Lee Roderick Oprea and Heather Gring at Lee's birthday celebration, December 21, 2016; digital photograph; Photograph by Micu Oprea
Heather Gring remembers Lee Oprea
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Emily Roderick Oprea has been one of the great constant forces of my adult life. Over ten years ago, I met her at her family’s camp, the Olmsted Camp, in Sardenia, NY. One of my Art History professors, Francis Kowsky, had invited myself and some of my classmates out to the Olmsted Camp, where he organized a bi-annual garden party on Memorial Day and Labor Day. It was here we met Lee, who must have been about 68 at the time.
Twenty years old at a party of established intellectuals, I was trying so hard to be “together” and professional. I was trying to be grown-up. That first time to the Olmsted Camp, I wore a fancy pair of platform sandals. Lee told me to take off my fancy shoes so I could better hike through the woods. I never wore fancy shoes to the Camp again—there was no need. I stopped trying to be “grown-up,” and let myself relax and enjoy being myself. It was impossible to engage with Lee and be anything other than real and present; she exuded genuine warmth and light and brought those same qualities out of every one she welcomed to her home.
And how she welcomed us! Thousands of people have experienced Lee’s incredible hospitality over the years. As an undergraduate student, I never ate so well as when I went to the Camp. The feeling of deep satisfaction of the woods, the Camp, the food, and the joy, has enriched my life more than I can express. In retrospect, I think it makes me feel closer to Charles E. Burchfield.
Over the years, I have spent many late nights at the Camp with Lee, often with my best friend, Eve Everette, who was another of Frank Kowsky’s students. One of my favorite memories is of a summer day when Eve and I showed up for the bi-annual party and we went right down to the creek to play with the kids, not even saying hello to anyone but Lee. The creekbed is mostly clay, and Eve and I covered ourselves head to foot in the stuff, and then laid out in the sun until we were baked and crunchy. We also dug a slide into the side of the ravine to better slide into the water! We rinsed off all we could, and then ventured back to the Camp to mingle with our beloved academics and intellectuals, streaks of clay still in our hair. Lee laughed so hard to see us return—she always loved it when we played like children, and we loved it too. Eve and I now have positions within our chosen fields (Eve is the Associate Director of the Anne Frank Project) but we still behave like overjoyed children at the Camp.
It took years for all of the overlapping connections Lee would have in my life to come into focus. In 2010 I left Buffalo for graduate school, and came back in 2013 to work at the Burchfield Penney Art Center as the Archivist. Though I had known Lee’s grandfather, Harold L. Olmsted, was an artist, I had not realized that he had been a friend and contemporary of Charles E. Burchfield’s. Oncoming Spring, one of the masterworks in the Center’s collection, was purchased by Harold L. Olmsted directly from Charles E. Burchfield. The story goes that funds were tight in the Burchfield family, and Burchfield offered a painting to Olmsted at an incredibly reasonably price (which he ultimately used his wife’s money to purchase). Lee tells the story of her grandfather’s visit to Burchfield’s studio—Lee was there too, driving her grandfather over because she had just received her driver’s license. In all of Burchfield and Olmsted’s negotiations, they failed to notice they had accidentally locked teenage Lee in the studio for over an hour! Lee recounted to me how she was bored and frustrated and completely unaware of the significance of the place she was in—teenage Lee couldn’t care less it was a famous artist’s studio, she just wanted her freedom! Also, it was at the Camp that I first met Grace Meibohm, a dear friend of Lee’s, who I would later learn was the niece of the founding director of the Burchfield Art Center, Dr. Edna Lindemann. Grace’s father owned Meibohm Fine Arts, and used to frame artworks for Burchfield as well.
There’s so much more to recount—so many hours down by the creek, nights spent listening to friends play music and then slowly cleaning up from the evening’s festivities as the crickets played for us. The way she would give us blankets when Eve and I wanted to sleep over, and then come check on us in the morning (half the time we were already down by the creek). Listening to her talk about Judy Roderick, her folksinger sister who was going to be the 5th member of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (seriously)—Lee would marvel at how much I looked like Judy when my hair was cut a certain way. The way past and present all wove together in her stories, and even when you didn’t know one of the characters from her past, you felt like you did.
From Lee I have learned to make space for music and laughter and meandering walks, and take none of it for granted. I have learned how to hold my own in many a conversation. I have learned to try to be aware of the connections I may not see yet, because they're often there even if I don't realize it. I have learned to be grateful for the land and for my community. But mostly, I have learned to carry my passion and joy on my sleeve, and to always take the time to act like a kid.
Listen to Emily R. Oprea's interview with Burchfield Penney Art Center Archivist Heather Gring conducted on January 19, 2017. Heather Gring and Lee Oprea have been friends for many years, as is evidenced in their informal interview.