Looking northwest from Kingston, the Catskills resemble an impossibly beautiful painted backdrop, rolling off into the distance, cradling sunset after beautiful sunset as they have for millennia.
Head up Route 28 and before you know it that painting has swallowed you up. And just at the point where the four-lane becomes a two-lane, you can turn right and in a scant few minutes be in the bosom of a true Catskills legend. Woodstock may not be where the legendary festival happened, but so much else does that getting your mind around it all can challenge even the folks at the epicenter.
"A number of the nonprofits got together and approached the town a few years back about how to promote Woodstock as an arts destination," says Ariel Shanberg, director of the Woodstock Center for Photography and co-creator of the brand new Arts in Woodstock website (Artsinwoodstock.org). "Rather than go through an advertising firm, it was suggested that the arts organizations themselves might have the talent and knowledge base already in place."
Formed in 2006, the Woodstock Arts Consortium "felt like just one more organization at first, which was the last thing we wanted," says Shanberg. "But now we've got it together—a website clearinghouse that organizes and centralizes everything that's going on, very simple yet very sophisticated. It's searchable in a lot of different ways, and the vision is that not just the day trippers and weekenders but longtime locals as well will find it exciting and useful. You can be sitting at Oriole 9 scrolling through it on your smartphone and go to one site to find out what's going on next door and all over town, at that moment or next week."
What's going on is a lot. You might need that smartphone and website just to get a handle on the second annual Byrdcliffe Festival of the Arts, happening June 14-16. Byrdcliffe, an iconic piece of Woodstock's past, present, and future as an arts colony, is where 13 lively arts organizations will be celebrating the indescribably diverse range of things they do so well. The world premiere of "Hitler's Therapist," a performance piece inspired by a Robert Frost poem, a cutting-edge equality play by Academy Award winner Dustin Lance Black, and the exuberance of the young students from Paul Green's Rock Academy diving into a concert setting of the Rocky Horror Picture Show are just a few of the offerings. What more could one ask? Well, a mentalist performing modern mystery feats? A storyteller? Lucas Handwerker and Gioia Timpanelli will be there.
Also in June, Catskill Mountainkeeper is bringing its fifth annual summer celebration to Woodstock's Andy Lee Field and adjoining Colony Cafe and Photosensualis, Celebrity hosts Chevy and Jayni Chase will be honored for environmental good works alongside Happy Traum and family, Catherine Sebastian, and a number of Levon Helm's close crew. Helm is being posthumously honored, not for the first time; Woodstock will never tire of doing this, because the music magnetized in his memory is just so astoundingly outstanding. Bestselling authors, film, and (yet again) the Rock Academy kids, accompanied by far too much to list.
But if your ventures out Rt. 28 stop at Woodstock, you're missing a lot. Stay on the highway fro a few more miles (enjoy the scenery!) and you'll come to Mount Tremper, a hamlet of the town of Shandaken that has its own quirk quotient and this month will celebrate with its own fifth annual contemporary art performance festival (Mounttremperarts.org). Attendees will enjoy performance pieces like "Distance Measures" ("Performed in darkness, lit only by moving LED candles...borrows elements from mathematical models of chaotic systems") and Adult Party Games from the Leisure Planet, a work considered by its late creator Art Jarvinen to be "unperformable." Was he right? Come to Mt. Tremper and watch composer-performer collective Varispeed try it out.
Mount Tremper is also the home of the Zen Mountain Monastery, and of the World's Largest Kaleidoscope, in case you were wondering where that was. In other words, you have entered into the Catskills here. Anything can happen. Expect no less.
In the tiny hamlets on the winding back roads, in farmhouses and cabins and campsites, amazing things happen out this way. Mor Pipman and her husband, looking for more space to grow their young family, ended up in Glenford almost by accident. "We didn't really know what we were coming to," she says. "We had a five-year-old and one in diapers. We saw this old church and just—I'm still not sure why."