LAST SUNDAY I found myself standing in a field with the New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl and the painter Lisa Jacobsen discussing the aesthetic qualities of bales of hay. We don’t confer over how perfect the corners were on a rectangular bale or how the plastic sheeting over a circular bale made them look like some kind of space-age marshmallows, none of that. There is no mention of the color of the hay. (It’s from last year. This year’s first cutting has only just happened here in the Catskills). We discuss what the hay has been turned into: Art. Crop art. We are judging Farming Bovina’s first annual Spring Fest Crop Art Competition. Other such competitions take place around the country. Towering Ferris wheels and castles have been built of hay, and come September there’s a month-long celebration of the material in Killington, Vt. Only we are in an isolated valley near a remote state forest, while someone in a neighboring field tills and sews rows of corn, and we take our job very, very seriously.
There is Hayhenge recreating Stonehenge in bales and Hooch Hay, in fact, called “Bernette Farms Underground,” a hay-bale speakeasy serving bourbon, created by three ad guys from Brooklyn. Gowanus, Carol Gardens and Williamsburg could be their names based on where they live, staking out the borough in all its hipness. Their entry is a bit meta. The name mocks gently(ish) another entrant, a local farmer. (That farmer himself is a former creative director for the financial services industry who’s upped stakes and moved to Bovina).
Made from hay-bale walls, the speakeasy has a window (at which you give the password for entry) and is under a blue tarp that works like a blanket fort secured on the far side by a pickup. Inside are pillows and a hay bale as bar. While I am inside the bunker/ blanket fort / speakeasy drinking bourbon (I’ve always been a malt fan myself for anyone looking to bribe me for votes in the future), Gowanus, C.G. and Williamsburg try to come up with a password. This being Memorial Day Weekend they settle on Lincoln’s Secretary of War. For those who don’t know, and I certainly don’t, it’s Stanton.
Meanwhile the real Burnett, Steve Burnett, has made something called “Through The Looking Glass.” It looks like two nearly identical hay caterpillars (one is covered in agricultural fabric) angled up trying to cross through a great wire ring. The installation needs explanation, a bit of didactic text, and drawn on a paper plate is a legend explaining that the bales are two crop rows, representing winter and spring. Encircled in white tissue, the hoop is meant to be a mirror. It’s all supposed to suggest the stark difference between spring and winter. This year the change is particularly noticeable given the week before there was a hard frost, and today it’s 83 and sultry.
Someone whispers anxiously that Burnett had wanted a flaming hoop but that wasn’t allowed, in fact seems downright dangerous what with hay involved. We three judges stand and circle discussing the merits of the work. I believe we even use the word, “work.” We nod and confer. Hands are clasped, sweat brushed from brows, whether from the heat or toiling to make decisions is hard to tell. The lilting sounds of dulcimers float over on the breeze, and it all seems like being in a Jeremy Deller piece, celebrating vernacular art. Turns out he is remaking Stonehenge himself as a bouncy castle for the Cultural Olympiad celebrating the Olympics in London.
Here though the field has a county fair feel; there are animals to pet and vintage farm equipment, 19th century seed separators that literally winnowed wheat from chaff. Only unlike our local county fair, there is no butter sculpture. Instead here in our remote corner of the Western Catskills, we have hay.
Bovina, New York could be the locus for all my feelings on living in the sticks. They lie somewhere between the name – Bovina(!) and that New Yorker’s art critic judges a competition of hay art for which there are only three entrants, or that there’s a nascent farm festival for a group to encourage local farming, that, in fact, there is local farming and that people want to celebrate it.
Just over three hours from New York City, the town of Bovina is nearly 45 square miles, 10 square miles bigger than Manhattan, with a population of 633. It was once famous for its butter, which was served in the White House, and the name apparently has nothing to do with cows but with being pastoral and having good pastureland. The name was doled out in 1820 when in fact there were more sheep than dairy on the hillsides. In any case, cows and picturesque red barns dot the landscape, and as you approach the village, called Bovina Center, there looms a large piece of graffiti: “Mr Ed.” Painted in dripping white Krylon, it never seems to fade or need refreshing.
Now that a talking horse makes it as graffiti here is one thing, but this is the land of Mr. Ed’s origin. He could be considered one of the region’s most famous residents. His creator, Walter R. Brooks, was another New Yorker contributor who upped and moved to the sticks – and I’m not thinking of Schjeldhal here, a part-time resident – but E.B. White. Brooks started to write stories anthropomorphizing animals for kids earlier than White (who lived not in the Catskills but on a Maine farm), and Mr. Ed was based on Brooks’ story “Ed Takes the Pledge.” Passing the graffitied boulder into the village, Bovina Center itself is little more than a crossroads. County Routes 5 and 6 meet here, and the village has a library, Presbyterian Church and a country store Russell’s. Here the lineman for the rural electric co-op and farmers stopping in for fruit pie, egg sandwiches and dollar coffee rub up against Brooklyn hipsters. Sporting facial hair and suspenders, the hipsters and locals can be hard to distinguish. This happens to me in the field.
There’s an awkward moment in the bunker where I ask Gowanus how long he’s been farming and what he raises. “Oh I don’t,” he says, and his friend, Caroll Gardens, hurriedly apologizes, explaining he has a studio near the Gowanus, that he works in advertising. At which point Williamsburg says with a nervous twitch to his voice, “You live here all the time?”
“Yes, all the time.” I say and gulp down the last of my whiskey. Bovina also happens to be a dry town. You can drink but not sell booze.
Outside, Schjeldahl and Jacobsen discuss the work earnestly, with a seriousness that’s both touching and imbued with a warm sense of humor. The three of us debate issues like the drawing and didactic text on Burnett’s piece and the rectangular bales and truth in materials in the work and which piece honors most the bales’ original shape.
Scheldahl stands in front of Hayhenge and talks about how if hay could choose to be anything, this is what it would be. He pushes up his glasses. Round and Coke-bottle thick, they make his eyes large and myopic seeming. He’s pale, with hair the color of straw aged in the sun, and he says if hay had a choice it would be monumental, lasting. Hayhenge realizes hay’s dream of being something substantial. Hayhenge manifests hays desires.
Obviously, we are anthropomorphizing hay, but I am convinced by this argument. Here, Hayhenge intrinsically is about the hay. I also like the idea of this lowly impermanent material having dreams and choices as well as the irony in seeing Stonehenge in hay. Still, I mount a brief argument for the speakeasy, talking about experiential art and how people are invited to join in and so on and so forth, thinking about work like the meals Rirkrit Tiravanija cooks and serves as art and Carsten Holler’s slides and upside-down funhouses installed in museums. Outside the bunker though, Schjeldahl points out that it could be made of anything, that the hay isn’t integral.
We amble on towards the big-top tent to award the prizes, and there’s something unsaid, that the bunker is a bit too meta with its inside joke riffing on the other Burnett’s name. Seeing it at first I’d assumed Gowanus, CG and Williamsburg were working on the farm for the other Burnett, the real Burnett, and there was an uncomfortable moment of confusion in the bunker where I was trying to catch up with the joke (itself a horrible feeling like the joke is on you). They had to explain the premise, and I tried to hide that I didn’t get, that for a brief moment I’d actually believed that the real Burnett’s name might be spelled “Bernette” and I’d been misspelling it all along. As we near the tent, no one mentions that the bunker somehow feels a bit too hip, a bit mean even. There’s a small suggestion though that serving hooch might have broken the rules – if not the law.
Under the tent, the Delaware Dulcimores play. Their ethereal sound spices the air making it sound like another century (listen to them on their website). Indeed the group’s next gig is at a Civil War reenactment, and the tent has a religious revival feel in part because The Dulcimores’ repertoire is old hymns and anthems and something about a tent in a field suggest a church meeting. Farming itself is going through a kind of religious resurgence in this country, and here Farming Bovina, whose pro-farm festival this is, is made up of people whose families have been doing it forever and incomers both.
A trestle table is arranged as a makeshift podium, and one of the organizers, town historian Ray Lafever, explains that the trophy, an old rooster weathervane isn’t for the winner to take home but will live at Russell’s General Store with the name of each year’s winner engraved at the base. People clap; Schjeldahl steps forward to announce the awards. He praises the bunker’s hand-painted sign, and when it comes to the other Burnett, the real Burnett’s “Through the Looking Glass” mention is made of the drawing and didactic text.
“Conceptual art,” Schjeldahl says, “is slowly making its way to Upstate New York.” Then Hayhenge, the winner, is presented. Its creator Jean Kormos bobs forward. She, in black jeans, white eyelet blouse, with blond hair in Botticelli-like waves about her face, is embarrassed and smiling. She ducks away. She’s asked to give a speech. There’s a sweetness to it all, like a play on an awards ceremony.
She swallows. “This is my first crop art piece, ever and I just want to thank everyone,” she says. Schjeldahl hands her the grand prize, a gift certificate to the country store, which later, she quietly hands back to the organizers as a donation to Farming Bovina.
In that humor and seriousness and kindheartedness, that meeting of high and low, local and incomer, is what could be called, “Bovina,” the one I’m obsessed with as a writer. Perhaps it’s a heightened, fictionalized version of the actual place. Despite how mythic the events in the tent by a state forest and remote field felt, Bovina does exist. It feels like it could be in a John Denver song, its country roads and rubbed-down Appalachian mountains combined with some orchestral strings, and a touch of country-politan. All of which is to say I’m going to keep writing about it, this is the first of my “Notes From Bovina.” And, I’ve already been asked back next year to judge the crop art. I said yes immediately.