Woodstock at the Speed

By Janice Carter Levitch

There it was: a beautiful landscape painting I had only heard about was now on display at our very own Speed Art Museum.

Standing in front of it here in Louisville, I was reminded of visiting The Louvre in Paris, where I made a beeline for the famous Mona Lisa, which, to my surprise, was shielded behind a clear Lucite box, protecting her from any possible damage. The painting I had come to see at The Speed was not covered by such a box but was within reach. The beautiful brush strokes of the countryside in Woodstock, New York, were mesmerizing. The artist, Blanche Lazzell, born in West Virginia, had spent some time in Paris studying the visual effects of different color combinations. She had painted the oil on canvas titled “Landscape” in 1917. Her bold mix of colors offers a glimpse at the beauty of an area of the Catskill Mountains called Woodstock.

The quiet stillness of her art triggered thoughts of the famous Woodstock Festival, held 52 years after she painted “Landscape.” The Woodstock Music & Art Fair – informally, the Woodstock Music Festival or simply Woodstock – was a music festival held in August 1969. It attracted an audience of approximately 500,000 people and took place on a patch of a 600-acre dairy farm in an area often referred to as a “hamlet” in the upstate New York town of Bethel.

Imagine a prediction of 500,000 young hippies (as they were referred to by locals) arriving in your sleepy little town with a population barely reaching 4,000 residents. As Woodstock opened its gates on Aug. 15, 1969, the early estimates of attendance increased quickly.

There is a museum that honors and explores the unique experience of Woodstock that I had the opportunity to tour recently. Bethel Woods Center for the Arts highlights the cultural transformation and the legacies of the ’60s and Woodstock today. A “hippie bus” is on display in the museum, and you can board the bus as if en route to the festival. So, of course I boarded the bus. As you look out the windshield and side windows, footage of the original Woodstock plays. You feel transported as if you’re actually there; watching through the windows, you see mile after mile of cars pulled off to the side of the road and jamming traffic. There were thousands of people making their pilgrimage on foot to the festival site.

Conceived as “Three Days of Peace and Music,” Woodstock was a partnership between John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfield and Michael Lang. When the weekend of the festival arrived, the group had sold a total of 186,000 tickets and expected no more than 200,000 people to show up. By Friday night, thousands of eager early-arrivals were pushing through the entrance gates. The organizers were fearful they could not control the crowds and decided to open the concert to everyone free of charge.

After experiencing the “hippie bus,” I moved on to the next exhibit, a concert-in-the-round of sorts. As you walk into a dark, circular room surrounded by soft bean bag chairs on the floor, you get the idea something fun is about to happen. I found the perfect spot to sit and nestled myself into the oversized puffy chair. It was so large and comfortable, I felt as if I were out there in the field waiting for the concert to begin. And it did. Out of the dark walls music played and video screens began projecting images of the original footage. I was spellbound, artist after artist performing in the torrential downpour that created a mud bath for everyone attending. The footage played all around me creating the feeling that I was actually there. You could hear the wind and rain slamming against the stage as the performers kept going despite the storm. Caught up in the storm and music, I felt a tug on my sleeve by someone telling me it was time to go.

Snapping back to the present moment, there I was back at The Speed gazing at the painting of the landscape in Woodstock. It’s fascinating what our imagination can trigger, connecting one memory to another, one thought to the next. The Woodstock exhibit was an amazing opportunity, and I wonder if someday our own Speed Art Museum will honor our local Woodstock better known as Forecastle.

As art and music continue to blend their palette at The Speed, I have every confidence that the newly-appointed director, Stephen Reily, will continue to take things to the next level. I for one can’t wait to see what’s next. Who knows? Maybe someday we will see our own version of the Forecastle “hippie bus” busting through the bow of the Speed. As you all know, Forecastle is defined as the forward part of a ship, and as the saying goes, “Full speed ahead.” VT

Woodstock era art by Peter Max at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.