Co-directors Sarah Elliott and Clara Chapin Hess

Complimenta is a new art colony that is taking shape at the top of Enfield Center Road. Their first resident artist, Emily Steinfeld of Los Angeles, arrived in early December 2012. They have already accepted all of their nominations for the 2013 summer residencies, and have just kicked off a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money to pay for an addition to their barn.

The co-directors of Complimenta are Clara Chapin Hess and Sarah Elliott. Chapin Hess met her co-director when she and Elliott, a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, were both accused of being “Modern” artists by a mutual “friend” on Facebook. During the ensuing shared defense of their principles, they found they had a lot in common.

Chapin Hess grew up in Brooklyn and attended Bard College and then the Mountain School in Los Angeles, and emerged a sculptor. She moved to Enfield when her grandfather, George Rhoads, offered her a house that, with a certain amount of irony, he referred to as “The Manse.” Rhoads bought the property after his own house burned and he needed a temporary place to live while he had a new house built. He then rented it out for 10 years and was going to sell it, but in 2008 he offered it to his granddaughter.

“I was working at a foundry in Philly,” recalled Chapin Hess. “I moved up here and worked on [the house] for two years. I always envisioned it as a place for artists and for creative practitioners.” During this time and up to the present, Chapin Hess has had to leave the area and go to New York or Los Angeles to find work to raise more money in order to continue making improvements on the property. 

From 2011 to 2012, somewhat exhausted by the lengthy project, she took a year-long break from working on the house to return to Brooklyn. In summer 2012 she began organizing a three-day event at The Manse—Complimenta (I)—that would take place over Labor Day weekend and—she thought—serve as a fond farewell to the property. She invited 45 artists from around the country to converge on Enfield to create installation, performance, and environmental art pieces. 

Half-way through the weekend, she realized that what she had always envisioned for the site was actually working, and she changed her mind about selling the property. Instead she and Elliott began pulling together an organization that they called Complimenta (the French present perfect tense of complimenter, “it has complimented”).

Lesley Williamson of the Saltonstall Foundation sponsored Complimenta when they applied for a grant from the Community Arts Partnership, but Complimenta will not be modeled after the rather more orthodox residency program at Saltonstall, where all the residents needs are catered to. 

“We think of hospitality as a dialog,” said Elliott, who lives in Brooklyn, but grew up in an Alaskan fishing family. “It is about supporting one another.” 

“When I first came here,” said Chapin Hess, “when others visited I would tell them, ‘Here is this thing for you to work with … ‘ Because an open platform isn’t very generous; there’s no structure, no expectations. Instead we give the guest some boundaries and some rules, and they feel better.” She put this to work at Complimenta (I), the Labor Day extravaganza.

“We had clear infrastructure,” Elliott said. “Three meals a day were understood.”

“And people just did help with meals,” said Chapin Hess. “Everyone who came gave us $25.”

“People felt invested once they gave us money,” said Elliott.

“And we got an incredible amount of in-kind donations,” concluded Chapin Hess.

And so, two 21st century 20something artists rediscovered the collectivist ideals of the 1960s and ‘70s. And with this modus operandi settled, they proceeded to incorporate a more contemporary concern into their plan for the colony: the artwork would be about location, place, what had happened in this place, and what was in this place. In short, they wanted to explore the basis of sustainability through art.

But Chapin Hess and Elliott do not want to limit their exploration of a “sense of place” by working only with local artists. They have had four events at The Manse thus far and only three local artists—Chapin Hess, Melissa Constantine, and Michael Ashkin—have been involved. At a recent Complimenta board meeting two members Skyped in and Ashkin, who is on the board, noted that several of the members were not located in places to which they had any historical ties.

“We have to decide ‘How do we want to engage the local community?,” said Elliott. “Who are we serving? What is happening here already?”

“I’ve heard the complaint that there is no contemporary art in Ithaca,” said Chapin Hess. “We could provide that. On the other hand, we could focus on providing people with a place to work. We need to figure out how to serve all these communities.” She noted that their board members in Berlin expressed unease about serving Ithaca as a priority.

“Documenta in Kassel (Germany)—our name is sort of reference to it, and it is sort of a model—doesn’t engage with the local community,” said Chapin Hess, “except for a few token gestures.” Documenta was founded in 1955 by designer Arnold Bode and is held every five years for 100 days. The roster of artists was originally drawn from Europe, but now it includes artists from every continent. However, much of the work on display is site-specific, installed at particular locations in Kassel.

“In the contemporary art world,” Chapin Hess said, “the dialog says ‘Your location is where you are.’ Artists move from city to city across the world.” She admitted that his was much like the academic or corporate world.

“Brooklyn is just a place where I’m living,” said Elliott. “It’s difficult to talk about sustainability in a place like that; there are so many transients. I think we can do it Enfield. I would like to talk about place through Complimenta.”

When Chapin Hess sent out the invitations to Complimenta (I) to her colleagues in the contemporary art, she was explicit about preferring that they undertake site-specific projects, and she included a description of her parcel on Enfield Center Road. In fact, the majority who accepted her invitation did do site-specific work based on—she admitted—a pretty vague description of the site.

Artist Antonio Serna ( delved into the anthropological writings of Lewis Henry Morgan, who was the first modern social scientist to describe the culture of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). Karl Marx read Morgan’s descriptions of the tribal economy with great interest. Serna’s “Four Point and a Circle” consisted of a series of discussions about the sustainable economy that had existed on (he postulated) the exact spot where The Manse was located.

Deniz Unal, a Turkish Brit, completely revised her project when she actually arrived in Enfield. In the end, she actually pretended that she was somewhere else. She took groups on guided tours through the woods, supplying them with detailed information about the lives and deaths of famous Turks.

“She did a number of strange things,” said Elliott, “including asking us ‘How do we think about sites as memorials?’”

“She talked to my neighbor Chet about the history of the land,” recalled Chapin Hess. “Chet got his idea of art enlarged by the experience. He’ll be doing a project this year.”

The enthusiasm generated by Complimenta (I) spawned a second, smaller event in October 2012, called “complementa (A).” It had three components: a studio sale accompanied by a presentation about Montessori schools, collages by Owen Hutchinson, and poems that were inspired by various translations of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. 

On December 28 they held a “winter gala” at The Manse with live music, dancing, food, and performances. “There are so many smart, generous people in this area who want to participate she said. She has been working with the local food community, and with Angry Mom Records (who has been connecting her with local musicians) and with Cornell Cinema.

In March and April Chapin Hess again left town to find work, make some more money, and to continue talking to people about how to go forward with her art colony. Howie Seligman of Solo, a non-profit organization that helps other non-profits form, is working on getting 501 (c) 3 status for Complimenta. The board put together a mission statement as one step toward this status.

Architect Melissa Constantine originally designed a studio structure for the colony, but the board has decided to instead add to an existing barn to make studio and living space for the residents. In this way they can grow incremental and more affordably. Chapin Hess said they plan to undertake the Kickstarter campaign this month and erect the barn in June. 

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