MODfest explores displacement in ‘Requiem for Ashokan”

Images courtesy of Kate McGloughlin via

This year marks the 21st season of MODfest, a Vassar festival celebrating modern art across disciplines. As part of this year’s events, visual artist Kate McGlouglin will exhibit and speak about her work “Requiem for Ashokan,” a series of paintings that explores the forced displacement of her ancestors to make way for the construction of the Ashokan Reservoir in Ulster County, NY. In the process of creating this collection, McGloughlin connected with Vassar Chair of Anthropology April Beisaw, who was also researching the stories of those displaced by the Ashokan Reservoir, and the two have now collaborated for five years. Director of Creative Arts and Institutional Grant Innovation Tom Pacio, one of the MODfest co-directors (along with Chair of Music and Director of Choral Activities Christine Howlett), said one goal of the festival is to promote interdisciplinary collaboration. “I think the partnership with April and Kate through the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education is a perfect example,” he remarked. 

Images courtesy of Clara Alger ’26.

The Ashokan Reservoir was constructed between 1901 and 1915 to provide water to New York City, but in the process, 12 towns were razed and irreplaceable bonds were broken. While doing genealogical research, McGloughlin learned that her mother’s ancestors had settled on that land in the 1790s and were among the numerous families who lost their communities and livelihoods to the reservoir’s construction. 

Soon after learning this history, McGloughlin read an NPR piece about generational trauma that deeply resonated with her own personal experience. She remembered, “My great-grandmother was a big part of my life and by the end of her life she would just sit and rock and say, ‘They stole my home, they stole my home.’ It was still germane to her life 80 to 90 years later.” Yet her father’s family connection to the reservoir highlights the complexity of the story; they were Irish immigrants who were part of the wave of migration that necessitated the reservoir in the early 20th century. 

Images courtesy of Kate McGloughlin via

McGloughlin began work on “Requiem for Ashokan” in Sept. 2016 at a residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. She continued working on this piece at another residency and completed it at home in the studio of the Woodstock School of Art. She worked quickly and vigorously, starting with black ink and white gesso on 22 by 30 thick pieces of watercolor paper. She slowly added texture until finally she was slashing with razors and pressing screen and pumice against her paintings.  

By June 2017, she had a full exhibit including over 40 works of art, a sound installation and handmade artist’s books. When asked about her favorite part of this project, McGloughlin said, “It felt like I did something for my family. That was really meaningful to me.”  

Meanwhile, Beisaw had already been researching the Ashokan Reservoir area for five years for her book “Taking Our Water for the City: The Archeology of New York’s Watershed Communities,” but she started to hit a wall: “Nobody in the local community would talk to me because everybody thought I was being paid by NYC.” From the many people she spoke to, one common refrain was to get in touch with McGloughlin. Once they finally met and began working together, Beisaw was able to learn from McGloughlin’s collection of records, stories and photos. Beisaw remarked, “Things just opened up, my understanding really skyrocketed.”  

Images courtesy of Kate McGloughlin via

An image of McGloughlin’s family property graces the cover of Beisaw’s book, and one of McGloughlin’s poems is also included. Bseisaw noted that over 100 Vassar students contributed to the research on the Ashokan Reservoir. Now their research and McGloughlin’s family story and art-making are meaningfully connected. 

Beisaw also noted that McGloughlin’s exhibit reminds us that not all displaced peoples are victims of distant wars. She added, “It’s great to be involved in all of that internationally, but I think you always have to be worried about what is going on around you.”

Images courtesy of Clara Alger ’26.

“Requiem for Ashokan” will be on view in The Old Bookstore through Feb. 19.

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