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Living Arts

Anthony Cafritz’s Salem Art Works is a model of community spirit and sustainability

by Kirsten Ferguson on August 16, 2012

Drive down a residential side street in the village of Salem, and you’ll find something unusual even for a small town in rural Washington County. Next to a railroad crossing on a street lined with houses, a small lane opens up into an expansive 119-acre farm. You wouldn’t expect to find such openness right in the middle of a village, with scattered barns, woods, fields, streams, ponds and a hilltop pasture looking out across the village to the Green Mountains of neighboring Vermont.

Even more atypical is what you’ll find at 19 Cary Lane when you get there. A red metal sign with serrated teeth like a circular saw blade marks the road into Salem Arts Works, also known as SAW, a sprawling artist’s retreat, education center and exhibition space.

The grounds of Salem Art Works

The lane starts out paved as you drive past the sculptures at SAW’s entrance, including a large Nam Le steel piece that looks abstractly like an ostrich or a headless llama. The road turns rougher as it winds past repurposed barns and outbuildings that contain artists’ studios, galleries and workshops—including a blacksmithing forge, a welding bay, an iron foundry and a wood-fired ceramics kiln. “Please remember that we are a former dairy farm; all facilities are rustic and are greatly affected by the environment and weather,” reads a disclaimer in the SAW catalogue.

Eventually you come to grassy fields where SAW’s summer artists-in-residence, staff and interns live close to the earth in RVs, tents pitched on wooden platforms and trailers covered in artistic graffiti. There’s even one little camper on a hillside painted to look like a slice of pink watermelon with green stripes down the sides. Nearby is the Cary Hill Sculpture Park, containing modern and contemporary pieces by more than 70 artists, including American abstract expressionist sculptor Mark di Suvero and French conceptual artist Bernar Venet.

It’s all the grand vision of artist Anthony Cafritz, who grew up in a family of artists in the Washington, D.C., area before graduating from Bennington College in 1985; he then received an MFA from SUNY Purchase and lived for years in New York City, Vermont and other locales. Cafritz founded SAW in 2005, after searching for land to realize his dream of a space where artists could collaborate and freely experiment with new work. After looking at about 100 farms, he located his ideal spot in Salem on a former 300-cow dairy operation that had been vacant since the 1990s. (Disclosure: I grew up in Salem, back when the land that SAW now sits on was the Carlos Cary Farm.)

“This is something I’ve been thinking about since college—having an art farm,” says Cafritz. “This property is tailor-made for what we’re doing, in its footprint and design. It was on the market for years. If it had been subdivided, it would be just another anonymous place you drive through to get gasoline.”

He sits at a picnic table under a tent as artists drift in and out of SAW’s open-air outdoor kitchen at lunchtime. Next to him is SAW associate director Dianne Winter, who helps to organize and promote events like this Saturday’s SAWFest. Now in its sixth year, the eclectic one-day music festival brings together an array of top local indie bands. This year’s lineup includes My Pet Dragon, Railbird and the Black Ships—bands scouted by Winter, an avid local music fan.

“We can put on anything,” Cafritz says, pointing to one of SAW’s six portable telescopic stages. “We have a natural amphitheater here. I wanted to make this place have so many different facets—to be healthy and more alive.”

On an average summer day, SAW buzzes with activity, with about 25 people living on site, including Cafritz and office staff, college-age interns, and artists attending on self-funded residencies, fellowships and work exchange programs. In colder months, when two farmhouses provide the sole winterized accommodations, the number dwindles to seven.

Day visitors come for workshops in topics like glass blowing, welding, ceramics, yoga and printmaking; there’s an oil-landscape painting class taught by Salem plein air master Harry Orlyk. Other visitors come just to walk SAW’s grounds and trails, which are open from dawn to dusk. “We’re always welcoming people here from the community,” Cafritz says. “The place was acquired in part so the village has a park. People have been visiting [Cary Hill] for a long time. The mantra of this place is that this is for everyone to use.”

The overall atmosphere is communal, with everyone—including Cafritz—expected to pitch in to clean up and make food, and generally to be courteous and adhere to green principles of recycling and composting waste. Nightly group dinners are cooked on a rotating schedule using locally grown food, including food from SAW’s garden. “I’ve never been too keen on having a definitive hierarchy in anything. It doesn’t breed good things,” Cafritz says.

His inspiration for the loosely structured, interdisciplinary art farm came from Black Mountain College, an experimental liberal arts school founded in rural North Carolina in 1933. Closed by 1957, the college cultivated a collaborative, creative spirit and inspired many leading American artists, including composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and artist Robert Rauschenberg.

“Bennington College was spawned out of that approach to education,” Cafritz says. “Keep it simple but keep it open with an inherent structure and also have in place checks and balances where the mission or structure can never be corrupted or co-opted. The studios and facilities here are all working spaces. They can all be repurposed very quickly. Accommodations are clean but spartan. There are just enough tools so you can actualize an idea. The place’s simplicity is its strength. The idea is not to have a lot of rules here.”

at SAW Fest 2011

In part, the rural isolation helps to keep the pressures of the art world at bay, Cafritz believes. “We’re trying to maintain an atmosphere free of any kind of politics,” he says. “The time we live in now, everything is so commercialized. The art world very much reflects that. I feel you should be able to go somewhere for a month and have autonomy to investigate ideas free from any trappings of marketplace—to have a place where you can actually breathe and get in touch with your own thoughts.”

Cafritz has just returned from Germany, where SAW participated in its annual artists’ exchange. Called Salem2Salem, the three-week residency brings together artists from around the world to exchange new ideas and experiences. And coming events at SAW in September include the 6th Annual Intercollegiate Iron Pour (Sept. 21-23), which brings college students and professors from around the country to share techniques in iron casting. A Harvest Festival on Sept. 15 celebrates local agriculture with a community dinner of locally grown food, local craft vendors and a barn dance.

Through events like these, Cafritz hopes to not only involve the community in SAW, but also to support the economy of the small town he now calls home. In Salem, Cafritz serves as the president of the Chamber of Commerce, which seems quite astonishing to a longtime native (i.e., me) that such an esteemed local position would be granted to an “outsider” and artist to boot.

“I’m chamber president because I want to make what we do here really matter in a positive way,” Cafritz says. “I want to enhance what we are in Salem, not to gentrify it in any way but to improve the quality of life here so farming is even more trenchant than it is now. I’d like to see new businesses—smaller cottage-sized industries—and make sure Washington County will be known for farming for an indefinite period of time.”

SAWFest will be held this Saturday (Aug. 18), beginning at 5 PM, at Salem Art Works (19 Cary Lane, Salem). Tickets are $20, $5 children under 12, with free onsite camping. For more information, call 854-7674 or visit salemartworks.com.