Published with permission of The Daily Catch
January 04, 2023
By Victor Feldman, Staff Writer, The Daily Catch
Doors from a 1960s pickup truck. Red tin shingles from century-old barn roofs. Reclaimed tractor parts. A rusted steel kitchen mixer and a pile of molasses pipes. Wilfredo Morel sees this detritus as perfect raw material for sculpture.
Now Morel, a Dominican-American sculptor, is working furiously on his next big project: a giant red metal hook. In March, the hook, long the town’s and village’s unofficial symbol, will be placed in the heart of Red Hook Village’s historic Four Corners intersection.
Like his other large steel and bronze works, some abstract and others molded in the shape of a horse, rooster, or tree, Morel’s forthcoming “Red Hook” is designed to catch the eye from a distance. Morel’s works are all forged from repurposed farm equipment or recycled metal and can be seen along Route 9, at the entrance to the Blue Mountain Reservation in Peekskill, at the Peekskill Sculpture Park, at Gallery 66 New York in Cold Spring, and at Marist College, among other spots.
“There is nothing smooth about my work,” Morel told The Daily Catch last week. “ I love the dramatic effect and the process of metal when it rusts through the years to make a piece come alive. I want my work to provoke a conversation.”
Over the past 15 years, Morel, 60, who lives in Peekskill with his wife and their teenage daughter, has made Red Hook his artistic second home. During the week, he works at Sun River Health, a Hudson, N.Y. nonprofit healthcare system that offers a range of medical services to underserved communities. Morel also runs the H-Art Gallery, around the corner from one of Sun River Health’s offices.
But on weekends, he works in his artist’s studio, which doubles as a mechanic’s shop, at Red Hook’s Greig Farm, one of the town’s oldest family-run farms. Indeed, Morel says that while some prospective buyers discover his work on his website Steel Imaginations, most find him through visits to Greig Farm, where his sculptures are on display across the grounds.
Most of these works, including an entire series titled “Farm Art,” are designed to raise awareness about one specific and often-overlooked community: migrant farm workers. Using repurposed farm equipment in these sculptures, Morel said, helps “spark that conversation and draw attention to these seasonal workers.” Each harvest season, roughly two dozen workers travel to Red Hook farms from Latin America. (This past summer, The Daily Catch ran a series on these men and the work they do to keep local farms afloat).
Todd Baright’s Role
The idea to place a seven-by-four-foot metal red hook sculpture at the center of the Village of Red Hook came from Todd Baright, a long-time friend of Morel’s and the village’s largest landlord.
“I have always thought of the red hook as our town’s logo, a symbol of our community as it has been since early settlers allegedly used a growth of red flowers shaped like a hook along the river as a landmark,” Baright told The Daily Catch this week.
Morel is crafting the hook out of small panels of blood-red tin that were taken from the barn roofs at Greig Farm when the century-old ceilings were replaced last summer. These panels will be layered around a neon-red bulb in the shape of the hook. The tin panels will be placed like scales over the bulb, separated by small cracks between the panels so the neon light bleeds through.
“I didn’t want a uniform shape and just one shade of red, “ said Morel. “I wanted this to have character. The beauty is that the light will be forcing its way out through those cracks. It will look like it’s fire.”
Baright approached Morel last summer to commission the project. He plans to hang the finished hook along the east wall of the building he owns at 7496 South Broadway, which currently houses Yum Yum Noodle Bar. The three-dimensional red hook will look almost like a relief on the building, dangling just two feet from the wall’s surface. At night, Morel hopes the light from the Hook’s LED bulbs will create a silhouette around the giant hook.
“I was confident Wilfredo would not only be able to recreate the hook but also add his interesting vision and design,” said Baright. “His rendition honors our history and hopefully becomes one more symbol of our Red Hook pride.”
Two of Morel’s pieces, purchased by Baright, already stand in the village. One sculpture, titled “Joy Ride,” sits in front of the white Victorian house next to the Red Hook Historic Diner, while another, titled “Big Bird,” roosts at the corner of the parking lot by Village Pizza.
The Rise of Morel
Morel rose to prominence in the late 1990s, first for his collaboration with renowned artist Jeffrey Schrier on “Wings of Witness,” a sculpture created from 13 million soda can tabs gathered by schoolchildren and fashioned into a pair of butterfly wings to memorialize victims of the Holocaust. His projects continue to involve collaboration with other artists, including Drew Miller, a local portrait painter who runs the Harvest Studio at Greig Farm and is helping him build the red hook.
Morel’s most recent works include a life-size bronze sculpture of renowned author and conservationist William E. Shands for a monument in Peekskill and a steel abstract sculpture permanently installed at the Marist College Student Center.
Morel spent his early years bouncing between countries.
The son of a Haitian mother and Dominican father who separated when he was young, Morel’s early childhood was marked by trips with his three older siblings and grandmother between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where he was born.
When he was 8, Morel moved in full-time with his mother, who married a man in Puerto Rico. But he soon grew restless. “As a kid, I was always so curious about the world,” said Morel. In September 1976, months before his fifteenth birthday, Morel flew from Puerto Rico to New York City to move into his father’s new apartment in the Bronx. “New York opened my eyes,” he recalled.
His artistic fuse was lit first by an alacrity to earn money of his own. After school, Morel would collect rejected leather scraps discarded each week at the clothing and purse shops of Chinatown and fashion them into belts and pants. He then sold these in Washington Square Park, where he quickly found willing customers. His father was less impressed. “He wanted me to focus on school and thought I was keeping bad company with my friends there,” Morel recalled.
A year later, Morel left his father’s apartment and stayed with friends while he completed his schooling at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park neighborhood. After graduation, Morel used the money he had saved from selling his leather wares to pay his way through Lehman College in the Bronx.
First Sculpture, Then Church
Inside a cold, dusty workshop at that college, Morel’s sculpting career was born.
Enrolling in a college sculpture class his freshman year was the first step. “It was totally by accident,” said Morel. The instructor was teaching the students to sculpt with clay, a medium in which Morel felt he had no interest. He recalls that the professor took him to an abandoned workshop room within the building and taught him how to weld instead. “It was like I had found my home,” said Morel. He recalls being a quick learner, and by graduation, he was selling his own metal sculptures at school art shows.
But Morel’s graduation corresponded with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. With close friends dying around him, Morel said to himself, “I need to get out of the city.”
In 1985, he moved to Reidsville, N.C., where he abandoned sculpture in exchange for life as a Catholic minister, serving migrant tobacco farm workers who toiled under dangerous conditions for scant pay. “The church’s interest was to evangelize and indoctrinate these workers and bring them back to church,” explained Morel. “But I was taking people to the health center, to court, translating for these farmworkers.”
After a decade in North Carolina, Morel became increasingly frustrated by what he viewed as the Catholic Church’s unwillingness to provide more services to migrant farmworkers. He returned to New York to work for Hudson River Health and continue his service with migrant farmworkers served by the organization. He also returned to sculpture, working with a nearby recycling plant in Peekskill that agreed to allow Morel to use its discarded metal scraps for his art.
Friendship with Norm Greig
In 2002, Morel met Norman Greig, of Greig Farm through a chance encounter in Puebla, Mexico.
Greig was in the city representing farmers at a conference hosted by Hudson River Health, now Sun River Health. Meanwhile, Morel was visiting Mexico to learn more about Mexican migrant workers. The two became instant friends. “It was like love at first sight,” Morel jokes. At the conference, Greig invited Morel to stay at his farm and create sculptures using retired farm equipment.
Five years later, Morel took Greig up on his offer.
“My interest is to create a sustainable place,” said Morel. “I told Norm we need to diversify what we offer, and one way I know is by creating art that people can come and view when they visit the farm.” Morel also insisted that 50 percent of the proceeds from his sculpture sales go to the farm. Soon, discarded farm tractors, kitchen appliances, and lawnmowers found new life as sculpture.
The friendship between the veteran farmer and the Westchester sculptor also blossomed. Over nearly two decades, Morel spent many weekend nights with Greig at the farmhouse. The two even shared a room one year when the farmhouse was being renovated.
In 2019, Morel and Greig threw a large art show titled “Art 4 All” that attracted to the farm more than 100 artists from the Hudson Valley. Morel has never looked back, and he continues to sculpt at the farm, with the hopes that his use of local farm equipment will continue to spark a conversation about the importance of small rural farms.
Looking ahead, Morel said he hopes the new red hook will help pay tribute to the farm that has become like a second home, as well as attract the gaze of visitors passing through the village. “The challenge was to find just the right shade of red for the sculpture to force people to look at it,” he said. “I think we’ve found that.”