Saugerties, NY:  Maureen Cummins, and the Politics of Story Telling

By Jan Alexander

photo of Maureen Cummins

“Stories create not just our perceived reality, but reality itself,” Maureen Cummins told me.

It was an apropos moment to be pondering the power of stories—October 2018, campaign-for-life-or-death-of-democracy time in America. Cummins, best known for her visual art, was in the midst of a performance piece of sorts.

For most of the month, she sat behind a bay window of a restaurant in Saugerties, NY, part of the Hudson Valley town’s second annual Shout Out Saugerties festival. Here the artist was the installation, there for passersby on the old-fashioned main street to watch. She kept her back to the window, but the accoutrements made the mission clear: Cummins was writing a memoir about her own family’s stories.

Sometimes she pounded on an old manual Smith-Corona, sometimes on a laptop, at a battered table full of carvings from previous owners.  (“It’s from another era, when people wrote letters.  I could go on a tirade about the loss of letter writing.”) Stacks of research books were piled up around the window. Above her, Cummins had strung scraps of paper and envelopes containing quotes she’d written down over the years.

To her left was a quote from Elie Wiesel flapping ever so slightly on the line: “He who hears a witness becomes a witness.”

Cummins was working on a book about the stories behind some of her own family secrets, while symbolically offering a transparent look at the writer. The poet and performance artist Mikhail Horowitz, a Saugerties resident, pointed out that she was operating within a noble tradition: “think of Scheherazade, or Cervantes, or Calvino.”

While Cummins wasn’t ready to reveal all, suffice to say she intends for the book to be a “resettling of accounts” about her life growing up on Staten Island and  her mother’s story. The restaurant, the Pig Grill and Bar, didn’t open until 5:00, and Cummins was there only from 10:00 to 3:00, six days a week (Sundays off), but anyone could knock on the window or the glass door and add themselves to her public statement.

A sign in the window said: “As part of her ongoing exploration of the power of narrative to shape our lived reality, Cummins will be collecting stories about stories. If you have a story about the way in which some shared, discovered, or falsified story impacted your life, family, relationships, or sense of the world, and are willing to be recorded, either anonymously or for the record, please knock on the window to make an appointment.”

Her work has largely centered around other people’s stories, in fact. Now 55, Cummins has a body of prints, works-on-paper and limited-edition artist’s books that are held in more than 100 public collections around the world, including National Gallery of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Getty Museum in LA, the Brooklyn Museum, Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, the Library of Congress, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

The artist’s books are particularly evocative of how she views the power of stories. She creates them out of found texts and images that tell stories of short, persecuted, largely invisible lives—narratives about slaves; letters and ledgers pertaining to the business of slave ownership; a love affair between Jules, a teacher, and Ben, “an aristocratic boy” from 1906-09; a tale of native American displacement in the Oregon territory; physicians’ assessments of 19th century mental hospital patients; records from the Salem Witch Trials (a collaboration with poet Nicole Cooley).  In recent months she’s also been working with refugees from Syria and other war and strife-torn countries.

Saugerties itself is a place that, on the surface, bears a passing resemblance to the small-town America that existed only in Frank Capra movies and old children’s storybooks where everyone was white and named Smith or Jones. The Pig Grill and Bar is nestled in a 19th century building downtown, and like other edifices on the block sports the pentimento from its first life, when it was the home of “I. Lazarus Clothier.”  Twelve miles east of its hippie-glam twin town, Woodstock, Saugerties has in the past couple of decades become a recipient of Woodstock’s overflow of artists, musicians, galleries, yoga studios, locavore cafes, and city dwellers in search of affordable weekend real estate (full disclosure; I’m one of those)

In Saturday traffic you might see a Prius with a bumper sticker that says “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” come close to colliding with a pickup truck emblazoned with “Make America great again” decals. I know a left-wing poet who hikes mountain trails with a right-wing roofer. All over the Hudson Valley, there are those of us who like to imagine that art can transform the region in an egalitarian way.

But Saugerties is a bashful village, and the Shout Out festival, the brainchild of theater director Suzanne Bennett, has been a kind of coming out party, a festival of art, music and poetry in keeping with the quirky and contemplative nature that is becoming part of the town’s new identity.

It was a time of hope for the liberal invaders; Democrat and Rhodes Scholar Antonio Delgado, whose mother-in-law owns a liquor store in Saugerties was running in a nail-bitingly tight race for the 19th District Congressional seat against freshman GOP incumbent John Faso, a supporter of all things Trump.

Could this area elect a man of color whose opponent kept pointing to his brief stint as a rapper? It was also a time of defeat; the Brett Kavanaugh hearings wrapped up with his confirmation just before the festival began. And a time of grief around the village; just days before the festival opened, Bennett’s wife, photographer, Bard Summer Scape Opera producer, and Shout Out Saugerties organizer Susana Meyer, died of lung cancer.

Every story is a swirl with no fixed ending until a storyteller plots it out.

Delgado won the election, and soon he’ll face Washington.

The first couple of weeks, passersby watched Cummins but no one knocked. Then, gradually, they did. She hasn’t determined exactly what she’ll do with the stories, which she calls “amazing,” but says in the end, the experience reinforced her view that the very act of telling one’s life story carries political weight.  There was a time when only the famous and powerful published memoirs, after all.
“Perhaps the most satisfying thing, especially given that the Kavanaugh hearing happened after I planned the project, was that I had the opportunity of creating this image, of a woman in public view, sitting at a writing desk and telling her story,” Cummins says in retrospect. “I keep thinking of a Muriel Rukeyser quote: ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.’"

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