Finding the 'art' in archeology
by Paul Smart
Dina Bursztyn, who will be filling the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum solo gallery with her incredibly witty "Findings from the ArTchaelogical Museum" starting Saturday, March 7, came to her visual art from literature. She grew up, in provincial Argentina within sight of the mighty Andes Mountains, listening to apocryphal stories her grandmother told of emigrating from the Polish/Ukrainian border with other Jews headed for South America. And she wanted to make up her own stories, as often as not based on dreams and her imaginings.

Her new art, which we spend a morning pouring over in her domed attic studio on Catskill's Main Street, hand-stenciled 19th century stars uncovered at its top, are mischievous artifacts complete with incomplete narratives yet full-to-the-brim senses of story.

There's a discarded snake-like skin of a muse, chipmunk art, a wooden pipe the moon smoked when still young. Neptune's lost necklace is on view, along with a stone carved by the Catskill Creek, and pieces created by diminutive sculptors who occupied the area of the Hudson River before it was known as the Hudson, or even populated by native tribes.

For Woodstockers, Bursztyn has found a mud specimen saved by authorities, and later discarded and refound by archeologists, from the 1969 Aquarian Festival that's given this town so much trouble in the 40 years since. There's a tangle from Hemingway's Cuban home, the first, anonymous piece of outsider art, found in a forest. A spoon used by god before she said he created the entire universe, as well as a fork owned by Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, lost during a particularly stormy family picnic.

From a previous body of work, the artist is bringing forth rock specimens by the father of American geology, Amost Eaton, a former Catskill resident (and later founder of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy). There's a 100 watt light bulb re-sculpted by moths. An image of a face burned into a piece of toasted pita bread, strangely not that of the Virgin Mary.

I ask Bursztyn if she was influenced, at all, by her fellow Argentinean, the great surreal author, Jorge Luis Borges.

"Of course," she replies, matter-of-factly, but with great humanist humor in her eyes. "The artifacts intersect facts with fiction, the sacred with the mundane, data with folklore, humor with old myths. They make references to mythology, ethnology, geology, theology, art and literary history among other disciplines," the artist has said of this new body of work, to go up on pedestals in the space whose newer museum attributes she is most proud to be associating with. "The intent is to write in between the lines, in order to challenge our established cultural perceptions and notions that we take for granted."

Bursztyn, moved to the states with her family during her native land's difficult dictatorial years of the 1970s, describes how she eventually abandoned writing for clay, which she fell in love with, and still works in, after taking a class in the early 1980s. Eventually, she started making street art, then created a series of "Gargoyles to Scare Developers" for buildings in New York City, that led to her being awarded a number of key public art commissions by the City's MTA Arts for Transit Program, NYC Percent for Arts Program and the Public Arts Fund, among others.

Before finally moving Upstate, first to Peekskill and in the past five years to Catskill (because the city had "become claustrophobic"), Bursztyn's work was shown in various private galleries as well as SUNY Purchase's renowned Nueberger Art Museum, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the DIA Art Foundation, the Oaxaca Instituto de Artes Graficas in Mexico and the Canadian National Library in Ottawa.

In 2004, she founded, with her partner Julie Chase, the Open Studio Gallery in Catskill, where she has become an integral part of that community's gallery scene and cultural revival of recent years, including the creation of a community sundial with the town's kids.

Along the way, Bursztyn notes how she rediscovered her writing, first via poetry and then by incorporating stories and words into her sculpture. The most recent body of work, she adds, came about when she bought her Main Street building and started uncovering its various layers. And...she finally had a place where she could keep the junk she loved uncovering on walks by the nearby river, or into the woods to where folks have been dumping ephemera from their lives for generations now.

"My art always starts with the object," she explains. "I'm very curious about things, but also about who and what I am. My family moved around for years and never kept things, so my dreams have become very important repositories. They're a carrier of truths."

In a piece she published last summer, Bursztyn spoke about her creative source: "La Siesta was a very serious matter in my hometown; for me it was deadly serious. Every single summer day, the whole city, around 2 p.m., would come to a complete stop and fall asleep," she wrote. "It seemed I was the only exception to the rule, the only one immune to this affliction."

She goes on to explain how her mother allowed her to stay awake, and how she'd perch in a fig tree and watch giants arrive from the mountains and she'd have to explain her world to them. Which is what she's continued doing her entire life.

"What's life on earth about," those giants would ask her, and she's worked to answer ever since. "How can I explain my experiences? What stories do I have to tell about this time and place."

Instead of an inventor or scientist, Bursztyn chose to be a writer - it was cheaper and quicker. And now an artist.

As for her arrival in Woodstock, she says simply that she noticed a call for entries and wrote a proposal. And now she feels "so lucky to be in a real museum at last."

She adds that she doesn't put prices on her ARTifacts because, well, she doesn't want to part with them. She envisions them somehow staying together, in the future, as an alternative explanation of who we are, and why, as well as what we've come to this point from.

"I still work in clay," she adds. "And I try to go back to Argentina each year to see what the art can be when it's not about selling, and markets. When it's just about expression."

"Findings from the ArTchaelogical Museum" opens in the WAAM solo gallery alongside the Towbin Wing's new Eva Watson-Schutze and friends retrospect, curated by Bard College's Tom Wolfe and running in tandem with a complementary show at SUNY New Paltz's Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art (previewed in last week's Almanac), as well as a New Works group show juried by Doug Alderfer of the Hudson River Museum & Gallery Guide and a Members' Gallery show curated by Billy Noonan of the James Cox Gallery.

This represents the opening of the Woodstock Artrists Association and Museum's, and town's, 2009 culture season. Receptions take place 4 p.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, March 7, at the WAAM building on Tinker Street, just off the village green.

For further information call 679-2940 or visit

© 2009