by Susan Hellauer
Water is the true governor of all of life – Lao Tzu
As a co-leader of the Rockland Coalition for Sustainable Water, Laurie Seeman put in long hours, learned from the best experts, and had a front row seat for the remarkable grass-roots movement that stopped United Water/Suez’s proposed Hudson River desalination plant. But the director of the Strawtown Studio had been preparing to be a voice for the environment since she was younger than her youngest art-in-nature students.
“When I was little, there were no other little kids in my neighborhood,” in IBM’s farm-country company town of Endicott, N.Y., “so I had a lot of alone time in my backyard,” says Seeman. “I went barefoot all summer and, when old enough to roam, I discovered a little creek nearby, and that creek became my best friend. One day when I was about 11, I was shocked to discover that ‘my’ creek had been bulldozed to build a highway viaduct. That experience has informed my life, to this day,” she says.
The Path to Strawtown
Laurie and her Strawtown Studio co-director Joanna Dickey spoke from their rustic New City studio building, art materials stacked high on wooden shelves, and pages for their soon-to-come new website pinned to an antique quilt on the wall. The artist-educator-activists took a break from their summer session prep to share their backstory and vision.
Before Strawtown Studio came to be, Laurie Seeman spent 20 years in New York City’s high-intensity world of art and culture.
She studied media and communications at the Fashion Institute of Technology, followed by a number of creative jobs in upscale design and marketing. The downtown scene also brought contact with political activists. “I worked as creative director on a 1981 anti-nuclear film about Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island” (which suffered a partial meltdown in 1979). “We spent ten days with the people living through that nightmare. That’s how I began my journey of truth seeking,” she says.
A job in a SOHO to-the-trade frame shop during the 1980s art boom trained her eye, and led to a thirteen-year career as a contemporary art consultant and dealer. But in 1997, Seeman moved to Rockland County with her two young children. “I told my art-world friends that I was moving so my children could go barefoot. When they laughed, I said ‘No, it’s true!’”
When her kids started at West Nyack’s Blue Rock School in 1997, she started the Little Feet Hiking Club with some other families. “I wanted my kids — and all kids — to experience childhood time in the natural world with friends, working out their own games and social orders.” She watched the children creating art with nature, devising ceremonies, and much more. She says she realized how important this was for our kids and for our culture.
Seeman refined her concept of creating art with natural materials combined with fine art and crafting techniques — including emerging play and discovery — and, in 1998, the Nature Place Day Camp at the Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge offered her the opportunity to develop that vision. With a staff of five she created the first “Earth Art with Children” program, and led it for three summers.
Before long, she was ready to branch out on her own. The Strawtown Art & Garden Studio, named after the road where she lived, was born in 2003. The staff search for that first summer program at Upper Nyack’s Marydell Faith and Life Center attracted Nyack native Joanna Dickey, then a college student and an aspiring artist. She realized immediately that her new job combined all the things she most loved: art, children and nature.
After her first day of work, Dickey told her parents: “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
A Creek Discovery
The Marydell site is blessed with a stream and a Hudson River beach, inspiring the Strawtown directors to take their first step in waterway advocacy and activism in 2004, by signing up for training with the Hudson-watchdog Riverkeeper organization.
The next year, Strawtown migrated to a new studio in Orangeburg at Bell-Ans, an early-1900s former industrial building, revived now as a Center of the Creative Arts. “One of our go-to nature spots was the little creek behind the nearby Clausland Mountain Cemetery on Greenbush Road,” Joanna Dickey says. There, just feet from busy route 303, the meandering Sparkill Creek was the perfect place for natural water play.
As the creek became more dear with time, the Strawtown directors signed up for different stream-monitoring programs, to learn as much as they could about the inhabitants of the creek, the creek as a habitat, and problems of these waterways.
They took stream-training courses from Rockland County and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC). They earned certifications to lead school groups in the annual “Day in the Life of the Hudson River,” a monitoring program held each autumn all along the Hudson.
But how to justify the time to study and address local waterways, while working to build their business? “It’s just more to love and care about, an extension of our work,” says Joanna Dickey. “The advocacy we do is for the kids: it’s our responsibility to the next generations.”
It turns out that Seeman and Dickey taught their children well. In July of 2010 a Strawtown summer student exploring the Sparkill Creek near Bell-Ans declared: “This water smells bad!” and she added: “Laurie, you need to tell the adults, and tell them the kids know what they are not doing . . . and if they want to do something, well, here it is!”
In a flash, Laurie Seeman says, she saw the start of a Sparkill Creek community group.
Riverkeeper Boat Captain John Lipscomb, both a friend and a mentor, arrived the next day to take a water sample as the children gathered around. He had been sampling Hudson River water, but this was his first sampling of a tributary. The results came back with a very high count of enterococcus (evidence of human or animal sewage).
The call went out, and October 2010 saw the first meeting of what would soon become the Sparkill Watershed Creek Alliance — a community action group committed to restoring and preserving the health of the entire Sparkill Creek.
The SWCA’s citizen-science work includes community education, water monitoring and reporting, developing GIS map layers, along with riparian buffer plantings and creek cleanups. They work with the NYS DEC and with Riverkeeper, and were the first “trib team” contributing to Riverkeeper’s tributary sampling work all along the Hudson.
They’ve developed working partnerships with municipalities and government leaders, colleges, community and religious groups, and have begun to attract state, federal and EPA grants.
“We’re building ‘people power’ to clean up the Hudson one tributary at a time,” says Joanna Dickey.
Seeman completes the thought: “We’re not being paid for this, but we don’t like it to be called volunteer work, because it’s just another part of the care for our family, our community — for where we live.”
The future for Strawtown Studio . . .
Strawtown Art & Garden Studio, with its recently-acquired non-profit status, is preparing for a relaunch, and will raise funds to support its growth. Landing a larger studio, and developing facilitator trainings are high on the list.
“We want to do more teacher training, so that more kids can have this life experience,” says co-director Dickey. Although her program took years to develop and refine, Laurie Seeman insists that it’s “simple” and the teachers she and her staff train can be up and running in a short time. “It is a way of seeing the world,” she says.
. . . and for their creek?
Sparkill Creek appears on the NYS DEC Impaired Waters List, “indicating that the waterbody does not support its designated use for aquatic life and recreation uses and requires a restoration plan,” according to a Rockland County Watershed “report card.”
“We are seeking to raise awareness and reconnect people to the creek. Through our relationships, we will restore the health of the creek,” says Laurie Seeman, who knows where to look for hope:
Joanna and I recently saw a little muskrat swimming by one late afternoon. It touched my heart so much to see him in his happy flow-along, not knowing if the water is good, bad, or in between — just knowing it is home.
- Strawtown Art & Garden Studio.
- Rockland Coalition for Sustainable Water
- Hudson River Watershed Alliance.
- Riverkeeper Citizen Test Data on Sparkill Creek.
- Join the Sparkill Watershed Creek Alliance.
- Sparkill Watershed “Report Card”
- Rockland Won the Desalination War.
- Recommended reading: Richard Louv: “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder” (Algonquin Books, 2008 – revised edition)
All photos courtesy Strawtown Art & Garden Studio