header
Credit:

Opus 40: An Artistic and Historic Destination

The Hudson River Valley Review; Regional History Forum Vol 29.2

Opus 40: An Artistic and Historic Destination

In May 1938, sculptor Harvey Fite purchased a twelve-acre bluestone quarry in Saugerties, near Woodstock, with the intent of creating an outdoor gallery to exhibit a series of his sculptures. The project ultimately evolved into the earthwork known today as Opus 40. Now, Fite is internationally acclaimed and Opus 40 has become a prominent cultural destination as well as a national and local historic landmark.

Harvey Fite

Harvey Fite (1903-1976) came to the Hudson River Valley as a student of St. Stephen’s College. After abandoning his aspirations to study for the ministry, he left St. Stephen’s to pursue acting at the Maverick Theater in Woodstock. Fite slept under the stage and worked on set building, plumbing, electricity, and carpentry in the theater. He left the Maverick to pursue acting and eventually discovered his gift for sculpting when he began whittling a seamstress’s wooden spool back­stage one night. Fite gained recognition as a wood and stone sculptor, showcasing his talents in New York, Paris, and Rome.

He returned to the Hudson River Valley in 1934 to accept a position at St. Stephen’s (which had been renamed Bard College), where he taught drama and sculpture and orga­nized the Fine Arts Department. Fite lived in on-campus housing and built a cabin in the Maverick artist’s colony. He considered Hervey White, the founder of the Maverick, to be a close friend and mentor. Fite became a highly regarded member of the Woodstock Artists Association in the 1940s and developed close relationships with many artists in his community. He purchased the bluestone quarry in Saugerties’ High Woods community in 1938, eventually building his house and studio on the eastern side of the property.

Fite’s restoration work on ancient Mayan culture in Copan, Honduras, in the summer of 1938 prompted his interest in applying Mayan building techniques to Ulster County bluestone. He began working on the quarry with the plan to build a gallery to display a series of large stone pieces representing “a world at peace.” These sculptures included “Flame,” a female figure with her arms raised toward the sky; “Tomorrow,” a seated African male; “Prayer,” a child on her knees with her hands clasped in front; and “The Quarry Family,” four figures representing Fite, his wife, and their two sons.

Building the Earthwork

Fite did all of his work by hand, relying solely on traditional quarryman tools like the hammer and chisel, winch and boom, and logs and chains to erect the sculptures. His laborious methods also included hand-laying stones that had been left behind by the previous quarrymen; he employed a technique called “dry keying,” in which no mortar was used to hold the stones together. Fite worked alone with the occasional expertise of his neighbor, Berthel Wrolsen. He built walkways and stairs leading to each of the sculptures and pools of water, expanding the structure and developing its integrity as an earthwork.

Eventually, Fite replaced the central figure, “Flame,” with a nine-ton bluestone monolith that was better proportioned to the growing structure. He planned to carve the new monolith, but then, after twenty years of work, he decided to abandon his original idea of representational sculpture and adapt a more abstract vision. He realized that the earthwork created to display his sculptures had become a work of art on its own. He removed the other sculptures to the grounds nearby and named the stonework Opus 40, alluding to the Latin word for work, and the forty years that Fite expected to need to complete the project. Fite dedicated the last thirty-seven years of his life to realizing his vision for the sculpture park. He was tragically killed in an accidental fall in the quarry in 1976.

The Quarryman’s Museum

Fite took the opportunity to commemorate the quarrymen of the area by construct­ing a museum to display his collection of quarryman’s tools and artifacts. The museum holds a variety of hammers and chisels, drills, and crowbars, all arranged in patterns on the walls. Outside near one of the pools is a huge boom equipped with a hand-powered winch that had been used to move rocks. Fite also built his home on the edge of the quarry. A portion of the house was devoted to his studio, where he carved most of his early sculptures. By the mid-1950s, he had moved to a studio in the woods. Presently, Fite’s stepson, Tad Richards, and his wife Pat live in the house.

Opus 40, Inc.

Following Fite’s death, his wife Barbara opened the sculpture park to the public. In 1978, she created Opus 40, Inc., a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization dedicated to exhibiting Fite’s remarkable work and developing Opus 40 as a cultural landmark. The organization is currently operated by Tad and Pat Richards.

In recent years, Opus 40, Inc., has been looking to relinquish ownership of the property. The Town of Saugerties had shown interest in purchasing it; however, the deal was not realized. Opus 40, Inc., continues to maintain the sculpture park while looking for a buyer to carry on the organization’s commitment. Ultimately, Richards hopes to merge the property that his family owns with the Opus 40, Inc. not-for-profit. They also are in the process of developing archives that will be available to the public via their Website. Tad Richards currently is editing a series of memoirs written by Harvey Fite regarding his childhood; he expects to publish the records in the future. Richards’ book Opus 40: The First 20 Years, as well as the The Rocklins, a children’s book started by Fite in 1945 and recently completed by Richards, are both available for purchase in the gift shop at Opus 40 and on www.Lulu.com. They will soon be for sale via the Opus 40 Website.

The organization has hosted several public educational events, including the Saugerties Art Group Exhibition, an Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition, and a Stone Carving Workshop. The park also is the setting for numerous concerts, theatre and dance performances, lectures, and other community events throughout the season. Opus 40 celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the raising of the monolith in May 2012, an event that was postponed from the prior fall due to Hurricane Irene.

The earthwork sustained damage from a storm on September 18, 2012, and Opus 40 is still in the process of repairing a partially collapsed wall. It hopes to rebuild the wall using techniques similar to Fite’s. Although the timeframe for repairs is still unclear, the sculpture park remains open to the public and continues to be a remarkable artistic and historic destination.

Opus 40 is located at 50 Fite Road, in Saugerties. It is open May through October from 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday and on holiday Mondays. The cost is $10 for adults, $7 for students and seniors, and $3 for children ages 7-12. Opus 40 encourages picnicking on the premises; it also is available for weddings and private events. www. opus40.org; (845) 246-3400. Questions regarding background information and history may be directed to tad@opus40.org.

Taylor Mullaney, Marist ’14

 

edit