Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Take Me Down to Chuckie’s Farm

Posted By Rich- Baby Goats, Broken Glass, Living in a Laundry Truck, and Sri Yantras. All this and more in the space of two hours at the farm and studio of Chuck Katzenbach. I took my Senior Illustration students from Moore College of Art and Design on an informal field trip to his place this past week, on a gorgeous sunny spring afternoon. It was the day after our Senior Show, and a good way for some art students who had worked hard all year and felt the stress of a real deadline to be able to relax and enjoy a day away from Center City Philadelphia.
Artist Chuck Katzenbach explaining to art students how this solar heater warms his house and barn.

Four students rode the R3 Regional Rail train to Langhorne, PA with me, and we then drove to Lambertville, NJ. We met another of my students, who also happens to be a Mom, in Lambertville with her 5 – year old daughter, Mia. Mia was very interested in going along because Chuck had mentioned to me on the phone that he had some newborn baby goats. Chuck lives on top of a hill on Rt 579 between Lambertville and Hopewell, on a piece of property next to the stone house he grew up in; his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren live there now. One of my students who came along lives in Texas when she is not attending college at Moore, and her reaction to our drive along the Delaware and up towards Hopewell was "THIS is New Jersey??” Two other students riding with me who actually live in the Garden State closer to Trenton and Cherry Hill area had the same reaction: “THIS is New Jersey??”

Chuck named his operation “Sweet Sourland Farm”, as this region of New Jersey is referred to as “The Sourlands”, but Chuck produces some fantastic maple syrup from the maple trees on his property, so the “Sweet” adjective means more than just the appearance of the place on a sunny spring afternoon. His property is located close to the summit of Sourland Mountain, which at only 560 or so feet above sea level is not really impressive as mountains go. However, given the way large boulders are strewn about on the slopes, and vertical slabs of igneous rock prominently display themselves in outcroppings of argilite, the 560 feet looks pretty dramatic. It's also a great subject for landscape paintings.

Sourland Mountain is really the high point on a long, 17-mile ridge that also includes Baldpate Mountain, with reportedly great views of the Delaware River Valley. This great view probably didn’t matter to the settlers who discovered that this area may be great for painting landscapes, but it's not so good for farming. The boulders, igneous rock outcroppings, and that darned argilite, a rock noted by geologists for its impermeability, made for a lousy aquifer under the Sourlands. Chuck is fortunate in that he has a great spring on his property, so good that when it gets dry down the hill in Hopewell, people used to come to his area in horse-drawn wagons for water.

There wasn’t a heck of a lot going on in the Sourlands besides quarrying all that rock until better roads were built in the 1960s. The remoteness of the area attracted aviator Charles Lindbergh to build his home there; unfortunately, the inaccessibility of the area did not prevent the infamous “Crime of the Century”, the kidnapping and murder of his son, from occurring in 1932.

I didn’t tell my students any of this information while we drove to Chuck’s farm. We were listening to a different Chuck, Chuck Berry, play his greatest hits on the CD player as we drove. Getting closer, I slowed down but still drove right by his place, missing the driveway entrance; I have only been to Chuck’s farm during the winter prior to this, and then I could easily recognize his place by the large illuminated Peace sign he has adorning the cupola of the barn that fronts the road. He put it up as a Christmas decoration a few years ago, decided the message was worth announcing year round, and keeps it there in working order.

As a matter of fact, I hadn’t told them much of anything about what his place was like, which may account for their reaction when we arrived. I pulled my truck up in the driveway between the assortment of small natural colored utility buildings and parked in front of his house. Right away the reaction was "THIS is Chucks farm??”
The small buildings on the property are beautifully constructed by Chuck from timber he harvested from tall Eastern White Pine trees he planted with his father over 50 years ago, and with reclaimed lumber he modified in his own sawmill. Solar panels and solar water heating systems adorn the roofs of a few of the larger structures, and one cozy guest house set back down the hill has a living roof made of sod and other vegetation growing on the 30-degree pitched surface. The guest house is also constructed from reclaimed lumber and cast off materials, including a porch enclosed with large pieces of glass from discarded storm doors.

I think some of the students may have thought the setting would be more like a dairy or horse farm, with Chuck wearing blue overalls and a straw hat, and chugging up out of the North 40 on a John Deere tractor. Well, on his farm he has some goats, but that's about as far as the "e-i,e-i,oh" part goes...

Chuck is a fellow member of the Artists' Gallery Co-op in Lambertville with me. First thing we did was after the students met Mr. Katzenbach and his wife Bru was to see the day’s newborn baby and mommy goat in a straw-filled pen. The students (all girls , by the way; Moore is an all-women’s college) said “Awwwww, how cute!!” several times in unison and took pictures of the baby while Chuck explained how rewarding goat farming is, even with the small herd of 20 or so goats he presently has. He also said that of all the goat meat consumed in the United States, about half of it is served up in the area between New York City and Philadelphia, given the ethnic and religious make up of the population in this area and their taste and need for fresh goat meat. He mentioned that this little guy, and another out in the pasture that had been born a week ago would probably end up on a dinner platter before their first birthday, as the male goats tend to be more valued for their meat than anything else. I guess in an effort to avoid becoming emotionally attached to either of them, he had named this one “Stew”, and the slightly older male out in the field “Burger”. This sobering information on the reality of farming had a mitigating effect on the visitor's exclamations of how cute Little Stew was, but after a few more pix we went outside and Chuck explained how he has made efforts to be “green” with his operation.

The roof could use a little trim: the guest house, with the sawdust privy in the background.

The guest house with the living roof covering and recycled glass doors began it’s life as a chicken coop. It has the feeling of a neat little clubhouse, the kind we all would have loved to have had as a kid to escape from the world on a summer day and read comic books in. Being "green", the converted coop comes complete with an outdoor privy equipped with a sawdust commode. My student from Texas was extremely interested in the way the guest house was constructed, how the privy used sawdust and how the sawdust was used as compost. I was thinking about where I would have kept the comic books.

We were shown the Sugar House, where Chuck boils down sap to make maple syrup. It is also a somewhat rough hewn but neat and tidy structure, with pipes and tubes and chimneys and metal containers running about the interior in a somewhat Rube Goldberg fashion. On the wall Chuck had drawn a Sri Yantra, an ancient design symbol used in Eastern mysticism to balance the mind or focus it on spiritual concepts. Chuck told us it is a crystallization of the word “ohm”, and darn hard to draw accurately. He seemed to do a pretty good job of rendering it, though, and he has taught classes on how to do just that along with a course on understanding and utilizing it. You can find out more about the Sri Yantra design by visiting here:

Magical Mystery Maple Syrup: the Sri Yantra in the Sugar House.

The house Chuck and Bru live in is a reassembled 1830's farmhouse from Berks County, PA. After Hurricane Agnes blew through in 1972 and caused widespread flooding in the Northeast, an area outside of Bernville, PA was being converted to a nature, recreational, and flood control area. This house was located in a spot destined to be at the bottom of a resevior, but instead of being bulldozed, it was purchased, disassembled, and the components moved to an area above New Hope, PA. It remained there for a time until Chuck purchased the whole shooting match and moved it piece by piece up to his acreage in the Sourlands. He reconstructed it with improvements in the utilities and insulation, as well as altering the interior layout. It’s a beautiful place, and on the wall of the kitchen Bru pointed out a picture of their first home: an early 1960’s International Harvester panel truck that Chuck and Bru lived and traveled in during the late 1960s and early ‘70s. It was a former delivery truck for an industrial laundry, and perhaps prophetically, they painted it green. After a nice lunch and fascinating stories about traveling around the country in a one seat laundry truck with a pot belly stove in it, we were shown Chuck’s gallery and studio.

Chuck explains the intricacies of cut glass and oil paint assemblages; Mia was not impressed.

The downstairs portion of the converted barn with the illuminated Peace sign on the cupola is a combination of garage and gallery, with motorcycles and vintage trucks on one side of the building and works by Chuck hanging on the other. Chuck works with oils painted on glass, and often cuts glass into geometric shapes and mounts them in layers inside a box frame. Sometimes primary colors are used in conjunction with interlocking shapes to create works that remind me of the Op-Art movement. With his background as a craftsman complimenting his work as an artist, his abstract assemblages are both thought provoking and look good in the sunlight as well.

I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass:
Chuck didn’t, especially after this cut glass version of a Sri Yantra fell off a gallery wall and broke a second work of his.

Upstairs are his glass cutters and table saws, next to a well-used studio with easels, drawing tables and a comfortable couch. Also occupying space in both rooms upstairs is an abundant supply of plate glass and lengths of wood, waiting to be transformed into his next project. True to his “recycle, reuse, repurpose” philosophy, this large amount of glass is a collection of cast off pieces given to Chuck by friends who no longer need it, or glass he scrounged off the curbsides on trash night. He mentioned he will probably never run short of glass for his projects, and politely turned down my offer of the 10 or so pieces in my basement that were left there by the previous owner.

Burger, or just a Quarter –Pounder? Mia finally gets to pet a baby goat.

We stopped in the pasture to see the goat herd and check out Burger, the one week old male, who entertained us with his leaping ability and over all baby animal cuteness. Mia in particular was charmed by the baby goat, and the goats were charmed by the prospect that Farmer Chuck may be getting them some food, so they clustered about us…
It soon became evident to the goats that Chuck was not there to feed them, so they wandered off down the pasture and we wandered back to my truck. All of this was getting to be a lot for my students to absorb in a few hours; They seemed a little overwhelmed and mostly amazed by everything Chuck and Bru have done and accomplished. It was getting time to drive back to Langhorne and catch a train to Philadelphia, so we said our thank yous, goodbyes, and good lucks and headed back towards Lambertville.

And THAT was Chuck’s farm.