The mountain sanctuary of Eugene and Beverley Gregan inspires artistry on canvas and in the kitchen
By Steve Hopkins â€¢ Photographs by Michael Polito
One of the classic metaphors in the age-old struggle to transcend the baseness of human existence has been the mountaintop. That’s where Moses went to receive the Ten Commandments. Martin Luther King employed the image to inspire millions. Zen master Seung Sahn says, “All religions are like different paths to the mountaintop.”
Eugene and Beverley Gregan, lifelong spiritual seekers, literally live on the mountaintop — or at least a short hike away. In their artists’ aerie above the Rondout Reservoir in Napanoch (Ulster), they spend their days painting, gardening, and creating delectable organic dishes. Guided by Eastern principles, they have carved out a life many of us only dream about. They live in a simple yet elegant home of their own design, with gardens and a small pond all nestled in a clearing on the mountainside.
Eugene Gregan is a painter whose work is collected by the rich and famous. Mostly he paints in the light-filled, two-story gallery that dominates the north end of the house, or in the surrounding fields and gardens. Where he once felt the need to court success, living in cities and showing his work in galleries, he now prefers to let the art world come up the mountain to him.
Beverley Gregan, once a razor-thin fashion model and Buddhist nun, has metamorphosed over the years into an accomplished chef. These days she and her fabulous meals are as much of a draw as Eugene’s art for potential collectors to make the pilgrimage to their home.
“People come up here and relax and eat with us,” says Eugene. “To sit and talk and have a wonderful meal — nothing can compete. A gallery is a cold thing; it makes people uptight. This works for us.” The home the Gregans created, although plain, is a work of art in itself. “I called an architect friend of mine in the city, and we sat down one weekend and designed a house together,” says Eugene. “We said to him, â€˜Think Japanese, think Frank Lloyd Wright. Simple.’ We’d take care of the details. Basically, we needed an interior space with a lot of light.”
Built as an expanded twin studio space with living quarters upstairs, the house is loft-like and airy. Eugene’s studio is an artist’s dream. Alongside it is a big storeroom filled with hundreds of completed paintings. The kitchen, on the southern end of the house, is dominated by a state-of-the-art Wolf cooking stove and a center island where Beverley prepares food. In lieu of a traditional living room, the kitchen shares its half of the open floor plan with a super-sized wooden dining table; there’s a small sitting area with a couch and a few chairs nearby.
Walls are hung with Eugene’s paintings, ablaze with color and flowery abundance. Large windows overlook the inspirational natural beauty outside. It’s a little piece of Nirvana, and it’s no accident.
“I always say to people, â€˜If you don’t design your life, someone else is going to design it for you,’ ” says Eugene. “The Chinese have this thing of the spring of the morning, the summer of the afternoon, the fall of the evening — that even the day has seasons…. The only way you can live in a state of joy is to be in the present. You can’t be looking somewhere else, and you certainly can’t be sentimental about the past.”
The Gregans may not be sentimental about the past, but their pre-mountain lives are fodder for some pretty wild anecdotes. A few of these tales are spun by Eugene one fall afternoon as Beverley whips up a meal of organic vegetable soup, corn soufflÃ©, chicken breasts with Japanese breadcrumbs, and a tart apple salad. The couple’s Afghan hound, Sweetie, snuffles by.
“I met John Lennon at one point, about the time they were trying to get him thrown out of the country,” says Eugene, midway through a soliloquy about how he got his start as a painter. “He bought 17 paintings from me one night.â€¦ I had this big portfolio with me, and Lennon kept saying, â€˜What’s in the box, man?’ He thought I was taping him. He thought I was with the CIA or something. And I said, â€˜Some of my artwork,’ and he said â€˜Let’s see it.’
“At that time I worked on mounted silk with these one-haired brushes — very Chinese. And they loved it. Yoko wanted all of them, and John was saying, â€˜Well, don’t take all the guy’s paintings.’ She set aside a bunch, and said, â€˜Could you leave these here? Maybe I’ll show them to some people.’ And she called me the next day and said, â€˜I want all of them.’
“With the money I bought a truck and a plow, I bought everybody shoes — we had a little commune at the time. It was a great score, psychologically. And it really did change my life, because then everybody wanted my work. The Band all bought paintings. I even dated Julie Christie for a while, and she became a collector. There were these stars coming in and out of my life who made all the difference.”
Success was in hand, but Eugene wanted something more. It was the early ’70s; he was living in New York City and wanted out. “There were things happening up here, in Woodstock and elsewhere. In all the Eastern teachings that I read, the thread that ran through was: live in the present, be true to yourself. I was like my own guinea pig. I said, â€˜Why don’t I just see if this works?’ I was a city guy, and I just wanted to learn how to garden, go hunting, just live off the land. It became this grand experiment, and then when I met Beverley…”
Eugene, originally from New Haven, and Beverley, a formerly footloose Ontarian, met in 1974 at Naropa Institute in Colorado. Beverley’s spiritual quest had begun in the late ’60s, when she was working as a model and studying fashion design in Toronto. She was almost finished, she says, when a powerful blast of spiritual energy “overtook” her. Her quest led her to India, where she stayed from 1970 to 1972. She took vows as a Buddhist nun in Bodhgaya and made a series of barefoot pilgrimages. A second revelation urged her homeward. “A huge light came down upon me and said I had to return to Canada immediately,” she says. “I had a very monastic life in India. Before that I was a model, and I never ate.” Neither lifestyle, she notes, was very healthy.
Eugene’s wish to trade in his city existence for a life in the country was granted in 1970, when he was asked by a producer who owned a vacant farm on the mountain in Napanoch if he would be a live-in caretaker. “I decided it would be a perfect retreat for me,” he says. Four years later, when he and Beverley met, it seemed like Kismet.
“Before I went to India, I traveled all across the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and on my journey I ended up at the 209 Diner,” an eatery near Napanoch, continues Beverley. “I totally fell in love with this spot on the planet. I said to myself, â€˜When I’m an adult and find the person I’m to be with, this is where I’m going to live.’ When I met Eugene and he asked me to come hang with him, it turned out this was the exact spot I had once proclaimed was where I wanted to be.”
In addition to driving Beverley straight to her self-promised land, Eugene helped her kick her starvation habit. His enthusiasm for good food was contagious, and Beverley soon caught the bug. “There was a Gourmet magazine laying around and it had a recipe for duck Ã l’orange,” she recalls. “I cooked it exactly as the magazine said. And we got all dressed up in silk outfits and ate this duck, and I had this actual physical ecstatic experience. So I began to learn all that French cuisine, all that rich cooking.”
“I got her some cookbooks, and we bought this magnificent stove,” adds Eugene. “She used to get up in the morning — this went on for about 12 or 15 years — she would cook three unbelievable meals a day. Six-course French meals. It was like her art form.”
“After a time you can’t just eat like that anymore,” adds Beverley, who now considers cooking a natural progression of the practice of meditation she has maintained since her days as a nun. “I still meditate, but the interesting thing is I’ve been able to incorporate it into my gardening and my cooking. It’s all a prayer.”
Beverley has been encouraged to open her own restaurant. “People have come here and eaten and they just want to drag her off the mountain,” says Eugene. “It’s the same with me. A good friend of mine wants to get me involved in the film business. None of it ever could even come close to the way we live.”
“A lot of people have said that with Beverley and me, our Karma manifests,” he continues. “Treat people the way you like to be treated, cultivate generosity, and it comes back a millionfold.”
It’s a sentiment obviously felt by others in the Gregans’ wide orbit. The couple’s bucolic lifestyle has long benefited from the largesse of wealthy patrons and admirers.
“I’ve been on this mountain 34 years,” says Eugene. “In this house for four years. We got evicted from the other side, because the producer who owned the land wanted to move back up there.”
Among those who stepped in to help them obtain their own place was the international merger lawyer who owns the modern mansion just down the mountain from the Gregans’ current home, and who has been a patron of Eugene’s for years. “He said, â€˜You are this mountain; you can’t leave this mountain.’ So we did a fund-raiser. This house was built with love. It was amazing.”
With the land donated by the lawyer and the cost of the house raised by friends, the Gregans’ singular lifestyle was guaranteed. “We have a lifetime deed,” says Eugene.
So now the days come and go, each one with its set of seasons. Beverley cooks, and Eugene paints. They make occasional trips to Kingston and Ellenville to buy the necessities they can’t create.
“What I’m trying to do now is reach out more,” says Eugene. “People come by appointment, bring their friends, and I just want to expand more…. As you can see, I’ve been so prolific.”
Prolific enough to have amassed a mountain of paintings in his studio, storage room, and on the walls of his house, which has been described by a friend as “like walking into a museum.” In the Gregans’ view, those paintings are all the life insurance they’ll ever need.
Eugene and Beverley Gregan have got it right. In the world of artistic human endeavor, where few painters benefit from their work while alive, and where master chefs slave at hot stoves, they have permanently staked out the gentle, bountiful turf just below the mountaintop. ■