Artists flock to the Hudson Valley, inspired by gorgeous natural environments. The region has been an important creative and spiritual center for generations, and the Hudson River school painters most famously captured the sights and scenes of New York. The area is also home to historic Buddhist temples, Hindu samajs, and Christian churches. As yoga and meditation practice garnered mainstream popularity in recent years, studios popped up across the Valley.
These are just a few of the reasons Dr. Daniela Bertol, an Italian multi-disciplinary artist, first came to the Hudson Valley. Bertol chose Columbia County as the site for her land-art exploration S.U.N.F.A.R.M. more than two decades ago. The lifelong work and art-in-nature exhibit features numerous sculptures and a layout that tracks the movements of the sun.
“My ex-husband [David Foell] was bush-whacking and cutting his way through this total overgrown land when we discovered this beautiful hilltop with great views. It was totally hidden from the road, and we felt love at first sight,” Bertol recalls of her first visit to the property. “It’s always been my dream to create a work based on nature, where nature is incorporated in the art.”
Bertol studied architecture at the University of Rome, and moved to the States in the 1980s. Though her first artistic expressions were oil-on-canvas paintings, her work eventually moved to the digital sphere. The advent of computer technology in the ’80s presented new opportunities. Finally, Bertol discovered the land-art movement. Her most notable influence was sculptor Robert Smithson. Smithson famously constructed Spiral Jetty on the shores of Great Salt Lake in Utah. He used mud, salt crystals, and basalt rocks to create the massive spiral shape. Moreover, the Dia Art Foundation acquired the earthwork sculpture in 1999—four years before it opened Dia:Beacon in Dutchess County.
Certainly, Bertol found many connections to the Hudson Valley. During her time living in New York City, she felt a peace in her escapes northward.
“Olana, it’s a destination for me when I need to kind of regain energy. I was working in the city, and searching for a place that would be more than just a weekend getaway. I was looking for a place to bring my dreams to fruition,” Bertol says. She and her ex-husband, an architect with a focus on infrastructure and transportation, visited an estate in Claverack in the late ’90s. During that time, Hudson had not yet exploded with boutique shops and eclectic wine bars. Columbia County was mostly farmland and forest, and the former bee farm presented the perfect canvas for Bertol’s own spiral.
The pair purchased the property in 1999, and started working on the ongoing project in 2001. Bertol developed the landscape continuously until 2013, when several life events got in the way. A little over a year ago, she returned to finish what she started, with her daughter by her side.
At S.U.N.F.A.R.M., which is part sculpture park and part digital experiment, Bertol uses the land itself as her medium. The acronym S.U.N.F.A.R.M. stands for Spacetime Spiral System Survey of Universe Nature in a Future Art Revolution Movement. However, the name is also a fitting portmanteau—Bertol’s bio-art project tracks the movements of the sun. Her work generates awareness of where we are in space and time according to celestial events, namely, sunrise and sunset.
Following in the footsteps of Frederic Church, Bertol meticulously designed the 68-acre landscape to bring attention to our connection to nature. She continues the Hudson River School tradition of taking an “almost mystical view” of local topography.
For instance, she aligned the sunrise trellises—and many other elements of the site—to the fall and spring equinoxes. During these specific moments of the year, the sun rises directly above the trellises, framed by two hickory trees. Similarly, S.U.N.F.A.R.M.’s signature spirals represent the sun’s daily path. They are connected by a three-quarter-mile walking path-axis that runs east to west. Bertol’s East Spiral—completed in 2009—is the lowest point of the property and its axis mundi (connection to the Earth’s center). For many cultures, the axis mundi sanctifies a place. She created this spiral from an excavated pond; during the equinox, the sun reflects along a line running through the water.
“It’s quite magical to see the sun setting right on axis during the equinoxes,” Bertol remarks. She positioned this spiral along the four cardinal points, a running motif onsite. All of S.U.N.F.A.R.M. points like an arrow, and its arrangement is essential to the way Bertol wants you to experience it. “The spiral became the de facto “brand logo” of this place. The shape interprets the relationship between self, environment, and time. Because time is both linear and cyclical (the Earth revolves around the sun, four seasons, etc.), I used a helix.” Directly opposite East Spiral is West Spiral, the site of a naked-eye observatory.
Bertol breaks down dense philosophical ideas about the cosmos through this geometry. Onsite, she hopes guests feel more present and free from negative thoughts. Visitors have an incredible vantage point for stargazing in the center of the helix. Historically, naked-eye observation dates back to indigenous peoples in the Hudson Valley. In fact, visitors to S.U.N.F.A.R.M. actively contribute to the art merely by being there. By walking mindfully, guests capture “the sublime” through union between body and nature. Here, perception is art.
Bertol enhances this perception through meditation and yoga practice. “Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning “union,” union between body, mind, and spirit and unity between breath and movement. It’s based on alignments, both geometric and fluid at the same time,” Bertol explains.
Most yoga sessions utilize positions to align the body. Think warrior pose, downward dog, or tree. However, focus on the body’s posture alone negates the environment. Yoga at S.U.N.F.A.R.M. encourages participants to acknowledge their body in relation to the land and sky. “Here, we align the body according to the four cardinal points. This can be achieved outdoors, but I also have a studio onsite centrally aligned according to the north, east, west, and south. While we focus on our own body alignments, we get awareness of the landscape outside.”
She takes this even further during major celestial events: solstices and equinoxes. “Walking Art Observations in a Mindful Landscape” commemorates these occasions. This guided meditation series started with the summer solstice in June 2021 and continues with the fall equinox in September 2021. Participants line up on a path marked by a checkerboard of red and grey pavers. This pattern gives structure and rhythm to the 135-ft walk, starting with a left foot on one color and a right foot on the other. With one step you inhale, and with the other, you exhale. All the while, the march is directed at a fractal sculpture titled Time Helix.
In addition, Google Earth shows another side to the landscape. Satellite images reveal the precise yet simple shapes that structure the site. On Bertol’s websites, guests can explore S.U.N.F.A.R.M. digitally. The interactive page showcases the location and significance of each sculpture and every line spanning the property.
“My new approach is to merge three different worlds: art, nature (not an artistic representation of nature, but the thing itself), and the digital world. [It’s] how something very physical, primordial, phenomenological—which is the relationship between our self, and the environment surrounding us—can be filtered through digital technology, enriching the personal experience,” Bertol explains. However, nothing quite beats the experience of being present in nature. On September 22, 2021, Bertol leads a walking meditation. The evening culminates in the sun setting perfectly along the created axis, demonstrating the entire concept. Above all, she hopes to bring a little respite to people during trying times.
“Focus on yourself, and focus on the environment. Whatever negativity is around you, it’s forgotten for this specific moment of peace. In a certain way, you isolate yourself from everything else. The past 18 months has been a collective experience of negativity. My intent is to bring people outside of this negativity.”