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Clarence’s ashes

Artist’s remains turn up, recalling his Woodstock journey

by Tad Wise
September 09, 2010 12:00 PM | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Clarence Schmidt amid his work courtesy of Saturday Evening Post.
Earlier this year Grace Schmidt, reclusive cat-woman of Spencer Road in Glenford, died after a long illness. A call came in from Lasher Funeral Home here in Woodstock to local attorney Jim Myers, who’d represented Grace pro bono for 30 years, requesting that he retrieve her ashes. Upon his doing so, Lasher’s director Ken Peterson was uncharacteristically flustered. “You’ll never guess what else I found — Clarence’s ashes! They’ve been here...32 years! You might as well take them, too...”

In the end, Terry Bernard, protector, friend, and neighbor, accepted both mortuary boxes and soon after held a memorial for Grace, scattering her remains over the mountainside which had been her home for 70 odd years — “odd” being the operative word. For the first half of that period she’d been an eccentric beauty transplanted during the Depression from her native Queens to a dwelling built by her even more eccentric husband and cousin, Clarence. As for the second half of her life, she became a shut-in who didn’t care to talk her about her estranged famous husband or his “castle of crap.”

Today Clarence Schmidt is a textbook case “outsider artist” — an iconic pioneer of monumental environmental sculpture whose life’s work,  the “Miracle on the Mountain,” was constructed of found objects and recycled materials between the years 1940-1972 in a tireless outpouring of  invention on the back slope of Ohayo Mountain. Facts about him vary about as much as those concerning Bob Dylan (who eventually visited Clarence) — and for about the same reasons. Both visionaries realized that life is a rough draft requiring amendation if legend is to be achieved.

For instance, Schmidt often said that he’d been working on his house and grounds for half a century…33 years is nearer the truth. Yet to be fair, he performed physical labor at least ten hour days, seven days a week, 12 months a year. So it might be argued that 50 years of “conventional” work remains a defensible description.

Born in 1897 in Astoria, Queens, Clarence Schmidt attended high school with Ethel Merman before dropping out to work alongside his father as a mason and plasterer. One account mentions him building sets for silent films — a potent metaphor for what was to come. His birthday, which he shared with Grace, was September 11. It becomes easy to imagine the cousins celebrating together and becoming...attached. In 1920 Clarence inherited five acres off Ohayo Mountain just over the Woodstock line; somewhere around 1928 he convinced Grace to summer with him in Paradise. They were married by then, which may have been the sole concession to normalcy ever made by the maverick. Chances are the couple returned to the city often thru the 1920s and 30s (though he liked to suggest otherwise.) They became full-timers in the late 1930s when Schmidt finished his first house at the end of Spencer, built in a “Swiss Family Robinson,” style. Beginning with a cabin made of railroad ties, the building was rough, but plumb and conventional enough to sell in years to come. Clarence called the place, “Journey’s End,” (and while I don’t know of him ever leaving the Catskill region past 1939) artistically speaking, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Around 1940 Schmidt cleared a more westerly corridor down Ohayo and built a cabin for his own use at its base. (The question of property, what was his and what was not, is a Byzantine subject, for more a cleric-like investigation.) Clarence should have called this building, “Journey’s Beginning.” For it was here, above, below and to all sides of it, that additional rooms, terraces, caves, gardens, grottos, a pool, shrines and further wings stacked one upon the other, advancing up the mountain’s face, as if the building itself were a living entity demanding continuous expansion, granting its builder no rest, until — at full flower — a seven story homunculus hung off the backside of Ohayo. My step-father, David Ballantine, (who together with co-author Bob Haney, dedicated their Woodstock Handmade Houses to Clarence) used to joke, “Clarence Schmidt suffers from an edifice complex.” Indeed, at some point in the 1940s Schmidt awoke to the idée fixe of “creating something that would live forever in the minds of men.” Part of a manifesto survives which he later wrote in all caps with meager spaces between words, referring to a dream from childhood of accomplishing exactly this aim.

Curiously, not ten miles away, a highly trained sculptor soon became obsessed with a similar notion, abandoning all he’d learned in art school and devoting the remainder of his life to assembling a vast stone environment he called Opus 40. Harvey Fite’s monument in bluestone has weathered the new century well, as has his reputation. Clarence’s opus, on the other hand, has all but vanished; while his accomplishment — born of cast-offs and reduced today to artifact — may, within the purview of art history, indeed prove the more important work.

In the early days, excepting perhaps Doris Lee and Manny Bromberg, few allies came from the painter’s den down the north side of the mountain; the art colony was a notoriously clique-y bunch. But it should be noted that the tolerance born of their presence subtly assisted Clarence; elsewhere in America locals might have burned him out. Sadly, this distinction would prove his own.

My teen-aged sister Kitty used to get off the school bus just past Rolling Acres on switch-backed Glenford Road, to spend an afternoon or two a week helping Clarence, circa 1960-1961. Neighbors said there were dead bodies moldering in his ever-growing collection of junk. Kitty recently assured me otherwise: “He was very kind and full of fun.” Clarence drove around Woodstock in his dilapidated “woodie” station wagon, dump-picking, or dropping by the homes of “friendlies” who’d have put aside odd items with a laugh, and “Clarence has gotta’ have this!” Be it a bent bicycle wheel, a vacuum cleaner hose, stray ski pole, or hubcap from a long lost car...it made our parents feel better about their junk — by-product of the consumerism which remains America’s first and foremost addiction. Clarence redeemed it and us by slathering our garbage with roofing tar and attaching it to his tumbledown palace. You could drive out on a weekend and see your trash transformed into art — well, some called it that — with Clarence singing and laughing, hard at work. He never stopped except to hug a visitor in his huge, smelly, near nakedness, throw back a Rheingold, tell a story — before charging back to work.

Grace and Clarence had a son, Michael, in ‘53 — alive or dead, at this writing we don’t know. Grace was already living in a neighboring “more conventional” dwelling by 1964 when a writer for the Saturday Evening Post commented that “she dislikes the project and refuses to talk about it. Their 11 year old son, Mike, however, loves it and visits often.” The color photographs in the Post’s article [represented here], as in dozens of other local papers, art journals, a very rare Life magazine spread, and the detailed book Schmidt, reverentially authored by Gregg Blasdel and William C. Lipke, help us experience the immensity of Clarence Schmidt’s short-lived achievement.

Likewise films by enthusiastic fans, from Lipke’s four month shoot in 1967, to Barry Feinstein’s Fellini-esque You Are What You Eat (wherein Clarence speaks the title), Gerd Stern’s valuable visual apocrapha, to Beryl Sokoloff’s magnificent My Mirror Of Hope, together clear time’s window on what is forever gone now, and document the benign egomania necessary to accomplish the near impossible. While Schmidt fooled himself into thinking his dream-castle might exist for future generations, it was nearer, I believe, to the Tibetan Mandala, a sand-painting providing a point of entry upon a sacred reality, which, because it is sacred, must quickly be erased lest the uninitiated storm heaven. 

On a sunny Saturday in 1966 a steady stream of well-wishers appeared atop Ohayo Mountain, though the “Pop Art Disneyland” was not visible from roads below or above. Over the years Clarence welcomed thousands of visitors hugging most of them as does Amma, “the Universal Mother,” in 2010. He sang with them, joked and laughed, dodging silly questions. Like those visiting a saint, many were inclined to leave some remnant of themselves for The Master to incorporate into his “Dada Taj Mahal.” Coins were most common, but shoes, lipstick — he loved mirrors. Clarence gave one woman a paper bag to carry off her personal belongings, after she insisted on leaving him her handbag to slather with tar and make a part of the whole...My sister thinks the A&P heir was the first big-shot to make the pilgrimage and a sizable contribution...Timothy Leary called Clarence, “his son,” (though age and philosophical innovation would turn the coupling ‘other way round...); David Gahr photographed Van Morrison at the House of Mirrors, Clarence sang with Bob Dylan and Joan Diaz [sic]; (You can hear him belting out, “Mothers, Don’t Let Your Sons Grow Up To Be Soliders,” on YouTube!); it’s likely that Tim Hardin and Donovan joined the stream of notables. Peter Yarrow certainly did.

Clarence showed up at our house once, “to call the Metropolitan — they want me to break off a piece and sell it to them...Damnedest thing I ever heard. Want to give me forty thousand dollars for it....Do it? What for? What the hell would I do with forty thousand dollars!? If I break off a piece once, they’ll all want me to start breaking off pieces...” After the call (which — at age eleven, I wasn’t ballsy enough to eavesdrop upon) he hugged David and my mother, who, immediately after the station wagon roared off, took a can of Lysol to the phone receiver still “ripe” from Clarence’s beard.

Despite his reluctance to “break up” the work, [from Schmidt:] “Clarence did concede that some of these shrines had titles: ‘Meher Baba,’ ‘Cinderella,’ ‘The Four-headed Indian,’ ‘Homer.’” Nor was he unaware of origin: “Will Durant’s bicycle is in one of those pieces, and I used a bathtub out of Doris Lee’s house.” Some of the most famous sections were peopled with dolls heads and limbs from the local Simulaids plant, with Clarence fully aware of their intended purpose. Commenting on a section entitled “The Red Cross (Hope),” he explained, “It’s for the nurses...This part was documenting a rupture on a human being. The manufacturer of these things has artists...show how a wound and burn gets from a [bullet’s] shell. The hands are pleading for help in this cruel world we have. It’s a mixed up world. Let’s call it ‘Hope.’”

The roofing tar Clarence considered an architectural break-through — since it was the glue which, beyond the scope of conventional nails and screws, held his assemblage together — sentenced his Wonderland to death by fire in January of ‘68. “I was in the big house when it burned. I thought it was thundering, but it was the branch from a dead maple tree that fell down on it and on the wires to the house. Everything shot up in flames, and the fire created an aurora borealis you could see for miles...it burned for days and days up there,” Clarence is quoted in the book. Firetrucks had trouble reaching the blaze. A witness recently told me that through the roar you could hear an almost constant bursting of the hundreds of mirrors Clarence had affixed on the roof to — among other things — ward off the Russian’s Death Rays. At first thought to have, himself, become victim of the fire, Clarence was found days later sleeping in a doorway in the village. Put up in local hotel for the winter, he endured — this proving to be only the first of several disasters from which Schmidt re-emerged, his vision and energies undiminished. After the first fire which decimated his “Garden of Hope” he was quoted, perhaps by emeritus town journalist Tobie Geertsema in the Woodstock Week thus: “I’ve suffered Dante’s Inferno and every other thing...but I’ll get back up there sooner than you think...I’m doing a lot of writing now. I’m creating a Bible, and it’s based on genetic religion.” And God and the devil bless her, Geertseema printed portions of it the following week!

[an excerpt:]

‘AND IT IS WITH DISPOSITION

OF THE GODS OF MERCIFUL

FORTUNE THAT I WOULD

DEDICATE MY VERY MORTAL

LIFE TO ITS CELESTIAL

ACCOMPLISHMENT OF WARDING

OFF THE DEMONICAL

VANDALISM OF MY CRUCIFEAROUS

ART,’

Lipke and Blasdel, from whose book, Schmidt, I pull the majority of these quotes, have correctly placed their subject alongside Catalonian genius, Antonio Gaudi; next to Simon Rodia creator of the Watts Towers, and — before all of them, a French postman named Ferdinand Cheval who, between 1879 and 1912 created a “dream castle” made of stones and broken porcelain, becoming the first of the four to be seized with a fever-like “need to create monuments to survive their mortal selves.” Marcel Duchamp, Dubuffet, the Dadists, Art of Children, Art of the Insane, Jackson Pollock, Primitive Art, Folk Art, Grass Roots Art, and numerous other fields, critics, and criticisms are mentioned in this masterwork. Curators of the Smithsonian (which owns fragments of Schmidt), New York’s Metropolitan Museum, The Whitney, and the Guggenheim are all quoted here or elsewhere. From the early sixties, critics have been grappling with phenomenon of Clarence Schmidt, and for better and worse, such notoriety definitely affected the man who admitted in an early interview, “I used to be very shy. I kept to myself.”

I recall Clarence standing outside the Woodstock movie house during its run of, You Are What You Eat (favorably reviewed by Judith Crist) and asking passer-bys, “have you seen my movie?” But then again, how could an innocent man (or any person) remain unaffected by sudden fame after decades of solitary toil?

After the first fire a change is seen in the work. A gigantic exterior garden of tin foil wrapped objects took over a lower terrace. Although construction continued at a fantastic rate, there were more interior “explorations,” especially with mirrors, aluminum foils, assemblages called “shrines” and lights, especially Christmas tree lights. Visitors sense more finesse, poignancy, humor — and yes — tragedy as seen earlier in his shrines to Kennedy and Martin Luther King; vast caves and grottoes deep within the mountainside are inter-connected in a manner transcending the terms “room,” “wall,” “ceiling,” “floor” — and while this was true previously, there was now a sense of floating — as if the lights were stars in space and the ground was not firm, time and space were not firm. We are...stardust. His favorite song was When Day Is Done, and come that elusive moment of rest, Clarence perambulated around and thru his creations, in a dream state: “I love to see light on them...the shadows keep changing. The pieces are wonderful in moonlight and at sunset and after a snowfall.”

Legal disputes over property boundaries, the alleged precarious mental health of his son, bickering with his estranged wife and neighbor, and ever-mounting fame (Tobie Geertseema handling his PR) were all pushed to the back of his mind; he forged on. “Don’t forget there were a good many years when I had to hold a flashlight in my mouth to see what I was doing, when night came upon me. I was afraid of dying before I could get the house done.”

It’s almost impossible to do justice to the “tireless ecstatic spirit” known as Clarence Schmidt, certainly not here. But consider this: Somewhere in the archive exists a photograph of Clarence’s dead Studebaker (which between set-backs served as his home-office), itself providing the foundation for yet another fresh start: an entire new edifice leaping upwards from off its roof! 

Or this: attorney Jim Myers first met Schmidt (also represented for years by Jerry Wapner) when the city of Kingston selected him, around 1967, as a public defender to represent the artist charged with holding a firearm “which went off” near a close relative (the apocryphal story of Grace enlisting a cousin to help destroy the castle, and of Clarence defending his creation at gunpoint persisted throughout my childhood.) Myers next and last witnessed Schmidt in ‘70, when the artist, reaching him by phone, requested that Myers come to the property to act as notary. Obliging, Myers set out in the dead of winter and found Schmidt living naked underground in the bowels of a hollowed out oak, heated more than adequately (as Schmidt’s attire attests) by a single kerosene lamp.

In ‘72 that damned lamp probably set the treehouse ablaze as well. Clarence’s luck had finally run out. He was badly burned, hospitalized, and never fully recovered. He became a Medicaid patient at Hadley’s Nursing Home on Albany Avenue in Kingston. I used to wave at him every afternoon on the drive back from school. For five years, weather permitting, he’d spend most of the day waving at hundreds and thousands of passers by, the Dadist Santa; the first beatnik, the last hold-out. In ‘76 Hadler’s ran afoul of state codes and half of their residents were farmed out. Clarence raged against the dying of the light — making a fair amount of local ink — and landing amidst loud protests at Greene County Nursing Home. However, he soon warmed to the place and a few days later the Kingston Freeman ran on a corner of the front page, “Schmidt Now Likes New Home.”

Two years later, on November 9, 1978, he died there, of heart failure. A hundred miles away Norman Rockwell met the same fate the same day. Two more different artists could not be imagined. Clarence was sent off to Greenburgh for cremation, his ashes then delivered to Lasher Funeral Home, in Woodstock. The Freeman reported, “Friends said they plan a memorial to be announced later.”

Here the trail goes cold until 32 years later, when I got a call from my friend Terry who asked me to write something and has been pestering me, most justifiably, all summer: “He wants to get out the box! He’s been in there long enough!”

Over the years Schmidt compared himself to Rip Van Winkle, Paul Bunyan, Robin Hood, and Baron Munchausen; “I became some greater part of this mountain up here. Why when I walked along the road, the trees knelt down on my behalf.” “...There I was — in the land of ecstasy!” Tonight I think more along the lines of Shakespeare’s last enchantment, and the final words of Prospero:

And you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.”++

Tad Wise gratefully acknowledges John Basil for the use of his deceased father’s file on Schmidt.


Scattering the ashes

Saturday September 11, 2010 at 11a.m., at 56 Spencer Road, join us for a hello and at last goodbye to Clarence Schmidt on the 113th anniversary of his birth.

Help us finally set the Magician free

Where his magic manifested most magnificently.++

Tad Wise

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