Whose Omi Is it Anyway?
William Tucker, Eve 2000, bronze
Omi International Arts Center in Ghent has serious ivory-tower cred. Among the most selective artists’ retreats in this country, Omi stands out for its reach beyond U.S. borders for applicants. Perhaps that’s because its founder, Francis Greenburger, son of Sanford J. Greenburger, the legendary literary agent who, starting in the 30s, brought the likes of Kafka, Camus, and Sartre to this country, inherited his father’s global perspective on the arts. No question, Omi has earned the right to be a high-minded cocoon. Instead, as Marilyn Bethany reports, it doesn’t so much “reach out” to the community as leap over split-rail fences to embrace it with its free 80-acre sculpture park, recently enhanced with a high tech architectural component. There’s also a sophisticated cafe, miles from the nearest town, shimmering like a mirage in the wilderness, and events such as this Saturday’s nature/art walk-and-talk plus lunch. And then there was that time when one of the residents, a dancer from Baltimore, turned the local town meeting into a scene right out of—think: Mayberry RFD meets Glee.
No, Omi is not some obscure form of sushi, though it is, as its administrative director Ruth Adams ruefully admits, “an octopus.” Which part of the Omi International Arts Center in Ghent contains the cephalopod’s heart and which are its tangential tentacles depends entirely on who’s looking.
To thousands of annual visitors, the “300 acres and growing” property is perceived as a free sculpture park, called The Fields, where they may hike or cross-country ski on groomed trails through 80 acres of rolling hills dotted with an ever-refreshed assortment of monumental cutting-edge artworks. To local parents, Omi is a community center where their kids can go to summer day camp and to year ‘round Saturday morning workshops in such worthy pursuits as making sunprint photographs. To the lucky professional dancers, musicians, writers, translators and artists from around the world who make the cut, Omi is a prestigious residential retreat, where they can work all day, then fraternize at night, not just with their fellow artists but also with top gallerists, curators, critics, agents, and editors brought in from New York, the sort of dream network that could make all the difference to a career. (“Lives have been completely changed,” Adams says.) And finally, to those of us who spend our weekends ricocheting around Columbia County doing errands, the Café at Omi is a secret oasis of calm and sustenance. Housed in a stunning piece of architecture, with equally stunning “framed” views from its light-washed interior, the cafe may be as popular for its design, done by Omi’s Architectural director Peter Franck and his wife Kathleen Triem, as for its delicious food crafted by a rotating team of enlightened chefs, using ingredients from the surrounding farms.
Explaining the multi-limbed beast that is Omi is a constant challenge Adams says, recalling some unexpected help with this she once got. She had mentioned to Vincent Thomas, a visiting dancer from Baltimore, that she was heading into the village of Ghent for a town meeting. He begged to go along. Mystified, Adams nonetheless agreed. As the meeting wound down, Thomas stood and introduced himself. He then repeated some phrases he’d heard the various speakers say, accompanied by the body language they’d used to help express themselves. He asked all assembled to do the gestures with him. Amused, everyone went along. Once he had them moving in unison, he said, “That’s dance,” and sat down. Says Adams, “Our audience doubled after that.”
This Saturday, Omi extends yet another tentacle to the community by hosting a nature/art walk-and-talk on its grounds with Fields Sculpture Park director Bill Maynes, naturalist Sheldon Evans, and expert birder Joe Novick. The walk will be followed by a box-lunch reception in the visitors’ center/cafe to celebrate publication of Columbia County Outdoors: A Guide to Recreational Areas, written by Evans under the auspices of the Columbia Land Conservancy. This comprehensive and beautifully organized book makes clear where it’s okay for bikers, birders, boaters, hikers, even the wheelchair bound, to trespass within the county’s lightly populated 635 square miles of rolling woodlands, wetlands, meadows, lakes, rivers and creeks.
Saturday’s is but one of the upcoming programs at Omi that the public is invited to attend. On Saturday May 12, the current class at Writers Omi will host a free reading of their original fiction, poetry and translation, followed by a barbecue. On June 2, the sculptor Alice Aycock (recently in the news for bringing suit against JFK airport’s management over their plan to remove a work by her that has hung from the ceiling of Terminal 1 since the building opened fourteen years ago) will be at Omi to celebrate the reconstruction of her 1975 piece, “A Simple Network of Underground Wells and Tunnels” sited in Omi’s latest wrinkle, its Architecture Park. That park also contains some “virtual” structures that appear only when cellphone screens are pointed toward specific “building sites,” once the required app has been downloaded. Wild and crazy? No, just ahead of the pack; perfectly normal for the kind of octopus Omi is. —Marilyn Bethany
Omi International Arts Center
1405 County Road 22, Ghent
Free guided nature and art walk
Saturday, May 5, noon
Post walk box lunch: $10/reserved; $12/day-of
Columbia County Outdoors: A Guide to Recreational Areas, $21.95