North Creek’s decade-long art project reflects shared vision
By Leigh Hornbeck
State Route 28 will take you to North Creek and, if you’re not careful, right by it. When driving northwest from the Northway, slow down after the Ski Bowl and look for the right onto 28N. At the four corners, turn left onto Main Street.
Slow down even more. In fact, pull over and park. If you go by North Creek’s mosaic at more than a walking pace, you will miss the story of a community.
The mosaic is a work of art in glass, stone, shells and tile. It covers a 220-foot-long retaining wall, 4 feet high at the south end and 11 feet at the north end. The afternoon sun makes it shine, and passing cars reflect the colors in their windows.
For artist and teacher Kate Hartley, the mosaic is a monument and a mirror. For decades, it was a blank concrete retaining wall built when the county cut trees down to widen the street. One summer night in 2010 while on the porch of Café Sarah across the street, Hartley came up with an idea to transform the wall. She envisioned a mosaic called “An Idyllic Spring Day in and Around North Creek.”
Warren County owns the wall and gave her permission to use it as a canvas. Owners of the four houses on the hill above it agreed too, along with the local business association. Hartley applied for money from the local occupancy tax committee to buy supplies—$8,000 to start—and went to work. She thought it would take her three years. Ten years later, the mosaic is done.
Although it was her project, Hartley says, she knew from the start that community members would contribute. She is a painter, but teaching and collaborating brings her joy. She works as a consultant teacher locally. She talked to children in her classes about what belongs in a portrait of an idyllic spring day: giant rafts shooting the rapids on the Hudson River; skiers making use of the last of the snow on Gore; paddlers, cyclists, fishermen, animals, insects, flowers.
The mosaic drew in more people than Hartley expected. Men and women whose families have been in North Creek for generations contributed, along with tourists who had come to town for a day. For 10 years, Hartley’s work was on display while it was in progress, whether she was lying on the sidewalk mortaring brown and tan tile to the frame or attaching slivers of blue glass to create a wave. Passersby asked questions and Hartley put them to work.
“I relaxed control early on,” she says. “As soon as a few people worked on it, it looked differently than how I would’ve done it, but that was OK.”
It was fun. It was also grueling. The hardest work fell to Hartley. For the individual elements to stand out, they need a background that enhances them—shards of neutral tile placed between a bird’s bright feathers, for example. Hartley used manual tile nippers at first. She made thousands of cuts, each one taking a cumulative toll on her body. The repetitive work of cutting tile eventually destroyed a ligament in her right wrist.
“It hurt more and more all summer and then one day, I heard a pop,” Hartley says. She had surgery to reattach the ligament, followed by a long recovery and physical therapy. Other events delayed progress. Hartley spent a summer caring for her partner, Scott Willoughby (they met at the mosaic when he donated materials), when he fell ill.
Debby Leigh and Wendy Sargent were among Hartley’s core volunteers, along with members of Johnsburg Fine Arts. They learned the craft from Hartley. The three are now portrayed in tile and glass, tubing the Hudson, the wild river that rolls through town.
“The fun part was deciding what we would wear,” Hartley says, “choosing what pieces of glass would represent our clothes.”
Officially, 2,069 individuals created elements. The figure includes creative math. Children who were 7 or 8 when they made a bug or flower and then came back as high school seniors to add more—Hartley counted them twice. A group of seventh graders calculated the number of individual pieces based on the average number in a square foot: 98. It works out to about 200,000 individual pieces.
The medium absorbed all skill levels, Hartley says. A painted mural would have shown mistakes, or the range in talent between artists—but a mosaic is more forgiving. The form itself made it less intimidating for people who would not describe themselves as artists, Hartley says.
Hartley bought tile for the frame so she would have enough to make it consistent all the way around, but many of the materials were donated: a box of leftover tile here, a collection of shells there. Local restaurants donated wine bottles. Students made drawings, peeled the labels off the bottles, then smashed them. Next, they chose which shapes of shattered glass matched their drawing. Johnsburg Central School art teacher Maria Glode lined the pieces on a shelf in the school’s kiln and heated them just enough to soften, but not melt, the glass. The process creates rounded edges, so the material was safer for little hands.
Some of the elements were created right there on the sidewalk, others on fiberglass mesh that was then mortared onto the wall. Helena Williams made a fish in third grade. Last year, she made another creature, a red-tailed hawk. Williams is 17 now, and an apprentice falconer. She was training a hawk named Valkyrie.
Williams started a mosaic portrait of the hawk in school, then brought home buckets of glass fragments when school closed because of the pandemic. She did the bird’s head on fiberglass mesh, then finished the body on site in August. The work was similar to putting a puzzle together, she says—hitting glass with a hammer, then seeing how the amber and coffee-colored pieces fit together.
Williams’ mother, Sarah Williams, owns Café Sarah.
“I grew up alongside the mosaic, being at the bakery,” Helena Williams says. “I watched it grow week by week, but I never thought about it in the long term until the party (in October) to install the last piece. It will be there forever, even after everyone forgets who we were.”
Hartley says individuals created pieces that were meaningful to them, and she sees them bring friends and family to show off their piece.
“It means so much to me that so many people watched every year to see how it was coming along,” she says, tearing up. “To talk to people and hear how it is a big part of their lives is amazing to me.”
Hartley won’t pick a favorite, but she loves the trompe l’œil of a bicycle “leaning” against the wall; the moose—the biggest creature on the wall—made by a group of artists; the birch trees with leaves made of a speckled green tile that looks like it was made to portray birch leaves.
She loves that the work is accessible. Passersby run their fingers over glass in every color of the rainbow; shells from Italy; sea glass from Maine, rocks from near and far and for the eye of the moose, a geode.
“I purposely used materials that would last,” Hartley says. “I want it to be like Pompeii. When it’s unearthed thousands of years from now, people will say, ‘This is the art they did then.’”