photograph by Nancie Battaglia
Martha Corscaden’s Keene Valley gallery celebrates 50 years
Martha Corscaden is not an artist, and she certainly never imagined herself as a gallery proprietor back in 1971, when her older sister Vryling “Vry” Roussin came to their mother’s Keene Valley home on a break from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Their mother—an antiques dealer also named Vryling—suggested Roussin showcase her impressionistic landscape paintings in the barn, along with some antiques. They hung white butcher paper to cover the old barn walls, jury-rigged gallery-style lighting, and telephoned family and friends to spread the word. An annual art event was born and, though she didn’t know it at the time, so was Corscaden’s future career.
The family has deep roots in Keene Valley. Corscaden’s great-grandparents, William and Carolyn Putnam, began coming to the area more than a century ago and were early members of the Ausable Club. A number of her extended family members still have homes in Keene Valley and St. Huberts.
Corscaden was six months old when she first visited the Adirondacks. Later, in 1966, when she was a teenager, her mother bought a vacation home that had belonged to Paul Sachs, who in the early 20th century had left the family business—Goldman Sachs—to become an influential museum director and curator.
With its dramatic peaks, scenic waterfalls and the East Branch of the Ausable River tumbling through it, Keene Valley has been a mecca for artists since at least the 1800s; well-known painters, such as Alexander Wyant, Robert Minor and later, Harold Weston and Frank Owen, had homes in the valley, while such luminaries as Asher Durand and Winslow Homer came on painting expeditions.
Corscaden’s grandmother Vryling Dunham, known affectionately as Boom Boom by her grandchildren, was an avid booster of the arts who had hosted showings of Harold Weston’s paintings at her home in St. Huberts. She was also supportive of Roussin’s career.
Within a few years of their 1971 launch, the art shows in the barn expanded to include Roussin’s artist friends. They became hallmark events of the summer social calendar, with a couple shows per season, except for a few of Roussin’s later years when she was sick with cancer. She continued to paint, though. Her style evolved during that period, becoming “very expressionistic and passionate,” says Corscaden. Roussin died in 2004, at the age of 59.
That’s when Corscaden had a decision to make. She had always been her sister’s “compadre,” helping Vry to name her paintings and hang the shows. But after Roussin’s death, even as Corscaden was dealing with her own grief, she felt the community’s sense of loss. Running the gallery “never occurred to me,” she says. But “people kept asking me, ‘What’s going to happen to the barn?’ ”
So, in a decision she calls “emotional,” she decided to carry on with the gallery shows. Along the way she expanded both the exhibition space, to include Roussin’s former upstairs studio—the floor of which is still covered in kaleidoscopic paint splatters—and the stable of artists she represents.
Today, Corscaden lives in Keene Valley year-round. She has assembled what she says is the biggest show in the barn’s history, with 171 pieces by a dozen artists. The pandemic forced some changes in 2020, leading Corscaden to host a single, salon-style show with many artists rather than two shows with only a handful of artists each, as she had in the past. She liked how it went, and decided to stick with the format this year, calling it “Salon Deux.”
All of the artists have an Adirondack connection, whether they live in the area or visit frequently. Landscape artists feature heavily, including Sandra Hildreth, from Saranac Lake, and Saratoga Springs–based Anne Diggory, who combines digital photography and painting. Eliza Twichell, who lives part-time in Keene Valley, creates quirky dioramas out of antiques. Annoel Krider, of Lake Placid, makes colorful abstract mixed-media paintings with a Native American influence. Michael Gaudreau, who splits his time between the Adirondacks and Maryland, paints both the natural and human landscapes, often with Westport or Adirondack chairs.
“I’m honestly blown away,” Corscaden says of the lineup. And, though last summer was surprisingly busy, even with COVID restrictions and no opening reception, she’s relieved for the gallery’s return as a more social gathering place in time for its golden anniversary. “I’m so excited to celebrate 50 years.”
If you go
The Corscaden Barn Gallery, 58 Beers Bridge Way, Keene Valley, is open Friday through Monday, noon to 5 p.m., until Labor Day and weekends in fall, or by appointment. Check Facebook or call (518) 576-9850 for more information.