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Life is sweet in Wassaic

Who could have imagined that the small, rural hamlet of Wassaic, just an infinitesimal pinpoint on the U.S. map, would have become a Mecca for artists from around the Northeast? Certainly none could have predicted it just a few years ago when Bowie Zunino, Eve Biddle and Elan Bogarin put their heads together and created The Wassaic Project — a yearly arts festival that has attracted the attention of creative minds from Manhattan and beyond, reviewers from The New York Times and thousands of attendees. And last week’s event was as successful as those in years past.What started in 2008 has grown each successive year and all but transformed Wassaic, thanks also to Maxon Mills owners Tony Zunino (Bowie’s father) and Richard Berry, who renovated the old grain mill into a magnificent structure that is itself a work of art.The mill is the perfect showcase for the project, which focuses on site-specific work and leads viewers through a path of artwork and performance that inspire and ignite the imagination. The improvements to the small hamlet haven’t stopped there. In the last year, the two partners bought and renovated The Lantern Inn, transforming it from what was the classic “seedy” bar to what is now an intriguing and inviting edifice begging customers to stop in for a meal and conversation.These improvements have altered Wassaic, with changes that delve beyond the surface. The hamlet has more substance to it these days. The Wassaic Project has an artists’ residency program, which brings creative minds to the hamlet throughout the year, adding to the community’s makeup and its resources. There are also shows throughout the summer drawing art aficionados to the area, again enhancing the mix of people who visit and could ultimately settle in the region.Meanwhile, Maxon Mills stands like a sentry in the center of the hamlet, reminding everyone who passes through that the hamlet is on its way up, that it’s going through a renaissance and that it is something to be reckoned with — a place to visit, not just pass through thoughtlessly. Across the street the renovated Lantern Inn adds tremendously to the main thoroughfare; it’s almost unrecognizable to its old self — it’s bright, friendly and attractive. There still remain time-tested Wassaic classics like Calsi’s General Store, which will hopefully continue to serve as colorful cues to help identify the hamlet. The faithful firehouse, of course, is on the other end of the hamlet, reminding everyone in Wassaic of what it means to be a part of this very special community and how thankful residents should be for their volunteers. Then there’s the post office, smack in the middle of Main Street, making the hamlet independent and self-sufficient, capable of operating without reliance on an outside town for things like its mail (one can’t believe how important this really is until going without it).There are just so many elements that comprise the Wassaic community, and having The Wassaic Project woven into its annual calendar amplifies all of them in an incredibly unique and special way. The art is world-class; the response from the external world is phenomenal; the camaraderie is spectacular. The fact that so many “outsiders” travel so far just to visit this small hamlet, right here in the Harlem Valley, is really quite amazing. The exposure this region gains as a result is priceless — so many benefit. Here’s to The Wassaic Project and here’s to Wassaic. It’s a partnership that goes hand in glove — let’s all hope for their continued success, productivity and longevity.

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