Although Woodstock has a long tradition of welcoming artists, it hasn’t always been that way. The creation of the cemetery now referred to as the Woodstock Artists Cemetery was seen by some longtime residents as an affront.
“The townspeople did not appreciate some of the artists’ ways,” said Richard Heppner, Woodstock Town Historian and a former cemetery board member. “This was basically a small isolated Catskill town and all of a sudden there’s these artists showing up. Being isolated, the townspeople were not always too keen on strangers coming in.”
Given the number of artists currently living in Woodstock, it’s evident the townspeople eventually embraced the creative influx, but not before a separate cemetery was established and resented.
Officially known as the Woodstock Memorial Society, the cemetery is the final resting place for artists as diverse as Robert Koch, the Academy-Award-winning screenwriter of Casablanca; American modernist painter Milton Avery; WPA muralist Ethel Magafan, children’s book author Paula Danziger; and pianist Richard Tee, who played on Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away.” The legacy of some artists buried there has endured while the names of others, once well known, have become obscure.
Situated on a hill above Woodstock’s Evergreen Cemetery, the Artist’s Cemetery was founded in 1934 by John Kingsbury, after he lost his 19-year-old son.
“His son was killed in a tragic accident,” said Heppner. “Kingsbury went to look at the Evergreen Cemetery for a plot and kept wandering up the hill.”
The wooded slope seemed ideal so he bought a small plot there.
“He was friends with a lot of the artists in town,” said Heppner. “At the funeral when his friends saw the property, they said, why don’t we’ll chip in and buy it.”
Part of the motivation may have been securing plots for artists who could not afford to buy one.
“People took care of each other in those days and we’ve taken care of it since,” said Heppner, who co-wrote Legendary Locals of Woodstock.
At first some locals were resentful that artists chose to be buried there.
“They thought it exacerbated the tense situation between townspeople and artists. Some people thought they were elitist and by wanting to be buried there, that they were snubbing the townspeople.”
By that point, tension between townspeople and artists had existed for a few decades. Many of the writers, painters, dancers, and performers who arrived in Woodstock in the early 20th century were drawn to the Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony, founded by Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and his wife Jane Byrd McCall.
“Woodstock became a draw for artists in 1902 because of Byrdcliffe, which was one of the country’s first intentional arts communities,” said filmmaker Stephen Blauweiss, who is currently shooting the documentary Woodstock: 100 Years of the Arts. “The artists of course were also attracted to the beauty of the natural surroundings.”
Whitehead died in 1929, five years before Kingsbury purchased the cemetery plot, but one of the cemetery’s two above-ground memorials, a terra cotta Madonna and Child relief, honors his legacy. The other memorial is Thomas Penning’s 10-ton bluestone sculpture, now laced with invasive lichen. All headstones in the cemetery must be flat.
“Everything else in the cemetery is at ground level because they wanted no visual impairment,” said Heppner. “When they first bought the property you could look at Overlook Mountain. Trees have grown up over the years but they wanted nothing to get in the way of the view.”
A poem by Dr. Richard Shotwell graces the Penning sculpture:
“Encircled by the everlasting hills they rest here who added to the beauty of the world by art, creative thought and by life itself.”
Shotwell a Columbia professor, who attended the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I and helped draft the United Nations charter after World War II, is also buried there.
Although the cemetery primarily serves as a reminder of Woodstock’s contributions to art, music, theater, and the written word, anyone can buy a plot there—artists, non-artists, locals and people from afar. New York State Law prohibits cemeteries from discriminating.
“It’s very quiet, no intrusions,” said Heppner. “It really is a marvelous place, especially in the summer when the sun is going down and the shadows fall at dusk. You look at the artwork on some of these graves—it’s amazing.”