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Artist Jean-Marc Superville Sovak Contends With Valley’s Social Dynamics

The longtime Beaconite reconsiders regional mainstays from brickmaking to the Hudson River School.

by Mazuba Kapambwe
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Jean-Marc Superville Sovak was born in Montreal, the child of one parent from Trinidad and another from the Czech Republic. With this geographic span in his identity, he thinks a great deal about place in his art. And since attending art school at Bard and living for years in Beacon, this multidisciplinary artist has found the place he considers most deeply might be the Hudson Valley.

Artist Jean-Marc Superville Sovak at work on his “I Draw, You Talk” series. (Photos: Jean-Marc Superville Sovak)

Sovak’s work spans photographs, drawings, sculpture and video, often inspired by the valley and grappling with the social and racial dynamics of its history.  Recently, for instance, his a-Historical Landscape series has reimagined Hudson River School paintings, adding enslaved people and other human representations (in fact contemporaneous images from abolitionist tracts) to the picturesque landscapes.

“It is my way of including information that had necessarily been edited out, making what I consider a more ‘complete,’ or at least a more historically accurate, depiction,” Sovak says.

Sovak has also contended with the history of brickmaking in the Hudson Valley, from conducting hands-on brickmaking workshops to examining how workers from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds made bricks bound for segregated housing. And recently, he held a powerful “Burial for White Supremacy,” inviting people to actively participate in creating the work.

For the latest in our #HudsonInspired series, we spoke to the artist about how he deals with place and the history of the Hudson Valley in his creative work, as well as how current events have shaped his art. Below, he shares context for several works in his own words.

a-Historical Landscape: Ballston Springs/Solomon Northup  

“Since Ballston Springs neighbors Saratoga Springs, Solomon Northup’s hometown, the print depicting the idyllic setting where wealthy visitors would enjoy the therapeutic quality of the spring water seemed like a good place to insert a reference to Northup’s story, ‘Twelve Years a Slave,’ published around the same time, which was one of the best-known recounts of the many free Blacks who were kidnapped from Northern states and sold into slavery in Southern slaveholding states.”

a-Historical Landscape: Mt Tom Connecticut River

“Mount Tom and the Connecticut River were some of the most popular spots for the Hudson River School painters. It was also a favorite spot for Henry David Thoreau, a naturalist, philosopher and author of an essay titled ‘Slavery in Massachusetts’ in which he railed against the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed federal Marshals to ‘render’ Blacks who had escaped to freedom and return them to slavery. I wanted to use the print to imagine what it might have been like for someone like Thoreau to witness one of these ‘renderings’ taking place in this setting and what his and other bystanders’ reactions may have been.”

Malthusian Landscape Detail

“As a person who is often asked, ‘Where are you from?’ my art practice is often guided by the same level of scrutiny toward the origins of the materials I work with. When I discovered the ruins of so many brick factories along the Hudson River, their absence was something I could feel was very present. Bricks, of course, have been used before as a material for making art, but it also mattered to me who made the bricks and how the bricks were made. Brickyards in New York were some of the most diverse work sites when many aspects of life were still segregated along race.”

Malthusian Landscape American Map

“The irony of building a sculpture with ruined and discarded bricks stamped with the word “EMPIRE” was only equal to learning that Black people could have been making bricks to build a place they could not live in.”

(Editor’s Note: The site of the former Empire brickyard, located in Stockport, was protected by Scenic Hudson in 2015 and is now the Charles Flood Wildlife Management Area at the Empire Brickyard.)

Burial For White Supremacy

“Participants in ‘Burial for White Supremacy’ were invited to carry a physical casket, cast stones or personal items into the grave, and symbolically disavow the unmerited benefits of an inheritance based on stolen land and stolen labor.”

I Draw, You Talk

“I drew 109 residents for this series. I wanted to use the art gallery space as a cross between a soup kitchen and a barber shop. It was an attempt to create both a physical and virtual platform for the local community to assemble. Everyone has a face and a story. I wanted to make their faces visible and voices heard. Despite the changing dynamics of a river town like Beacon, people have much more in common than the divisions between ‘old’ and ‘new’ residents tend to suggest.”

Tiny House of Steel

“‘Tiny House of Steel’ was designed as an experiment somewhere between survival shelter and home ownership. “The solar-powered off-grid Quonset hut on wheels embodies the entirely customizable life-home I have wanted for my spouse and child. The ‘Tiny House of Steel’ has toured at outdoor sculpture exhibitions as a model for an ascetic (and aesthetic) life and is now located in Ulster County, where I have encountered a welcoming community.”

Writer Mazuba Kapambwe holds a master’s degree in Africana Studies from SUNY-Albany. She fell in love with the Hudson Valley on countless bus rides between the Capital District and her family’s home in Scarsdale, N.Y. Her work has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Culture Trip, CNN Travel, and more.

More in this Series

In 1825, artist Thomas Cole journeyed up the Hudson to capture the magnificence of the Catskills en plein air. This...
In the world of visual arts, painting, sculpture, video, and photography often dominate the narrative. Yet there are other forms...
Artist and scientist Hara Woltz believes that art is key to bearing witness to climate change in the Hudson Valley...
Megan Offner was surrounded by forests in her early life in Montana — yet the forests of the Hudson Valley...
Storm King Mountain was a popular subject for Thomas Cole and other artists associated with the 19th-century Hudson River School of painting....
Not many artists think deeply about ecology and water, but artist-writer-educator Matthew Friday has done exactly that in multidisciplinary works...
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Hudson Valley was the largest brickmaking district on the planet. Its metrics were...
Frederic Church and his fellow painters of the Hudson River School saw nature in a beautiful, romantic light. Contemporary artists...
The work of Newburgh-based artist Alison McNulty has taken a dizzying number of forms: sculpture, photography, drawing, video, site-responsive outdoor...
Lydia Rubio is part of a fresh wave of visual artists taking inspiration from the Hudson River — and contending...

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Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

Keep up with the latest stories by subscribing to Scenic Hudson’s monthly digital newsletter, and connect with us on social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

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We’re always looking for ideas around our main topic areas of Climate Solutions, Land + Air + Water, Plants + Animals, History + Culture, Outdoors, and Community.
  • Journalists and writers who have deep familiarity with New York and the Hudson Valley, we’d love to have you contribute! Please do introduce yourself by email, sharing writing samples and any relevant pitches you may have.
  • Photographers and videographers, we’d love to hear from you and see what you do. Please send along a portfolio with images or footage that showcases your best and/or most relevant work, with an emphasis on anything captured outdoors. 
  • Illustrators, we commission artwork on the regular. Drop us a note with some of the beauty you’ve created.
  • Media Partners & Social Media Influencers, we welcome opportunities to team up on series and campaigns. Reach out with any background about yourselves and your ideas.
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  • We love to collaborate with media outlets, especially on episodic series (like these) of interest to our shared audiences. Past collaborations have included radio interviews, panel discussions and other events, original artwork, and e-blasts, all furthering the campaign’s excitement and reach. 
  • We also love to partner with other organizations whose missions align with Scenic Hudson’s. Feel free to reach out with some background on your group and its work.
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