I had a wonderful time talking to Bobby Janiszewski about history, nature, and his part in the annual celebration of the Schoharie Watershed. You can tell someone is passionate about something by the way that they talk about it, and his words made it clear that our local environment is close to his heart. In curating “The Watershed: A Stream of Life,” [which was held at the Catskill Mountain Foundation’s Hunter Village Square throughout the month of May in partnership with CMF’s Kaaterskill Fine Arts & Crafts Gallery and Greene County Soil & Water] Bobby has created a way for our community to heal, connect, and thrive.
Tell me everything there is to know about “A Stream of Life,” like I have no idea what any of it is.
There’s a reason that the reservoir is where it is. If you were to look at a weather map of New York and divide it up as to where it rains the most, and where it rains the least, you would find that it rains the most here. That’s why it’s called “greene” county [Greene County is actually named after Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene], that’s why it’s got a reservoir, and a dam, because you collect more water by placing that not in the desert, but where it rains! That’s why it’s so much greener out here. All of this relates to the watershed. We’re about to get somewhere around three weeks worth of rain, snowmelt from Windham mountain, Batavia Kill goes right to Prattsville and flows into the Schoharie, and that goes into the dam. That’s how we get all our water. Each year, a series of events celebrates May as Watershed month. One of those events is this art exhibit, both digital photography and rendered art by the school districts that make up the watershed region. Those include Hunter-Tannersville, Windham-Ashland-Jewett, and Gilboa-Conesville, out of the Schoharie reservoir itself. The watershed is a place we all call home; a place of outstanding beauty and fantastic water. I always get a giggle out of the notion that some multimillionaire living on Central Park South turns their tap on, and out comes the water from my backyard! The watershed is an important asset for us but not only us. Throughout this broad region, including all of New York City, we have much to celebrate.
This all started the year after the hurricanes and storms of 2011 wrecked places like Windham, Prattsville, and Hunter. All along the mountaintop, community after community was devastated by floods and landslides; that’s a very negative thing about the streams and the waterfalls and everything else that makes up the watershed. The dam overflowed, the Schoharie overflowed, Batavia Kill overflowed. With tremendous effort people recovered, and recovery is still going on. After that negative experience with water, we thought it was fitting to point to the positives, so the first exhibition occurred one year later in 2012. This is a celebration of the watershed, and we like to think of it as part of the recovery – not only the recovery effort, but the mental recovery from the pain of that year.
I involved the schools right from the get go. From the beginning it has been a student based amateur digital photo and art exhibit hosted here at the Catskill Mountain Foundation, thanks to the generosity of Peter and Sara Finn, and with the extraordinary help of Carolyn Bennett and the rest of the staff here. I’m a volunteer. I describe myself as a chronic volunteer, I can’t help myself. I got waylaid, shanghai’d, and dragooned into this effort by the head of the local watershed office, Michelle Yost. She asked me to help out because she knew I had an interest in digital photography; I’m by no means a photographer, I’m just a retired teacher living up here because it’s gorgeous. She got me involved and asked me to coordinate this, so I coordinate, I cajole, persuade, pick up, drop off, construct, lay out, curate, all by myself. Except for one day when my wife takes off work and helps me put up the show.
At the start of year one, I said “how am I going to get amateur photography, how do I do this in a couple of months?” Well, being a retired teacher, my first thought would be the schools. So I started with the schools, and sure enough I found some interest – not a lot, but there was some. It was a burden, and of course no one had ever heard of me. “Bob who? I’ve never heard of you. Why are you calling me? What are you, a stalker?” I had to break through the spam files, and break through the mystery messages, and make the rounds to introduce myself, the concept, and what we were doing. In 2012, from the three school districts, we had 42 submissions. In 2013 we had 54 submissions. Last year we had 72 submissions, and this year we have 94. It has more than doubled in participation, interest, press coverage; we were even a featured stop in the I Love New York tourism campaign last year, this exhibit!
It’s a month long exhibit, so we open here at the Kaaterskill Fine Arts & Crafts Gallery on the first of May for the beginning of watershed month, and close on June first. The teachers involved are Ritamary Vining and Grace Patschke from Hunter-Tannersville, Brent Jones and Daniel Yolen from Windham-Ashland-Jewett, and Kristin Tompkins from Gilboa-Conesville, and all of the pieces come through them. There’s no winner and no loser, it’s only about getting the school kids thinking about the environment, the watershed, the place they live, and the beauty that surrounds us, and you’ll see that depicted in their work. We have a reception Saturday in the restaurant and the Executive Director for the Center of Photography in Woodstock will be there, and Francis X. Driscoll, a professional photographer who has worked for National Geographic and has shows all over will be there. He and I have done workshops in Hunter and Windham by request of the teachers, and this year for the first time I added something new: students who participate in this exhibition, if they wish to, can attend one of two summer workshops hosted by the Center for Photography in Woodstock. They’re week long workshops, and they’re tuition based, but if they participate in this exhibition we’ll pay for their tuition.
Every year something new is added, and every year we draw more people in. But the point of it is education about everything around us, and one way to celebrate that is through this display. At the end when the pieces are returned, every student will get a beautiful certificate of excellence recognizing their participation. Think about it from the kids’ point of view: something they did is hanging in an art gallery. It’s a big deal for some, and for a handful it may very well be the one time in their life that they’re going to shine, and that time is during this exhibit.
It seems like this is really about connecting the community and their environment.
I grew up in Hudson County New Jersey, right across the river from New York City. I could almost hit the Statue of Liberty with a rock from where I lived, yet until I was in my twenties, I never once visited the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, nothing. It was like no big deal. I’m sure that kids who are raised here and grew up here feel the same: this is like any other place, ugly trees, damn snow and cold, and whatever. They don’t understand where they are.
I actually talked to someone who’s lived around here their entire life, and I said, “aren’t those mountains beautiful?” They said, “I hate mountains, they’re just little lumps out there.” I was shocked! I said, “Did you just call the Catskill mountains little lumps?”
See, you tend to not appreciate things that are very familiar to you, or appreciate their uniqueness. You could even find quotes about that in the Bible, or in Shakespeare, about how your own neighbors don’t appreciate how brilliant you are. Then if you land in New York City and you’re a dress designer, people say “Oh God, look how pretty!” Meanwhile your neighbors are back home saying, “What? Maureen? Get the hell outta here.” By the way of using a quote: “Familiarity breeds contempt.” When you’re in the middle of something you tend to disregard it, it’s like nothing, everyday stuff.
A glimpse into history, narrated by Bobby: Our environment, our surroundings, the Catskill forest preserve, the watershed; this place is so gorgeous that 150 years ago, the Hudson River school of landscape art was launched by the beauty that surrounds us every day. The artists that launched that – Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Asher Durand, others – they came up by steamboat from New York City, Fulton’s steamboat, get off at Catskill, take a horse and buggy up to Palenville, went to those little boarding houses that are right at the bottom of the hill not far from the light, and stayed there. You know why? Because it only cost 75 cents a night. Those hotels up the hill, these hotels were a buck and a quarter. That was too much! So they would hike in from the bottom along the Kaaterskill, and little by little they worked their way up to these vistas, the Kaaterskill falls, places that are reasonably well known to people who live here now, but then it was an astounding discovery to them. People think that artists of the day would sit with their oils and paint the scene, but that never happened. They pencil sketched it, took it back to their studios in New York and painted it based off of that sketch.
I love telling this story. After they had all these paintings their art show would be in New York City, not here. Just picture a movie theater; ever notice how movie theaters have a stage? Just like in an auditorium there are stairs on both sides? Well that goes back to this. In those days, the artist would set up all his displays behind the curtain. When the art show began the curtain would go up, and people would get out of their seats after they paid to get in, and go up onto the stairs to browse around, and come down the other set of stairs. Anyone who wanted to buy a painting could then see the artist before they left the room. At that time there was French art, and German art, and British art, and Spanish art, but there was no such thing as American art; we were like the trash heap of Europe. No culture at all, ruffians, lived in woods, wore animal skins! So these here were sick and tired of getting trumped by Europeans, so when they discovered such beauty up here they thought, this is our opportunity. If we see that the New York audience is blown away by this stuff, then they’ll be blown away in London, Madrid, Berlin, everywhere else. The questions that always arose when they did shows were where is that?!? Can I go there? How do I get there? The very first wave of tourism started from that, when people said I want to go see this waterfall for myself…
All of those people are long gone, but what’s left behind are the very places they painted.