I grew up splitting time between The East Village and Kent, CT. My father is an architect and my mom worked in fashion, but spent the majority of her time working on equality and social issues. I went to boarding school, where I was an outcast, and then to Williams College, where I found art but had every intention of leaving school a teacher—and I did. Right after college, I got a job teaching at a charter school in the South Bronx.
My cancer diagnosis from college came back in the spring of my first year of teaching. I had no choice but to leave my students to go back for treatment. That second diagnosis changed my life course and shifted my focus from teaching to sculpture. I'd been a wood shop and metal shop junkie in undergrad, and had found art to be an incredible outlet for working through and talking about my cancer diagnosis and my feelings of not quite belonging. I ended up at the Rhode Island School of Design, and was pursuing an MFA in Sculpture when I had a frightening realization that I had wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps and really make and impact in the world. I wasn't sure how making assemblage sculptures about my cancer was going to accomplish that.
I was lucky enough at that time to be exposed to Rick Lowe's Project Row Houses, a public art project that made up of a series of repurposed dilapidated row houses in Houston that were transformed into a vibrant community of and for its inhabitants. And Harrell Fletcher, who makes sculptures with communities and sometimes just the process of coming up with the ideas constitutes the art itself. And Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who in the 1960s created her own position at the New York Department of Sanitation as an artist-in-residence and made her lifetime career working there as an artist pushing the boundaries of what constitutes art and used her role as an artist to make the lives of her co-workers at the sanitation department better. These projects that gave me that eureka moment made me realize that I didn't need to switch paths again; I could use my art background to make an impact to work with people and communities.
So I tried all sorts of projects, from collecting chemotherapy patients' hair and using it in sculptures, to stripping my studio down to hardwood and hosting dinner parties. It was during this time that I started to collaborate with Eve, and we began developing our own techniques for engaging with people: about accessibility, about taking art out of the gallery, about engaging with non-traditional art audiences. We made candy and temporary tattoos and taught classes at non-profit youth programs, all the while searching for our voice and our community.
Eventually, we came up with the idea to throw a festival modeled after the small jam band and hippie fests I'd gone to in college. I was intrigued by how those events fostered a sense of community and generosity. I wasn't a huge fan of the music, but was always in awe of the genuine kindness I consistently experienced at those events. So we decided to organize one of our own. My father and his business partner had purchased Maxon Mills in 2006 to save it from demolition because they loved the architecture and believed that it should be saved. The 2008 recession hit and their prospects for tenants were bleak. So, Eve and I pitched the festival idea to them and they let us give it a try.
We didn't have the typical “hippie” art and music that you'd see at those aforementioned festivals, but more contemporary — the work of our peer network. And because of exploration in other community work, we knew how important it was to not “parachute" into Wassaic to throw the festival. We set up camp for the summer, knocking on doors, bringing artists for on-site visits, and spending afternoons drinking with the locals at The Lantern. We got to know members of the community and engaged the kids and neighbors to be involved at the event. Looking back, everything that makes the Wassaic Project what it is — accessibility, education, creativity, diversity — was there at that first festival.
Wassaic is an amazing place where I feel like the opportunities to make an impact are endless. I love the architecture and how it inspires both our programming and the artists who come to work here. It's a community that reflects the narrative of so many post-industrial, post-agricultural cities and towns and, yet, there's a scrappiness to it — a history of being unrestrained and a little different that opens the door to wild ideas and out-of-the-box solutions. That's what I love about working here.
We knew how important it was to not “parachute" into Wassaic to throw the festival, so we set up camp for the summer: knocking on doors, bringing artists for on-site visits, and spending afternoons drinking with the locals at the Lantern.
Bowie Zunino, Wassaic, August 2017
Photos by Verónica González Mayoral