There’s Always Dairy


Arts & Culture

Why not?

It’s rough out there for artists and writers right now, I know. There are days when you just want to throw in the towel, say fuck it, fake your own death, give insurance fraud a go, and live out of a Winnebago somewhere in remote Ontario. That’s a good plan—that’s a really good plan—but remember, you’ve got options.

You might just need a little breather, is all. Before you go permanently AWOL, consider Reuben Kadish, the artist, who died twenty-four years ago today. After World War II, when he had a family to support and couldn’t find a cheap place to live in New York, or even on Long Island, Kadish decided to check out for a while: he bought a disused dairy farm in Vernon, New Jersey. Despite knowing nothing about the operation, he ran it, apparently with great success, for ten years. When he moved to the place, he was a painter; when he reemerged as an artist, he was a sculptor, his hands having imbibed the ways of farm life. This could be you. 

Best of all: no one really seems to know why Kadish did this, including Kadish himself. In an interview conducted just months before he died, he remembered the experience:

The main gist of my activity at that particular time, 1945–46, was to find a place to live, and unfortunately I couldn’t find a place to live in New York, so I moved out to the country, New Jersey, and lost and separated myself. I could have been living in Kansas. I think it was one of the really major mistakes in my life—not that I didn’t enjoy working with animals, I got a lot out of it … It was a dairy farm, and I became a rather successful dairy farmer, and it said something to me that I think eventually put itself back into my work. And the day came when there was only one thing to do: either forget about being an artist, or else chuck the whole dairy business and rent the farm out. And that’s what happened. There was a public sale, the cows were sold, the machinery was sold, and that was it. And I began to teach.

The artist Herman Cherry, writing in a piece to accompany an exhibition of Kadish’s sculptures that same year, was also unable to discern his motives:

He became a dairy farmer for ten years. Why a dairy farmer? I have not been able to get a reasonable answer from him that explains why he derailed his talent during these years, why he dropped completely out of the art world.

Had Reuben, after so many years as a painter, lost touch with himself and with the inner struggles that had given him so much joy and pain and so much fulfillment? What could take its place? It is my opinion that Reuben used the farm years to reconsider his position … Dairy farming was back-breaking work, but in his spare time Reuben worked on some drawings. In other words, he kept his hand in. After five years he broke the mold and made his first terra cotta—a small nude. It would be five more years before he would give up farming permanently to devote himself fully to sculpture.

I know what you’re thinking: Kadish himself describes the episode, if a decade can be reduced as such, as a “big mistake,” and Cherry treats it with incredulity. I’m not selling it very well. But Rueben’s son, Dan, still owns the place to this day—he must’ve seen something in it. And in a memoir called Night Studio, Musa Mayer, the painter Philip Guston’s daughter, describes an appealingly bucolic experience on Kadish’s farm that does a lot to redeem it:

It was sometime during the summer of 1958, between my sophomore and junior years in high school, when I was fifteen, that I was taken to the Kadish family farm one weekend for a visit … In the barn, Danny tried to show me how to milk a cow, shooting streams of milk from a cow’s full udder into the open mouths of a litter of kittens lying in the hay nearby, and letting me try some too. I can still taste the rich, warm flavor on my tongue. I stood by the shed that served as a stable, admiring the horses, as Ken vaulted on the back of the pony, Buster, who bucked and kicked around the pasture …

All the outside work besides gardening was done by Reuben and his sons. Their ability to fix things was impressive. Danny and Ken had both rebuilt junked cars…. It was beautiful land, that farm, hundreds of acres of lush, rolling green fields and woods and ponds, of hillsides dotted with grazing cows, of pigs and horses and chickens.

That sounds okay. 

All I’m saying is it’s something to keep in mind.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.