Conversations on the Hudson

An Englishman Bicycles Five Hundred Miles Through the Hudson Valley, Meeting Artists and Craftspeople Along the Way

by Nick Hand

Hardcover, 111 pages, Chronicle Books Llc, List Price: $24.95 | purchase

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Title
Conversations on the Hudson
Subtitle
An Englishman Bicycles Five Hundred Miles Through the Hudson Valley, Meeting Artists and Craftspeople Along the Way
Author
Nick Hand

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NPR Summary

British graphic designer and photographer Nick Hand set off one spring day for a 500-mile bike trip through the Hudson River valley, striking up conversations with the artists and craftspeople he met along the way — including a seed librarian, a stone sculptor, a sheep farmer and a boat restorer.

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Read An Excerpt: 'Conversations On The Hudson'

Ken Greene, Seed Librarian

Accord, Ulster County

I'm Ken Greene, and we're at the Seed Library farm, our home.

I was working at a small town library, just over the Shawangunk Ridge from here. It was a book library, a public library, and I was learning a lot about issues, in terms of the loss of genetic diversity, consolidation of seed resources, while my garden was getting bigger every year. So I started learning how to save seeds, as a way of feeling that I can actually do something about these problems myself. But I didn't really feel like it was enough. So I thought, "Well, we have this great library system already in place. Kind of a radically democratic institution." It seemed like a good way of sharing seeds with other gardeners. So I added seeds to the library catalog. People could come in, check them out like a book, grow them in their garden, eat, pick flowers, whatever, as long as they saved some seeds from their plants to return to the library. The goal was to make sure varieties with regional history or varieties that are regionally adapted to the Northeast would stay adapted and wouldn't disappear.

It just grew from there and eventually my partner Doug and I quit our jobs. None of us could afford land — in this area it's pretty expensive — so by pooling our resources, a group of us were able to buy this place. That first building, the boarding house, we fixed up together and we all lived there for a couple of years while we were starting to figure out what we were going to do with the rest of the buildings. Doug and I built the cabin up there, and that's where we live now. The hotel and the mess hall are too far gone to save, but they're also too expensive to tear down and get rid of. So they're just kind of rotting for now.

We're establishing this middle field here as an orchard, mostly for ourselves, our friends, and our community. We've put in about thirty-five fruit trees, grapes, currants, and hardy kiwis — all kinds of stuff. Erin — she was a farmer before she started working with us — is always itching to come out and grow. So she's turning this middle space into a demonstration garden so that we can hold workshops here. People will learn about gardening, but also about how to integrate seed saving into the home garden, and see it in an actual home garden setting, rather than on the farm, which is a little bit different. The demonstration garden will also be our trial area, because we want to be able to grow, eat, and cook with them and know that "yes, this seed does really well here, and we love it," before we commit space to its production. So that's going to be helpful, the prerequisite for figuring out what seeds we're going to grow the following season.

All seeds have stories. It doesn't really matter to me how far back the story goes; it doesn't have to be a two-hundred-year-old amazing tragic romantic saga. Sometimes it's just the story of someone saying, "I grew this variety; here's why it did really well; here's how I used it; here's how I cooked with it; here are the things that I thought were important about this plant and why I think it's wonderful," and then passing it on to us. That's the story I'm interested in, as well as the bigger stories. Seed stories are always changing, even a seed that you might not think has a story because it's a commercial variety or it's been around a long time.

Part of what makes it so amazing here is that we're surrounded by woods. It's very private, very quiet and peaceful. I just ... love it back here.

Nick Zachos, Boat Restorer

Hudson, Columbia County

Well, my name is Nick Zachos, and we're in Hudson, New York, kind of halfway up the Hudson Valley, in between New York City and Albany.

We're here with the Eleanor, a historic yacht — a sloop — which sailed for many years on the Hudson River and is now in a warehouse in Hudson. It's ready to be restored as a not-for-profit venture. We're trying to turn it into a community project to learn about boatbuilding and boat design. Hopefully, we'll fix it up and teach people about sailing on the river and being on the river, which is something that's kind of disconnected from a lot of the towns on the Hudson River in recent years. Even though they're all right here, a lot of people don't have access to it and don't get on the water very much.

There's a little debate about when this sloop was designed. We think it was designed around the turn of the last century, early 1900s, by Clinton Crane, who was a pretty famous naval architect. The year 1905 was passed around, but some evidence may've come to light putting it closer to 1903. It would've been a racing boat. It's an incredibly sleek, long, narrow design, very hydrodynamic and fast. It's designed to turn very quickly, and to not draw a huge amount of water, because the Hudson River has some deep channels but, for the most part, there are a lot of shallow spots and you need to be able to tack in pretty shallow water. So it was designed for that, and it was owned by fairly wealthy families for the bulk of the century, who would've gone out pleasure cruising, or maybe even racing, on the Hudson River. I believe the family who owned it for the last fifty or sixty years used it as a family boat, and they would sail it up and down the river and go down to New York City.

At a certain point, when upkeep became a little too much, they decided that it should go to an organization that could take care of it, a yacht restoration school in New England. The school ended up not being able to take care of it and consequently defaulted. It came back to the family, who then thought of this idea — with a boatbuilder named Casson Kennedy — to try and restore it for the town and make it into a project that could happen here and involve the community in getting it back running again.

It would've had a single mast; it would've been a sloop, gaff rigged, which means that off the initial mast is another piece of wood that allows the sail area to extend more than it otherwise would, off of a typical single mast. It would also have had a jib on the front that would've increased its sail area. When it really wanted to have all sails out, it could have a decent amount of sail area. It's got a long narrow deck on top — that would've probably been a canvas deck — a very small cabin at the back, a little area that you could sit in while cruising. It definitely wasn't a pleasure cruiser. I mean, I think you could've gone and had fun on it and relaxed, but it wasn't a catboat or a wider boat, where lots of people could come and sit and drink martinis. I think it was designed to go fast in the water.

Right now we've got it partially sanded and scraped off. When we did that, we exposed three different kinds of wood used for the planks of the boat. It's double hulled, so there are the planks that we can see and, inside, there's another set of planks. The process that we're going through right now is very slow, but it's the correct and traditional way to fix a boat like this, which has probably been in the water for most of its summers, springs, and some falls, and then would get hauled out every year. When it would get hauled out, all the wood would dry out and shrink and cause all kinds of deformations in the boat. As the boat got pulled out and supported in different ways — and probably not all properly — the boat would've sagged at different points. Especially the long boat that we have here, the long narrow bow and stern have sagged over the years. You can see it if you step back. You can see that the bow and the stern actually sink down a good bit from the midship of the boat. In most boats along the sheer line — which is the line at the very top of the boat where the decking meets the planking — you normally see straight flat but often you see a smile in the sheer. In this boat, you can see a frown. You can see that it's actually unhappy and it's sagging.

What we're trying to do is to get an idea for the shape of the boat, in the traditional way of taking the lines off of the boat. We actually draw out exactly what all the lines of the boat are, like a blueprint for a house, except when you're doing that for a boat, you actually create what's called a table of offsets. You collect numbers of calculations of different parts of the boat in relation to one centerline down the middle, which then allows you to chart the entire boat. There are a couple of fun tricks that you can use to get close to what the original boatbuilder designed.

To take a boat that has been moving for a hundred years and changing shape, and try to get it back to that original form — if we can do it, that would be pretty amazing.

Michele O'Hana, Ceramicist

Lenox, Berkshire County, Massachusetts

My name's Michele O'Hana. I slip cast tableware, in porcelain.

I create functional objects. I want people to use them every day and if they break, it doesn't matter. It's just a piece — it's not for Sunday best or Sunday lunch. You know, my chickens eat out of the seconds. I want every piece to function and multifunction. The pasta bowls can also be serving bowls, or they can be soup bowls. The drinking cups can be pencil holders. I really want them to be used in whatever way that works for you. They're not special, precious things.

I work in my own studio. I make my own prototypes and my own molds, and I mix my own slip. The beauty of slip casting is that even though the pieces should be identical, they're not. They each come out with their own personality, their own texture, their own thickness, and their own form. I work slowly; I like to take time on each piece. I wouldn't consider myself a mass production potter. I'm interested in how intimate the process is, how each piece really has had a lot of my thought, a lot of my time.

With porcelain, especially with these forms, glaze can be really distracting. For me, it's either all about the glaze or all about the form. I want my pieces to be all about the form. Because it's for tableware and food, I feel like the purity of the food is maintained because it's on a white background. If you were to put a piece of meat on a green plate, it wouldn't look like a fresh, nice piece of meat. It would look like a rotten piece of meat. With the white background, what you're eating is exactly how you see it. The colors aren't changed because of the glaze.

No fuss. No thrills. I think this is part of the Irish way. Ireland's not a fussy place. The people are very straightforward. What you see is what you get, and I feel that's probably the same with my work. I've never thought about it, but what you see is what you get. There's nothing hidden under that glaze; it's just the pure form of the white porcelain and the white glaze.

When I opened the shop and the studio, I wanted somewhere to sell my work, and I realized my work looks better next to beautiful breadboards or beautiful linens. It's enhanced by other people's work, so that's really how the shop evolved. Plus, I have a lot of friends making things and looking for an outlet to sell them. Why not all be under one roof? We're in the same boat trying to do something with our work.

It's a joy to come to my studio every morning. I'm surrounded by the state park and by other artists and craftspeople: chocolate makers, musicians, yogis — you name it, they're here. My surroundings are important to my work. It's a very intimate place, it's a small community, everybody knows each other, and everybody looks out for each other. There's definitely a secure feeling of being part of a community.

Excerpted from Conversations on the Hudson by Nick Hand. Published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2014.