Stuart Bigley. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

After more than 37 years of starting, grooming, guiding, building and putting the Unison Arts and Learning Center on the map and turning it into a regional cultural icon, Stuart Bigley is stepping down as artistic director. Bigley, who co-founded Unison in 1975 and moved onto the property (located on 14 bucolic acres off Mountain Rest Road in New Paltz) in 1976, says that, while he is stepping down as artistic director, “I won’t be going that far — I live here!”

In fact, he not only raised Unison from incubation into adulthood, but also raised his family next door to the studio and performing arts center. As to why he is stepping down, he said that there were really “two reasons,” the first being that, as he was nearing retirement age, he encouraged the board to bring on a new executive director — which it did last year, hiring Carol Robins — and the second so that he could focus on what he loved most: the artistic and cultural programming.

“Like most not-for-profit art and cultural centers, last year was not a great one financially; and coming into this year, it became very obvious that Unison could no longer afford to keep two full-time directors on,” he explains. “I’m almost 69, and I really felt that it was time to let Carol come into her own, without having the ghost of Uncle Fred there all the time,” he jokes. “But really, she has to have the room to take Unison into the future.”

That said, Bigley will continue to volunteer at the institution that he so dearly loves, and will likely serve as a consultant and be in charge of the ever-expanding sculpture garden that winds around the Center and into the woods and back pastures. He has already completed the programming for the spring with his “Stuart trademark.” So what’s next for the man who has poured so much of his time, passion and energy into the small, thriving cultural Arts and Learning Center?

“I was trained as a visual artist, and it’s been…well, 37 years since I’ve focused completely on my painting and drawing,” he says. “I’ve been working on it steadily for the past ten to 15 years, but it’s very different to go into a studio as an artist and always be looking at your watch or having to answer the phone. So I’m excited about not only getting back into the studio and losing myself in my work, but also getting my work out there and exhibited more often.”

Just recently, Bigley has his work shown in three places simultaneously: the annual Unison Life Drawing Exhibition, at the Kingston Museum of Modern Art and at the Tivoli Artists’ Co-Op Gallery, at which he was “very honored to be a part of all three shows.” He admitted that “It’s a little scary. I’ve been saying to myself all of these years, ‘If only I had the time to focus on my art!’ Well, now I have the time — and it’s exhilarating and terrifying!”

That said, Bigley is not one to limit himself to a singular focus. He has been asked to be on the board of the proposed Water Street Cinema project, which he says he’s “very excited about. I think it’s a great project.” He’s also been programming and attending various permaculture courses at Unison, which focuses on a theory of ecological design seeking to develop sustainable human settlements and agricultural systems by attempting to model them on natural ecosystems.

“While I believe we’ve done a lot with the Unison property, particularly the front couple of acres, it always bothered me that we hadn’t done enough with the rest of the 14 acres. Part of the problem was, I was never quite sure what to do with it. The Sculpture Garden was a great addition, but there’s so much more that can be done, and I’m very interested in seeing and being part of a permaculture project on the land.”

In an effort to take stock of where he has been, where he is and where exactly he’d like to go with his various passions and talents, Bigley says that he’s planning on traveling south for several weeks to spend time with his best friend Benny Cooper in Nashville. “He’s my dearest friend and has always been a mentor to me, and has some projects he’s working on that he’d like my assistance with. I think it will be great to just get away and think and plan my next steps. There is so much to do, so much that is exciting. But as you know, Unison will forever be a part of me, and something close to my heart and that I support wholeheartedly. I’m really excited for its future.”

Rumor has it that the Unison Board will be hosting a celebratory party for Bigley in the upcoming months, but details have yet to be ironed out. He also hopes to have a show at the Unison Gallery for his 70th birthday, showing his wide range of painting and drawings that always took a back seat while he worked tirelessly to promote other artists, musicians and performers and bring culture and learning to the area. ++