Helen Toomer's Stoneleaf Retreat in Stone Ridge | House Profiles | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Helen Toomer's Stoneleaf Retreat in Stone Ridge 

The Nature to Nurture Art

Last Updated: 11/07/2022 12:32 pm
click to enlarge The studio and artist's cabin of Stoneleaf Retreat are surrounded by 22 bucolic acres. Residency founders Helen Toomer and Eric Romano have gradually added art installations to the landscape. Alongside the barn, a colorful mural by Macon Reed was painted during the 2020 lockdown and explores the long-term impact of history’s great pandemics. Lizania Cruz’s Freedom Budget banner is on display through 2022. - WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Winona Barton-Ballentine
  • The studio and artist's cabin of Stoneleaf Retreat are surrounded by 22 bucolic acres. Residency founders Helen Toomer and Eric Romano have gradually added art installations to the landscape. Alongside the barn, a colorful mural by Macon Reed was painted during the 2020 lockdown and explores the long-term impact of history’s great pandemics. Lizania Cruz’s Freedom Budget banner is on display through 2022.

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.

click to enlarge Helen Toomer on the deck of the residence - she shares with her husband and their son. Dating from 1770, the original farmhouse has been added to over the centuries. Toomer and Romano hope to leave their own mark on the property. Along with the residency program, Toomer hatched Upstate Art Weekend in 2020. “I’d ruminated on the idea for years, but after the pandemic, I knew I needed to bring people and art back together again,” she says. “We were suffering from being separated and I realized how lucky we were to be surrounded by such an incredible landscape. I wanted to share that.” - WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Winona Barton-Ballentine
  • Helen Toomer on the deck of the residenceshe shares with her husband and their son. Dating from 1770, the original farmhouse has been added to over the centuries. Toomer and Romano hope to leave their own mark on the property. Along with the residency program, Toomer hatched Upstate Art Weekend in 2020. “I’d ruminated on the idea for years, but after the pandemic, I knew I needed to bring people and art back together again,” she says. “We were suffering from being separated and I realized how lucky we were to be surrounded by such an incredible landscape. I wanted to share that.”

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.

click to enlarge The family room of Toomer and Romano’s home is filled with art and mementos. Besides the Devan Shimoyama collage and the Allison Schulnik painting there are a pair of boxing gloves made by Zoe Buckman. “The gloves were made from my wedding dress, which my husband Eric secretly stole from my closet,” says Toomer. “The day after I received the gift I realized I was pregnant.” - WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Winona Barton-Ballentine
  • The family room of Toomer and Romano’s home is filled with art and mementos. Besides the Devan Shimoyama collage and the Allison Schulnik painting there are a pair of boxing gloves made by Zoe Buckman. “The gloves were made from my wedding dress, which my husband Eric secretly stole from my closet,” says Toomer. “The day after I received the gift I realized I was pregnant.”

The Nature of an Artist

Toomer 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.

It wasn't until a school field trip to London's Tate Gallery that Toomer discovered her deep love for high art. An encounter with the gallery's post-war collection brought her, literally, to her knees. "It stopped me in my tracks," she remembers. "I felt really, really sad and then astonished that something could make me feel the pain of that era." She wanted to make work that could affect others as deeply and decided to study fine arts at college in Bournemouth. It made her realize, however, that the actual making of art wasn't her personal creative path.
click to enlarge A writing desk at the far end of the family room.
  • A writing desk at the far end of the family room.

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 Dream

Toomer 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.
click to enlarge Toomer believes the barn was added to the property in 1972. A former greenhouse, the top of the barn is now studio space utilized by residents. On the ground floor, Toomer created two gallery spaces from a former garage and storage space. - WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Winona Barton-Ballentine
  • Toomer believes the barn was added to the property in 1972. A former greenhouse, the top of the barn is now studio space utilized by residents. On the ground floor, Toomer created two gallery spaces from a former garage and storage space.

Toomer had long dreamed of starting an artists' residency, but had never made an actual plan. However, walking around the property that day, she could suddenly see the dream manifesting around her. The home's previous owners had converted a former outbuilding into a three-bedroom guest cabin. The barn's first floor was then a storage garage, but the second floor, built into a descending hillside, was open with a partial greenhouse wall. "There were two guys in the barn talking about how the space would make a great studio, and I just smiled—I knew it was going to be an artist's residency," she remembers.

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.

click to enlarge The farmhouse’s original structure includes a large fireplace and low, wood-beamed ceilings. Toomer’s father helped fill in the gaps in the stone walls and the family uses the space as a living room. Toomer added artworks by Lizania Cruz and Dana Robinson, both Stoneleaf artists. “We call it the Christmas room because it looks best in the winter with the fire roaring and filled with lights,” she says. - WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Winona Barton-Ballentine
  • The farmhouse’s original structure includes a large fireplace and low, wood-beamed ceilings. Toomer’s father helped fill in the gaps in the stone walls and the family uses the space as a living room. Toomer added artworks by Lizania Cruz and Dana Robinson, both Stoneleaf artists. “We call it the Christmas room because it looks best in the winter with the fire roaring and filled with lights,” she says.

"Different parts of the house represent the last three centuries," says Toomer. "You can move through time as you move through space. Also, I loved how nothing was straight." Driving away past the property's old orchard, the name "Stoneleaf" came to her, and Toomer wrote it down. "I knew that's what it was going to be," she says. "It definitely wasn't the plan, but it felt like fate."

Artists in Nature

click to enlarge Artworks from 2022 STONELEAF artists-in-residence Liz Ikiriko and Priscilla Aleman, installed for Upstate Art Weekend. - WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Winona Barton-Ballentine
  • Artworks from 2022 STONELEAF artists-in-residence Liz Ikiriko and Priscilla Aleman, installed for Upstate Art Weekend.
The 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.

click to enlarge One of three bedrooms in the artist’s cabin. Toomer was inspired to start Stoneleaf Retreat in 2017 after stumbling onto the property, which realized a long-held dream. The past five years have been unexpected for her, but sharing the property with others has plenty of rewards. “I can only change what’s in my corner,” Toomer explains. “And my corner is Stoneleaf—a place for artists to be in, to be safe, to connect with each other and the landscape, and to be nurtured.” - WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Winona Barton-Ballentine
  • One of three bedrooms in the artist’s cabin. Toomer was inspired to start Stoneleaf Retreat in 2017 after stumbling onto the property, which realized a long-held dream. The past five years have been unexpected for her, but sharing the property with others has plenty of rewards. “I can only change what’s in my corner,” Toomer explains. “And my corner is Stoneleaf—a place for artists to be in, to be safe, to connect with each other and the landscape, and to be nurtured.”

Extending the residency to women with children gives the artists time and space to reconnect with their creative practice at a particularly creative transition in their lives. "A lot of artists come here to bond with nature and reconnect with their own practice whilst also knowing their children are safe and also in a welcoming, nurturing environment," says Toomer. "Selfishly, I love it because I get to bond with them and they become a part of the family and are forever integrated into the land here."

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."

click to enlarge One of the two gallery spaces Toomer created on the ground floor of the barn.
  • One of the two gallery spaces Toomer created on the ground floor of the barn.
It's part of Toomer and Romano's 21st-century addition to their timeless property. The land, they believe, has been enlivening and inspiring people from the time of the original land stewards, through its Colonial and early American chapters, until now. They hope for that to continue. "With a house this old, you realize you are just custodians of something larger than yourself and you'll only have a short time before someone else owns it," says Toomer. "So we really try to use our time wisely."

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