You know that panic you feel when your mother-in-law is on her way to visit and your house is a mess?
Sometimes the situation is overwhelming, so you just dust the obvious surfaces and hide stuff under the bed. And sometimes that panic inspires you to look at the situation from a different perspective, and it leads to real progress.
Lucky for us, artist Linda Smyth takes the latter approach.
Moriah is located on the Adirondack Coast of Lake Champlain. The town, which includes the village of Port Henry, has a very rich history in industrial mining, which is interpreted nicely by the Iron Center Museum, headquarters for the Moriah Historical Society, located in a restored carriage house next to the iconic Town Hall in Port Henry.
To make a long story too short, when the iron mines closed in the 1970s, the primary economic driver in the community disappeared, and the town has been slowly embracing the opportunities that its lakeside location, San Francisco-like topography, and regional connections offer.
I’ve known Linda Smyth for years - she used to teach art at Westport Central School, which I attended from kindergarten through 12th grade, and she has been a member of that community over 20 years.
Linda is originally from Roslyn, on Long Island. She was an art teacher there early in her career, and that’s where she met her teacher/author husband Jeff Kelly. It is Jeff who eventually introduced her to his beloved Adirondacks, and they moved here in 1975. She taught at Westport Central School for years before moving to the Saratoga area. She also has an enduring presence there, as she painted an equestrian sculpture on Saratoga’s Broadway for its "Horses Saratoga Style” outdoor sculpture exhibit.
But when she retired from teaching in 2009, she and her husband moved back up to the Adirondacks. This time, they ventured across the Westport town line and purchased a home up on a hill with a spectacular view overlooking Lake Champlain in the former mining village of Port Henry.
Artists have long been attracted to, and inspired by, the gorgeous Adirondack Park’s mountains and lakes. Whatever the medium, many famous (and countless UNfamous and infamous) artists, writers, photographers, filmmakers and sculptors have fed their muse by immersing themselves in this timeless, protected landscape.
The communities within the Park all share the visual beauty that landscape provides, but they vary in infrastructure, history, and levels of private and public investment. Moriah, given its industrial heritage, is different than some of its neighboring towns, many of which benefit from being long-time leisure visitor destinations. But it wasn’t until Linda’s sister was expected to visit that she looked at Port Henry and Moriah from an outsider’s perspective.
“I drove down Broad Street from my house and looked around at the buildings,” she told me. “And I said to myself, we have to do something to make this look better. My SISTER is coming!”
And so it began. Linda painted a mural that was hung in the large display window visible as one drives down Broad Street and looks at the perpendicular row of buildings on Main Street. Though that particular mural is no longer in that window (it’s now in Linda’s house), her sister’s visit was a catalyst for real progress.
Four years after Smyth’s sister was about to visit, the town is adorned with a number of murals, wayfinding signs and seasonal decorations.
The mural subjects and styles vary from historic scenes of the village streets to collage pieces featuring significant historical references, and from vintage advertising billboards to whimsical, colorful imagery such as flowers and cafe settings. The locations for these works include private property, commercial buildings and municipally-owned property, all by special agreement.
As a teacher, Linda continues to nurture local students, many of whom have contributed to the works such as flowers on the concrete wall as one enters Port Henry from the north, and the newest mural, located on the western exterior wall of George’s Restaurant on Broad Street.
Smyth also facilitated the artwork and production of the street banners that welcome people to the community. Banners feature individual students’ interpretations of the people and events of historic significance to Moriah. And, if one looks at the combined town/village/chamber website, porthenrymoriah.com, you’ll find that the whole visual theme of the site is designed by Linda Smyth.
Through the years, Linda has personally championed all of these murals and art projects, but she is quick to share the credit for these colorful efforts. There are a few murals and signs that were painted entirely by others, and that is what she hoped would result - that residents would be motivated to contribute and lend their artistic hand to the visual revitalization of the community.
In fact, the town and village governments, community leaders and groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Moriah Economic Development Group and a group of strong-willed ladies called the Port Henry 7 (that includes Linda) have all increased efforts to improve the image of Moriah that visitors and residents now experience.
Right now and every fall, the streets are adorably adorned by a whole collection of community members with “Funky Folk,” or scarecrow-like characters with a huge variety of themes. It’s no surprise to me that one of the Funky Folks located in the prime location in front of the visitors center is an artist, complete with easel and brushes.
It occurred to me long ago that our Adirondack community rivalries embed themselves early via friendly competition on soccer, baseball and football fields. As we grow older, those loyalties remain.
Linda and I talked about the sort of community rivalries that evolve from high school team sports - after all, she and I had both moved from Westport to Moriah, and felt guilty in transferring our loyalty to our new town. Though some of that spirit of rivalry still exists, it seems like the communities in the region, like Linda and I, have adopted a new approach.
Just as Moriah has begun another chapter in its evolution, the entire region seems to have embraced the concept of collaboration, rather than competition. Arts organizations and events that connect communities are more prevalent than ever in the Lake Champlain Region. In fact, this past weekend, the Moriah murals were part of the Boquet Studio Pop Up Art Tour in which artists throughout the region opened their studios to visitors and showcased their work.
There are public art galleries scattered throughout the Lake Champlain Region, including Ticonderoga, Crown Point, Westport’s gallery at the Depot Theatre, the Adirondack Art Association and Phillips Art Conservation studios in Essex and many, many more.
New to the list is an art gallery/craft store in Moriah that opened this summer. It includes the work of several local artists including one of the shop’s owners…you guessed it - Linda Smyth! The shop is located right on the Broad Street hill that inspired Linda to begin her quest to beautify the town. It’s called Made in the Mountains Craft Gallery, and it will be open seasonally.
Of course the new shop features a good number of Smyth’s paintings, many of which showcase Moriah and its streets, landscape and lakefront surroundings in a brilliant, sharp and geometric style.
Rolling into the Future
Directly across the street from Made in the Mountains is the most recently painted mural. It includes two tables and chairs, and a bicycle.
In addition to the robust arts resources here, Moriah is right in the middle of prime road biking territory. In fact, the Main Street through Moriah’s Port Henry is part of the Lake Champlain Bikeways route that circumnavigates all of Lake Champlain. In addition to that, many smaller loops on New York’s Adirondack Coast have been identified. As a resident and a cyclist, I can personally attest to how awesome this area is for the skinny and knobby tire sets.
Moriah wants to capitalize on its good geographic fortune, and strives to add infrastructure to support visiting cyclists. As such, Linda has committed to including a bicycle in ANY future public artworks. After all, it’s clear that these collaborative beautification efforts have had more than just visual impact.
As Linda said to me, “Arts can economically improve a town.” When I asked her what she meant by that, she explained to me, “Arts personify vitality, versus depression. These paintings and objects made by human hand represent the fact that someone CARES, and that inspires others to join in, to invest and take pride.”
You can learn more about Linda Smyth and see some of her amazing work on her website artistlindasmyth.com. You’ll also find her work in galleries throughout the region and beyond. But don’t miss her unique, gorgeous graffiti on the streets of Moriah.
It’s all sister-approved.
-- Kim Rielly is the director of communications for the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, and lives in the painted town of Moriah on New York's Adirondack Coast of Lake Champlain!