Hudson Valley as the next SoHo?

Artist Jonah Meyer grew up in a family where one was expected to go to art school, and then find a rural community in which to ply one's craft and raise a family.

Jonah's dad, James, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, founded his own jewelry business. Mom, Anne, became a renowned potter. All lived and prospered in Williamsport, Pa.

Eventually Jonah also went to RISD, and settled in Woodstock, N.Y., near where his family used to vacation in the historic Catskill Mountains.

Jonah built a career making what he called "art furniture" and later sculpture. And now he's gaining fame for his abstract paintings.

Jonah Meyer is one of six artists included in the new exhibit "Out of the Studio: Hudson Valley Artists 2003" at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art in New Paltz, N.Y., through Sept. 14. The exhibit, at the State University of New York, showcases emerging talents from the fast-reviving Hudson Valley in New York.

Curator Karl Willers characterizes the Hudson Valley as the nation's newest SoHo, Chelsea, or Williamsburg, Pa.; a place where working artists can live and create inexpensively, and yet stay within the orbit of the major gallery scenes in New York and Boston.

Dr. Willers says he was surprised at the quality of work that was brought together, as well as its maturity, inventiveness, and self-reliance. "The problem was," he says, "that there's such a tremendous number of distinguished artists now working throughout the area. And they're all good people."

But Meyer, like many of his fellow artists in the Hudson Valley, still doesn't see himself as part of the next big thing. "Ever since I was a kid, growing up in an artistic family born of the '60s, I've been expecting scenes like this to just appear," he says. "I've always thought, deep inside, that this was the way people lived ... and created."

The artists here have arrived for various reasons - the region's handful of colleges (Bard, Vassar, SUNY-New Paltz), cheap housing and studio space, and memories of family vacations. The local scene is also very uncity-like. Galleries, restaurants, and studio enclaves are separated by miles of rural driving.

Willers, who came to the Dorsky from previous posts at the Whitney Museum and the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., says he noticed several years ago that major artists were calling upstate New York home. When he began seriously researching his new job, he found that the state arts council, local arts organizations, and county chambers of commerce reported that the Hudson Valley had the highest concentration of working artists in the US.

So for his first show, Willers simply contacted six of the Hudson Valley's top artists, whom he already knew, and asked them to pick the region's strongest up-and-comers.

The "name" artists in the show include painter Jake Berthot, photographer Lynn Davis, abstract expressionist Al Held, sculptors Judy Pfaff, Al Loving, and Martin Puryear. The rising artists they picked include painter Ruth Leonard, photographer Chad Kleitsch, collage artist Ralph Fleming, painter Gene Benson, photographer Laura Gail Tyler, and Jonah Meyer.

Back in the spring, Dr. Willers contacted Meyer about displaying his artwork at the museum. He had been picked by top sculptor Puryear, one of Meyer's heroes.

"I was blown away," says Meyer, who has just founded a rural retail store, "Service Station," for arts and crafts created by him, his friends, and family. He described that first meeting when the famous - and somewhat reclusive - sculptor was brought to his studio right after a show, and the large space was chock full of finished pieces.

"We hung out. It was a nice meeting," Meyer recalls. "I'd never have thought he'd pick me for something like this."

Much of the work at the Dorsky, Willers says, is in good company with the region's rich history as the founding home of America's first major art movement, the Hudson River School of Landscape Painting. It flourished throughout much of the 19th century via such local masters as Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and Frederic Church.

Both Willers and Meyer spoke about the new Kingston Sculpture Biennial that includes work by art stars Mark di Suvero, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Sol Lewitt, and Gillian Jaggers, all mingled with work by local artists and students.

Meyer, although optimistic, is lower key than Willers about his new home's international positioning. The local gallery scene, he says, is still building. Local audiences aren't used to buying challenging new work yet. And hence, he says, there's still a timidity about everything, albeit to a lesser degree than at any other art scene outside the major cities. Nonetheless, says Meyer, "in many ways it's not that much different from what my deepest dreams were growing up."

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