Irish role in Erie Canal's construction to be honored

By Peter McDermott

Douglas Lazarus had an idea for "ReInspired."

The Middlebury, Vt. resident is the curator for an exhibition of that title celebrating the building of the Erie Canal. He thought it would be fitting to invite artists from Ireland to do paintings for the show, which will coincide with the World Canal Conference in Rochester, N.Y. in late September.

"The Irish relationship to it is huge," Lazarus said of the Erie Canal. "Thousands of Irish navvies [unskilled laborers] were brought over specifically to work on it."

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He selected two artists earlier this year, but financing their trip across the Atlantic proved to be a problem.

"There's no money in Ireland," Lazarus said, referring to the sharp downturn in the world economy, "And there's very little here.

"It's a killer getting money out of people for non-profit ventures," he told the Echo a few months ago.

Then, he got a break. Leitrim County Council's arts sub-committee announced it would pay the expenses of one of the artists, Cormac O'Leary, whose studio is in an isolated part of the county.

The Cork-born, Sligo-raised painter arrived on June 9 at JFK Airport and took a shuttle flight to Burlington, Vt. He quickly settled in.

"It's very relaxing here," said O'Leary, who is married with two young children. "It's similar to Leitrim. Even the way the rain moves in is very familiar."

The artist took sketches and photos on a day trip with Lazarus to Troy, N.Y., site of the Federal Lock, the gateway to the Erie Canal. "The journey down was itself extraordinary. It's very beautiful," O'Leary said.

Of Troy, he said: "I saw Irish names everywhere."

He continued: "You get a sense from the faded grandeur of the buildings that it was once prosperous. But it's still full of character."

While there, he climbed down onto an embankment to get a better view of old warehouse buildings that will feature in his work for the exhibit.

"They're disappearing back into nature - that's very interesting to me as an artist," O'Leary said.

Meanwhile, Lazarus, who is himself an artist, said that the guest is staying at an accommodation that "is the best that New England has to offer.

"He's been feasted at a different home every night," he said, adding that the band led by local police chief Tom Hanley is providing the entertainment.

"We get a one-dimensional view of America in Europe. It's often negative," said O'Leary, whose late father John was also a professional artist and whose Barcelona-based sister shows her work regularly. "I found the people here to be very generous."

Lazarus, who is working under the auspices of the Bronx County Historical Society, was unable to secure funding for the second Irish painter, but found a replacement in the Cork-born Boston resident Vincent Crotty. He did some fieldwork for his painting in recent days in Utica, N.Y.

"Most of the Irish talent that is celebrated in America is either musical or dance," Lazarus said. "The visual artists that Ireland has are equally worthy of note."

The New York City-born artist is also fascinated with the broader story of the Erie Canal, which he said was designed by "uneducated farm boys."

Lazarus continued: "It was the beginning of American engineering."

[PHOTO: Douglas Lazarus is curator of "ReInspired."]

"ReInspired: An Artistic Navigation of the Erie Canal" will depict, its project description promises, the "inspiring beauty of the landscape through which the canal passes." The 500 or so delegates to the World Canal Conference will get to see it first. It will then be shown at the Italian Cultural Institute of New York from the end of September through Mid-October. The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which is marking its 175th anniversary, will host the traveling show in Troy from mid-October through February 2011.