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Being inspired to dream in Lake Placid

September 10, 2012
Commentary by NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - It is impossible to live or visit the Adirondacks without being influenced by the environment. That statement might seem a bit obvious, but have you ever sat down and contemplated nature's influence on how we see, think, feel, communicate and live our daily lives? Or how the Adirondack environment is different from others, or how it has changed our perceptions in a wide variety of ways - impacted our moods, our hopes, our desires, dreams or the actions we take?

This past weekend, the arts and humanities community of the region gathered together to do just that through a series of presentations held at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, the High Peaks Resort, the Palace Theatre and the Adirondack Community Church. Titled "A Place to Dream," the event was the brainchild of the Lake Placid Institute's board member and local hotelier Gary Smith, owner of the Northwoods Inn. The inspiration was a conversation he had with photographer John Radigan, who has been angling to visit the site of the 19th-century Philosopher's Camp held on Follensby Pond, where many of the leading artists and philosophers gathered for an interlude whose influence remains to this day.

The opening event was a reception at the Center for the Arts, followed by a lecture by the environmental philosopher Marianne Patinelli-Dubay, who is based at the Northern Forestry Institute in Newcomb, coming to it from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (partners include the Open Space Institute, Department of Environmental Conservation, Adirondack Park Agency, Adirondack Wild and Purdue University). She set the stage by raising the question, "How does the Adirondack landscape influence what we create, and when we push past the aesthetic - the trees, mountains, lakes, ponds, river and sky, the imagery in so many photographs and paintings - how can we show its deeper influence, not only in the visual arts but poetry, music, literature and other forms of creative expression?

Article Photos

Saranac Lake photographer talks with Betsy Lowe at the “A Place to Dream” event this weekend in Lake Placid.
(Photo — Naj Wikoff)

The next morning, Caroline Welsh attempted to answer that question through a tour-de-force presentation on how artists from the 18th century up to now examined the Adirondack mystique. A way of thinking about it is to consider the photographs of Nathan Farb; what is he really after? Nathan will haul an 8-by-10-inch Deardorff camera, heavy glass-plate negatives and other gear up mountains and out into swamps, set up and wait - wait hours for the light, which might mean several trips to the same spot before pushing the plunger to capture that special moment. Yes, he was concerned about composition and many other things, but Nathan was fascinated by what might be best described as a Mediterranean light, a light in that region influenced by the sea while here, where there is no sea, by the multitude of lakes, ponds and streams.

What many art historians and curators failed to see or understand was the importance of the Adirondack light to the abstract sculptor David Smith, who created hundreds of highly polished abstract steel sculptures that he placed outdoors so the surface would reflect the changing colors of fields, forest and sky - a surface that appeared to be a bit of a kinetic Jackson Pollack totally missed by those who view his work indoors in places like the Whitney or Museum of Modern Art - but not missed by Caroline Welsh.

In many ways the works of artists like Smith and Georgia O'Keefe, who had a place in Lake George, and contemporaries like Frank Owen of Keene open the doors to new ways of looking at the works of the Hudson River School artists so inspired by this region: people like Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand, William Stillman, Ingham, William Richards, among others. They help us see beneath the surface and find other facets of what those 19th-century artists were truly up to.

Following John Radigan's opening remarks about the radical changes wrought by digital technologies on film, not the least being the heightened impermanence of any image captured, Mark Bowie took us down two paths: one following Seneca Ray Stoddard, perhaps the most influential photographer of the Adirondacks, whose thousands of published photo and cards did almost more than anyone to awake the American public to this region and attract visitors as well as another equally prolific photographer whose work have been seen by nearly every visitor to the region since the mid 20th century, but whose name is known to a handful; and Bowie's grandfather Richard Dean, a prolific creator of postcards that heralded every aspect of the region for more than 60 years.

The arts festival continued in that vein, with presentations of seeing the Adirondacks via a variety of media through the ages. These included the feature film, such as when Mirror Lake, the Lake Placid Club Golf Course and other venues were used as winter settings for several scenes from the 1920 silent film "The Flapper," screened at the Palace and accompanied by Jeff Barker on their 1926 Robert Morton theater organ. "The Pride of the North Woods" is one of only three such organs in the nation still in its original setting.

Generally, around 80 people turned out for the many events, perhaps a little modest but not when considering how glorious the weather was most of the day and several other compelling events being held in town. Truly it was a commendable start.

"We wanted to create an event that would compliment the many sporting events traditionally being offered," said Gary Smith.

"I just thought it would be nice if enough people would come out to hear about the legacy of traditional forms," said Radigan. "Personally, for me, I feel deeply we have lost touch about what makes being human special. That we had such a good turnout was for me very gratifying. Any human endeavor - whether it is welding, building a house or painting a wall - is a journey. So many people today want to skip the journey and get to the end. To me the journey is what it is all about, as there is no end. There is a reason people sit by a tree. Seneca Ray Stoddard said at the beginning of the 20th century, 'Everything that is important is being lost.' We still have that same complaint today."

"I am happy with the day, with the quality of the programs and with the people, who all tried very hard," said Gary Smith. "You have to try out an idea to find out if there is a market for it. Our hope was to do two things. The first was to generate conversations, and I think we did that. The second, I felt if we were successful more people would decide that they could use the Adirondacks to explore their dreams. It will take a little longer to understand if we were successful on that score. We have the funds in place for next year. We will review the programs, the dates, make some adjustments and go from there."

"A Place to Dream" was developed through the collaborative efforts of the Adirondack Center for Writing, Adirondack Community Church, Adirondack Life Magazine, Adirondack Museum, Adirondack Photography Institute, Archives Partnership Trust, Lake Placid Film Forum, Lake Placid Institute and the SUNY College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry's Northern Forest Institute.



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