Interview with Maurice Sendak

An Interview with Maurice Sendak, upon his visit to Olana in 2003:

Q. What was your reaction when you were up in the tower at Olana?

A. When I visited Olana I was surprised to find how near to New York it is, having imagined that this famous aerie must be at the ends of the earth. I was enchanted by the timeless vistas of river and mountains, so little changed, as if we had been transported back to Church’s era. My own art is something of a modest time machine, so I felt close to what Church was trying to do in capturing in his art the splendors of the natural world already under assault, and creating an Eden on his hilltop. How extraordinary to see it all still there, intact, the eclectic realization of a deeply personal vision of a world in which to nurture his family and his imagination.

Q. Why do you think it is important for Americans to remind themselves of an earlier century?

A. The century since Church’s death has been sorely troubled. Nowadays little of the hope common in those earlier times — of life steadily improving for most — survives. The attacks of September 11th have only thrown this into sharper relief. An awareness of our past, and appreciation of our cultural heritage, offer balm and reassurance, a sense of continuity, in times of stress and fear. But today children — and college students, too — seem to learn little history and care little about it, feeling that what happened in the past is not relevant to them. This is a source of great dismay to me. You cannot assume that the next generation will feel as we feel about Olana. But the place could play a vital role in changing the attitudes of the young. First, however, Olana must be preserved, restored, proclaimed! It is urgent, if this wonderful icon to the ultimate joy in living is to continue to work its wonders on visitors. In Europe, protection and public enjoyment of treasure houses such as this are an unquestioned high priority of society. So it should be in America.

Q. What would you say to children on the lawn at Olana, to inspire them?

A. I would not say, “This is the home of a famous artist, Frederic Church,” and show them painting after painting — a history lesson that would cause them to tune out. Highlight the landscape, the sensuousness of the place. Children learn through their bodies, their senses, their emotions. Sadly, our society tries to stifle this, viewing it as somehow crude. Children naturally love to dance and twirl. They should dance through the landscape to learn what inspired Church’s passion. When I was there I wanted to touch everything — the tiles, the walls — to feel the full sensuousness of his creation.

Q. As you traveled around that day, what were your impressions of the Hudson Valley?

A. It made me imagine what it must have felt like to be living amidst an American Renaissance of the arts in those days — in the world of Thoreau, Melville, Heade, Church, all drawn to this vision. I often wish I were there. But it is enough to be at Olana.