Laura Summer came to Harlemville 30 years ago to participate in a painting training course offered at the former Atelier Painting School while her husband, Stu, undertook Waldorf teacher training at Hawthorne Valley. As she became immersed more and more in the world of art, Laura found her calling to teach others to paint—a path that led her to co-found Free Columbia as an exploration into art and social change.
Laura grew up in northern New Jersey and attended the Green Meadow Waldorf School. She moved to California after high school and pursued a degree in nursing. Ten years later, Laura decided to go to Minneapolis, MN, and become a nurse midwife. She delivered 444 babies while serving in that role.
In the late 80s, Laura and Stu came to the Hudson Valley to attend Sunbridge College. Following that, Laura applied for the painting course in Harlemville.
“When I first applied, I said to the teacher, ‘I just want to come for one year. I am not going to be a painter; I just need to learn to listen to something other than myself,’” she said. “It became clear that I needed to paint to be truly alive.”
After completing the program, Laura began teaching painting part time out of her home while caring for her young family. She often received requests to start a more in-depth painting program, but always felt she needed to find the right partner to lead such an initiative. She met Nathaniel Williams eleven years ago while running a collaborative studio in Hudson. Through their work together, they developed an idea for a 1-year painting program.
“We started Free Columbia in 2008 as a painting course in relation to the spiritual aspects of the human being and the world, but it’s evolved over the years to include puppetry, Goethean observation and social change,” Laura said. “We’ve always been interested in incorporating Steiner’s threefold social order and economics into our work.”
To launch this new program, Laura and Nathaniel partnered with Hawthorne Valley, who fiscally-sponsored the program for several years before it became an official initiative of the organization, highlighting the arts in a more visible way.
Free Columbia offers year-long painting courses, workshops, summer camps for children, an artist in residency program and much more. Their work is based on the idea that culture should be free for all to enjoy. As a result, they do not have set fees for their programs, and rather than sell artwork, they disperse it.
“A dispersal is a way to decommodify art,” Laura said. “We set up an exhibit and offer the public the opportunity to become stewards of a piece of artwork. They have the option to keep it, to give it to another, or to return it when they want, all in exchange for a donation of any amount to support the work.”
Laura’s own paintings have been distributed both locally and internationally. She has had exhibitions at the Hudson Basilica, the National Museum of Catholic Art in New York City, and the Sekem community in Egypt, among other places; and offered dispersals in Philmont, Hudson, New York City, Los Angeles, Portland, OR, Eugene, OR, and Sweden.
Because Laura desires to share the joy she has found through the act of painting, she continues to put her efforts into developing Free Columbia’s programs to serve as many people as possible. “I like to share my passion with others because everyone needs to be alive, and painting just might be their avenue.”