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Samson Contompasis

Photo: Kathryn Geurin

From the Ashes

A month after a fire demolished Albany’s newest gallery, individual determination and community support have made huge strides toward rebuilding

By Kathryn Geurin

Samson Contompasis seems completely at ease in his temporary role as construction foreman. No stranger to sweat and power tools, the hulking artist has sculpted stone and painted cityscapes that stretch for yards. But his latest effort is one of restoration and rebirth.

A month after an electrical fire burned through his apartment and gallery, Contompasis is shaping a pile of lumber into new interior walls in the expansive, gutted Albany loft. Sawdust sticks to a layer of sweat, and he steps onto the rusty balcony for a smoke, still volleying affectionate insults at his father and fellow artists working inside.

“If the gods want to test our mettle, then so be it. The show must go on,” wrote Contompasis in an open letter to friends, family and supporters of the Marketplace Gallery on the day after the fire. Five months and five art shows earlier, Contompasis and his two brothers had established apartments and opened a burgeoning gallery space in the old Greenbush Tape and Label building on Broadway. The fire claimed everything in Contompasis’ apartment except for a few photographs. Fire, smoke and water damaged artwork. Xena, the family’s beloved American Bulldog, was lost to the blaze.

“That’s the hardest thing,” chokes Contompasis. “I can laugh about everything else, even the artwork. We lived in Xena’s house,” he smiles. “That’s just the way it was.”

But losing nearly everything wasn’t going to deter the artist from continuing to build what he’d begun. “I’m trying to think of it as a chance to have a blank slate,” he says, “a clean, clear canvas. We’re pretty much just taking everything that the gallery was and improving on it. And really, that’s all art is, taking something and making it better.”

Less than 12 hours after the fire, Contompasis was back inside, boxing up whatever could be salvaged, tossing whatever was destroyed. The next day he’d begun demolishing the ruined interior walls.

He is at once wildly energized and deeply peaceful about the process. Over the shrieks of power tools, Contompasis shouts his serene philosophy. “That’s just what needed to be done. There’s nothing else you can do. My brothers and I all bucked up, packed up what was left, and started starting over.”

All three brothers are artists. All lost something to the fire. All are determined to rebuild. “We all create. Through that we’ve created a network, and that network has supported us through this.”

The day of the fire, the folks from Tess’ Lark Tavern in Albany contacted Contompasis to let him know they were already planning a fundraiser. This past weekend Silver Fox Architectural Salvage and Drops of Jupiter floral design studio joined forces in throwing a fundraiser at Albany Flea. Befitting the gallery they were organized to support, the events resounded with creativity and community. On Sunday, live music set a soundtrack for work on a communal painting. Kids in garbage-bag smocks worked alongside professional artists and 20-something hipsters. Cash donations taped to a whimsical blue money tree fluttered in the breeze, and fire-damaged art hung for sale alongside unscathed work.

After dark, a troupe of fire spinners put on a blazing show that spoke to Contompasis’ spirit of affirmative defiance—the element of destruction harnessed for celebration and rebuilding.

“The support has been magnanimous. It’s been coming from everywhere—fellow artists, people who have never seen our place, people who had never even heard of it, people who knew all about it, even people that literally just feel bad about losing Xena.”

The efforts have already raised between $2,000 and $3,000, with donations ranging from $1 raffle tickets to $500 checks, and every penny has gone to buy building materials. “Thanks to all the support, we have the means to just go get our materials and get to work,” say Contompasis. “We haven’t had to waste time wondering where we’re going to get wood or screws. All our energy has been put toward rebuilding. It’s very motivating.”

The first fundraiser raised enough for Contompasis to purchase the lumber and begin rebuilding. The second funded the purchase of the rest of the lumber and some of the wiring. “It’s all been happening in phases,” says Contompasis, “Putnam Den in Saratoga, I just did a gigantic mural up there, they offered to help in any way they could, so we’re planning an event there sometime in mid to late October. We still have to buy outlets and lighting, around 100 pieces of sheetrock, we have a ways to go, but we’re going.”

On Sept. 4—the third anniversary of Albany’s 1st Friday, and only two weeks after the fire—Contompasis mounted Epic, the art show he’d been planning to open that evening. “A fire is not going to stop me from having a show,” he insists. “I already had the artists lined up. I just needed walls to hang it on.” Space at 4 Central Ave. was donated as a temporary home for the gallery, and the show went forward as planned.

Contompasis hopes to reopen the Marketplace gallery in early November, and a short visit to the bustling site makes that daunting goal seem entirely achievable.

“I want every person who walks into this place to see where the money went,” says Contempassis, surveying the still-hollow shell of the loft, his vision of the future sparking behind his eyes. “I want the entire gallery to say thank you, to show people that this is beautiful—that every one of them was part of this rebirth.”

(l-r) Sina Hickey and Melanie O'Malley

Photo: Josh Potter

Random Acts of Creativity

Paper Girl delivers a new brand of public art to Albany

By Josh Potter

Modesty comes quick to Sina Hickey, but when the artist and University at Albany student defers to the many people who make her current project, Paper Girl, possible, it’s not self-effacing—she literally wouldn’t be able to do it without them.

This spring, Hickey happened upon a Web site created by an artist in Berlin, Germany, that documented a project she’d undertaken for the past four years. In response to legislation that would have equated bill posting with spray painting, the artist devised a new method for creating and distributing public art. The idea was fourfold: First she’d solicit submissions of artwork from friends and begin accepting donated work from whoever wanted to take part. Having culled the desired amount of art, she’d display the work in a standard gallery show. Then, with the help of friends, she’d roll the work into portable scrolls that could be delivered via bicycle in the manner of a paper boy/girl. After the work had all been passed out at random, all over Berlin, she’d throw a party for everyone who had been on either the giving or receiving end. Playing with ideas of public art, gift economy, social networking and urban beautification, the original Paper Girl project adopted as its motto: “Anyone who picks up a roll is lucky, and money can’t buy luck. Something is most fun when you don’t expect anything in return.”

Since its inception, the project has been taken up all over the world in places like Portland, Ore., and Northampton, Mass., with plans for similar events in New York City and South Africa.

As soon as Hickey learned about the project, she knew she’d love to replicate it in Albany. All summer, she worked on the project’s first leg by collecting submitted work in a box she keeps in the trunk of her car. It’s meant a huge time commitment, all without the promise of monetary compensation.

“Paper Girl is about doing art for art’s sake,” she says. “It’s not about money, but it is about networking, making friends.” She says the project has been a great way to meet artists in the area and that the later stages can provide an opportunity for local artists to collaborate on something larger than their own personal work.

Through Sept. 28, Hickey will continue accepting submissions. Anyone who’s interested in donating work can drop it off at the UAG Gallery (247 Lark St., Albany) or at the Existing Artists table this weekend at LarkFest. So far, contributions have run the gamut from drawings to paintings, photographs, origami, seed bombs, and even a sheet upon which an artist printed photos of her home birth. The only requirement is that the work be handcrafted (no photocopies, etc.) and rollable.

Project collaborator Melanie O’Malley says that this, unfortunately, prevents her from submitting her (obviously unrollable) hand-built guitars, but it’s the project’s social component that most excites her. “The networking part is an art on its own,” she says. “Sina’s using a network to do Paper Girl, which itself creates an even broader network.”

Through this network, Hickey found Ken Jacobie, who was looking for artists to take part in a local show called Flux (Oct. 9-11), for which he secured access to the breathtaking 153-year-old St. Joseph’s Church in Arbor Hill. “The show’s about change,” Jacobie says, “and the project she’s working on caught my attention as something that imminently made sense.” Over the course of three days, Flux will display the work of a host of local artists, accompanied by music in the sonorous space. The proceeds from the show will benefit the Historic Albany Foundation; HAF owns the building and requires large sums for its upkeep. Before the work for Paper Girl is rolled and delivered, it will be strung and displayed underneath the grand columns and dazzling stained glass at St. Joseph’s.

“It’s such a pure idea,” says Jacobie of Paper Girl, “giving something beautiful to people who don’t expect it at all, for no reason other than happenstance. Person-to-person is the missing ingredient in our society today, and if the rest of the world could work this way it would be kinda cool.”

After the show, Hickey, O’Malley and others will roll the work and plan a set of days over which to distribute it. “We’re going to make sure to get every neighborhood, including the state Capitol on lunch break,” says Hickey. She says she hopes to enlist the help of the Troy Bike Rescue and has expanded the parameters of participation to include skateboards and other human-powered transportation.

Approaching strangers with a gift is a bold gesture, and Hickey realizes that some people might not appreciate the offering. “If somebody thinks it’s shit, they might turn the corner and throw it out, and that’s unfortunate. But we’re hoping that doesn’t happen, and I don’t think it will.” Inside the scroll will be information about the work included, as well as contact info and details regarding the open party to follow.

O’Malley is especially enthused about the project’s later stages and says she’ll definitely be one of the bikers. “It’s really exciting to see stuff like this going on in Albany,” she says. “I was born in Arbor Hill, and I’ve lived in the Center Square area since I graduated [from UAlbany], but it’s just in these past six months that the buzz [in the local art scene] has really picked up again. There’s just all these people, with really quality stuff, who want to get their stuff out there, and without all the pretentiousness.”

From the point of view of the Paper Girl project, art is only as good as it is significant and useful to the community in which it exists. The more people that get involved, the more useful it becomes. “Some people use the term ‘Smallbany’ in a negative way,” says O’Malley, “but it can simply mean living in a community,” which is what Flux and Paper Girl are all about.

Here’s Henry: A 1927 casting of the Half Moon, at the Albany Institute of Institute & Art.

Photo: Gary Gold

Hudson Quadricentennial: Three Views

The Albany Institute of History & Art, the Tang Teaching Museum and Gallery, and the New York State Museum lead the way in our celebration of a great river

By Ann Morrow

‘For those living in the United States, the Hudson is a river of firsts: the first great river that explorers came upon when they arrived in the New World; the first river that led explorers into the continent’s interior; the river that was the first line of defense in the American Revolution; the river of America’s first writers; the river that inspired America’s first great painters . . . ”

The above quote is from The Hudson: A History by Tom Lewis, professor of English at Skidmore College. For those living in the Capital Region, there is an abundance of material from three local museums correlating to that quote, beginning with the Skidmore’s Tang Teaching Museum and Gallery exhibit, Lives of the Hudson, which Lewis contributed to. The exhibit features paintings from the Hudson River School of Art (including the much-loved landscape painter Thomas Cole) to contemporary artworks similarly inspired by the river. It also contains a dozen photographs from Adirondacks landscape photographer Ray Stoddard (1843-1917) in a reminder of the river’s origins in the mountains. The not-so-long ago discovery of the river’s source is explored in Lewis’ book, which was one of the catalysts for the exhibit, especially in its focus on tourism and industry, including the logging industry that was central to Glens Falls.

“There’s a Stoddard photograph from Glens Falls that’s wonderful because it’s not what people expect the Hudson to look like,” says Ian Berry, a curator of the exhibit. “It’s a working river, a fierce river, and it brought the logs from the Adirondacks to [lumber mills] in Albany and Troy.” Berry also mentions a pilot wheel as one of the exhibit’s highlights. “It’s from the steamship Mary Powell. It’s a humongous, gorgeous object from a memorable time.” Lives of the Hudson runs through March 14.

At the New York State Museum exhibit 1609, river transport goes back to Henry Hudson’s discovery of the river, and his forays into the region in mid-September. One of the most interesting sections contains an array of navigational instruments from the era, and a timeline of texts and artifacts follow Hudson’s journey from Europe to Troy. Paintings and prints of Dutch schooners are on display throughout, along with a 1700s Native American dugout canoe.

Aside from its early portraits and porcelain, however, the exhibit’s most interesting artworks are its original maps, especially a 1632 parchment map of Renselaerswyck. Maps and other period documents are changed every three months to protect them from light exposure (digital reproductions are posted outside of the document room for better viewing).

The exhibit’s theme isn’t so much the art and culture of the Hudson River as it is the interaction between Europeans and Native Americans, who were brought into contact by the river for trade. A cannon from Fort Orange sits as the entrance of the exhibit, and case of indigenous spear tips contrasts with a display of metal helmets and swords worn by early explorers. 1609 runs through March 7.

The Albany Institute of History and Art’s quadricentennial exhibit, Hudson River Panorama, provides a wealth of art and culture, and warrants repeat visits. Occupying an entire floor, the exhibit’s narrative is astonishing in its breadth, illuminating the river and the results of its beneficence in trade, industry, and material gain, such as the portraits and furnishings of the Dutch and English eras; a nod to George Washington, who considered the river and its riverside towns to be crucial to winning the Revolution; to artifacts pertaining to Washington Irving and Andrew Jackson Downing. And the Hudson River School paintings: Though in their day, beaver pelts, ice houses, bricks and breweries may have been more profitable for the region, the river’s international recognition came from the paintings inspired by its vistas.

Curator of history Douglas McCombs selects the descriptively titled Edwin Frederick Chuch painting, Morning, Looking East Over the Hudson Valley From the Catskill Mountains as one of the most luminous in the exhibit. “It’s a beautiful morning view, in the foreground there is a lone figure with his back to the viewer, on the ledges of the Catskills with a mountain overlook. It refers to the valley itself.” McComb also notes a painting by second- generation Hudson River School painter William Hart, Albany From the East Side of the Hudson. “It shows Albany from Rensselaer, and in the foreground is an island that no longer exists. It shows how people have changed the river.”

Hudson Panorama: 400 Years of History, Art and Culture runs through Jan. 3.

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