Helen Toomer insists she's not an artist. "Oh no! I wouldn't call myself that," says the cofounder of the Stoneleaf Retreat, the Art Mama's Alliance and the creator of Upstate Art Weekend. "I would say I'm an organizer; I'm an arts supporter—really, though, I just sit at my computer and make things up. I feel like that should be my title."
I've caught Toomer on a late summer afternoon, during a brief window of quiet, at the homestead/residency/gallery space she shares with her husband Eric Romano, their son Harry, and a growing list of women artists who come initially for creative residencies—some with their own children—and very often end up remaining in Toomer's heart and on her radar indefinitely. The weekend before, the family's bucolic 22 acres was a hub for the third annual Upstate Art Weekend, with 145 galleries, museums, project spaces, and artists participating in a celebration of regional art. In a few days, Toomer and Romano will welcome an extended family of mother, child, and grandmother who will take root in the property's three-bedroom guest cabin and utilize the generous studio space carved from a weathered barn to grow their own creative work.
But now all is quiet. Toomer, dressed in a flaming orange top, neon-green shorts, blue sandals, and square white sunglasses, is like a floating Mondrian painting guiding me around the hilly landscape, which is teeming with both nature and art. Just south of the Ashokan Reservoir, the property's ancient stone farmhouse, repurposed outbuildings, murals, and outdoor sculptures emerge from the landscape like patches of milkweed and phlox. Although the grounds are momentarily empty, it's easy to imagine generations of parents and children running back and forth from the rambling farmhouse to the barn or tumbling down the grassy slopes from the garden to the pond and somewhat neglected tennis court.
Originally Lenape and Schaghticoke land, the property's three-bedroom farmhouse was built in 1770, and the adjacent cleared lands sustained an orchard, gardens, chickens, and sheep through the 19th century. Toomer and her husband have transformed it into another kind of cultivation operation—this one intent on nourishing creative work. "It's a place for artists to connect with nature and art to be nurtured," Toomer says.
The Nature of an ArtistToomer came from a family that was grounded in the material arts, rather than the ethereal ones. "We were very working class," says the native of the south of England. "My mom was a secretary and my dad was a plasterer." Her parents are decidedly country people and the family spent weekends in the New Forest nearby their home. "My father would drag us and I went kicking and screaming," Toomer explains.
First moving to London, then New York, Toomer took on multiple arts-adjacent positions, finding her creative way organizing art and design fairs and focusing on professional development within the art world. In New York, Toomer crossed paths with Romano, the founder of SPACE Design + Production, which designs, builds, and manages art and design fairs nationwide. The two married and then lived in Brooklyn before they were drawn upstate. "The area reminded me so much of the woods in the south of England," says Toomer. "I'd run away from the countryside I'd grown up in and then found myself drawn essentially slap-bang back to nature. It was like my life was coming full circle."
Rambling Toward a DreamToomer and Romano looked for homes in the area for a year and a half before visiting the site that was to become Stoneleaf. "This house had been on the market for two years and Eric had been trying to get me to see it," says Toomer. "But it was out of our budget so I refused." When the price fell to just within range, she agreed to visit an open house.
The interior of the farmhouse pulled at her heartstrings as well. "The big open kitchen reminded me of an English cottage, it felt like the heart of the home," she says. The original main house, with thick stone walls and a central stone fireplace, was added onto through the 18th and 19th centuries to include additional first-floor living space and a second-floor suite of bedrooms.
Artists in NatureThe couple bought the home in 2016 and began the residency program in 2017. "The land felt very nurturing," Toomer explains. "I wanted to share that feeling and the place with as many people as possible." Replacing the cabin's staircase and refinishing its open-concept living and kitchen area, as well as adding a new deck and outdoor shower, gave them the space to host three artists at a time during the warmer months. The barn's open second floor was easily adapted into an oversized studio. Toomer and Romano cleaned out the barn's garage and, with her father's help and artistry, converted the entire first floor into two gallery spaces to display residents' work.
Toomer was inspired to create family residencies out of her own experience with becoming a mother. "Being a parent is the best of times and the worst of times," she says. "You really lose yourself and you find yourself creatively as well." The dilemma of prioritizing one's art practice over connecting with and parenting young children—or vice-versa—seemed particularly unfair to Toomer, and also a waste of potent creative energy. Mothers are particularly in need of creative support.
Whether in the midst of parenting or not, Toomer finds that a lot of her resident artists are in a particular state of transition when they find Stoneleaf. "I don't care about an artist's resume; really I want to know why they want to be here and what it might mean to them," she says. "This is a place for artists to be safe and to connect and be nurtured."