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IT’S ELEMENTARY – “LESSONS FROM THE NEW BALTIMORE SCHOOLHOUSE”

FOSTERS COMMUNITY PRIDE   

When Bob and Fran Degni became the owners of the massive, two-story brick building that sits at the crest of the hill where Church Street and Route 144 meet in the hamlet of New Baltimore, NY, they knew it had served as a schoolhouse until 1963. They knew it was repurposed as a workspace, studio and gallery by the artist, Frank Litto. They knew it would make a perfect workshop space for Bob’s design/build business. What they didn’t know, but were quickly made aware of, was how highly esteemed the building is by the New Baltimore community, having served as an anchor for so many of  their childhood experiences. Curious neighbors stopped by with words of welcome and advice, many stating, “Hey, I went to school here.” They proceeded to tell the Degnis their stories. At New Baltimore’s agricultural festivals, farmers markets, conservancy events and at chance meetings, people proceeded to tell them their schoolhouse stories. Fran knew she had to collect them.  Three summers, 19 interviews, 19 portraits, and a myriad of answered questions later, the schoolhouse project was born.

1905 Studnets and Teachers-RBedford
1905 student body and teachers. Photo by R Bedford.

The project, initially conceived as a “thank you” to the participants who shared their stories, not only underscores current community pride, but it also provides an intimate picture of the life coursing through and surrounding this four-room schoolhouse, from the 1930’s through the early1960s. As the relationship between school and community is explored, universal social issues are illuminated: How students in grades K-8 were taught and disciplined in multi-grade classrooms; how children played during and after school; the connectedness that existed between students and shop owners in the community; religious life in the community. The lessons learned from this historical perspective illustrates what has been lost, what has been discovered, and what is useful for us today as we make decisions with respect to the societal forces defining our ever-evolving communities.

The New Baltimore Conservancy and the New Baltimore Reformed Church will join forces to kick off Francine Matalon-Degni’s exhibit and book, “It’s Elementary – Lessons from the New Baltimore Schoolhouse.” With an opening reception and book signing on Saturday, May 21st from 1:00 to 4:00 at the New Baltimore Reformed Church, 52 Church Street, New Baltimore, NY. This is a “first time” experience for those involved:  the first time photo stylist, Matalon-Degni has acted as a curator for an exhibit and edited a collection of oral histories, the first time the New Baltimore Conservancy has focused on the hamlet’s historical schoolhouse and the first time the Reformed Church has so graciously allowed their fellowship hall to be transformed into a gallery space to house the initial installment of this meaningful exhibit.

Fran Matelon-Dagni and Friends
Fran Matalon-Degni and Bob Degni with their New Baltimore Schoolhouse friends.

Enjoy excerpts of these charming interviews, displayed on text panels designed by Anthony Silvani.  View the accompanying portraits tellingly photographed by Thomas J. Satterlee. Historical photos round out this informative show. Feel what it’s like to walk up the Church Street hill and climb the nine front stairs to a beloved place of learning, teaching and creativity. Share in the games of imagination and empathize with feelings of childhood validation. Play on the big rock, wade across culverts, swim across the Hudson to Hotaling Island and back again.  Run through this hamlet free as a bird, and then return to the schoolhouse for lessons in friendship, generosity, community and respect. No matter where you grew up, you’re sure to be captivated and inspired by 19 people who are happy to share their schoolhouse with you.

 This free exhibit will continue at the church on Sundays and Thursdays from 1-4pm and on Saturdays and Thursdays, from 10am-1pm through June 19, 2016. The accompanying book (published by Flint Mine Press) which contains the entire interviews and is chock full of over 50 photographs, will be available for purchase throughout the month.  This event is made possible in part with public funds provided by the New York State Council on the Arts Decentralization Program, administered through the Community Arts Grants Program at Greene County Council on the Arts. 

The exhibit can also be seen at The Freight Masters Building Museum, part of the majestic Catskill Point, 1 Main Street in Catskill, NY from July 16 through July 31, 2016.  Museum hours are Saturday, 10am-4pm and Sundays, 12-4pm. It will then travel to the Athens Cultural Center, 24 Second Street, Athens, NY with a reception and book signing on September 17, 2016 from 6-8pm, and will continue through October 17th.  Gallery hours are Saturdays and Sundays from 1-4pm.

Matalon-Degni is hoping the exhibit will continue to travel to schools, libraries and other appropriate venues in surrounding communities to serve as a springboard for discussion between students, teachers and parents about the similarities and differences between their own school experiences and how school life defines one’s feelings of identity, friendships and belonging in the larger community. She hopes that turning attention to these matters will generate discourse and foster moments when we can comfortably and willingly listen and learn from each other.  For further information about this project contact francinestyle@gmail.com.

For information on the DEC grants program in Columbia and Greene Counties, please contact our Community Arts and Arts Education Grant Coordinator Sara Pruiksma-Rizzo at 943-3400 or at sara@greenearts.org, or, for the Schoharie County Grant Coordinator contact Renee Nied at Schoharieartsgrants@gmail.com.