessing to be able to get out of Brooklyn for a minute and be in a place where I can ground my thoughts and have some peace in nature, without the direct ‘artness’ of it all,” she told Hyperallergic
Describing a typical day at the residency, Schahbaz said she rises with the dew for an hour of meditation and yoga, and occasionally enjoys an outdoor shower before sleep. In between, she creates her work at a calm, slow pace — something that a deadline for a gallery show doesn’t typically allow.
“I’ve been making these cutouts to make myself happy,” she said, describing the stress-free process of making the installation. “They’re not shown for a commercial purpose; they are meant to exist in this space and time, then come down.”
Outside the barn, children were playing on the grass while their parents were sipping beer and socializing. On that same lawn, a festive opening reception on Friday, August 27, was attended by more than 150 people. Pleased with the success of the festival’s second edition, Toomer said that she plans to extend it to an all-year happening.
“My goal is not just to connect people with the community here once a year,” she said. “I want them to come back and continue to support local organizations.”