If a picture is worth a thousand words, the painting that will be unveiled at RUPCO's "Give Housing a Voice" event on April 16 is worth an entire novel: a town meeting packed with faces, some dubious, some surprised, some eagerly attentive, all engaged. At the center, a gray-haired woman is speaking. One hand rests on her chest; the other is outstretched to the community. The image commemorates modern heroism; the woman at the center stepped into the limelight with her heart in her mouth and helped to make a change.
RUPCO CEO Kevin O'Connor had been on the job less than a year in 2003 when the call came from Bob Young, the chair of Woodstock's Affordable Housing Committee, inviting RUPCO to come build some.
O'Connor jumped at the invitation. Woodstock had just completed a comprehensive plan, and even identified a particular parcel as the best hope for affordable housing. As with any major development, opposition arose. Wildlife protection, water supply, and traffic safety were among the objections raised during the permitting process. RUPCO downsized its plan from 81 units to 53 and dug in for the long haul. Part of the challenge: how to respond to the subtext, barely mentionable in a town that prides itself on progressive values, that some didn't want the project because it would house "those people."
Ten years later, the ribbon was cut on Woodstock Commons, a state-of-the-art green-built cluster with units set aside for the elderly and for artists. The effort involved a diverse cast of characters, but O'Connor says there's one whose importance can't be overstated: Woodstock resident Tamara Cooper, who came to meeting after meeting to speak up for those without a voice.
"Tamara was the reason we did a painting," says O'Connor. "This is like a coming out for her. She thinks of herself as invisible. Clearly she's not. She came to five or six meetings that were very contentious, full of supporters and opposition, and told a risky personal story that was different from what everyone else in the room had to say."
Cooper was a struggling young single mom of two when she got the long-ago letter from RUPCO that changed her life. She'd been studying at SUNY New Paltz and getting some help from social services, but a rule change three years into her pursuit of her bachelor's degree made her ineligible and put her dreams on hold. "I dropped out of school and my children and I were living with another single parent, five of us in a small cottage. We went to visit my mother in West Virginia, where I could have support while I tried to decide what path to take next as a student and parent. A friend was gathering my mail and called to let me know I'd gotten a letter from RUPCO. My name had come to the top of the rental voucher waiting list, and they wanted to know if I was still interested. The deadline had been past for a day, but I was on the phone to them the next morning and they said they'd still work with me."
Cooper found an outlet for her talents with Family of Woodstock, where she has risen through the ranks to become program director of the human service agency's Woodstock walk-in center and hotline operations. During the time of the meetings, she was assistant director, and reaching back to tell the story of her struggle involved stepping outside that professional role.
"I was following Kevin's lead," Cooper says. "He said he wanted to do this and put me in the middle. If I had thought about It, I might have said no. It's very difficult to stand up and say, 'I am one of those people, and this is the value we have, and this is the value you have when you make space.'"
"Getting up to speak at a meeting can be overwhelming," says O'Connor. "She nearly moved me to tears, and I could feel the air in the room change, could feel how powerful and effective her words were. I had the idea that I wanted to do something to honor her. A bust, a bench, a plaque? Then I met Steve Hargash."
Hargash is a Michigan-born artist currently living in Kingston. While still a student, he got hired to paint his first mural. "I was 20 years old and considered myself primarily a sculptor," he says, "but I'd learned airbrush in high school and I was doing T-shirts and vehicles to make money. A local businessman saw my work and asked me to do a mural. I worked for four months, hand painting five big panels and a small one, and ever since then I've been gainfully employed as a painter."
Though he's been an Ulster County resident for a decade, Hargash's public art is still in demand in his hometown of Frankenmuth. Among the inner circle of friends he's made here is Erik Scott Forster, husband of RUPCO's community development director Guy Kempe. It was that connection that led to an unveiling at RUPCO's elegantly renovated Kirkland Hotel digs for several works that were bound for Michigan. O'Connor saw the work and knew immediately how to commemorate Cooper's role in the Woodstock Commons process.
"One of the things bouncing around in my head was Freedom of Speech by Norman Rockwell," O'Connor recalls. "Then this art was unveiled at the Kirkland—large four-by-eight panels of folks around a grocery store. Stephen uses people he knows as models, and there were likenesses of Guy and Erik. I was wowed. I talked to him and he thought he could do something with this. We hired Steve, rented a space in Woodstock, and he came and photographed everyone."
"Rockwell is a comparison that has sort of followed me," says Hargash, "and that's okay, although I wasn't really aware of his work until after I heard it. I see the resemblance in the narrative sense, the way I use characters, the celebration of community."
"He did a wonderful job," says Cooper. "Every time I went to be photographed, I had to take a deep breath. But this was a chance to bring together the personal and professional around something important. I looked around the room and saw other people who were lower- or fixed-income and remarked that they were the ones who volunteered for the volunteer fire department, Meals on Wheels, the rescue squad, and Family [of Woodstock]. Including all socioeconomic classes of people benefits the health of a community, and allowing each group to honor its unique contribution, is a good indicator of that health."
A public unveiling of Steve Hargash's painting Give Housing a Voice will be held at Seven21 Media Center in Kingston on April 16 at 6:30pm. The mural will hang at the Kirkland Hotel in Kingston; a copy will be installed in the Woodstock Commons community room. "It's always full of kids there," says O'Connor, "just as we'd intended."People who appear in painting, in alphabetical order: