Purcell Scheu Palmer ’62: Making Room for the Arts
When Purcell Scheu Palmer ’62 and her husband, Jim, purchased a new home on a bluff above the Hudson River in 2001, they hatched an idea “sort of out of the blue” for sharing it with young artists.
A supporter of the arts for most of her life, they envisioned their new home and rolling, wooded 60-acre grounds as a place to enable to artists pursue their work away from the bustle of their everyday lives. She says she remembers her husband’s reaction to her idea when she first brought it up: “Jim smiled and said, ‘Purcell, you know I’d follow you anywhere, but you’d better be right about this.’ ”
The property, located in Catskill, New York, about 45 miles north of Poughkeepsie, certainly has the proper pedigree as a place for a Vassar alumna to support the work of artists. The house itself, which has undergone numerous additions and modifications, was first built in 1865 by Charles Herbert Moore, a revered painter of the Hudson River School and a friend of Matthew Vassar.
The Palmers decided to call their new home Catwalk, a reference to a narrow walkway that connected the main house to a three-story tower. They launched Catwalk Art Residency in 2004, and over the past decade it has served as a pastoral retreat for more than 200 painters, sculptors, poets, writers, musicians, and filmmakers. Purcell continues to oversee Catwalk since her husband’s death in 2013.
The artists who have been there say they’ve been enthralled by the beauty of the grounds and by the Palmers’ warm hospitality. “It was just like heaven,” says Christina Tenaglia ’97, a New York City artist who spent a total of five weeks at Catwalk after winning Vassar’s W.K. Rose Fellowship for young artists in 2011. “I did most of my work in a small barn in the woods, and I just fell in love with the place.”
Tenaglia, whose earlier work had mostly consisted of ceramics and drawings, had just begun working with a new medium, small wooden sculptures she calls “constructions,” when she was awarded her fellowship. She says she’s not sure she could have achieved such an ambitious shift in her work without the solitude her stay at Catwalk provided. “I was starting a whole new body of work, using hammers and chisels, and doing the work in this little farm shed was the perfect venue,” Tenaglia says.
It was artists like Tenaglia—Vassar grads with advance degrees who are pursuing careers in the arts, music, poetry, or literature—that the Palmers had in mind when they conceived the idea for Catwalk. Over twelve years, the roster of affiliated institutions has expanded to include the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia University, and New York University as well as Vassar College, all key institutions that have informed the Palmers interest in the arts. Applications are vetted and approved by a board of faculty members at each institution.
Professor of English Paul Kane, who has served on the panel on several occasions, says it’s gratifying to be able to provide a venue for talented Vassar alumnae/i to pursue their work. The panel recently approved a residency for poet Jane Gregory ’04, who received a master’s degree at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. “Going to Catwalk was a godsend to Jane,” Kane says. “She was at a point in her career where she needed to carve out some time to devote solely to her work, and that’s a real key to productivity, being able to work at a level of intensity you can’t achieve in your normal life.”
Purcell says she cherishes the alliances she’s forged in establishing the Catwalk residency program. “I love having Vassar involved as the host institution for the Hudson Valley and I also cherish the interaction we have with all these institutions,” she says. “The criteria we have established (for the residencies) has worked well, and it’s been fulfilling and fun to share this beautiful place with all the artists who have passed through here.”
The admiration is mutual. “The first time I met Purcell, we hit it off,” says Noelani Kidder ’96, a filmmaker who spent three weeks at Catwalk in 2007. “She understands artists, she’s good at understanding images, and she’s not thrown off by the confusion of making art.”
Vassar Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art Gina Ruggeri spent three weeks at Catwalk in the summer of 2011, living in an apartment on the first and second floors of the tower and doing most of her work on the top floor. “It was a unique work space— almost like living in a tree house,” Ruggeri says. “It was an amazing place to work. The grounds are just so beautiful, and there’s such a sense of history there. I certainly took inspiration from the natural beauty that surrounded me.”
Throughout her stay, Ruggeri says, the Palmers maintained a delicate balance between making her feel welcome and leaving her alone to pursue her work. “There was another artist there when I was there, and Purcell encouraged us to go on jaunts with her—we went swimming in the Hudson, something I didn’t know was possible,” she says. “But I also enjoyed spending long stretches of time working alone in that tree house, and I was productive. I made about 20 small paintings and worked on some larger drawings as well.”
Like Ruggeri, playwright and librettist Anton Dudley ’96 enjoyed his stay in Catwalk’s tower in 2013. He was there to write the lyrics to a musical that had a fairytale theme. It’s the story of a Disney-like theme park that hosts a reunion for middle-aged women who had played the part of princesses at the park when they were young. “There was something about working with those fairytale narratives in a tower that was really inspirational,” Dudley says. “The first time I saw it, I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is where I was meant to write this show.’ ”
Dudley says he also enjoyed getting to know Purcell. “She knows so much about the arts and culture, it was really inspiring to talk to her,” he says. “And she has a great way of saying, ‘I’m here if you need me’ without ever intruding on your work.”
Betsy Jacks, director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in the village of Catskill, says she wasn’t surprised when Purcell and Jim became actively involved in arts and historical activities in their new home. Jacks, who is the daughter of Purcell’s classmate and friend Elizabeth Hunter Scott ’62 says, “Everyone immediately recognized that Purcell and Jim were the kind of people who make things happen—they were spark plugs for this community.”
With the support of the community, the Palmers led a campaign to spruce up empty storefronts on Main Street in Catskill. At the time, the spaces were being used by leading regional and national art schools for performances and exhibitions. The program was called Masters on Main Street, and Purcell helped recruit the artists and make the connections with the institutions.
Purcell says she enjoys seeing Catwalk become what she envisioned. “I saw this place as a laboratory for the arts, and I think that’s what it’s become,” she says.
In addition to hosting individual artists for the residency program, Catwalk supports gatherings for artists, often in conjunction with other institutions that draw patrons from throughout the region. As part of the exhibition “Reflecting on Olana,” in September 2014, 17 Catwalk artists installed on the grounds site-specific works that focused on the landscape surrounding Olana, the former home of 19th century artist Frederic Edwin Church, located just across the Hudson River. The exhibition complemented Olana State Historic Site/Wave Farm’s art and music exhibition “Groundswell.”
The residency program has also expanded. With the 2013 purchase of a 20-acre parcel and home adjacent to their property, dubbed Catslair, the program can now accommodate multiple artists working on collaborative projects and longer-term residencies. In August and September 2014, Catslair was used as the headquarters and setting for a new movie co-produced by a trio of Vassar graduates. (Read about the production at vq.vassar.edu.)
Purcell is clearly proud of what she’s created. Recently, she sat on her back porch overlooking the Hudson and the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and reflected on what Catwalk had become.
“This project has brought into focus a lot of my values and a lot of my dreams,” she says. “I love bringing talented artists together; I love the cross-pollination. We could have done it elsewhere, but the Hudson Valley is a unique corridor where artistic endeavors seem to converge. The distance between an idea and its execution is short here because of all the influences that come together, creating a rich historic and contemporary arts legacy.”
Purcell smiles, shakes her head, and says: “I remember what Jim said about getting it right. I think we did.”
More about the Catwalk’s Residency Program
Vassar alumnae/i with a master’s of fine arts degree or an equivalent level of professional experience are eligible to be granted residencies to pursue art making, collaborative projects, and scholarly pursuits focusing on art including (but not limited to) sculpture, installation, video, film, poetry, performance, opera, drawing, and painting. Residencies will be granted for a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of four weeks. Residencies take place between April 6 and November 1, 2015. Residents will live in private apartments attached to the main house on the Catwalk property with separate studio spaces. There will be opportunities to interact and collaborate with other artists who are in residence at the same time. Deadline for applications is February 23. Click here for more information.