Water, Earth, Stone, Art, and Architecture
The Mid-Hudson Valley is a known canvas for creativity and innovation—one of the main reasons I moved to the area. I am fascinated by the intersection of architecture, art, creativity, and freedom, and it is a privilege in this week’s column to pay tribute to two notable designers and builders who have been profound influences in my life: Nancy Copley and Harvey Fite. I believe their innovation and brilliance has gifted us improbable blueprints of possibility.
Have you ever felt stuck? Go to Opus 40 and you’ll sense creativity unfettered and a person in touch with a higher intelligence. I never had the honor of meeting its creator, Harvey Fite, who worked on it until his passing in 1976. I am close with Tad Richards, Harvey’s stepson, who once recounted that Harvey was good friends with mythologist Joseph Campbell who popularized the concept of “following your bliss.” Tad mused that Harvey Fite’s journey at Opus 40 seemed the epitome of such a life.
What began as a source of stone for Fite’s passion as a sculptor over time became an epic “Earth Work.” Initially, he placed his finished sculptures in the quarry and built pathways to view the pieces. But as time passed and he realized that the “pathways” were eclipsing his more consciously made work, he moved the sculptures off the quarry onto the lawn and into a museum he also built himself—and he kept making pathways.
Opus 40 is open to the public, if you have never been there—just go. It is almost incomprehensible that Harvey Fite lay every stone himself over the course of 37 years. It’s dry stone construction; there’s no cement used.
He had the artistic courage to improvise, and let go of his original concept, to allow something completely new to blossom in stone. He never made a blueprint. This amazes me. This decision involved years of effort and the hand placement of hundreds of tons of bluestone. The result is overwhelming and one immediately senses connection to the earth and nature’s inherent creative frequencies. Perhaps his creation is a human equivalent of the way a bird makes a nest, or, a spider, a web.
How interesting that Nancy Copley, another local visionary, would design her home and studio just 30 miles away. The site is four miles from where I live and over the course of 20 plus years she became a dear friend, and artistic and spiritual mentor. I learned some incredible lessons from this unparalleled designer, architect, and human:
- Time. Finding your creative voice, a connection to nature and a higher power, takes time. Let go. Don’t track time as a measure of progress.
- Costs. Don’t measure your investment in dollars. Let go of this societal metric and parameter, and look for attunement and joy.
- Purity in her use of materials: stone, wood, glass, and water.
- Simplicity. Nancy lived like a monk in a house she designed, building as she went. Eventually she built a barn filled with animals she tended to.
- Perseverance. Nancy worked at this for over 35 years.
People sometimes spoke disparagingly of Nancy’s efforts, like she was a crazy woman off in the woods. At times I heard people dismissively judge her effort saying, “Oh, she’ll never finish it.” On occasion, she’d lament her experiences of sexism and ageism.
Though she was a bit hermit-like, she also hosted many great events in her grand home. Wonderfully, before passing in 2013 she had the joy of being recognized both in Taschen Books as one of the best contemporary homes in the world, as well as in Architectural Digest in 2007 as one of 20 great houses in America.
Like Harvey Fite, Nancy loved laying stone and insisted on doing it herself. She told me the stones talked to her. As our friendship grew, I assisted: mixing cement, helping to pick and place stones in the front entryway, installing the central staircase, taking pictures, and making videos.
Long before we met, Nancy built a 44-foot tall, triangular stone tower. It functioned as the central support, as a chimney with fireplaces on differing floors, and as an encasement for two bathrooms. Nancy began tower construction with her first husband Peter Strauss. Peter passed halfway through the effort. Heartbroken, and by herself, Nancy kept going, completing the tower over seven years.
Nancy was short in stature, weighing in at 110 pounds at most, and seemed magically able to lift heavy stones for hours on end. Along with Opus 40, Nancy’s home is one of the monumental physical artistic achievements in America. For over 20 years, I was continually astounded by Nancy on every level, artistically, physically, intellectually, and as a political humanist. It was like having Buckminster Fuller or Frank Lloyd Wright as a good friend. Later in life, Nancy lamented the prejudice and belittlement she received as a woman in architecture, one who liked to build hands-on. While in school at Pratt she recounted there was not even a women’s bathroom in the building.
I also learned interesting, fun, and tangible things, like the joy of moving stones in a stream with a friend. I highly recommend you try this activity! You will discover the water provides buoyancy. Two people can move a stone much larger than you might expect by “floating it” to a new location. In this process you naturally and harmoniously blend with another person, sculpting the stream’s flow, and crafting the sound of new flow patterns—all while staying in tune with the existing stream and nature around it.
Nancy Copley was a humble genius. I had the fortune to be close to her and learn from her, and she had a profound impact on my path as an inventor and designer over our decades of friendship. I’ve done my best to share her with the world.
Please see links below for access to two online videos and articles I contributed to that highlight her incredible legacy. We also had a retrospective of her work at the Healing Arts Gallery at Ellenville Hospital six months before Nancy passed at the age of 85. Her work and spirit carry on.
Sometimes she still speaks to me through a hawk that lives and flies between Dug and Boodle Hole Roads. Several times it has swooped in low, following my car to say hello, and remind me to do my best, persevere when things are tough, and stay on the creative path.
Opus 40: opus40.org
Tribute to Nancy Copley
I Am a Builder – I Have to Build