June 12, 2014, by David Ebony
New York State's Hudson Valley is known for its grand old mansions, some haunted by storied pasts. One such place is currently filled with art courtesy of Kiki Smith, her sister Seton Smith, and Valerie Hammond.
The Dr. Oliver Bronson House, built in 1812 on the southwestern edge of the small town of Hudson, N.Y., overlooking the river, is a once-resplendent home that became a reform school for girls in the 1920s-notably attended by Ella Fitzgerald-and eventually part of a prison complex. Built for businessman Samuel Plumb, who owned a fleet of tugboats, the house was redesigned for Bronson in 1839 by Hudson River School architect Alexander Jackson Davis.
The derelict structure standing today was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2003. But representatives of Historic Hudson, Inc., an organization dedicated to preserving the area's cultural heritage, say that within three years the building will likely collapse without repairs estimated to cost $475,000.
When Hammond and Kiki Smith proposed an exhibition in the space, Historic Hudson green-lighted the project to help raise funds and bring awareness to the restoration project. "Three Artists at the Dr. Oliver Bronson House" nearly fills the sprawling, three-story mansion.
The exhibition features sculptures and works on paper by Hammond, large-scale multipanel drawings by Smith and photographs by her sister, Seton. Set against crumbling walls, Kiki Smith's images of like-size figures and Hammond's sculptures of disembodied female figures in elaborately patterned dresses and gowns suggest ghostly presences occupying the forlorn spaces. Meanwhile, Seton Smith's large soft-focus photos of other Hudson Valley buildings complement the many refined Federal-style details at Bronson House that have survived, albeit in precarious condition.
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Valerie Hammond has always been drawn to places and objects that are full of mystery. The expressive and devotional qualities of church shrines, ex-votos, and Asian art ranging from Tibetan medical drawings to Buddhist sculptures have served as inspiration for the artist. As spiritual objects, they possess the ability to impart on the viewer a sense of enchantment grounded by human connectivity, and this offering of transformation echoes Hammond's desire to record both the tangible and elusive aspects of the human condition in her work.
Valerie Hammond was born in Santa Maria, California. She received her MFA from the University of California at Berkeley, where she was awarded the Eisner Award. Upon graduation she moved to New York City and subsequently, was appointed to her first teaching position through the Cleveland Institute of Art in Lacoste, France. She lived in France on and off for the next three years. Upon returning to New York, she began teaching inner city school children art part time through the Studio in a School program. Hammond has taught printmaking at Columbia University, New York University, the Yale Norfolk Program; drawing at Cooper Union School of Art, and has been a visiting art critic at RISD. She has had exhibitions in Madrid, New Zealand, New Delhi, and throughout the United States.