Harvey Fite

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Harvey Fite (December 25, 1903 – May 9, 1976) was a pioneering American sculptor, painter and earth artist best known for his monumental land sculpture Opus 40. A teacher, innovator and Woodstock artist of many talents, he was primarily a sculptor of wood and stone. Fite is also known for founding the Fine Arts Division at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

Fite was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Christmas Day 1903, but his family relocated to Texas when he was three years old. In 1923 he entered law school, where he studied for three years before rejecting law and moving east to study for the ministry at St Stephen's College, a small Episcopal institution on New York's Hudson River. Once there, Fite was drawn to the stage at the campus theater, and at the end of his third year he dropped out to join a traveling troupe of actors. One day backstage, he picked up a seamstress's discarded spool and began to whittle. Finding his passion at last, he left the theater and set to sculpting.

A recognized sculptor, Fite was invited by his alma mater to organize its Fine Arts program in 1933. In the three years since his departure, St Stephen's had affiliated with Columbia University and been renamed Bard College. Fite developed the curriculum for the Fine Arts Division at Bard, which he headed until his retirement in 1969. He settled across the river at the Maverick art colony outside Woodstock, New York.

Opus 40[edit]

In May 1938, Fite purchased an idle twelve-acre local bluestone quarry from the widow of its former quarrymaster. He designed, engineered and hand-built a fine wooden house at the edge of the quarry grounds, facing the Catskill Mountains, and settled there in High Woods, a rural hamlet within the township of Saugerties, New York, neighboring Woodstock. He embellished his home's exterior with grand necklaces of quarryman's chains, and filled the interior and attached studio with murals, paintings and sculpture, going as far as whittling door handles of arched nudes, so that the building itself is now a museum of Fite's artwork.

That summer he was invited by the Carnegie Institute to do restoration work on ancient Mayan sculpture in Copan, Honduras. Fite would be profoundly influenced by the art and architecture of the Maya, especially by their method of dry-stone construction. That following spring he began to organize the rubble scattered about the disused quarry, and his great life's work was begun: a stonework sculptured environment of terraces, alleys, ramps, steps and rain-fed pools which he would eventually name Opus 40, as he estimated it would take him forty years to complete. Over the decades, Fite single-handedly moved stones up to nine tons in weight using ancient Egyptian methods of leverage and hoisting, transforming an abandoned quarry pit into the largest coherent sculpture in the world when measured by surface area.

Tragically, Harvey Fite was killed in May 1976 in a fall onto the rocks of Opus 40 while nearing completion of an attached open-air "theater" at its northwestern extreme. He was seventy-two years old, and had worked alone on his magnum opus for the last thirty-seven years of his life.