The mountaintops of Woodstock NY are lush, green and unsullied by the trappings of humanity. One of the people we have to thank for this is artist and environmentalist Calvin Grimm. Grimm has lived for more than 50 years in his hand-built home on a mountainside in the Woodstock hamlet of Shady. He’s watched Woodstock grow from a quirky artist’s community to what it is today. Long before Woodstock became a trendy weekend getaway for nature lovers, long before the 1969 festival that made its name famous (despite being elsewhere), there was a heritage that Grimm is passionate about sharing. As an artist, Grimm is best known for a pair of 6.5x10’ murals at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants; his distinctive paintings can be found in private, corporate and institutional collections worldwide as well as on the walls of his very special Woodstock home. Grimm happened to stop into our Woodstock office a few weeks ago to view the paintings we had on display in our “Gallery At Work”. He got to talking with us, telling us about the home he crafted years ago from found materials. We sell a lot of Woodstock properties and our agents have seen almost every house in Woodstock. Not this one. It’s never been on the market and isn’t likely to be any time soon – the house and Grimm are one. We were thrilled to be invited to take a tour of the house and use our 3D imaging technology to capture a model of both Grimm’s wonderfully creative home and his studio while talking with him about the changes he’s seen in Woodstock over the decades.
CBVGR: When we drove up the steep approach to Grimm’s place in Shady, the first thing we noticed was a vintage metal Mobil horse sign with a fantastic textural surface hanging on the side of a shed. It was the first thing we asked Calvin about.
Calvin Grimm: That’s by Clarence Schmidt. He inherited a few acres of land on Ohayo Mountain and started an immense project of a home with 32 rooms and seven stories built all of junk and recycled this-and-that. This was in the ‘40’s through 60’s. I’ve got to get my dates locked down because I’m hosting a talk at the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum on Saturday, June 26, at 2 p.m. Tad Wise will speak and Roger Ricco, the renowned authority on and collector of brut (untrained, obsessive visionary, outsider art). What Schmidt did on this horse was to cover it with tar and then red and silver paint. And over time it all just shrunk…
CBVGR: …and became islands of texture, which is really beautiful. Of course, we didn't come here to talk about Clarence Schmidt, but this is certainly a stunning piece to see when you first drive up.
CG: My whole collection of his work was exhibited in New York in Chelsea, and he should come back to Woodstock.
CBVGR: He hasn’t been shown here?
CG: He was recognized at the WAA in 1974. This lecture is going to have at least two films with him working, talking in his environment. So the films are very revealing.
CBVGR: It sounds fascinating…. It’s very beautiful here. It's a great environment in a perfect spot. What mountain is that?
CG: That's Guardian.
CBVGR: It’s a heavenly view. So how did you come to live here?
CG: My grandparents, my mother’s parents, would come up into the Catskills in the summer. My grandfather, James Wellington, owned two pharmacies on Long Island, and he retired, sold them and during the Second World War became the pharmacist at Stowell’s in Woodstock. It was where Clouds is now. My parents were married here, and I’m told I was conceived here. But I was born in Glen Cove and came up here summers, beginning at two weeks old. I started continuously living here in ‘67. My father died and left me $2,000, and I looked around and found this parcel in 1969.
CBVGR: $2,000 for two Woodstock acres? That’s wild! And how did you get the idea for what to make the house look like?
CG: I’d always been fascinated with barns, so I had a certain thing I was looking for. Then someone informed me they had an option to purchase two barns from the state at Wilson State Park, from the two farms there. They were going to make a golf course, and one of the golf holes was going where this barn was. I used some of the materials to build my house, and those materials, by their dimensions, defined the size of this home.
CBVGR: Brilliant. That's an artist for you.
CG: You work with what you have. You don't cut it up into pieces. So, that is part of the initial structure. And some of those materials from the barn went into the construction of the interior of the Joyous Lake; they made these beautiful, amorphic booths from these historic barns. Those are gone now; someone came along and thought they should have it like a disco inside, and they tore everything out.
CBVGR: Maybe they didn’t realize people who come here want to see the old stuff. But you’re still preserving pieces of that here, and you invite people to come to your studio? Anyone?
Grimm hands us a 4x6” postcard.
CG: Not too many people have responded to this card. And I'm referring to my home and studio as something of history, something beautiful to see while you're here. What I feel is if people are going to come to this town, they need to experience more than a row of restaurants and real estate offices, for that matter. If they're just here for the real estate, they're going to miss something very special. The fact that this place is desirable is because the artists preserved it. I had a lot to do with the preservation of the landscape. I co-founded an organization, No Lights/Save Overlook Mountain. There was a threat of filling the entire mountain with telecommunication towers, and I spent a year defeating their proposal. Then I spent another year helping build the zoning laws that would protect places like this.
CBVGR: We drive around a lot, and it's inevitable: You come around a bend, and there’s a mountain range and a misty blue haze, a really gorgeous vista, and there's something there spoiling a view that everyone wants to enjoy. People come here to reconnect with nature.
CG: The tower proposal applicants said, “You'll get used to it.” That perspective is their whole approach. They proposed a 120-foot tower to replace a 120-foot tower. But the tower that was there was 16 inches wide; theirs was going to be 16 feet wide. So you may not have perfect cell coverage everywhere in town, but you don't have a mountain full of telecommunication towers because the artists preserved it; the artists saw the importance of it. The artists saw the historical significance of Overlook all the way back to the Hudson River School of painters. And we lobbied the state to buy the remaining 300 acres to preserve it. So now that's wilderness instead of private land available for towers. And that's what makes Woodstock desirable. And that's what I would like to impart, that there is a tradition, and everyone would benefit both aesthetically and in their souls if they understood this and participated in it.
CBVGR: How has Woodstock changed since you’ve lived here, since the concert...
CG: There are only a few galleries left in town. I noticed they're all being bought out by restaurants. And it's nice to have a picture of Bob Dylan in your restaurant, but that's not the whole story; he came later.
CBVGR: There’s a real point there, because people see Woodstock as desirable, not only because it's 90 miles from New York City, but because it's very beautiful and because the artists are working here. And you were in the forefront of that.
CG: Well, one wave of it. This happens everywhere. Artists make a place interesting. And then everybody wants to live there. But it's not easy for artists to stay. And if the people who are coming in don't buy art, that doesn't help artists stay here.
We enter the house. The first thing we noticed was the wonderful antique beams that Grimm made a focal point.
CG: In a Dutch barn, the lower beams are the heaviest, and the upper ones are the lightest, and they become smaller as they go up, because the roof is coming to a ridge point. So, these are 16 foot beams from the third story. I built the size house I could handle. The beams used for the sills on both sides of the house are massive 30 foot beams. So the house became 16 feet wide by 30 feet long. It's working with what you have. This floor is two-inch-thick chestnut. And chestnut is extinct, essentially.
CBVGR: It’s gorgeous.
CG: These chestnut floor boards were installed 53 years ago, and the barn was a couple-hundred years old. This means you are walking on 250 years of history. Many things are repurposed in the house, like this wonderful old cast-iron kitchen sink. Some friends said, ‘You're building your house. I know where there's a sink. I'll buy it for you.’ So I had to go all the way down to Long Island and haul it up here. That’s the kind of thing I do, because I'm passionate about it, you know? Who would drive 150 miles to get a 300-pound sink? I built all of this, and I'm still building it.
CBVGR: How'd you learn to build stuff? Just by doing it?
Grimm points out a delicately made settee.
CG: This was made by my grandfather and father.
CBVGR: It’s exquisite. Was it his sign we saw when we drove in?
CG: Yes. Jos. A. Grimm & Co., Cabinetmakers, Manhasset. They had a very well-established business of building and restoring fine furniture, and they built mahogany ballrooms for the Vanderbilts and Morgans on the Gold Coast of Long Island. My great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all fine furniture-makers.
CBVGR: So there’s the answer: You grew up learning how to do it.
CG: I grew up believing I could do it, believing I could build anything.
CBVGR: And you do. That’s a beautiful beam.
CG: I made that particular beam. It's the maple tree that was right outside the front door. Actually, it had three lives: The first was growing in front of the door. Second, it was supporting the porch that ran along the side of the house. And third, when I built this addition, I took the porch down, and it became an interior support post and beam. If you’re interested, the tool I used on this was an adz.
CBVGR: That's a crossword puzzle word! A-D-Z.
CG: I didn't have a sawmill, so I did it the way they used to. I wanted to experience what it was like. The beams over the windows came from Vosburg Turning Mill just down at the bottom of Hutchin Hill Road. There's a water wheel in there that turned a bunch of belts that turned lathes that made spindles, railings, furniture. The mill is still there. Someone tried to burn it down, but my girlfriend and I saved it from burning by calling in the alarm.
CBVGR: Tell me about this curved staircase.
CG: In its first incarnation this part was square, but I kept hitting my shin on this step. So when I refinished the floor, I created this curve. This isn't completed, yet. I have big slabs of walnut dating back to the Revolution, from Princeton, New Jersey.
CBVGR: You are a collector! How about this skylight?
CB: Johnson Ford in Kingston was a dome when they first built it in the late ‘60s. And when I was framing out my house, I became aware that I could buy the 6x8' sheets of plexiglass for $5 a piece from them, because the dome was creating so much heat, it was melting the dashboards of their cars.
CBVGR: But was it something you were looking for or, once you knew it existed, it fit into what you would do?
CG: That’s an important point. I think the house and perhaps a lot of things I do, they come about much like my paintings. I make a mark, and then I respond to that mark and make another mark. So, I was designing my house. Somebody said, ‘I have two of these sheets, you want them?’ I looked at them, and my mind immediately understood how they could fit to frame out this roof.
CBVGR: It was quite a coincidence that it came when it did.
CG: Yes, we call it coincidence. Others would call it the gift from a higher power. If one is not open to see the purpose in what’s being presented to you, then creativity is constrained.
CBVGR: When someone else has a plan of a house from beginning to end…. Many times, they’re not thinking, how am I going to use this thing I just found.
CG: Exactly. And that's interesting, because now you have to have a plan designed by an architect before you can proceed. This was prior to that era.
CBVGR: Because they want to approve what's going to be. I don't see that necessarily as a bad thing.
CG: No, because the rescue squad would have an issue getting a stretcher down these stairs. And that’s what it's all about. Plus, no lights shining into the sky or into your neighbors’ house. Those are things I helped put into the zoning; those are the sorts of things that make Woodstock what it is. I think engineers, architects, designers, realtors should be licensed to work in Woodstock only after they've shown they have thoroughly understood the zoning and especially the scenic overlay district and those aesthetic laws. Because we can't have an owner put up a galvanized roof in the scenic overlay and then pretend he didn't know, that the engineer didn't tell him.
CBVGR: That’s an interesting thought, a “Woodstock Designation” for those working in the housing industry here. We try to be very on top of that sort of thing ourselves. Would you like to tell me more about the construction of the house?
CG: Well, as a child, my bedroom had very small windows, and I had to stand on the bed to look out. When I built my house, I reacted to that and did these big south-facing windows to take in the light and winter heat, and I wanted the skylight for light to go down the stairs. And when I framed this out there was a big opening in the upstairs floor, and I was coming up and down on a ladder. So I started building the stairs, one landing at a time, so three steps, I better turn now, and three more steps, I’ve got to get around the beam. And it took me three weeks to design and build the steps one at a time by seeing how it would evolve. And there's a concept in architecture, “form follows function”, which means you make it function, and out of that comes an aesthetic.
An enormous bee hovers outside the upstairs porch.
CBVGR: That bee’s like a battleship!
CG: That’s a carpenter bee. They're eating holes in the wood. But they're not like wasps, who build the big nest and then try to kill you.
CBVGR: We see those bees at houses frequently. They go up under the eaves.
CG: They will never hurt you. I stood with them right in front of my face, and they have no aggression in that way. And they're pollinators. A friend of mine who does a lot to support bees said, “Replace the wood, don’t kill the bee.”
Back downstairs, we look at a small, beautiful abstract painting.
CG: That’s an older one. That was from college, and I managed to salvage it somehow. Years later, a whole series came from it. I used it to inspire others, many different iterations of that, but similar coloration, similar characters within it. [Grimm picks up a photo.] And this is something in the “Deep Ocean/Deep Space” series. I went to a performance at Kaatsbaan, and I was impressed by this particular dance company. I said to the choreographer, ‘I would like to work with you on some collaboration or something.’ She said, ‘Great, we like doing that. Let me look at your work. But first come and see the dance piece we're working on.’ And the piece they were working on had an aquatic theme to it and extraordinary music. So she came and looked at this particular painting, and then the costume designer built costumes based on the painting, and I enlarged it photographically, to 15 by 20 feet, and they rear projected it as the backdrop. The premier of this was at the Egg in Albany, and when the curtain went up, the audience gasped.
CBVGR: It’s got gorgeous color and dynamics. What’s your process?
CG: In this case, I will start making marks on the canvas with the brush and then put it on the floor and squirt thinner at it, and it will run, it'll splash. And then I may take these splashes and build organisms around them; I may highlight the dribbles, the runs and things like that. That's all happening on the floor. Then the next morning, usually, I can go in and start to build into it, be aware of things the thinner has done. So it's very active.
We look through the screen door at a robin settling onto her nest on a tiny shelf.
CG: [whispering] I could tell they were being born this morning because she was taking bits of the broken shell and throwing it out of the nest. Then she went off and got her first insect and came back and chirped.
CBVGR: She must hear us.
CG: She tolerates it, but once the door opens, she freaks.
CBVGR: But she knows you respect her presence, since we speak in hushed tones.
CG: I call her, make bird noises, trying to communicate. [Grimm makes some noises.]
CBVGR: Cool, yeah, she looked over!
CBVGR: Tell me about the swimming pool.
CG: I wanted to build a pool, but I had this harness in mind, and so I made the harness and tested it in the stream to see whether it really did work. And then I built the pool to fit.
CBVGR: The harness came first. Love it! What about the sculpture by the pond?
CG: Well, now, that sculpture is important. Ezio Martinelli was an abstract painter and sculptor from New York. He had success, but he was not happy with the New York art scene, so he came to Saugerties and started building a lot of sculptures, and this is one of his pieces. It's a dancer on one leg; it’s hammered steel. I have a feeling it’s made from car bumpers.
CBVGR: It looks like it. [indicating the pond] A newt! And tadpoles! Do you keep putting creatures in there, or do they just sort of spontaneously arise?
CG: Some of them found their way in here. The goldfish I buy. I have a great blue heron who comes here and a mink. They come and try to get the fish.
CBVGR: And you created this pond?
CG: I used the earth I excavated from the swimming pool to build a berm, lined it with a used swimming pool liner and then black plastic. Then I naturalized all the edges, and within a year I had a great blue heron visiting. So I knew it was successful.
We walk around the pond towards the studio door.
CG: I just finished the stonework path a year ago. It used to go in a different direction, and it was a gravel path. I could have had the path go over towards the vehicles, but that doesn't serve my purpose. It comes directly to the studio so that the message is…
CBVGR: …make art, not parking lots. Right.
We enter the studio.
CBVGR: Oil paint. What do you do for ventilation?
CG: [picking up a remote and pointing it] That both heats and cools, and the lighting is state-of-the-art LED. I designed this lighting. I did a lot of experimenting using these cables, pitching the light to determine how far away from the wall and at what pitch they should be in order to flood evenly.
[Grimm pulls out a painting.]
CG: I painted this in the south of France, and it was shipped back here by Bard College. I was awarded a scholarship by Bard to study in the south of France, and I was studying with a poet who wanted to discuss why human beings make art? And that fascinated me, too. I studied cave art with him instead of doing French language, French culture.
CBVGR: Is there anything you’d especially like to say to our real estate audience about living here and how Woodstock has changed?
CG: Well, along with the crafts people and the visual artists who came to Byrdcliffe, along with them came the musicians, the playwrights, the actors, poets. And that's what makes the whole arts community. And that still exists. I mean, artists are still coming, largely from New York. They'll establish their credentials in New York and gain enough wealth to buy a property in Woodstock and still sell their work back in New York. Some of us, however, just do it here.
CBVGR: And the difference between when you first got here and now?
CG: There were real markets, you know, like Mower’s market; of course, now it's a restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with restaurants and cafes; they’re places for people to meet. Where the Center for Photography is was the Café Espresso, and Bob Dylan lived upstairs for a bit and sang there.
Deep Ocean/Deep Space XV-XVIII, oil on canvas, 48” x 72”
CBVGR: How would you say the atmosphere or the aura of Woodstock has changed?
CG: People started to expect something else after the music festival. They didn't so much recognize that there were visual artists here; they started focusing on the music culture, the tie-dyed t-shirts. People came from the festival and discovered Woodstock and started pitching tepees right at the end of Hutchin Hill Road.
CBVGR: Why do you think they came? Once the concert was over, what do you think they were looking for? Peace, love and music? Was that a real thing in their mind?
CG: For sure. I think they sincerely came to be with nature and relearn things that suburbia had stolen from them. They wanted to live like native peoples lived, if they could. They were able to explore their minds in various ways with mind-altering substances and meditation and those things that were evolving strongly at the time. I think with the emphasis on the festival, the emphasis on the other fine arts diminished somewhat. You see so many people pulling their tie-dye t-shirts out of the closet to come to Woodstock and roam up and down the streets, but they're saying, okay, what else is there? And this is why I thought I would open my studio to people, say come in and have an experience. I've had people come and say, ‘I've always wanted to be an artist. I wanted to come and see how an artist lives.’
CBVGR: What people are looking for is a state of mind. It isn't a physical place.
CG: Right. If you come to my home, to my studio, I've been building it since 1969. It is not just physical, it's a state of mind. But whether they experience it in my environment or in someone else's, I'd like them to get off the street and understand, especially if they're looking to buy a home, that there is a heritage. It's an authentic character, and if they're not aware of it, they're going to miss a really enriching part of the experience. Here, they can see a home full of contemporary and historic Woodstock art. People are less aware of the earlier heritage and the really fine artists who live in the forest. And it would be important for people to not only experience an artist’s life for their own soul, but also support it, because these artists need to be able to stay here. When I sell a piece, I use a portion from that sale to buy other artist’s work.
CBVGR: That’s so true. How do you think we can bring people to care?
CG: Well, I’ll chew out enough restauranteurs to make them put local art in, it doesn't have to be mine, you know, make them aware that this is a full arts community. It's a real town with real history. ++
Thank You, Calvin
We want to thank Calvin Grimm for sharing his home, his art, and his thoughts with us. Make an appointment to view his studio, home and garden – they are stunning and a uniquely Woodstock experience.
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