Sharing the Table

(Emily Simoness, front right, at dinner with SPACE residents and staff.)

River Gallo was suffering, and he was in love.         

This is the crux of what he’s trying to tell me as I stand in my apartment in New York City, holding the phone a half inch from my ear to keep it from sticking to my cheek. The East Coast is slogging through a stifling heat wave, and River has called in the midst of it to describe his time in Brewster, New York, at the arts residency called SPACE on Ryder Farm.

“To be an artist means to struggle!” he says, although he sounds oddly happy about it, as though he’s smiling.

I begin fanning myself with my notebook and ask him to explain. As he slows down and gets serious, I realize “struggle” is a topic he has spent some time thinking about. River delineates its different hues: there’s the productive kind, worthy of excitement, that moves an artist from one state to the next. But there’s also the stagnant kind that closes all possibility of moving forward.

This was the stagnant kind. When River arrived at SPACE, he should have been riding high. His short film Ponyboi, the first ever written by and starring an intersex character, had been celebrated and coproduced by British actors Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. Even so, he felt preoccupied by a lack of time and money. A festival rejection caught him off guard, reopened wounds he thought he’d exorcised through the film, and he rattled off an uncharacteristically reactive e-mail. Then he couldn’t focus. This was particularly troubling because he had just one week of precious time at SPACE. His thoughts scattered, and he felt guilty for not writing.

Then something changed. River paused and took a breath. “Suddenly,” he tells me, “it was laughable — the idea of spending time staring at a computer. The work became the experience of being on that farm.”

And then he fell in love. River describes his week at SPACE as one of enchantment, walking the paths, meditating at the edge of the property on the banks of Peach Lake, swimming in waters he swears are “healing,” lingering in deep conversation with other artists in residence. He spent a lot of time hanging out with the farmers, too, getting his hands dirty, talking to them about their planting, harvesting, solitude, and hard, physical work. The cultivating of the earth around him began to parallel a cultivation of his own soul. His week in residence became a rediscovery of something essential he’d forgotten about himself, in his words, “the reason why poets and philosophers and mystics have gone back to nature.”

 

(clockwise from left: the path leading to Peach Lake; the barn built in 1910 serves as an additional work space; playwright Vickie Ramirez works in the gazebo overlooking the farm fields. Photo: SPACE staff.)

 

For the last day of the residency, artists share a bit of what they’ve done, or not done, or thought about, or felt during their time at Ryder Farm. River wrote a poem, “Among Sycamores.” I asked him if he’d send the poem to me, wondering whether the magic might be lost on a computer screen in a suffocating New York City apartment. But when I opened River’s e-mail, his words sent some air into the room. His stanzas offered me a window to his experience:

Gathering, pulling weeds, Using your hands.
Your brave hands, unafraid of dirt.
Your large hands, that returned my body back to this soil,
Back to a homeland I’d become a stranger to.

When Emily Simoness first laid eyes on The Sycamores, the 224-year-old house on Ryder Farm, she had nothing more than a day trip in mind. She was twenty-five years old, a self-described “frustrated actor” in New York City, and in search of a diversion. She thought it might be fun to hop Metro-North up the Hudson, soak up some small-town charm, and visit the farm she’d heard about from time to time throughout her childhood. She knew she belonged to the seventh generation of Ryders who had been on the land since 1795, but this was more a curiosity than anything else — something she could tell her mom about, and maybe send a photo or two. But that day in 2009, walking under the threshold of the giant tree that arched above the crumbling house, her life changed. She had no way of knowing it, but she was about to turn her ancestral farm, with its 127 acres and eighty or so organic crops, into SPACE, one of the most unique artists’ residencies in the country.

A decade later, I retrace Emily’s path up to Brewster. At eight a.m. as I traverse 125th Street, inhale the spices from street carts, and ascend the train station stairs to the beat of music from surrounding apartment windows, I wonder how a town of two thousand people could have felt so alluring to a twenty-five-year-old city slicker. But by ten a.m., I’m bouncing past a barn turned performance space on a golf cart next to Julie Noble, Ryder Farm’s director of farming, and I’m starting to feel the charm. The big-box stores, demolition lots, plastic trash that streamed past the window as my train lurched north; all begin to fade as Julie pulls up next to a toolshed, unloads sloshing bins of flowers and herbs from the backseat, smiles at me from under her oversize straw  hat, and proudly declares, “Everyone is an artist. There’s an art to living. I create what we’re growing.”

When Julie escorts me back to The Sycamores, Emily is waiting on the porch. Her demeanor is casual, but when she asks me about my tour of the grounds, it is clear Emily is used to managing details — from visitors’ needs to residents’ work to vicissitudes of the farm — and has spent time orchestrating my visit. She looks “rustic chic” in soft cotton overalls — or maybe Emily herself makes the overalls look fashionable — and her long, blondish hair is arranged in a manner that’s haphazard but perfect at the same time. It occurs to me Emily might be uniquely suited to pull off an endeavor like SPACE, with her mix of elegance, industry, and willingness to level with you.

Of her days as an actor, Emily remembers feeling she had no agency. “I’d get up in the morning and just have to wait for someone. ” Her voice trails off. “Everyone in my community was like, ‘I have no time, I have no space, everything is expensive.’” For a moment, we listen to cicadas and look out over a flower-filled garden. Then she begins to tell me her story of this place.

Emily’s distant cousin, Betsey Ryder, had been farming the family’s land since 1978. By 2009 she was thinking about retirement, but if she stopped working the land, the farm would lose its tax abatement, and then the family would lose the farm. The eighty-six family members spread around the country cared about Ryder Farm, but no one was volunteering to move to Brewster to carry on Betsey’s work. So those two practical needs — Emily and her friends seeking affordable studio space and Betsey seeking support with the farm — collided. Emily brought up some actor friends who weren’t afraid of “sweat equity,” and they started refurbishing The Sycamores between rehearsals, dropping their tools and picking up scripts right there in the room they were fixing.

 

(Participants convene in the old barn. Photo: Jesse Patch)

 

In the midst of this labor, Emily began to feel something larger than just “free space.” She became attuned to the creaks in The Sycamores’ wooden beams, and learned the history of the Wappinger tribe, who lived on the land back when the giant trees were just sprouts. She heard how the land traded hands between the Dutch, a British Royalist family, and New York State before her family took it over after the Revolutionary War. She saw her own features in the somber portraits that decorated the walls. Her feet walked the uneven floorboards laid years ago by her ancestors; her ears took in the same music of the sycamores’ rustling leaves. Emily and her friends restored peeling strips  of original stenciled wallpaper, a faded blue one of her family chose. They ate together each day and looked out over the same horizon her forebears had observed while sharing their meals. They dusted off a pianoforte that hadn’t been touched in years, but that soon would thrill composers drawn to the unexpected harmonies coaxed from its untunable keys, always a half step off. This connection to the past enhanced Emily’s bond to her family farm and gave shape to her future vision of supporting artists, a vision that became SPACE.

She concedes there were many “oh shit!” moments. She jokes, “Because we didn’t understand what we were getting ourselves into, we got ourselves into it.” She laughs at the memory of her mother begging her to leave the farm and go back to acting.

But Emily was inspired, and by 2011 she had created a nonprofit. Eight years later, SPACE expanded its reach and took over Ryder Farm. This merging of art, farm, and community has deepened each year, and what started as a small retreat for actors now encompasses a 140-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, a calendar of community events, and a weekly booth at New York City’s iconic Union Square Greenmarket. The 150 artists who come through SPACE’s eight, highly competitive residencies also volunteer on the farm and share three homegrown meals a day at a long table outside The Sycamores.

“This is gonna be radical,” Emily remembers thinking. “Just the idea of people sitting down, eating together, honoring tradition, ritual, family. I think there’s a disarming that happens here, because you’re in someone’s family home, that allows for folks to access parts of themselves that can sometimes be challenging in institutions, where the buildings don’t feel like anything.”

This is the fast and profound sense of belonging River Gallo spoke of. “I feel like I became part of a family,” he said.

What’s a bit harder to pin down is how exactly this happens, and how farming and art making help each other thrive.

 

(Musicians Lauren Henderson and Michael Thurber perform at a Seasonal Supper. Photo: Em Watson)

 

THERE IS NO TYPICAL DAY AT SPACE. A painter in residence once dragged her easel to the garden and worked among the vegetables. A group of musicians renamed a cleaned-out chicken coop “Club Coop,” and billowed their compositions across the farm to mix with the songs of cicadas. Writers find endless nooks in which to hunker, or they take slow walks down the wooded path past the residence houses to Peach Lake. In terms of where and when to work, and what “work” even looks like while you’re here, the options are limitless.

This seems idyllic, but it is lost on no one that this place is a short-term refuge in a world that’s struggling both culturally and environmentally. In a stark expression of this parallel, public funding for the arts has dropped almost 13 percent over the last twenty years, with the current administration pushing for complete elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts despite its use of just four thousandths of a percent of the federal budget. “In some ways we were lucky because we never had the funding to begin with,” Emily says. “So it never went away.” SPACE’s early funding came entirely from Kickstarter campaigns, small family foundations, and individual donors, often in checks in the low hundreds of dollars. Emily herself was still running back to the city to pick up side gigs as recently as 2016.

Ryder Farm matches SPACE’s scrappiness with tenacity; it has prevailed despite the number of family farms in the U.S. having shrunk by two-thirds since the 1930s. “Ryder Farm was one of the first farms in New York State to be certified organic in the late ’70s,” says Julie, “and back then it meant a lot. Now with greenwashing, you can call a lot of things organic or natural.” Climate change looms over all of this, and Julie believes Ryder Farm’s original commitments to eliminate toxins and replenish soil must be defended more fiercely than ever.

If twenty years from now, instead of one long dinner table there were five dinner tables, the thing would have lost its thread.

The closeness of these struggles isn’t explicitly named in any programming at SPACE, yet it hangs in the air and informs the residencies. Every conversation I have on Ryder Farm somehow circles back to the zeitgeist of the underdog, the symbiosis of land and culture and an accompanying recognition that not much can change during the single week most artists are here. Because of this, SPACE focuses on long-term outcomes, values process over product, and prioritizes community and conversation, not results. To support this, they ask residents to give two hours each week to the farm and commit to coming together three times a day to eat. Although these seem like minimal requirements (who would balk at a directive to eat three delicious organic meals a day?), many artists are used to fighting for time, and arrive at the farm protective of it.

iO Tillett Wright, self-described “multihyphenate inspiration chaser,” came to SPACE with the internet radio service Stitcher as part of an Institutional Residency in which organizations apply for multiple spots. Leaning back in an Adirondack chair by the flower garden, iO becomes animated as he tells me about the memoir he wrote about growing up in pregentrified Lower Manhattan, his podcasts, and his photography project — ten thousand portraits of “people who are anything other than 100 percent cis or straight” that he plans to display on the National Mall. But when we start talking about studio time and space, he loses energy.

“It was always annoying, always horrible,” iO remembers of his time in New York. “God, if I just had a room, if I had a studio, if I just had space! A space to work was everything. And I never had it. Never ever ever.”

iO eventually moved to the desert in Southern California to get some consistency. But a feeling of scarcity is hard to kick, and he had a knee-jerk reaction to the requirements at SPACE. “I’m such a punk, like, don’t tell me what to do!” he thought. But eventually he came around. “I think it’s really smart of them to give artists access to the earth,” he says, “and a way of harvesting and interacting with the earth . . . which most people in their daily lives don’t have, and then just seeing what comes from that.”

Playwright and resident Anne Washburn concurs. “In New York, rent and space [are] at such a premium,” she says, “that it’s not realistic to grab the reins and do your own thing. Which is a pity because I think you learn astonishing amounts when you’re not beholden to anyone but yourself.” While artists want to be in places with lots of opportunities and other like-minded folks, often big cities, she wonders how much longer that will be sustainable.

All meals at SPACE are sourced from the farm, and the chefs and farmers make a point of connecting the work that’s done in the ground with the food that’s on the plate. Of her two-hour “giveback,” Anne says, “I did the harvesting! You sort of dread it beforehand, ’cause you’re like, this is two hours, this is my day, it’s always in the morning, which for me is an important work time. I get the concept and I’m happy to do it, but I’m always resentful. Until I’m doing it and then I’m like . . . ‘Oh, wow! My hands are in the soil!’

“Weirdly,” she says, “I have never done much actual writing here. The work you do here, or conceive of here, or the train of thought you have here, or the sort of association this place gives you with your work later on, just is going to change it. It will alter the DNA of the project a bit. I think there’s an associative thing when it comes to approaching that material later on.”

Pooja Makhijani, an essayist, journalist, and children’s book author, came to Ryder Farm with her six-year-old daughter last year as part of the Family Residency, set up to support artists who cannot attend programs without child care. This year she’s back by herself, working on a piece about a 1980s Indian cookbook that was a fixture of her childhood and that informed her relationship with her mother. “This place is so quiet,” she says, “and so far away from the rest of our lives. Meals provide a rhythm. This morning, the essay I was working on about this old cookbook. I sat by the lake, and in my head, no pencil, no paper, no phone, I just thought and let it kind of sit and just see where the pieces might go. I can sit and almost meditate on a piece in a way you just don’t do anywhere else.”

For Pooja in particular, as she resurfaced memories of her mother, her own daughter’s experience here just a year ago felt acutely present. “It was completely transformative,” she says. As her daughter played with the other residents’ children, Pooja felt rejuvenated and supported by seeing how other artist-parents do it.

During the day, while the parents worked, Pooja’s daughter and eight other children participated in perhaps the coolest and most eclectic summer camp around. “She swam in the lake, she fed the sheep, they did some farming, they sang Broadway tunes, they made hats!” Pooja says. “They made a scarecrow and made a persona for the scarecrow, and then wrote a poem or a prose piece about it and then presented that on the last day. So they were creating their own art and thinking about process.”

This year, as part of the Creative Residency, Pooja in some ways has come back to harvest what she and her daughter planted the previous summer. “We don’t have to produce anything at the end of the week,” she says. “You just see what propagates. Sometimes you plant a seed, and a bird takes away the seed, the seed dries out.  Sometimes a seed can be harvested at the end of the season. Or sometimes it’s like this big sycamore: it takes forever to actually do what it’s doing, which is shading us all.”

 

(All residents give back time during their residency, including helping with harvest. Photo: SPACE staff.)

 

THE LONG, wooden table that sits outside The Sycamores buzzes with energy even when it’s empty, as though the conversations, ideas, inspirations, and confessions it has supported over the years have been absorbed by its fibers. It changes throughout the day as the sun rises and sets over it, as interns set it with flower-patterned plates, as artists gather to eat and then scatter again to continue their work.

When I sit down for lunch, the conversation is already robust. Staff and residents together pass big bowls of salad and platters of veggie casserole, reaching to fill each other’s water glasses with a casualness usually reserved for family. There is a lot of laughing, a serious discussion about a playwright’s choice of wedding dress, and uninhibited calls for seconds.

Although residents cannot always pin down exactly what makes SPACE on Ryder Farm click, the power of this table is not lost on Emily. She has spent a lot of time watching it, fine-tuning just what makes the coming together three times a day so impactful.

“If twenty years from now, instead of one long dinner table there were five dinner tables,” she says, “the thing would have lost its thread.”

Sharing the table started out as more of a constraint than anything else; it just made sense to source from the farm and for everyone to eat together. But the meals are now a big part of the residency, an inconspicuous type of “programming” that grounds and defines each particular group.

SPACE staff receive twelve hundred or so applications a year. By the time they narrow those down to the fraction they interview, there’s no question that all the finalists are producing great work. Who is ultimately invited to join depends on a gut feeling Emily and her colleagues have cultivated over the years. Residents don’t necessarily have to be extroverts, but they do have to be people who are willing to try a different way of working, people who are willing to commune.

SPACE’s first offering ten years ago was the “general residency.” (Emily rolls her eyes. “Who wants to apply to that?”) They quickly changed the name to Creative Residency, and added on an Institutional Residency through which organizations willing to pay a sliding scale based off their operating budget could send several artists throughout the season. Next came the “Working Farm,” SPACE’s longest residency, in which writers come for five nonconsecutive weeks throughout the summer. Then the Creative Solutions Symposium week for activists was added to the roster, followed by the Family Residency, a Film Lab, and the Greenhouse Residency for emergent playwrights. There’s also a season extension in February — two, two-week residencies for four alumni. These all developed gradually out of needs expressed by artists in the field, and throughout, SPACE has remained committed to supporting all residents with full funding, and to ensuring 50 percent of the spots are held for people of color and underrepresented voices.

But inviting only nine to eleven residents at any one time means competition is steep, and the mix of folks at the table is critical. “The curation is within an inch of its life,” Emily says, and balancing it has become an art form unto itself. With the addition of the Creative Solutions Symposium, Emily began to think more broadly of who an “artist” even is, and she and the staff at SPACE deliberately began blurring lines between artists and activists. She remembers two women who applied to work on sex-positive education for Brooklyn schools. Somehow, this project clicked for SPACE, although it would not be considered “art” in most circles. But inviting them expanded Emily’s idea of art’s connection to society, and opened her eyes to the power of diversity at the table. She describes the women sitting across from a guy who was writing a Moby Dick musical, and how this unexpected mix added a creative spark to the energy of the group and trajectory of the conversations.

“I watched the dining room table for a number of years,” Emily says. “I found that the weeks that were the most impactful, or buoyant or sizzling, were the weeks when there were more and different perspectives at the table. I think there were a lot of weeks in those early years where it was pretty heterogeneous. And I found that when we really created a diversity of age, perspective, art form, race, that there was more of a deliberateness to the conversations and a bit more discipline.”

 

(A resident works at Peach Lake as the season ends. Photo: Talya Chalef.)

 

THIS DIVERSITY of perspective among artists and activists at SPACE has led to a perhaps limitless investigation into the nature of art itself, as well as its purpose in today’s world. The residents are keenly aware their time together is ephemeral, as is Ryder Farm itself, as is the giant sycamore that shades them as they sit at the table. Even in this beautiful spot, a feeling of mournfulness bubbles up. Climate change underlies many of the conversations.

“Coming after this hideous heat wave,” Anne Washburn says, “every day I am here, probably every hour that I’m here . . . I am continually reminded of the preciousness of this, and the rightness of this.” But she concedes it is not necessarily the duty of art to fix anything. “I think arts are about the things that trouble us. But I don’t think they’re about the solutions to what troubles us. But I think the ultimate goal of art, ideally, is to bring people to a better articulation of their problems. I don’t think there are any solutions.”

In a separate conversation, iO Tillett Wright expresses a similar idea. “Art is a conversation starter,” he says. “At its best it makes people feel things, and at its minimum it has to make people have conversations. Even with themselves. I think that when there’s a great failing going on, like how we deal with the earth, a large part of art/entertainment’s job is to push people to have those conversations so there’s an awareness of it.”

Starting conversations, questioning — as opposed to telling — seems not only to be the artists’ approach, but also Ryder Farm’s path to its surrounding community in Brewster. Each week’s CSA pickup is a “pickup party,” where members can linger and ask questions, or have the opportunity to watch SPACE residents share excerpts of their work. Once a month, the food share comes with an “art share,” so members who bring home a bag of veggies also get a poem, a link to download a song, or a full-length play tucked between their greens. There is no quantitative way to know whether, and in what ways, these art infusions might change the lives of the people who encounter them. But perhaps this mystery is part of the art itself, like waiting for a plant to grow or an idea to materialize on the page. The process becomes the product.

JULIE NOBLE loves driving Ryder Farm’s box truck into Manhattan. “With a box truck you’re above everything,” she says, plus it’s the only chance she gets to listen to hip-hop on the radio. She cannot find it much in Brewster, so a highlight of her week is to pack up the leftovers from the Union Square Greenmarket and navigate the narrow city streets back home, radio blaring.

Pausing our tour of Ryder Farm, she pulls the golf cart off to the side of a row of sprouting greens. Julie grips the wheel although the cart is turned off, and when her long, brown hair falls out from under her hat, she stuffs it back underneath with a dexterity and lack of vanity that makes me certain she is really good at her job.

As the new director of farming in the first season after Betsey Ryder’s retirement, Julie is grateful for Betsey’s work and legacy, but itches to do more planning, more cultivation, more experimentation of her own. She presides over six acres right now, and plans out the utility of the farm as well as the aesthetics of it. She imagines herself flying over it; she sees the farm from the standpoint of a bird or a bee.

“You’re flowing with it,” she says. “There is no past, there is no future, you’re just in the moment gliding with it. When you can do that with a plant, it is a kind of artistry.” Julie is always thinking about diversity of leaf shapes to help catch water and sunlight. Photosynthesis is king.

“I feel like it takes years and years on a farm to really understand the ecosystem,” she says, “what the soil needs, what the plants need, what you should let rest, what you should lay fallow, and what you should cultivate.” Seed breeders are her heroes. She gets goose bumps when the seed catalogs show up for the season; she is excited about this land and wants to grow everything. It is impossible to decide.

“Just thinking about Phacelia . . .” Julie’s face reddens. “It has these flowers that branch out like a fountain. Purple flowers, it’s all lacy. It’s really thick, so it’s a smother crop, so it comes up really fast and smothers out the weeds that you don’t want. With Phacelia — I don’t know, I just have an affinity for it. I’m a big nerd. There’s this song I sing, ‘Oh, Phacelia! I’m down on my knees! I’m beggin’ you please, to come home . . .’”

In addition to the greenmarket, Julie oversees Ryder Farm’s CSA, farm stand, and kitchen for the artists in residence. She directs the staff in harvesting and cultivation, presides over the farm’s compost pile, and brings unsold vegetables from Union Square to a program called Second Chance Foods in Carmel that makes them into free, prepackaged meals for low-income families. She thinks a lot about food security, climate chaos, and the role of the family farm in building resilience for the surrounding community.

Julie loves to see the SPACE residents’ faces when something shows up on the table that they harvested. Last week during their “giveback,” Julie asked them each to pick a sunflower that called to them and to put it somewhere on the farm they found special. “Flowers bring so much joy to people,” she says. “It was kind of like a mitzvah for the farm.”

We pause and look out over the expanse of the garden, the lawn, the old farm buildings converted to studio space. I imagine the residents carefully walking the grounds, considering one place and then another, and giving each flower its home. 

SPACE needs Ryder Farm in a practical sense, but Julie knows it’s more than that. “There’s been a lot of cleanup, activation of spaces, and real good juju coming in,” she says. “It is symbiotic.” Without the farm, she believes this land would quickly turn to “McMansions.”

And without SPACE? She doesn’t like to think about it. “Ryder Farm without SPACE, and the energy that SPACE has brought in here, and the rejuvenation of this land . . . I’m not sure. I think it would still be kicking, but I don’t know.” Julie tears up. “Tugs on your heartstrings to think about it.” O

 

This article is the third in a series examining how artists work and what life is like in communities that include working artists. It is published with support from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. To promote a holistic dialogue about the value of artists, the Tremaine Foundation supports a collective online space called Artists Thrive. Resources and tools within Artists Thrive help artists, arts organizations, and other groups that work with artists collaborate and craft meaningful stories about why art-making matters. Artists Thrive aims to identify the things that help artists pursue their vision and to enable communities to benefit from the arts in all aspects of life. More information can be found at www.artiststhrive.org.

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Samantha M. Harvey’s writing has been published in Dark Mountain, Earth Island Journal, Grist, and Truthout. She lives in New York City.

Comments

  1. This article tells it all. It’s beautifully written and draws the reader in so that you almost breathe the air of The Ryder Farm. For someone who has grown up in the country I have to say I take advantage of the fact that I can dig my hands into the soil whenever I choose and that has always seemed meditative and healing. For those pursuing the arts it allows the marriage of nature and creativity. Much gratitude to Emily and all those who have created SPACE and allowed it to prosper.

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