by Mike Hays
One hundred years from now, how will people look back at our villages? Our culture? How we perceived our history? I am betting one of the major resources that people will look to understand our times will be the art and essays of Bill Batson’s Nyack Sketch Log, published every Tuesday in Nyack News & Views.
Batson has captured the iconic buildings and people of our village filling some of the blank pages of our black cultural experience. In over 200 columns he has defined a new artistic genre. Taken together, the columns form an Encyclopedia of Nyack.
To understand the Sketch Log concept, we need look no further than to his personal favorite, an illustration of a single object that tells a complete story. In Nyack Sketch Log: It’s Bike Season, Be Safe, Bill sketched the wooden-rimmed bicycle Edward Hopper rode as a boy. The warped wooden wheels, the tilted saddle, the leather toe clips on the pedals, all speak volumes not only about bike safety but also evokes our village past, and personalizes our view of Edward Hopper. Bill has written eight columns on the Edward Hopper House, all accompanied by classic line drawings. Batson’s sketch of a 100+ year old wooden-rimmed bicycle helps us relate to the world famous realist painter via a simple experience we can share: riding a bicycle on the streets of Nyack.
Bill Batson: A brief but spectacular background
Bill is a native of Nyack. His family has been here since 1890. His great-grandfather was George T. Avery, one of the first trustees of the St Phillips AME Zion Church in Nyack.
As a young man, he worked as a writer in political communications and lived in Brooklyn. He spent his commuting time sketchlogging subway riders. The sketch had to be quick since his time on the subway was limited. He used pilot ink pens, so each line was permanent whether it was perfect or not. Later, he colored the sketches with magic marker.
Bill moved back to Nyack in 2009 to take care of an elderly parent. He looked at the village with “vacation eyes” seeing everything that was familiar as if for the first time. Ready to sketch the village, the Nyack Sketch Log was born. His first column was named “Liberty Street.”
The Nyack Sketch Log Process
Bill’s illustrations are individualistic. He often focuses on a single object or architectural detail that tells a story. The perspective is unique; the horizon line is often askew forcing us to look with fresh eyes at what we are seeing.
The illustrations have the appearance of being quickly sketched as if they were done en plein air. In fact, he takes a photo and draws from that at home. Drawing is laborious. It takes 6-8 hours for him to complete a drawing. He uses a Pilot G-Tech C4 pen on Bristol board paper under strong light when he draws. At first, the drawing was the easy part and writing the content hard. Over time it has reversed, and he enjoys the writing a lot.
He chooses topics that tell Nyack’s story, that range from famous artists Edward Hopper and Joseph Cornell to simple objects that tell a family history like the tea cup in Nyack Sketch Log: Preston Powell’s Teagevity. Threading through his images and columns is the neglected narrative of our black community. Bill reminds us that our village history is not a single story but one of multiple strands.
Three Sketch Logs That Became Public Events
Nyack Sketch Log: Flash Sketch Mob. In 2011, Bill posited that the unexamined place was not worth inhabiting and that drawing was one way to “examine” a place. By pitting a Nyack Sketch Logs drawing against a Google Map of the village, Bill advocated for his personal, handmade image of our village as having more intrinsic value than the sterile, robotic, unexamined Google Map version.
By 2012 the idea had evolved a community experience called the Flash Sketch Mob. The idea was to bring villagers of all ages together, assign them a sketch target to be completed in two hours, and then collect the sketches together for a pop-up display on a building later that same night.
Over 90 professional and amateur artists participated. The results were put together in a digital Atlas of Broadway Street in Nyack News & Views. The amazing results were so successful in creating a shared experience in a small village that a second Flash Sketch Mob occurred in 2015 and a third is scheduled for 2018.
Nyack Sketch Log: Toni Morrison’s Bench by the Road: In 2014, Bill began a drive to commemorate Cynthia Hesdra, a wealthy Nyack entrepreneur and abolitionist who was once herself enslaved. Unfortunately, much of her story has been lost to time but it is generally accepted by most historians that she was an important “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. What little we know of Hesdra is the result of the scholarship of Nyack native, Dr. Lori Martin, whom Bill chronicled.
Bill sought to create a memorial to her courage in the fight against slavery through Toni Morrison’s Bench by the Road program where some 13 benches commemorate the African diaspora in our history. For Toni Morrison the idea was that
There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves
Bill was driver behind the memorial. He became chair of a committee to establish a Bench by the Road in Memorial Park to honor Cynthia Hesdra. In 2015, Bill’s efforts along with many others reached fruition. Toni Morrison graced the dedication ceremony with her presence.
Thanks to Bill the Hesdra bench is a simple memorial in a lovely spot in Memorial Park overlooking the Hudson River. It’s a quiet place that allows us, each in our own way, to contemplate an ugly period in our national history that is in many respects, still, all to real.
A recent exhibit by the artist Carrie Mae Weems at the Edward Hopper House covering a year she spent in Beacon NY photographing and recording oral histories from African Americans inspired Bill to a new community project. There is little recorded history from or about African Americans in Nyack. Bill is working to change that at the invitation of the creative and administrative leaders of the the Edward Hopper House, Carole Perry and Dr. Jennifer Patton.
Batson says that history is happening all the time and our stories, images, and memories are disappearing daily.
In conjunction with the Edward Hopper House and the Historical Society of the Nyacks he is directing a project that will collect local oral histories. The kick-off will be a mass oral histories collection at Grace Episcopal Church after the annual Martin Luther King Day service, January 15, 2018, that is held across the street at Pilgrim Baptist Church. Oral histories recording will then be conducted in the storefront of Kiam Record shop on Main Street for a week.
It is exciting to contemplate how much richer our village story will become as a consequence.
Call for Oral History Participants
Anyone who has a story that reflects on the experience of the African American community in Nyack can register for a time slot to be interviewed as part of the Nyack Record Shop Project at Grace Church on the 15th or at Kiam Records from the 16th – 20st of January at http://www.edwardhopperhouse.org/nyackrecordshop.html
Nyack Sketch Log appears every Tuesday in Nyack News & Views. His book, Nyack Sketch Log and other Sketch Log merchandise is available at the Edward Hopper House, Koblins, Kiam Records, Pickwick Book Shop, Maria Luisa’s, Hickory Dickory Dock, the Nyack Historical Society Museum, the Nyack Library and each Thursday at the Nyack Farmers Market. Bill’s commissions adorn many Nyack homes. He will be the Artist of the Month in February at the Edward Hopper House.
Photo credits: Mike Hays. Photo of George Avery and Sketch Log artwork courtesy of Bill Batson.
Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. He grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. He is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.
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