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RHINEBECK, NY — Growing up in a cramped, rent-controlled apartment, I had one primary fixation: drawing floor plans for where I wished I lived instead. I studied photographs in library books of homes built into hillsides and cliffs, then combined their best features in my sketches: nearly invisible skylights tucked into grassy knolls and furniture carved into stone interior walls. Now, as an adult residing in an urban center, I’ve once again ended up with living space that’s off-white and rectilinear. I’ve somehow come to accept it as something over which I have little control.
An unexpected visit to Linda Weintraub’s homestead in Rhinebeck, New York, jogs my memory of those earlier visions of what home could mean: curving, textured walls punctuated by bursts of organic material; wholly original landscape features; and a soft blurring of the boundaries between domestic space and the natural world. The value of my childhood wish for home to mean not only earthy womb or cozy cave but also, more importantly, a space tailored to the individual and context, became obvious when I stood in her living room for the first time.
“My creative urges have always extended beyond my art studio and office,” Weintraub tells me. “It never occurred to me that I would not design my own living space.”
An artist, educator, curator, and consummate writer about art (especially the intersection of contemporary art and ecology), Weintraub is a serial (and possibly congenital) homesteader.
Her homesteading — or “crafting a lifestyle,” to use her words — grew out of a questioning of accepted wisdom about child rearing and nutrition. As a parent making choices about how to best nourish and care for a family, she found that, “in each instance, ‘good’ was never good enough if it required accommodating to conditions that were pre-fabricated or objects that were mass-produced. Gradually, this pattern of interrogating cultural norms evolved into homesteading.”
Weintraub also describes being lured in by the “elation [of] crafting a living environment that is as personalized as a painting or a poem.” Over time, her homesteading became deeply interwoven with her interest in contemporary art. “What began as a personal lack of confidence in the status quo has become a crucial component of my professional activities,” she explains.
Linda and her husband, Andy Weintraub, have built eight homes together so far, all in upstate New York or Pennsylvania. Each move was meant to accommodate a new phase in the family’s development.
Their current home, of the last two decades, is an 11-acre property in the Hudson Valley. The compound consists of three ultra-efficient galvalume (steel coated in zinc and aluminum) structures surrounded by a meadow, an orchard, multiple gardens, and a pasture, all ringed by forest.
Less visible during my wintery visit are a stream and waterfalls, and though the Weintraubs keep beehives and animals ranging from fowl and rabbits to sheep and pigs, at this time of year, only ducks, geese, and chickens are in evidence.
This homestead is the culmination of everything the Weintraubs have learned through previous projects — including the confidence to try out their own ideas — and has been guided in equal parts by economy and aesthetic pleasure.
“[I am] intent on disproving that satisfying one’s needs by personally crafting them is outmoded or obsolete, that physical labor is demeaning drudgery,” Weintraub explains. “Domestic routines are incalculably enhanced when they are, literally, framed by the occupants’ tastes and skills.”
In milder weather, those domestic routines include caring for vegetable gardens, fruit trees and bushes, and all of the animals — as well as foraging for mushrooms, other wild foods, and wood (fuel). In the winter, she slaughters and freezes meat and cans, pickles, and ferments excess produce. The coldest months are quieter and sometimes sadder, with less sun, garden activity, and animal companions. But nourishing foodstuffs and cozy spaces stocked with artifacts from the landscape around her make for rich reflection.
It’s unquestionably hard work, but, Weintraub assures, not alienating. “I offer personal testimony regarding how deeply gratifying it is to nourish your own body and soul, instead of purchasing consumer products.”
Weintraub says that, through the process of living this way, the rhythms of her daily life have become her own, and her relationship to the societal infrastructure that we all share has shifted. “I have gradually reduced the disempowerment and anonymity that accompanies global, industrial, and corporate dependencies by generating my own sources of sustenance.”
But “going back to the land,” as people say, and finding deep satisfaction in that are not unique. Once I get beyond the pleasure of just being in the environment Weintraub has envisioned and formed, I find it’s the connection of her choices to her professional endeavors that I’m most curious about. I see her variety of homesteading as the application of conclusions arrived at through a deep knowledge of art making.
For example, in conversation, Weintraub’s feminism and eco-centricity emerge repeatedly as the deepest reasons for the choices she has made. But questions about how and where the choices interconnect always bring her back to what amounts to a politicized discussion of materials. She describes her landscaping skills as arising out of an “increasing need for a growing medium,” which led her “to master terracing with the abundance of stone and the shortage of fertile soil.” When queried about the beliefs underlying her aesthetic choices, Weintraub expresses “an abiding conviction that shape, color, texture, and their arrangements carry cultural significance despite the medium, subject, or context to which they are attached.” She sums up years of “comparing the fluid aesthetics of ecosystems and the rigid aesthetics of engineered environments,” both through research and personal experience, with this simple (but chilling, if you think about it hard enough) thought: “aesthetic ingredients embody social values and worldviews.”
In her home, this awareness is demonstrated in the way she’s used the built environment to highlight the natural one. Nothing feels predetermined; everything is fluid and irregular, keeping your eyes in motion and your ears perked. Birds call out, a dog rustles, quiet splashes in a small indoor pool alert you that fish are navigating the same space that you are. The overall impact is one of liveliness. Each element that your eyes or mind encounter is calming, but your mind is never allowed to fall into the habit of predicting what will happen next and then tuning out. The patterns and surfaces keep you present in a way that blank white walls never could. You don’t shut down. When the walls, floors, stairs, handrails, doorbell cover, and living creatures all call for your presence, staying present begins to feel much more important than it does when you see a prompt on a coffee mug.
With her artwork, which is crafted from materials like sap, feathers, moss, acorn caps, and soil, Weintraub has a precise and timely agenda: “As an eco artist, I rely upon aesthetics to convey the patterns that foster stewardship of our planet.” This means a commitment to working with objects that decay and shift shape and color over time in response to the conditions around them. The materials decorating her home are chosen for the same reasons: a resistance to the illusion of permanence and to “the on/off abruptness of technologies.” At its core, this philosophy “rejects the authority of top-down hierarchies and replaces them with bottom-up, generative processes.”
Weintraub — whose knowledge of art history and comprehensive grasp of what makes for an art vanguard is singular — says she’s certain that the “movement that will be featured in future art histories are not the artists who augment the allures contrived by programmers and engineers,” but “those who reject it.” She comes down hard on the side of “neo-materialism” — an alliance with matter over the dematerialized or the digital. “Our reinstatement of substance, density, temperature, moisture, and so forth entails a radical revision of contemporary norms,” she explains. “Neo-materialist art is not ‘realistic’; it is real.”
And so, what began for me as a retreat to the hideaway-in-a-hillside of my childhood fantasies became instead a rabbit hole of consciousness about how I move through the world. And though I don’t feel quite able to contend yet with the implications of a full awareness of what’s encoded in my choices, I do find Weintraub’s advice to potential homesteaders a reasonable place to begin: “Be patient. Proceed by increments. Gain experience by taking small risks. Join a community of like-minded seekers. Embrace the process.” Then she promises, and I want to believe her: “The quest is as invigorating as its fulfillment, and the fulfillment is well worth the effort.”
Linda Weintraub is presenting her work tonight, February 24, from 6 to 8pm, at Central Booking (21 Ludlow Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan), in conjunction with the exhibition Icons in Ash, Death in Art.