The Hudson River Valley Institute

Virginia Konchan: Writer-in-Residence at Marist College

On Friday, April 7, English intern Meghan Jones, Marist ’17, interviewed Writer-in-Residence Virginia Konchan about her writing and teaching techniques.  Dr. Konchan has been at Marist since January 2017, teaching Intro to Creative Writing and Art of Poetry.  She has degrees from Beloit College, Cleveland State University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Her chapbook of poetry, Vox Populi, was published in 2015.  Check out Dr. Konchan reading her favorite poem for Marist’s National Poetry Month celebration:

Q.  Do you find that your classes have a lot of English majors, or are they mainly people doing their core English requirement?

A.  It’s mostly [the latter].  I would say 85-90% of the students in [Art of Poetry] are Sports Comm majors, or Business majors, Accounting, Psychology….I don’t even think I have one [Writing] major in [Art of Poetry].  Maybe a couple minors.

Q.  So what’s the biggest difference between teaching English students and non-majors?

A.  I think for teaching non-majors, or a class of mostly non-majors, it’s all about finding lines of interest.  The first class, we always discuss poetry influences that they might have encountered before, either as kids, or in high school…everybody has some kind of preconceived notion about what a poem is, and what the genre of poetry is…This isn’t a conversion process.  It’s obviously wonderful when someone takes a Creative Writing class and decides to elect it as a minor or even a major, but I think it’s all about trying to make the class for non-majors as fulfilling and interesting as possible.

Q. So you recently published a chapbook of poetry. I looked up that term to find that they are pamphlet-like books with a long history in literature and poetry.  What inspired you to use that form, that style?

A. Most chapbooks are between 20 and 35 pages, so it was more a length thing.  The form I ended up writing in was the abecedarian, the alphabet, so obviously there’s only a fixed number of letters in the alphabet.  When I finished the project, it was only 26 poems, and then I was like, “Oh, this is a chapbook.”  It just made sense.

Q.  Oh, so you didn’t set out to write one?

A.  No, no.

Q.  So you were just writing alphabet poems, and it turned out to be a chapbook?   What inspired you to use the alphabet?

A.  It’s a time-honored form, both the abecedarian and what’s called a bestiary, which is kind of an encyclopedia or a compendium of animals.  I think it dates back to Biblical times, like Adam naming all of the creatures coming into being.   It has a creationist background in terms of both sacred literature as well as secular literature.  I wrote the A, the B, and the C poem, and then I was like, “Oh, I really love the form.”  I don’t usually do project-based poetry, at least it doesn’t come very naturally to me; usually I just write first and then I figure out what I’m writing about, but this was a defined form that I could write into.

Q.   How has that been, having that published?

A. It’s super exciting and fun!  It was my first bound publication, other than just individual poems and stories.  I gave some readings in Montreal, because when it came out I was living in Montreal, which was fun, and I’ve been able to give readings elsewhere in academic and literary contexts….It’s been reviewed, and that was really great to get that feedback about how people are receiving the book, so it’s been exciting.

Q.  You write in many different genres: poetry, fiction, essays.  What are the biggest differences between how you go about writing in the different genres?  Are there overarching similarities?

A.  I think nonfiction and fiction are more related because they’re both in sentences, but they do require…very different parts of the brain.  When I’m writing fiction, I start with either an image or a piece of dialogue that I put down to kind of work around, so in that sense it’s similar to poetry because it might often start with an image or a feeling, or a scene, or some kind of anecdote that I want to relay…I’m more inspired to write in all three genres by reading.…with fiction, often it’s just the quality of writing.  I read a story that I’m just floored by, and I’m just inspired to write in a similar theme… I love trying to capture a character’s voice…With poetry, it’s usually more language-based, like on the level of the word…thinking through what would happen if I bored really deep into, not a concept, necessarily, or a character, but the texture of a word, or a series of words…and then for nonfiction I’m more curious about playing with ideas about multiculturalism, or language differences, or issues relating to feminism, things like that.  More…not academic, necessarily, but more conceptual-type ideas.

Q.   How do you decide which writers and works to teach?

A.  I pick authors to teach that somehow define or challenge the genre….I pick books…that get students thinking and questioning about what it means to write a poem.  Some of the fiction stories I’ve been teaching this semester, some of my students have said, “Oh, these are really sad and depressing!” And that’s funny because I don’t read them the same way.…I’m thinking of a George Saunders story called “Home,” and another story he wrote called “Sea Oak” that my students read.  I read the satire, I hear the irony and the cultural critique in the stories, whereas my students are just like, “Oh, the plot is very depressing.”  It’s authors that both either challenge or reinterpret the form, especially in a contemporary sense.   In my opinion, as a professor, they kind of create canonical examples of what it means to write a compelling character, or create a heart-racing plot, or whatever it might be.

Q. You also seem to write a lot of things in a short period of time.  How do you find both the inspiration to continually write different things, as well as the time to do that?

A.  The broad answer is I don’t really find the time.  I just kind of try to make the time.  I’m definitely guilty…of biting off more than I can chew sometimes.  But having said that, I do what I love, so I work seven days a week.  I’m either always tinkering on a poem or a story, or emailing people and having literary conversations, or mentoring people. It’s my milieu, and it’s my context.  It’s kind of what I live and breathe.  If I didn’t love it, and it was just something that I taught that I didn’t really have an intimate relationship with as a practitioner, I probably would be like, “This is where my life ends and my teaching begins, or my art begins,” but for me it’s all kind of mixed together.

Q.  What are you working on now?

A.  My first short story collection comes out in September, this year, and then I’m working on a second short story collection, just cobbling together some stories.  And my first book of poetry, which is in press right now, is coming out early next year, so I’m working on a second book of poetry as well, and a few essays.  A friend of mine curates an essay series for Drunken Boat, so I’m working on a third essay in a series for him.  All these things feed each other, so if I’m working on a story, I might have an idea for a poem…it’s always kind of cycling around.

Q.  What advice would you have for aspiring writers, or for college students studying writing who are nervous about their futures?

A.  I guess my answer to that question is twofold.  I would say think widely…of other careers you can do besides careers in creative writing.  A lot of creative writers end up teaching creative writing, but not necessarily all creative writers have a gift or a calling for teaching, or even really like teaching.  There [are] a lot of other jobs you can do with a liberal arts degree and an English degree that don’t involve teaching, so I would say cast the net widely, think broadly.…In terms of creative writing itself, my number one advice is just to read widely.  That’s my number one inspiration for my own writing: reading other people’s work.  And also just [stay] active in the literary community, and [be] interested in other people’s work.   Zadie Smith…a great fiction writer and essayist…gave a really great piece of advice…that I’d love to share.  She said: “When you’re in workshop, you should read your own work with the kind of self-criticism as if it [were] someone else’s work.”  [Think] about it and [read] it when you’re editing it as if it’s not your own.

Q.  How long will you be at Marist?  Will you be at Marist next semester?

A.  I hope so!   A couple things are in the works…we’re hosting a literary salon [in October] with a couple regional writers on the subject of poetry and mythology.


Celebrating Heroes: A Review of a Vassar Art Exhibition

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On December 2nd, I got in my car and drove to the Frances Lehman Lobe Art Gallery at Vassar College to interview Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Strauss Curator of Prints and Drawings. I was interested in finding out more about the most recent exhibition she had curated and was then on display. The exhibit was titled “Celebrating Heroes: American Mural Studies of the 1930s and 1940s.” The exhibit ran through December and featured paintings and drawings from the collection of Stephen and Susan Hirsch.

In speaking with Patricia, I learned that the title of “Curator of Prints and Drawings” is no easy job. She is entrusted with the task of looking after about 10,00 drawings and prints from the early 15th, late 16th centuries to present. Before coming to Vassar in 2000, Patricia was in graduate school here in NY at CUNY Graduate Center. As a graduate student, she was lucky enough to have Linda Nochlin, a famous professor of art, as one of her instructors. Ms. Nochlin had attended Vassar in her day and was a great inspiration to Patricia. It became a sort of dream to her to work at Vassar where Linda Nochlin went and taught. As it turns out, when Patricia finished writing her dissertation and began searching for jobs, there were 3 different curator of prints and drawings positions open around the US. She secured the one at Vassar. In her own words, “it was kind of a dream come true.” Patricia has also previously worked at the High Museum in Atlanta as a research assistant and at the University of Georgia at the Georgia Museum of Art for 13 years. While there, she became comfortable working with art from the 1930’s/1940’s, as their collection was very strong in early 20th-century American pieces.

That came in handy with the “Celebrating Heroes” exhibition, where most works are from that very same time period. 45 of the 47 pieces come from the collection of Steven and Susan Hirsch who have been giving paintings and drawings to Vassar since the early 90’s. Patricia shared with me that the Hirschs began collecting art in the mid-80’s when they lived in Woodstock, a formerly buzzing art colony. Steve loved the art of the 1930’s and 40’s and he wanted to form a collection; He did so with the help of families of 20th-century artists still living in the area. His strong affinity for this time period sprung from the fact that it was before abstraction hit the mainstream in art and that there were so many prominent social issues that were being voiced by artists. During the WWII period, there was such a closeness among Americans (much like there was after 9/11) and it is easy to see evidence of this in some of the paintings.

One of the unique aspects of the exhibition is that it features several of the pieces submitted for Post Office Mural Projects around the country. In the 1930’s, President Franklin Roosevelt launched a series of federal programs, commonly referred to as the Second New Deal. As part of this deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created to give jobs to the unemployed building things such as schools and post offices. As a consequence, in the late 1930s, FDR launched the Post Office Mural Project. The aim of the project was to place several murals in the lobbies of thousands of post offices nationwide. As a resident of the Hudson River Valley, the president was particularly involved in the process of selecting art for five post offices nearby. He was involved from the start; helping to select the subject matter, reviewing the artist’s sketches as the work progressed, and making corrections as he saw fit. All artists would have most likely found out about the competition via bulletins that came through the mail or a press release in the local newspaper with the description of the post office and the dimensions of the sketch they should send in. The sketches would then be sent to Washington DC where pictures would be taken and the judges would judge them.

The major post office mural project that is represented in the exhibition is Anton Refregier’s panel series for San Francisco. Pieces by him cover about 3 walls of the entire gallery. According to Ms. Phagan, his project is one of the most important post office mural series from the 30’s and 40’s. Among other post office artists represented are John and Philo Ruggles for the Bridgeport Ohio post office and Andree Ruellan, who was awarded two post office murals due to the strength of her sketches; one in Georgia and the other in Virginia.

There is featured, however, one oil sketch done by Georgina Klitguaard. She won the panel in the Poughkeepsie post office that had to do with the historical Poughkeepsie, around the time of the 1840’s. Klitguaard was born in Spuyten Duyvil, New York attended Barnard College and the National Academy of Design, and lived near Woodstock for many years until she passed away. She was considered one of America’s leading landscape artists and had already done a small mural for a post office in Goshen. After submitting her original sketch, feedback returned saying that Roosevelt had requested the addition of College Hill, atop which sat the Poughkeepsie Collegiate School which his father had attended. Klitguaard added in the famed College Hill and her art was chosen as the winner. Also featured in the exhibition are two pieces by Arnold Blanche, a Woodstock artist who was well-known in the 30’s and 40’s, and Thomas Barrett, a Poughkeepsie native and American Scene Realist Painter prominent in the 30’s. Both artists had sent their studies to Washington in the hopes of being serious contenders but were unfortunately not chosen as winners.

After walking through the gallery discussing various paintings I asked Ms. Phagan about challenges she encountered while putting together the exhibition. She noted that a few of the artists are not very well known. To obtain information about them, she traveled to the national archives in College Park, Maryland and the Archives of American Art; There she conducted original research to obtain information about the artists. She felt that she needed to get some documentation in order to write the catalog and be knowledgeable when speaking about the exhibition. As her research progressed. she found out that three of the works they thought were only done by one artist were actually done by two artists who were brothers. This was completely new information and through online research, she was able to find one of the brother’s daughters and correspond with her to get more information. Another challenge that Ms. Phagan was faced with while curating the exhibition was the one-year time limit. Typically exhibitions can take anywhere from two to three years to put together, especially large ones, but that was not the case this time around.

As my time at the exhibit came to a close, I asked Ms. Phagan one last question: “What is your favorite part of this exhibition?” She smiled and said that it was probably seeing all of the works out in the galleries next to one another and across from one another. She explained that this is the only time she gets to see her mind’s work actually become tangible and that it is a great sense of intellectual and visual satisfaction to go from the idea and the drawing board and then see it manifested in reality.

Although the exhibition came to a close in December, Ms. Phagan is working with James Mundy, The Anne Hendricks Bass Director of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and Lecturer in Art, to create a traveling version of the exhibition.

-Gabi Perpignand, Dr. Frank T Bumpus Intern in Hudson River Valley History

Twilight in the Wilderness

Twilight in the Wilderness

Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860, Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826-1900) oil on canvas, Framed: 124 x 185 x 13 cm (48 13/16 x 72 13/16 x 5 1/16 in); Unframed: 101.6 x 162.6 cm (40 x 64 in). Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1965.233 The Cleveland Museum of Art

When Fredric Edwin Church completed this painting in his New York Studio, he was envisioning Mount Katahdin in Maine 2 years prior. Like many of Churches masterpieces, Twilight in the Wilderness was created after church had traveled and documented the particular site. The sketches and oil drawings that Church compiles over his stay, wherever he is, allows him to replicate scenes in nature in a unique, yet scientific way. The progression each one of Church’s scenes goes through ensures that the finest details are represented. Yet at the same time one can overlook these small details while focusing on the vast landscape in front of them.

One of Church’s tendencies in his work is to focus on the sublime of nature in comparison to the insignificant man. In his other works, such as Niagara, the sheer size of the falls and the drop of the horizon in background give the viewer a true sense of nature’s size. In this painting, Church positions the large mountain range behind the finer details visible in the foreground. The effect gives the onlooker a unique way of viewing the painting, as well as adding to the idea of the sublime. The fine details in the foreground show what we, as the viewer, would be able to interact with. The mountains however are untouched, large, and mysterious. This relationship gives the viewer the sense of America’s pristine and vast natural landscape that is both known and unknown. It’s the feeling that the mountains continue infinitely into spaces humans cannot and will not be able to see that creates the images sublimity.

The color schemes and artistic techniques utilized by Church add an aspect of scientific realism to his paintings. It is clear, in the color selection, that Church is utilizing the sun as the only source of light for his painting. We see the amber glow of the sunset peering through the clouds, as well as a low orange-yellow glow in the background. The sunset is cloaking nightfall, as the last hour of sunlight pierces through the clouds and shimmers on the lake[1]. The exactness to nature is a key factor when Church chose his colors for the painting. Church was in tune with nature and this sunset is an example of how he emulated the scenes he saw. The colors also add to Church’s message of nature’s sublimity. In particular, Church’s use of light asserts the meaning that wilderness is vast yet obscure, beautiful, but untouchable[2]. Like the positioning of the mountains, the use of light and dark, allows church to illuminate aspects of foreground he wanted to show and darken areas of the background that he wanted to make obscure.

Some who view this painting believe it has a message hidden within, separate from the idea of the sublime. In particular, some link the idea of the twilight or a transition in the wilderness, as America’s transition into the Civil War[3]. The painting was finished in 1860, right near the cusp of the Civil War. It was not a secret that people knew war was inevitable between the North and the South. Thus it is plausible to think that the transition of this wilderness scene into the night represents America’s transition into conflict.

By Thomas Williams, Marist ’17


Dunn, Sarah. “Depicting a Sublime Wilderness,” Art History. March 13, 2017.

Cole, Mark, “Twilight in the Wilderness: A Close Look at an American Masterpiece,” Cleveland Art . March 23rd, 2017.

[1] Mark Cole, “Twilight in the Wilderness: A Close Look at an American Masterpiece,” Cleveland Art , March 23rd, 2017,

[2] Sarah Dunn, “Depicting a Sublime Wilderness,” Art History, March 13, 2017,

[3] Mark Cole, “Twilight in the Wilderness: A Close Look at an American Masterpiece,” Cleveland Art , March 23rd, 2017,

Frederic Church’s “Niagara”


Niagara, 1857, oil on canvas, 40 x 90 inches

Fredric Edwin Church’s major influence on the world was not his ability as an innovative painter or a teacher, instead, his reputation is derived from his renditions of well-known sites and exotic locations. In particular, Church followed the process that other 19th century artists followed, using graphite drawings and oil sketches to complete the final painting. The marker that set Church apart from these other artists, however, was his use of dramatic lighting and intriguing details that played into his brilliant marketing strategies when selling his work.[1]

Niagara, painted in 1857, represents this process Church refined that made both his paintings and his personal life successful. The painting reveals the falls from the Canadian shores and was an attempt to capture what many believed to be a natural setting superior to any in Europe.[2] The dimensions of the painting contribute to its appeal, in that its width is twice as wide as its height, allowing his vast panoramic details to show through. The dimensions of the falls itself gives the onlooker a unique view. Church drops the nearest side of the falls down to allow the viewer a clear view of the waterfall on the other side. If you look deeper into the painting the immense detail that church uses is seen in every small wave. This attention to detail gave Church the reputation as the first to render the falls with such detail, naturalism, on such a grand scale.[3] Also contributing to the painting is the horizontal landscape in the background. This gives the viewer the effect of the sheer scale of the falls itself, playing into the natural wonder that Niagara Falls was at the time.

Niagara Falls, although in Canada, represented to many at the time the strength and power of the New World. The citizens of the United States considered the falls better than anything in Europe and felt empowered by Churches grandiose panorama painting of the falls. When the painting was completed in 1857, Church decided to exhibit his work at a one-painting show at the New York commercial art gallery of Williams, Steven, and Williams.[4] The first two weeks of its exhibition brought more than 100,000 visitors who were willing to spend the 25 cent charge and see what became an ‘American Image’.[5]

After successful exhibitions across New York, Church would take the painting to various cities along the east coast, as well as Paris and London. Church the businessman contribute to the success of the painting by generating additional revenue through the sale of chromolithographs of the painting. The popularity of Niagara made Church a wealthy man as well as a famous American painter. The unique abilities of Fredric Edwin Church set him apart from other artists, not just in art but also in life. While many artists of the day struggled to find success during their lives, Church established a reputation and a demand for his work that ensured a comfortable life.

The painting is currently located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C, particularly in the Corcoran Collection section of the museum.

  • Thomas Williams, Marist ’17


Doherty, M. Stephen. Oil Painting: Fredric Edwin Church. Artist Daily. February 28, 2017.

Niagra (1857). National Gallery of Art, February 28, 2017.

Zygmont, Brian. Church, Niagara and Heart of the Andes.  Khan Academy. February 28, 2017.


[1] M. Stephen Doherty, “Oil Painting: Fredric Edwin Church,” Artist Daily, February 28, 2017,

[2]  “Niagara (1857),” National Gallery of Art, February 28, 2017,

[3]  “Niagara (1857),” National Gallery of Art, February 28, 2017,

[4] Bryan Zygmont, “Church, Niagara and Heart of the Andes,” Khan Academy, February 28, 2017,

[5] Ibid.

Church’s painting “Cotopaxi,” and the Civil War


Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, Oil on Canvas, 48 x 85 inches, 1862


Hudson Valley Films Debuting in 2017: A Preview


From the movie moment that gave the film “cliffhanger” its name—the fictional Pauline’s brush with death on the New Jersey Palisades in the 1914 silent film The Perils of Pauline—to today, the area surrounding the Hudson River has been a popular spot for film production.  The Hudson Valley Film Commission’s website contains a multitude of behind-the-scenes photos from films shot primarily or partly in the Hudson River Valley, from War of the Worlds to The Night Listener.  This year, three Hudson Valley-based projects, including two that have already been released nationally, will give the Valley some recognition in the cinematic world.


Growing Up Smith is the story of a family from India making a new start in the 1979 United States, focusing especially on the family’s ten-year-old son, Smith.  The screenwriter, Paul Quinn, spent much of his life in the Hudson Valley, and though the film takes place in the Midwest, much of it was shot in Kingston.  Jason Lee, two-time Golden Globe nominee for My Name is Earl (and also Syndrome in The Incredibles, which I find far more notable), plays Smith’s neighbor.  The film won Best Feature Narrative Audience Award at the 2015 Woodstock Film Fest.



Stray Bullets is a thriller, the feature-film debut of its sixteen-year-old director, Jack Fessenden.  The film was shot over a period of sixteen days in July 2015, in several Hudson River Valley towns, including Kingston, Woodstock, and Marbletown.  Stray Bullets is the story of two teens who come across a trio of criminals in an abandoned mobile home.  Both Jack and his father, actor/director Larry Fessenden, have roles in the film.


THE AWAKENING is an independent film that was shot primarily in Liberty, in Sullivan County.  It’s a supernatural thriller about a soldier whose son develops preternatural powers and mystically uncovers information about a missing resident of the town.  It wrapped up filming at the end of 2016, and its producer, Michael Goodin, had nothing but good things to say about the film’s Hudson Valley shooting location, calling Sullivan “the most film-friendly county I’ve seen.”  The film stars Tammy Blanchard, a Golden Globe nominee who had roles in Moneyball and Into the Woods.


Growing Up Smith and Stray Bullets were both released nationally in February: the former on the 3rd and the latter on the 10thThe Awakening is scheduled for release at the end of 2017.

  • Meghan Jones, Marist ’17

*You can read about past movies shot in the Hudson River Valley here.

Meet the Intern: Thomas Williams

thomas_williams            Hi, my name is Thomas Williams and I am currently a senior at Marist College. I was born and raised in Suffolk County on Long Island where I attended Sachem East High school. I have two siblings, Brian and Katie, as well as two chubby beagles, Daisy and Heidi. My parents Carol and Tom Williams keep all of us in line and make sure that we are on the right path.  My early years introduced me to my passion for history which I continued after high school graduation. At Marist, I decided to combine my desire to learn History with that of Economics by majoring in both. This has proven to be both challenging and rewarding over my 4 years. In particular I was inducted into the Phi Alpha Theta history honors society for my work. At the same time, I may never get those sleepless nights back.

As a college student, I have been able to balance the difficulty of maintaining good grades as well as a life outside of the classroom. Many of the hobbies that I have are related to my early years during high school. As a kid, during the summer, I participated in organized sports and that passion has never left me. I currently play in both a men’s lacrosse and baseball league to stay active. When the weather gets cold, I go straight to the mountains for some snowboarding, a tradition my father has continued throughout my life. At Marist, intramural sports dominate part of my life, as I am part of both the reigning softball and Futsal champions. Other than sports, I have a strong passion for video games and the aspect of competition that comes with it. Even at the tender age of 22 I still find time to game with my high school buddies. When I am looking to relax I usually choose to watch a history documentary, which either puts me to sleep or draws me in. I find at times that I am enamored by the events of our past being played out through film.

As a college student who is going to be graduating I realize the difficulty in trying to find a job or a career right away. While the journey will be tough I no longer worry about what the future holds for me. As a major in history and economics, I see a unique situation where I can apply the tools I have gained from both majors to my own benefit. While many people are bound by the decisions they made freshmen year I feel I have the freedom to choose my path. I can follow in my father’s footsteps as a financial advisor and implement the knowledge I have of economics and the business world. Or I could choose a pathway towards the field of History, whether it be a job as a public historian or something else. My ultimate goal is to find a career path that enables me to live my life.

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