Reclaiming My Studio (& Pappaw DeWalt’s Dirt)

Halo-lit by the setting sun, a hulking cumulus cloud looms in the sky like a bulbous atomizer for the Fishkill Creek. The funky summertime fragrance fills my nostrils as I soar down Tioronda Avenue on my bicycle. Along dormant railroad tracks, encroaching development in the form of luxury housing spreads over the abandoned industrial landscape like a modern pestilence. The lambs ear and sumac and occasional dumped sofa are standing their ground for now—and I am rooting for them. (Well, not the sofa.) A whip of wind and gnats and honeysuckle helps to create a miracle: my sixty-four-year-old body is still able to reclaim that giddy feeling of endless summer.

I have been reacquainting myself with my art studio for the last week—a 1920s brick garage that was a large part of the reason I moved upstate from New York City nearly seventeen years ago. It’s been a constant battle with the carpenter ants who have had squatters’ rights since time began. A recent tar-and-patch on the roof’s perimeter has given me the (most likely false) hope that maybe this time I can get the upper hand.

squirrel & tar

So, I am back to assemblage art. I wanted to start small, both in scale and concept. While the setup was initially an homage to my paternal grandfather and the workshop he kept in his basement, this summer I am feeling the spirit of Pappaw DeWalt, my mother’s father. He had built a small, seasonal cabin (known as “the cottage” for some reason, but let’s not envision cobblestones and roses!) out of scavenged Stroehmann’s bread billboards. My dad and uncles would cart the building materials to the island in the Susquehanna from the tiny hamlet of Cly before my memories of summer even began. By the time I was nicknamed “Peapicker” by Pappaw, matching his motorboat, I was happily ensconced in that simple, idyllic setting.

Cottage - me on boat

It was less than a half-hour drive, and yet a world away from our suburban backyard and asphalt playgrounds (where we could easily crack our heads open with one faulty swing on the monkey bars). The cottage was at the very end of the island, which felt like the tip of my entire world, as I spread out on a doll blanket and memorized picture flash cards with all the butterflies and birds, or read the latest Nancy Drew. There was a small dock for the boat and jumping off into the chilly, murky river. Wooden steps led up to a screened-in porch where I loved to sleep on a metal cot, but the rustic interior I barely remember at all. Maybe an enamel-top table, an arm chair—but who wanted to be inside during summer?


Me at the cottage


Nana & Pappaw picnicing.jpg

Pappaw and Nana DeWalt had traveled—camped!—across some of the United States, and he always brought back a souvenir for me. A fossil, some fool’s gold, and from one trip in 1957, samples of dirt. Sixty years later they are lined up in my studio, their masking tape labels still legible: Wyoming, Cedar Rapids Iowa, Hinkley [sic] Illinois, and “50 MI west of Omaha Lincoln NEB.” To christen the rebirth of my creative workspace, I decided to give them a little more of a presentation, using materials that evoked feelings of the cabin on the river, and of a time when feeling dirt underfoot and memorizing Latin names for butterflies was really all a girl needed to pass a long, summer’s day.

Dirt on shelves

3 removed and mounted, 4 to go

Samples in progress

experimenting with backgrounds to mount the dirt samples

Linoleum in driveway

a nice sheet of aging linoleum that evokes the cottage, warming up in the driveway

Linoleum on masonite

cut down to the size of pre-cut masonite (done years ago by Pappaw Watts . . .for what?)

Dirt__Lincoln Nebraska

One sample assemblage ready


This one goes to Pappaw DeWalt’s great-grandson, Mike, and his wife Charlotte, who live in Wyoming. Passing the dirt!

Never Too Late!


Patrick Fredericks, Sr. is the kind of neighbor who will be out in a blizzard, snow-blowing the sidewalks as far as three doors up the street—that would be up to and including my house. In the summer, he will greet you from the porch with Marianne, his wife of 53 years, and insist on giving a tour of their prolific yet compact garden plot tucked into this crazy-quilt neighborhood of old Beacon, on the mountain side of town.

Mr. Fredericks has lived his whole life in Beacon. He was born there in 1936, and in 1991 retired from the New York State Department of Corrections after 33 years of service. He started painting at the age of 69, when his wife gave him an acrylic paint set for Christmas in 2004.

“I found that I enjoyed the experience. I never painted before then.”

After Mr. Fredericks painted a dozen or so canvases, he asked if I would look at them, to offer him any advice, since he knew I was an illustrator and artist. When I entered the cozy living room, full of pictures and souvenirs and memories of a family life fully-lived, I wasn’t quite prepared for what jumped from his canvases.

Vibrant colors, abstract divisions of space, spare yet sophisticated compositions that yielded both the symbolic and the representational—the unique purity that comes from being self-taught was much evident. None of the umbrella terms for this style seemed to capture the work—primitive? Visionary? Outsider? Those labels are usually accompanied by bios of artists consumed by religious demons or confined by prison bars. Mr. Fredericks is all the more unusual for being a happily married man, a good neighbor, and a truly expressive artist.

My advice was simply to keep painting, and to contact the Howland Cultural Center. He now is included in the annual Artist Members Exhibit.

Meanwhile, he and Marianne have adopted a cockatiel named Max, who constantly vies for attention. I have a feeling that Max will be a future subject for the prolific artist. But he has to wait his turn. Next up is Derek Jeeter.

monarch dummy light horse flower geometric color teeth hammers V IMG_2124 IMG_2143

Artwork copyright Patrick Fredericks

Pete Seeger is 93 today! Happy Birthday!

This gallery contains 1 photo.

Pete Seeger is my neighbor, I am proud to say. I run into him in the post office and know I am sharing the room with a humanitarian legend. Here is an entry I submitted a few years ago to … Continue reading