Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Honoring a farming way of life

Jennett Meriden Russell

Photographer and author Mary Ann Spencer’s work is displayed at an upcoming exhibit honoring the farming industry on Long Island.

The works of East Moriches artist Robbi Goldberg and East Setauket photographer and author Mary Ann Spencer— featured in a month-long tribute to the historical farming culture of Long Island—are a profound comment on a still thriving way of life.

“I think that it’s a very noble thing that Robbi and Mary Ann are doing,” said Joseph M. Gergela III, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, who will help kick off the display during its opening next week.

The Long Island Farms and Barns Exhibit and Farmer’s Market will run from Monday, September 18, to Wednesday, October 18, at the Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Educational and Cultural Center in Stony Brook Village Center, an 8,800-square-foot year-round venue providing activities, events and educational programs to families and children.

“They’re bringing to people’s minds that this is still an agricultural area,” Mr. Gergela said, “and teaching them about some of our history and culture.”

Ms. Goldberg, who is renowned for her realistic renderings of Americana, has been working on a series of acrylic paintings of local farm stands since 2003. More than 10 of her detailed paintings are being displayed in the exhibit.

“The exciting part for me is talking to the farmers,” Ms. Goldberg said. “They’re excited to see their farm stands presented as art and preserved … and I like the idea of preserving Long Island things that should be preserved.”

Ms. Spencer is exhibiting a large photographic montage illustrating the history of Long Island barns. The photographs tell the story of the continuing evolution of North Fork barns, which date back to 1640.

“Barns are very appealing,” Ms. Spencer said. “You drive by a farm, and you don’t necessarily remember the farmhouse. You might see the silo, but it’s the barn that catches your attention. They speak to us. They remind us of our past, and that’s important.”

During a “Meet the Artists and Farmer’s Reception,” from 6 to 8 p.m. on September 28, Mr. Gergela will introduce the award-winning film, “Farming the Future: Farm Life on Long Island,” by renowned filmmaker Ron Rudaitis. The 60-minute film, which recently won Best Short Documentary at the Long Island Film Festival, is narrated by actor William Baldwin and music legend Willie Nelson.

The film examines the challenges that prevent farmers from passing their traditions on to the next generation and explores solutions that could help farmers remain on Long Island.

The reception is being sponsored by the Farm Bureau and will also feature book signings, Long Island’s fall harvest products and refreshments.

A farmers market will also be located in front of the Educational and Cultural Center from 6 to 8 p.m. during the reception, with a full line of fruits, vegetables and seasonal plants. Members of the Borella family, who run a 53-acre farm, established in the 1950s, on Edgewood Avenue in St. James, will be on hand to meet visitors. The farmers market will also be available at this location throughout the exhibit on September 21, October 5 and October 12 from noon to 3 p.m.

During the reception, Ms. Spencer will also be available to sign her book, “Barns of the North Fork.” Her exhibit and book were funded by the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities.

Mr. Gergela and Ms. Goldberg will be on hand as well to sign the “HEP Guide to Long Island Farmstands,” which features Ms. Goldberg’s artwork and photographs of local farm stands.

Ms. Goldberg said she was inspired to create her farm stand series three years ago after visiting a local farm stand. Struck by the charm of the ramshackle building and the colorful displays of flowers and hand-painted signs, Ms. Goldberg said she was aesthetically drawn to the quaint wooden structures.

The artist, who has lived on Long Island most of her life, said she does not like to paint pictures of things that are made of “metal and plastic.” She believes that the wooden farm stands are iconic to Long Island, and fears that their presence and the area’s rich history of agriculture are in danger of being swept away in a rising tide of over-development.

“Painting them is my way of preserving them, at least on canvas,” she said.

That process of meticulously preserving those images on canvas, which can be as large as 18 inches by 24 inches, can each take up to 300 hours to complete, Ms. Goldberg said. Using tiny brushes that are as thin as a sewing needle, the artist painstakingly places tiny details on her images, such as small signs with legible prices of produce handwritten on them.

Ms. Spencer said the idea for her book was sparked by a separate effort to catalogue all the barns in the Town of Southold. She began that study on September 11, 2001. For two years, she inventoried a total of 734 barns from Mattituck to Orient Point.

While some of the barns she inventoried are either no longer in use, or have been converted into dwellings, business and storage facilities, Ms. Spencer noted that more than half were still being used for their original purpose of storing active farming equipment.

One dilemma facing her in the inventory process was the fact that many of the original barns, which date back 200 to 300 years, have been structurally added on to over the years. Ms. Spencer decided to count these barns, which have as many as two and three additions, as one barn. To satisfy the discrepancy, she gave classifications to each type of barn, such as a “double” meaning one original barn with one addition.

Ms. Spencer, who has been a photographer and preservationist for more than 30 years, noted that her detailed accounting of the structures is the first step in historic preservation of the buildings. She said that a thorough inventory helps preservationists calculate loss or gain in the numbers of those buildings.

While her inventory did reveal a small loss of historic barns, Ms. Spencer said she was excited to realize that many new barns were being built in their stead.

“Studying barns in a region of the country like Long Island with its long history,” Ms. Spencer said, “it describes the evolution of farming as agricultural use changes, and you can see that reflected in the barns.”

For information on the Long Island Farms and Barns Exhibit, call 751-2244.


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