Thursday, August 22, 2013

Creativity in the Palisades: the Art Colony of Ridgefield

Not far from the early 20th century film studios of Fort Lee was once a thriving artists' colony named Grantwood, nestled in the Palisades in the town of Ridgefield. Drive around town today, and you might see last vestiges of the community in street names like Studio Road and Art Lane, or a few remaining homes of the era.

The first community of artists arrived in Ridgefield in the 1890s, with illustrators James Maxfield and Van Dearing Perrine in the vanguard. Capitalizing on the then-bucolic setting to sketch directly from nature, they soon brought other artists to the New Jersey side, bolstering Perrine's Country Sketch Club and widening the range of media being practiced in the community. The club arranged shows of members' works at the National Academy of Design and Art Institute of Chicago, raising the art community's awareness of the enclave in the Palisades while raising funds to construct a clubhouse where its members could work and gather.

Starting in 1912, a second wave of artists and writers brought a decidedly modernist dimension to Grantwood. In some ways, this new generation followed the common mantra we still hear today about those who cross the river from New York: they sought someplace much quieter and less expensive than New York, with the proximity to maintain ties to the thriving art communities of Greenwich Village. Man Ray, in particular, saw Ridgefield as his Walden Pond, a place where, like Thoreau, he could escape civilization and cultivate his artistic being. Writer Alfred Kreymborg, another arrival, blissfully described "the view of the Jersey Meadows, striped and streaked with the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers, lazily rolling away to the horizon."

Just as Maxfield and Perrine had spirited their colleagues across the river, Man Ray attracted progressive thinkers to Grantwood, envisioning "an advanced cultural center embracing all the arts" among the hillside shacks and cottages they built for shelter. Fellow Surrealist and Dadaist Marcel Duchamp lived in the colony for a time, and poet Marianne Moore visited periodically with other like-minded city artists. The resulting group became better known in the greater arts world as "The Others."

Among the writers who flocked to Grantwood (albeit from within the state) was poet William Carlos Williams, who also practiced medicine in Rutherford as his artistic acclaim grew. In his later years, Williams mentored Beat movement poets, most notably Paterson's Allen Ginsberg, whose letters he included in his own epic poem, Paterson. More notoriously, Grantwood earned a reputation for radicalism in some circles, no doubt due to the presence of noted anarchist Emma Goldman in 1910.

Encroaching industry and suburbanization eventually erased the idyllic scenery and peace that had drawn and enraptured so many creative souls and free thinkers, and the colony faded with it. If you look carefully, though, you'll still find a few vantage points where Ridgefield's hills and the meadows below reveal a little of what attracted Maxfield, Perrine, Man Ray and those who followed.

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