Remembering Frank Stella, artist and farmer

Misty stillness on an October morning in Smithfield found Frank Stella observing a few of his horses. The image was captured by Stella’s visiting friend, Martin Francis.

Martin Francis

Remembering Frank Stella, artist and farmer

Aprofound commitment to the notion of rural life and farm ownership centered Frank Stella in the Smithfield Valley in Amenia, New York. His artistic talents, spanning 60 years, brought renown first as a pioneer minimalist and later as an abstract painter and sculptor, earning him numerous awards. His decades at his Amenia farm allowed him to pursue the breeding and racing of his horses.

In 2009 Stella was one of ten recipients of the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama, awarded in a White House ceremony.

Stella’s rural Smithfield Valley community and The Smithfield Church mourned news of his death that had occurred on Saturday, May 4, at his home in Manhattan. He was 87, just short of his 88th birthday. The following day, on Sunday, the little congregation gave thanks to God for all in Frank Stella that was good, kind, and faithful, imbuing him with an extraordinary imagination that poured into his art, his deep sense of color, and his unique gifts brought through paint to canvas.

When in residence at his Smithfield horse farm, Delahanty Stock Farm, neighbor to The Smithfield Church, Stella and his wife, Harriet, would happily attend concerts or suppers, enjoying conversations with the locals. The Smithfield Valley Association events were also likely to attract their attendance and relaxed participation.

Noticing that Stella was in the audience for a solo organ concert being performed by Kent Tritle, organist of the New York Philharmonic, Director of the New York Oratorio Society, and organist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Rev. Douglas Grandgeorge, pastor of the church, seized the opportunity to introduce the two to each other. As the pastor reached for superlatives in praise of both giants in the arts, Stella interrupted with his own self-introduction. “Here, I am a farmer,” Stella said simply.

Stella’s local friendships were long and significant. During an interview on Wednesday, May 15, Nan Cassidy spoke of her own decades of association with Stella, firm admiration, and Stella’s enduring friendship with her mother, Ethel Doshna, until her death at 104.

“He was always kind, always made Ethel feel special, always bringing a present to remember her birthdays, Cassidy recalled.

“He was just the sweetest person,” Cassidy said. “He always made people feel special.”

They met in the 1970s, nearly 50 years back, when Cassidy and her husband, Jim Cassidy, were managing the farm that at that time was owned by a partnership. Frank Stella went on to buy out the other partners, and the farm became Delahanty Stock Farm.

“He was a wonderful person, so kind. He just loved coming to the farm,” Cassidy said.

A favorite story that has endured describes the Cassidys’ first encounter with Stella. In the early years, Nan and Jim Cassidy were living at the farm and Nan was busy inside making dinner while Jim and Ethel’s husband, Mike, were outside waiting for someone who was coming to see about painting the barn. A young man arrived, clothing and shoes splattered with paint.

“The painter is here,” Mike called in to the kitchen, but it wasn’t the barn painter, it was Frank Stella, owner of the farm and a different kind of painter.

“On one occasion, we met at one of the Amenia restaurants and Frank gave Ethel a gift of a tiny titanium sculpture that he had fashioned, Nan Cassidy recalled. It wasn’t clear to Ethel how the little piece should stand. “Think of it as a puzzle; you can put it together any way you want,” he told Ethel.

“What you see is what you see.” Frank Stella said in 1966 of his art. The directness of the saying has lasted.

In remembrance of two of his paintings that had hung in corporate offices at the World Trade Center, but been lost on 9/11, Stella installed a stainless steel sculpture at 7 World Trade Center Plaza in 2021, a piece titled “Jasper’s Split Star.” The sculpture was inspired by his own 1962 painting titled “Jasper’s Dilemma,” a tribute to Sharon, Conn. artist Jasper Johns.

He nurtured the passion for thoroughbred racing and breeding of horses, a passion pursued at his Smithfield farm. He enjoyed the excitement of turf racing and had earned stature in the racing world as a breeder of winning New York-thoroughbred horses.

Stella’s horses raced at notable tracks including Belmont, Arlington, and Saratoga. Stella’s preference was turf racing and he always put the welfare of the horse first, according to the New York Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association.

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