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Sari Dienes: Queen of the Gypsies

Sari: Queen of the Gypsies

My grandmother grew up in Romania in a Jewish suburb of the country’s northern most city, Sighet, nestled in the Carpathian Mountains, which overlooks the lazy River Dan and is a short walk into the Ukraine. Her father and mother owned a farm. They allowed Romani caravans to use a field as they needed when they passed by. My grandmother told me that Romani boys taught her how to smoke a cigarette. Once, during a particularly violent storm, my great grandfather allowed them to stay in the house where they played music and danced for hours. In the morning, the Romani were gone, along with a few ashtrays.

So I could believe my grandmother when she called the artists of the Gate Hill Co-op “gypsies” and Sari their Queen. My grandmother’s corner of Romania was regularly part of Austria, Hungary, and the Ukraine. She spoke all of their languages fluently. She spoke Hungarian with Sari. My grandmother, a wily woman who saved most of her family from the Nazis and rebuilt her life in Brooklyn, was nobody’s fool. Like Sari, she carried herself with an aristocratic bearing while coming from complicated, sketchy backgrounds. My grandmother, skeptical to a fault, never wavered in her opinion- not a judgement, just a whiff of a long time ago’s personal experience- that the folks at the co-op had some “traveller” in their DNA.

Of course Sari, the exotic Hungarian with the mysterious past, would be the Queen. She lived in the biggest house. She poured on jewelry and color, crowned by hair that seemed to grow like antennae as if she’d been shocked by a beam that lit her face with radiance and caused pure white hair to glow. I saw her sad at times, perhaps lonely, wishing one of her sons would call. She meant Bob Rauschenberg, John Cage, Jasper Johns, and Ray Johnson. Her storage spaces were full of their work, but now that they were so successful, they weren’t around as much. She brooded sometimes about how much she had taught them, but that history didn’t care. Did the totems, etchings of gravestones and other marks of mortality, the earthiness of her (what do you call them) art pieces all point to the same regrets and ambition?

Gypsy knowledge, foraging. Gypsy survival, syncretism. Gypsy wisdom, food and drink. Gypsy life, music and dance. Trying to remember if there was music. I remember she liked to dance, until she couldn’t anymore. The folks at the Gate Hill Co-op during those days loved to dance. These were Sari’s guideposts.

In gypsy communities the matriarch lives in the center, is prized like a Canary in coal mine, for sensitivity to what Gaia is saying. One day Yoko Ono and John Lennon appeared in a white limousine for a short visit and I served them lemonade and tea. Other art world dignitaries regularly appeared from Phillip Glass to Nam June Paik.

Foraging: I remember, mushroom hunting with John Cage and Sari; driving Sari to grocery store and being ordered to stop and pick up some trash on the side of the road. I remember, squeamish me, Sari laughing or at least amused by my not wanting to pick up a dead animals’ skeletons without gloves. Sari’s influence extended to everyone in the community. “Pick that up, Sari might be interested in it.” Young Merce Williams might deliver some ancient motorcycle parts and leave it like a cat’s gift on stairs to Sari’s house. She’d prize these items and one of my jobs was to try to keep open space to walk through her bunker-like home studio.

I don’t think my grandmother thought that the people who lived at the Co-op were blood Romani. They were generally cosmopolitan artists whose livelihood depended on travel, some amount of artifice, and a charm to keep them out of trouble. Many of them had been classmates at Black Mountain College. They wanted to be close to NYC and nature simultaneously. Designed and funded by Paul Williams, the Land was an exciting concept built in an unfortunate location populated by busy artists who were too engaged in feeding their families and making work to sell and exhibit, to take care of the rural environment. The mostly wood homes were built on a slope of the north side of the mountain assuring minimal sunshine, leading to extreme dampness and rot. The long uphill gravel road was continuously washed out after rains and too icy to drive on during the winter. Everything relating to the care of the Co-op had to be decided unanimously. Nothing got done, beyond an individual or small group deciding to take things in their own hands, for example to fix the road.

Look at it through my grandmother’s eyes. 1966, the last Land picnic before I went to College. My grandmother is spry for her age. She enjoys watching the “gypsies.” It always sparks her to tell stories about Romania. OK. Gypsies in Romania had long hair, the men wore hats and rarely shaved; the women wore billowing skirts and blouses with colorful patterns. This is what American artists looked like at a place like the Land during the exuberant countercultural daze of the late 60s. Hippies, gypsies looked alike to her. The Land was always muddy, like the fields of her father’s farm after winter; like the yards of the Romani who had been forcefully settled at the edge of town.

Sari would stand out- old among the young; patronized and respected; flamboyantly displayed, making the young feel conservative and the old suspicious. Sari didn’t walk, she moved through space, like a sandpiper on the beach, leaving big footprints. She didn’t talk, she whispered with a thin accent, modulating from soft to demanding. Sari was the moon that the earth revolved around, always full, sometimes bright, sometimes colored in a monochrome rust.

I’m not sure how Sari ended up at the Gate Hill Co-op, but by the time I tried to assist her after graduating from Cal Arts in 1971 she was a fixture. I was drafted by the US Military and using the move from LA back to New York City as a way to put off induction. I was considering alternatives to serving in Vietnam, and divided my time between a few part time jobs. Sari didn’t mind me crashing on her couch if I did this and that for her. I helped move things around her studio. The biggest project was the installation of the glass maze in the backyard behind her home that was a long term loan to her from an artist whose name I don’t remember. I remember working with Richard “Rip” Hayman installing this and he might remember more details. I think the elements gradually destroyed the work which was ultimately too delicate for the environment.

Working for Sari was one of several apprenticeships which taught me first hand what it was like to live as an artist. We sometimes would begin the day with a meditative walk toward the waterfalls; leisurely coffee, then work- perhaps some time updating an archive of her collection; later I might try to fix a plumbing problem. I’d watch from afar as Sari would play with objects, perhaps for a necklace or hanging. If I was there in the afternoon, we might have tea with a neighbor, especially Johanna Vanderbeek who cared for her like a daughter would her aging mother. They might plot visits to local businesses; make plans for upcoming visits to New York City; and gossip about Co-op business. I remember Sari spending lots of time going through things, making outfits, rearranging animal parts, with a sort of serious amusement at whatever she was seeing. These were the early days of the AIR gallery, a woman’s cooperative that Sari joined. I remember helping move stones and digging holes for Sari’s ongoing outdoor installation. Picking up and putting down, looking for connections, resemble the techniques of fortune telling, another Romani talent.

Sari loved to cook and feed guests. She was famous for her dips which were never the same and assembled based on color, texture, and other painterly criteria, more than taste. They were usually edible and part of the enjoyment of eating art is the sensual blending of the color saturated dips and one’s lips, tongue, throat, and beyond, like eating paint. For example, she might have blended farmer cheese, an avocado and juiced broccoli for something green and thick. She might crumble the cracker into the dip to save a step and add crunch. She would bring several dips to the many Land parties and to the potlucks for the extended community that surrounded the Co-op. During those years food art was very chic and food was a perfect vehicle for Sari to do many of the things she enjoyed doing. I think she took making the dips as semi-seriously as everything else. This goes along with the joy she took splashing paint on pristine snow.

Romani want one thing: freedom. Freedom in the extreme. Freedom to remain on the outside. Freedom to play. Freedom in nature. Sari, pillar of freedom, Queen of the Gypsies. Freedom cannot be grasped, only experienced. Conceptual artists attuned to nature like Sari provide a glimpse into this rare state of being. By the mid 1970’s I was another lost son (perhaps) busy with a career, family, life, goes on.

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