Welcome to the Virginia Project Diaries. This is the first of four focused interactions with writer Tina Barry, and her upcoming exhibition, The Virginia Project.
Tina Barry has long had a fascination with Virginia Haggard, the partner of the artist Marc Chagall, and her daughter, Jean McNeil. Tina has created a series of stories loosely based on the trio during 1946-1948 when they moved to High Falls, New York. Their home and the small studio where Chagall worked is five minutes from Tina’s house. The Virginia Project is an interpretation of Tina’s stories of Virginia Haggard during that time as done by 14 different women artists working in myriad styles ranging from conceptual to illustrative installations.
The Virginia Project opens on October 27 and runs through November 25.
But before everything gets rolling, Bending Genres sat down with Tina to get a little background on her, Virginia Haggard, and on the driving forces behind this innovative idea.
Bending Genres: Tell us a bit about yourself! Who are you and what do you love to do?
Tina Barry: I’m a former artist and textile designer who now writes and teaches poetry and short fiction. I’m a long-time Brooklynite now living in a village in upstate New York with my husband, the ceramic sculptor and potter Bob Barry. What do I love to do? I enjoy my family a lot. I love food—to cook, eat, and source it. I come from a family of food fanatics. It’s not unusual for us to talk about what we’re going to eat for dinner while we’re eating breakfast. My sister Tamara Ehlin followed me upstate. She recently opened The Forsyth b&b in Kingston, NY. Her three-course breakfasts are legendary. Other than food? The quiet moments when I’m writing and it’s going well. And meeting with my writers’ group. Being with them makes me happy. Art, always. Seeing art, thinking about how it evolved, its subtext, always moves and inspires me. I love to travel and to read. Reading should really go at the top of things I love.
BG: What about Virginia Haggard drew you to write about her in the first place?
TB: I was drawn to the story of Marc Chagall living in the same village where I now live. I did some research and found stories of his time here (1946-48). Haggard was always mentioned, but as an afterthought: the tall, pretty woman in the pictures. Sometimes she was mentioned as his “maid.” Sometimes his “mistress.” I was curious about her, and after some research I found that she was much more than his maid, which she had been for a short time; Chagall’s wife had died shortly before he and Haggard met, so she was never his mistress. Haggard was an aspiring artist, was the daughter of an English diplomat, well educated and spoke several languages. Later in life, she became a portrait photographer and good writer; her memoir My Life with Chagall: Seven Years of Plenty as told by the Woman Who Shared Them, inspired several of the stories in my series. That she and her daughter Jean McNeil were trivialized in history was the impetus for the project, and the reason the pieces are written in their voices.
BG: You live in the same area Virginia Haggard did. How has that helped create your stories? What was the most interesting part, and the most frustrating part?
TB: My home is about five minutes from where Haggard, Chagall and McNeil lived. Their house and the studio where Chagall worked is still there. The location helped a lot with setting. My writing is not nature-driven, but living in the same village as Haggard makes it easier for me to envision the streets she strolled down, the animals she encountered. I’ve set several of the pieces near the High Falls waterfall. In one piece “High Falls,” which has been magnificently interpreted by the painter Amy Talluto, I write, “With his hand on my elbow, we picked our way along, the air phosphorescent with fir trees and the clean, mineral smell of water. Look up, he said. Miles above us the falls roared down as if God had slashed the sky and emptied the oceans.” I have had the experience of seeing the falls for the first time. The majesty of it.
BG: You have 14 wonderful artists contributing their work to a reinterpretation of your work. How has it been seeing your words through other’s eyes?
TB: Surprising! I chose artists whose work I admired for all sorts of reasons. When I first approached the women, I asked them to read a few pieces to see if the work resonated. I chose stories/poems to send that I thought they’d respond to and want to interpret. I imagined what they’d come up. At this moment, I have images from eight of the artists. Three of the artists’ work is pretty much what I had hoped for. No surprises, yet really wonderful. The others are still in keeping with the artists’ aesthetics, yet not what I envisioned at all. Some are more cerebral, some more sexual, several reek with emotion.
BG: How did you get in touch with everyone to do this? Was it a series of happy accidents, or was this something you were pushing for?
TB: I wanted the exhibit to promote Hudson Valley artists, so I reached out to women making art here. People think Brooklyn and New York City are the only places to live and work if you make art, but the Hudson Valley is rife with artists and writers. Eleven of the 14 women in the show live in the area. The other three are from Pennsylvania, NY, and NJ. Some of the women I know. Some I knew just by their work, like Giselle Potter’s fabulous illustrations, and I had to take the usual routes to contact them. I found the painter Leslie Bender by searching online local artists’ websites. And the wonderful Adie Russell was recommended by her friend, one of the artists in the show, Heige Kim.
BG: A project of this magnitude takes a huge amount of planning. What was your favorite part, and the part that you really hope you never have to do again?
TB: I have many favorite parts. I think meeting with Sevan Melikyan, who owns The Wired Gallery, jumpstarted the project. Sevan is an artist and art historian with a special interest in Chagall and his time in the area. I had a documentary about Virginia Haggard, but it was narrated in French. I don’t speak French. I had talked with Sevan about the project and he graciously interpreted the documentary for me. Since then, I’ve acquired an English version of the work, which will be on a laptop with headphones so people can hear Virginia tell her story. Jean makes an appearance in the documentary, too. Anyway, I presented the idea for the project to Sevan, who wasn’t onboard right away. He thought I was writing an historical account of Haggard. I explained that the poems, short fiction and letters were fiction based on Haggard’s and McNeil’s stories, and showed him a few of the pieces. He read them quietly, and said, “Hmm, this just got interesting.” I tried to be cool but I could feel the blood rush to my face.
Being invited into the artists’ studios has been a privilege, too. I’m also really grateful to Jean McNeil, who is now in her seventies and making art in England. I reached out to her about the project. She’s been very helpful and open about her experiences.
None of this has been difficult, just time consuming. I think all the hand-wringing will happen during the week before the show. I’m too green at all this to even have specific issues to worry about; I just know there might be problems that will come up. Luckily, Sevan has hung hundreds of shows and hosted just as many openings, so if there are things to freak out about, only one of us (me) will be having the melt down.
BG: Finally, when and where is this wonderful installation and how can people learn more about it?!
The exhibit is being held in The Wired Gallery in High Falls, which is on the same street where Chagall, Haggard and McNeil lived. It opens on 10/27/18 from 5 to 7 pm, and closes on 11/25/18. I’ll be reading pieces from the show and the manuscript in progress (which, by the way, I’d love to find a publisher for) on 11/18 at the gallery, with several other writers who will read ekphrasis pieces.
The Wired Gallery
11 Mohonk Road
High Falls, NY 12440
Bending Genres will be getting a behind the scenes look at seven of the artists and their work in the next Virginia Project Diaries!
Thanks for reading and stay tuned!
Corwin Holzman, BG Editor