Alice Manzi gently scraped away flakes of concrete to form the outline of a Native American figure Wednesday at the work site of Amsterdam’s Riverlink Park expansion.
The master sculptor typically works with brass, fiberglass, bronze and stoneware. But for the project in Amsterdam, she must focus her skills on concrete and work to replicate visual art that was crafted by nature, not people, and decorated by the area’s first inhabitants, centuries ago.
Manzi and a team of artists from the Adirondack Studios of Argyle were commissioned to re-create the “Painted Rocks” of Amsterdam, a rare set of Native American pictographs believed to have been painted on a rock outcropping just a few hundred feet east of the park along the shore of the Mohawk River.
Recorded only by 18th-century writings of those who traveled the river, and recollection of others who could see them from the river’s south side in their younger days, the feature was memorialized in watercolor paintings of famed Mohawk Valley artist Rufus Grider.
- See a step-by-step account of the Painted Rocks project on Alice Manzi’s blog at paintedrocksofamsterdam.blogspot.com.
- Research, renderings and other project details can be found on the State Museum website at www.nysm.nysed.gov.
Made of fiber-reinforced concrete, the 36-foot-long, 15-ton monolith will serve as a centerpiece of the city’s expanded waterfront park.
Manzi is intent on ensuring the work is a recreation, not an interpretation, of Grider’s depiction.
The 36-year sculptor and adjunct faculty member at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs typically does her own design work, but this project is different.
“In this case I knew I couldn’t do better than to simply bring back to life something that was done by the Mohawks. It’s not my design, it’s the Mohawks’,” Manzi said as she balanced herself on a ladder and etched the Indian outline into the wall.
According to the New York State Museum, the Painted Rocks of Amsterdam were one focus of Rufus Grider’s effort to record Mohawk Valley scenery.
He took particular interest in stories of the Painted Rocks, learning from research and interviews with residents that the artwork at the very least included a scene with Indians on a canoe painted with the color red.
Other recollections depicted the site as having as few as seven and as many as a dozen Indians, some standing, some in a canoe, and a bird in flight which Manzi figures is a Canada goose.
Manzi is sticking to a watercolor by Grider. The Painted Rocks at Riverlink Park will feature a total of 12 Indians standing, some holding hunting gear, four other Indians — two each in two canoes — and the goose flying overhead.
Unlike the Indians’ painting, which wore away due to weather and water, the figures on the park project will be cut into the concrete and then painted, ensuring they will last for years to come.
The three-dimensional aspect will enable the blind to enjoy the artwork as well, Manzi said.
There are no photographs of the rocks in their original, painted form. And there’s debate about whether the painted rocks got touched up by people during the late 1700s and early 1800s.
But despite the mysteries, Amsterdam City Historian Robert von Hasseln said, the artwork will help highlight the oft-ignored influence Native Americans had on what is now Amsterdam before it became a prosperous, heavily industrialized city.
“This is a key area in the early history of the Mohawk Valley, and that’s never really been brought forward,” said von Hasseln, who believes the Painted Rocks likely served as a signpost guiding travelers to the safety of overhanging stone cliffs that adorned the Mohawk’s shoreline years ago.
There was a rift between the Mohawks and the Mohican Indians, he said, so the Painted Rocks could also have marked the starting point of Mohawk territory.
The Mohicans lived primarily to the east of the Hudson, the Mohawks to the west, but the Mohicans migrated west and a battle ensued between the two in the vicinity of Auriesville, von Hasseln said.
The Mohawks chased the Mohicans and attacked their war party just north of Cranesville, he said.
“This is kind of close to the boundary, for a while, of Mohawk and Mohican land, so I can also see this as being a marker: ‘You’re now leaving or entering Mohawk territory,’ ” von Hasseln said.
The story of the Mohawk Indians and their habitation in what’s known today as Amsterdam is yet to be fully understood. But the recent discovery of the Chuctanunda Terrace site is expected to change that.
Last year, archaeologists reviewing the northern shore of the river, where footings will be placed for the city’s planned pedestrian bridge, unearthed a trove of Native American artifacts.
Some of them some date back 5,000 years, and archaeologists consider the site one of few intact sites discovered in a riverine setting.
That site is roughly 100 yards to the west of Riverlink Park and is expected to be a feature of the pedestrian bridge project.
The Painted Rocks, von Hasseln said, should serve as a teaching tool.
“People will come here, take a look at it and say, ‘I had no idea there was that much of an Indian presence,’ and it will help tie it all together,” he said.
The team of artists on the site bring their own particular skills to the project. The $99,592 contract won by the Adirondack Studios is part of the $700,000 grant-funded park expansion.
Using low-tech masonry tools like trowels and brushes, they lathered the concrete formation with a fresh coat and worked to duplicate layers and cracks of limestone visible at the site to the east.
Aaron Northrup of Saratoga, a special effects artist accustomed to making creations for Disney attractions, said the historic depiction is a fitting way for him to blend his college majors of both history and art.
“This is a kind of meld between the two,” said Northrup, who scraped away at the wall that gets sprayed down with water each morning to help fresh concrete adhere to the existing structure.
Trying to duplicate detailed features weathered into stone may sound like an easy task.
“It’s not,” said Susie Caldwell, a special effects artist who has filled in some of the cracks she made and started them over again because they just didn’t look natural.
“People are going to be really looking at this so we’re really trying to do our best to make it look great,” she said. “It’s cool to be bringing history back.”
The team has several models to work from, including photographs of the Painted Rocks site.
Manzi crafted a tiny version of the work as a guide and, during a visit to the rock wall, she got lucky and found a bowling ball-sized piece of the rock on the shore to bring along for reference.
While at the site, she also applied two square feet of rubber molding compound onto the wall and let it dry.
The finished product, once peeled off the stone, gives the group a precise copy of the wall’s natural texture.
They place the mold on the new wall’s wet concrete and pat it, duplicating the same nooks and crannies that sit on the natural rock wall to the east.
Though it could be described as typical grayish-looking rock, the team’s intent is to mimic the specific colors as they are seen hovering over the Mohawk River shoreline.
That’s where scenic painter Melissa Hatch of Malta comes in.
Hatch recently flew in from a project on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where her task was to make sure fabricated features of the new Disney resort Aulani match the precise look of unique rock formations on the island — a particular concern for the resort’s designers, she said.
Where some would see grey and more grey, Hatch sees hues of amber and a slight, weathered blue, all colors she intends to mirror as the work comes to the finishing stages.
“It needs to be an authentic representation,” said Hatch, adding that she’s proud to take part in a work that will be viewed by many.
“Any public space-type work we’re involved in is always a huge resume-builder. I’m just happy to be a part,” she said.