Mike Osterhout

Glen Wild, NY

A hot breeze pushes across the road and dances through the cluster of ready-made works of art.

“I THOUGHT WOODSTOCK WAS THE BEGINNING OF SOMETHING, BUT IT WAS REALLY THE END. I REALIZED I HAD TO MAKE MY OWN SCENE.”

A quiet country road slices through the rural landscape sweltering in the hot summer sun. The road divides the land and segregates the neighborhood.  A subtle tension lingers in the warm country air. The apprehension hangs low, above the dirt, in Glen Wild, New York, a bucolic farming community about 100 miles north of New York City.

Glen Wild doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. There’s no Street View in Google Maps. But it does have two important cultural landmarks. They represent disparate factions of the local community’s heritage, and both buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1867, The Glen Wild Methodist Church is a vernacular Gothic Revival style church. It still stands tall and proud, overlooking the green pastures here on Old Glen Wild Road, representing the Protestant religious heritage of the earliest settlers to this area. About one mile down the road is the Anshei Glen Wild Synagogue, built in the 1920’s. It represents the Jewish community; they were drawn to this area in the last century to build bungalow retreat colonies and summer camps for their children.

The integration of new cultures has not been seamless. Despite its proximity to the city, Glen Wild is a small, isolated town. There is an egalitarian ethos of rugged individuality in this area but also a deep pride in historical continuity. More recently, a growing contingent of ex-urbanites, seeking an escape from the pressures of the city, have come to buy summer homes or full-time residences.  They’ve added a socioeconomic tension to the existing religious divide. Still, the Methodist Church and the Synagogue stand as cultural beacons and reminders of core values.

These two temples, these relics of the past, confront the forces of modernity with solemn ambivalence. Mike Osterhout, a conceptual artist, and local provocateur, owns them both.

I arrive at the church on Old Glen Wild Road. On one side of the road, the fertile pastures of a well-groomed hobby farm stretch out across the horizon. The large estate is manicured and immaculate. It seems misplaced in this humble farming community. As I scan the landscape, the contradictions build and give way to absurdities. A handsome camel grazes in the field, as a flock of ostriches strut behind him. I blink as if to check my eyes, but the scene persists. The camel raises his head and peers over a sturdy wooden fence to an outdoor gallery of odd conceptual sculptures placed around the church’s lawn across the street. A Chrysler Sebring convertible sits on blocks toward the front of the yard. Its interior is full to the rim with poured cement, rendering it useless, but indestructible.  Farther back on the property are two adjacent cages. Each cage is filled with reclaimed plastic bottles and other containers rescued from the road out front. The trash is segregated by color, each in its respective cage. There are labels fixed to each cage. “White Trash” and “Colored Trash,” they say.

A hot breeze pushes across the road and dances through the cluster of ready-made works of art. It flows past the towering steeple of the tall church, which occupies the center of the lawn, then whistles through the dense foliage of the trees beyond. A heavy wooden sign, gleaming in polished white, creaks against its rusty eyehooks by the road, as it’s pushed back and forth by the wind. The sign reads: “Church of the Little Green Man

I’ve come here to meet with Mike. He’s the founder of the Church of the Little Green Man, and also, the owner of the Anshei Synagogue down the road, which he’s turned into an art gallery and performance space. Mike will tell me about growing up around here and the circuitous route his life took to lead him back to his roots. He defines himself as a conceptual artist, and his experience shapes his worldview. There’s rawness to his work that’s anchored in a rural aesthetic, but he engages with social issues in a way that is idealistic and provocative.

As he tells it, it all started when he and his brother wound up at the Woodstock festival in 1969. “My parents just dropped us off with two sleeping bags and four dollars between us. We had no clue,” he says. “That was one of those things that brought the world right to our doorstep. It had a big effect on me.” The revelations at Woodstock were a formative experience that spawned a lifelong quest to engage communities and provoke critical conversations. Mike has always lived on the fringe. From San Francisco in the seventies, to the East Village in the eighties, he has a knack for showing up in the middle of seminal art movements before they blossom.

The move back to Glen Wild was a homecoming for Mike but also a recognition that movements fade away. By taking up a central, visible role here, Mike created a permanent outpost. His congregation gathers here, three to four times a year, to revel in his style of socially-idealistic sermonizing delivered with a raw, post-modern punch. “I realized that the hippie scene was just a moment in time,” he says. “I thought Woodstock was the beginning of something, but it was the end. That scene was gone as soon as it started, so I realized I had to make my own scene.”

The scene he’s created is mysterious, provocative, absurd and hilarious. It’s also broadly inclusive. The Church of the Little Green Man is open to all, regardless of race, color, religious creed, age, origin or sexual orientation.

As I stroll across the lawn, I’m weaving past the large-scale sculptures. A large semi-circle of rusted wheel barrows separates the church from a low L-shaped building set beside it. The building is the former church hall and now serves as Mike’s home. Roosters peck the dirt next to an old pick-up truck parked in front. A sticker on the bumper reads, “Trump/Putin: Make the Soviet Union Great Again.” Mike ambles through his front door at out onto a small deck he’s built in front. He’s tall, wiry, with a long white beard that drifts down onto his chest. He’s also friendly, welcoming me to sit down with him at the round picnic table. As we settle in, he adjusts the trucker hat on his head and peers at me over the top of wire-rimmed glasses. He lights a joint and offers me some. “Well, what do you wanna know?” he asks.

“People can’t live on the fringe in New York City anymore.”

RA: How did you end up owning two churches?

MO: Well, one’s a synagogue.

RA: Oh, sorry. How did you end up owning a church and a synagogue?

MO:  Well, with the church, this is one of those weirdo incidents. But there have been so many in my life; I think there’s got to be reasons for it. I spotted the church in 1986, when I was up here driving around on these old country roads. The front door was open, so I pull over to the side of the road and went inside, and it’s a mess. There was junk everywhere, the roof was leaking, with lawnmowers and crap all over the place. I look down and in the rubble, I kid you not, there’s some old birth certificate or wedding certificate with the name Osterhout on it. It sent chills down my spine. So I leave my business card with a note saying, “If you ever want to sell this church, give me a call.” That was that. So, ten years go by and the phone rings. It’s the guy that owns the church, and he wants to sell it. That was it. Fate had it. I bought it in the spring of ninety-five and moved up here.

As far as the shul (synagogue) goes, that’s a much different story, and I bought that much later. I guess, around 2013. That kind of just fell into my lap, and, honestly, I didn’t even really want it. I was offered to me by someone for a really good price. I just couldn’t resist. I think he knew that I would take care of it. I fixed it all up, put a new roof on it, just so it’s dry. I don’t even have electricity in it. I want to keep it kind of frozen in time, especially inside the shul and in the front.

Here, it’s church. It is what it is. It’s performance, we have a congregation, it’s more structured to a degree. The shul, I see more as a curatorial space. It’s more fluid. I use it as my art studio. I invite other artists to do things there, on the inside, but I don’t want them to do anything permanent. I don’t want them to do anything that can’t be removed. Outside, I view as a public art space. On the outside wall, it says, “Free speech,” and basically, anybody is allowed to paint anything they want there.

RA: So, the Church of the Little Green Man is purely an art piece for you?

MO: Yes, the Church is just another piece. I’ve done certain pieces that span long amounts of time. The church has spanned thirty years. It’s probably the most successful of all my ongoing pieces, because it’s survived long absences of doing nothing. It’s transformed with new congregations. Plus, who doesn’t like a great party where you go and burn a dollar?  I mean, I don’t ask much of the general public.

RA: I noticed you get a good crowd. Is there a social motivation behind having the church?

MO: Oh yeah, there’s always been a social motivation. When we started it, we had a great scene in the East Village in the 80’s.  We all liked each other, and we were all being inspired by each other.  We were constantly creating venues where we could hang out. That’s what it was all about. Somebody would have a rock club in the basement of some social club, or whatever. We were just one of many, at the time. But we were probably the only one that was calling itself a church.

RA: What made you move up here and bring the church with you?

MO: The main reason was that I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t happy in the city anymore, and I was sick of the art world.

RA: Are you an ordained minister?

MO: After grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute, I attended the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. It was as more of an art piece. It’s a serious theological school, but it is totally cross-denominational.  It’s a scholarly approach. You didn’t come out being ordained, but you could be ordained. But I had no interest in that. I have no interest in pledging allegiance to some certain style of religion. I did it as an art project, and I told them that.  At first, they rejected me because they said it seemed like I was anti-Christian.  That got me angry.  I said, “Number one, I’m not anti-Christian, but neither am I Christian. Number two, you are a scholarly institution, and I’m qualified to attend.”  So after that they accepted me and gave me a scholarship. After they understood where I was coming from, it was no problem.

RA: What are some of the artists that have influenced you along the way?

MO: The conceptual scene [in San Francisco] was where I matured. That’s where I learned my chops. There was Howard Fried, David Ireland, Linda Montano, and Tom Marioni. At the same time, Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy were working in L.A., so they were an influence.  Then when I moved to New York, we kind of had a group: Tony LaBat, Karen Finley, and Carlo McCormick, among others. Those were my bunch.

RA: What are you working on now?

MO: I’m writing a book about the history of my family. It’s called “(F)ancester”. The Osterhouts have been in New York State since 1653. They’re original signers for the charter for Wiltwijck, which became Kingston. As far as I can tell, and I’ve done some research, we all came from one family. So, one guy and two wives spawned all the Osterhouts in North America.  I’m putting way more effort and interest into this than maybe is warranted; but maybe not, because it’s telling me so much about myself. I’m also learning a lot about American history, Indian genocide, slavery, all kinds of stuff. I’ve completely geeked out on the whole subject. I’m working like 7 days a week on this book, and it’s leading me into these completely unexpected areas.

RA: What kind of reaction do you get from the local community?

MO: I think, all good, all positive. I mean, the only problem I ever had was some Hasidic kids busting the God Loves Fags sign. It was a blip. I was sitting here one day. We had this pop-up gallery going on, where I was showing some photographs, Richard Kern, Marianna Rothen, that sort of thing. So, there were always people popping by and poking around anyway. So, I’m sitting here and I hear “bam, bam, bam”. So, I go out there, middle of the day, and there they are karate kicking the thing in half. So, I run at them, yelling, and they jump in the car and take off. I was pissed off at first, but then I thought about it. Twenty-four hours later, I put the piece right back up and no problems since then.

Other than that, it’s been great. There’s plenty of Hasidic traffic back and forth here, back and forth to the shul. When I did the pieces in the shul, I had a lot of interaction with the community; ninety percent great. Ten percent of interaction with any group is going to be contentious. But on the whole, maybe they don’t always agree with it, but I have really no problems with the locals, which is great.

RA: Do you think there is a new scene developing up here, like some of the other scenes you’ve been involved in?

MO: I think the economics of the situation create the freedom to do that. It’s getting so hard to have that freedom in New York. The economics of living anywhere in New York… Bushwick, the East Village, anywhere… it’s getting so outrageous that we’re losing that freedom. People can’t live on the fringe in New York City anymore. People can’t create without having the nine to five, forty-hour week, or a trust fund. Up here, you can live cheaply. I think we have a great scene here. It’s really developing.

RA: Do you consider yourself a patriot?

MO: To say I love America… I don’t even know what the fuck that means, and it sounds wrong coming out of my mouth.  But I love the life that I’ve had here and I’ve seen governments come and go. I’ve seen that we survived it all. If the government left me alone, I used to be content with that. But now I see that the government leaves me alone, but they sure as hell don’t leave a lot of other people alone. I guess I’ve gotten older, that becomes a little more important to me. I guess, if anything, I’m just sort of an artist and a humanist.

RA: Yeah, it seems like some of your work is provocative. Like the Klan hood made from an American flag.

MO:  The meaning of that is that the current trend of racism and bigotry is being wrapped in the guise of patriotism and “America First”. You know, it didn’t just start with Trump. I think it started more with the rampant, racist attacks that were happening to young blacks. That happened under our first black president. Police shootings… etc.  And dealing with the historical stuff, it’s like, how many centuries do we have to go through this stuff? Are we just going to keep repeating it and keep repeating it?

RA: Do you have a Messiah complex?

MO: Well, let’s just say I’d like to keep my options open.

Written By

Roderick Angle is a photographer and filmmaker based in New York City.

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