FilmColumbia Director Calliope Nicholas finds artistic inspiration in Columbia County
Photograph by Tom Moore
The Columbia County arts scene is near and dear to Calliope Nicholas’s heart. But her story actually stretches from the Midwest to Manhattan to her current home in the Hudson Valley.
Nicholas, who now lives in Old Chatham, grew up in Indianapolis, and as a young adult headed to Boulder, Colorado — in those days, a major vortex of the burgeoning counterculture. She hung out with members of the Beats — an informal cultural and literary movement that first came together in the 1950s, with writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs at the forefront. She spent time with Burroughs and others at the Naropa Institute, a cutting-edge alternative-educational site that opened in 1974 and is now called Naropa University. “It was Burroughs who said to me, ‘Poppy, you should go to New York City,’ ” she recalls.
Eventually, Nicholas did head to Manhattan, and got an apartment on hip, funky Bleecker Street. “It was across from CBGB [the famous Bowery music club], and I got involved in the punk music and art scene,” says Nicholas. “In those days, there were amazing artists, and so many art events going on. Rents were cheap, and the city was rough, but it was real. It was inspirational and fun.”
Nicholas even worked for a spell as a coat-check girl at Studio 54, the famous disco and celebrity haunt. “I was a swordfighter, too,” she says. “Our acting group would practice at Studio in exchange for doing swordfights there for the crowd once a month; it was an amazing scene.” In fact, she’s now working on a book about the downtown Manhattan world of that era.
After leaving the Studio 54 gig, she traveled in Europe, returned to New York and launched the New Life Health Spa, one of the city’s first day spas. She later sold the business, met her husband-to-be, and got married. “My M.O. throughout life has been one of my favorite Yogi Berra quotes: ‘When you get to the crossroads, take it!’ When we started a family, I wanted to raise our kids in the country. So we moved up to Columbia County.”
To stay connected to the arts, she became a member of the Chatham Film Club. Since 2002, Nicholas has served as executive director of FilmColumbia, the international film festival that’s been held in Columbia County since 1999. FilmColumbia features award-winning indie and studio films from top film fests including Cannes, New York, Toronto, and Sundance. Offerings at the October 2015 festival ranged from the period drama Suffragette to a documentary on the cartoons and cartoonists found in The New Yorker. Expanded this year from five to seven days, the festival hosts a total of about 50 movies, lectures, and other events at five venues, including the Hudson Opera House in Hudson and the historic 1926 Crandell Theatre in Chatham.
“Our audience base has really expanded; the festival draws people from the city, from out west, and there’s strong attendance from the area,” Nicholas says. “It’s now the second biggest event in Columbia County, after the county fair.”
Nicholas also serves as residency director of the Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz. The seven-acre site, which offers live-in retreats for selected writers, composers and visual artists, is bordered by Steepletop, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s former home.
She is responsible for day-to-day operations at the Millay Colony, which receives 1,400 applications annually for approximately 60 openings. Nicholas also works with the juries who select the artists for residencies; participants range from established professionals to fledgling artists who show promise in their fields. “I love the job; we meet interesting people from all over the world,” she says.
Nicholas points out other features of Columbia County that she loves. “A lot of creative people are coming here. During the film festival, filmmakers from all over will run into each other on the street — Chatham is about one block long – and say, ‘What in the world are you doing here? How did you know about this?’ It’s an easy place to do that.
“It’s a beautiful, inspirational area,” she adds. “And it’s a great place to be creative and to raise a family. You can really make a home here.”