Hudson, an historic town on the Hudson River, about a two and a half hour drive north of New York City, is the town where I was born 88 years ago. A few miles south of Hudson, is Olana, the famous estate of the revered Hudson River School painter, Frederic Edwin Church. Church and his wife Isabel named the estate after a fortress in Persia (now Armenia), which also overlooked a river valley. The estate is now the 2500-acre Olana State Historic Site.
My Summers on “The Farm”
As a boy, I spent most summers staying in the Cosy Cottage at Olana. My grandfather, Seymour Alphonso Jeune, manager of the estate and a young man in his twenties, lived in the Cosy Cottage. He was a confidant of Frederic Church during Church’s later years. Olana, in addition to the beautiful villa, was a working farm with vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, and a heart-shaped lake. Church and his wife, who referred to Olana as “The Farm”, lived in the cottage while the estate was being built. After Frederic and Isabel passed away (1900 and 1899 respectively), the estate was inherited by their son, Louis Church.
Once when my cousin and I were catching frogs at the lily pond, a chauffeured Rolls-Royce stopped, and out stepped Mr. Lou Church (as my grandfather always called him), who came over to the pond and asked in a stern voice “Does your grandfather know you boys are here?” My wonderful grandfather hardly ever disciplined us and didn’t need to, as fearful as we were of old man Church. Once, when the Churches were away, my brothers and I sneaked into the mansion and explored the inside, including the studio where Church painted. I remember a scary golden Buddha with glowing red eyes that sat on a landing of an elaborate staircase.
I watched as my uncles slaughtered and dressed hogs and as they milked eight or ten cows late every afternoon. I raked hay behind a team of horses, helped my grandmother and mother make soap from the lard of the butchered hogs, fill barrels of vinegar with cucumbers, churn butter, and pick berries. I got to ride in the solid-tire 1930s Brockway pre-World War open flatbed truck delivering flowers, fruit and vegetables up one of the fine gravel roads leading up to the castle where the cooks would see us coming from a one-way window in the second floor pantry and open the doors to receive the daily deliveries.
Each winter the lake froze over to a depth of a foot or so and, as was the practice along the Hudson River, my grandfather and uncles would saw blocks of ice into chunks and store them for the entire summer in the 20’ by 20’ two-story icehouse on the lake. Several inches of straw from the oats and wheat grown on the estate as a blanket for preserving the ice supply. There were no indoor baths or toilets at Cosy Cottage. We bathed in the little pump house down near the lake (there was a large trough with a few fish in it who shared our bath). Each bedroom in the Cozy Cottage had fancy Victorian styled ceramic chamber pots set in matching large bowls. They were emptied daily into the two well-constructed outhouses in back of the cottage and above a row of red raspberry bushes, with a fine view, so typical of everything Frederic Church designed.
My maternal male ancestors were French stone masons—Grandfather told me of how his father's ancestors had laid the stones for Les Halles, the historic market of Paris. This is probably why my grandfather showed me that the foundation stones at Olana are set not in traditional cement mortar but actually were cast in molten lead. The LeJeunes were Hugenots who emigrated to the U.S to escape persecution by the Catholic Church. The family settled in Athens, New York, across the river from Olana, where my mother was born and most of my relatives became farmers.
Church died before I was born, but my grandfather told me interesting stories about him. One was that Church had meticulously mixed all of the rich colors for the paint used inside and outside of the estate. He told me how “Mr. Church” watched as painters measured up a wall to paint a stripe evenly around a room. He said that Church “grew impatient, picked up a brush, dipped it into the bucket of paint, and in one continuous stroke, drew the line around the wall. Church then tossed the brush back into the pail and left the room with a satisfied smile”.
As Church aged, his hands became so severely crippled that my grandfather would strap the paintbrushes to his hand so he could continue painting. His famous works, including El Rio de Luz (The River of Light), Twilight in the Wilderness, and Cotopaxi, are known for their luminescent quality. I’ve read that Church didn’t paint the object, nor the scene or the tree or the rainbow but rather he painted the LIGHT that defines a scene. This was an epiphany for me and along with the Persian art of my summers at Olana, has had a profound influence on my work.
Later, as a design student at Alfred University, a painting professor, Clara Katherine Nelson, taught the concept of painting the light that defines the object, and a light bulb (pun intended) went on in my psyche as it confirmed the mystique of Church’s paintings. Something else about Olana stayed with me as well—the Middle Eastern influence of the architecture and decorative elements both inside and out. As design director at Blenko, many of the stoppers and shapes I created resemble minarets of Middle Eastern architecture. I never thought of these designs as Persian-inspired, but certainly the images of Olana must have found a permanent place in the creative part of my psyche from my childhood experiences at Olana.
The Olana Gallery Series at Blenko
That idea of luminescence was on my mind, as well as Olana’s rich palette of colors, when I created the Olana line at Blenko. At the end of August 2001, after over 40 years I returned to the Blenko factory to be interviewed for the filming of “Blenko, the Story of Three Designers” (A PBS fundraiser film shown on over fifty stations nationwide and produced by filmmakers Wittek and Novak). I was working with a shop in the Blenko factory when the news of the planes hitting the World Trade Center came over a portable radio. At first we assumed it was only a simple accident by an errant small plane. On learning the truth, we stopped working but returned the next day and I designed the Patriot line to commemorate the tragedy. All flights were cancelled for a week, which provided an unexpected opportunity to continue to commandeer a large shop of Blenko's most skilled glassblowers and create the Olana Gallery Series. The concept was an effort to move Blenko from a factory to more of a maker of pure gallery type art glass.
Blenko was unique in that it had several pots of melted pure colors available at all times. (Glass studios today melt color rods and canes in small quantities that are then cased over crystal.) I was hoping to inspire Blenko to adjust to the emerging studio glass movement. My concept at Blenko on that occasion was that I would view each of the six glass workers in a shop as a group of giant paintbrushes. “Jar Fly” (they all had these colorful nicknames) would be my ruby brush. “Mooch” would be the cobalt brush, “Muck” would be the emerald brush, and “Grandma Jenkins” (a gregarious chain smoker of cigars while he worked) would be my purple brush and so on. The head glassblower and foreman David Osburn was on board to provide the “canvas”, or large crystal base all formed without molds (“freehand”) to which the strokes of colored glass would be applied as if on a painting. (Note: these are real nicknames from my years at Blenko but not necessarily the guys who made the Olana pieces). And that is how the Olana and Kaleidoscope lines were created.
The red, white, and blue Patriot line in memory of the victims of the World Trade Center disaster have etched memorial writings: "Pray and Remember" and "God Bless America", a rare design element for Blenko.
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