Pittsfield Rising

June 2012 | BY | Issue 80, Summer 2012

Arts Signage in Pittsfield
A series of altered street signs commissioned by Pittfield’s Artscape and installed throughout downtown. CREDIT: Paul Shoul

For many East Coast vacationers, the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts is a destination of choice. The mountains are breathtaking. The allure of quaint New England towns is captivating. And cultural offerings—from The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood concerts in Lenox and Mass MoCA in North Adams to The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown—abound.

Right in the middle lies Pittsfield, the Berkshires’ largest city. This summer, its evolution as an arts center will be visible all over town, particularly with a series of visual arts events called Covet.

It wasn’t always this exciting. Pittsfield, long a manufacturing town, took a serious hit in the 1980s when General Electric, a major employer, announced it was pulling back. Over the next 10 years, some 14,000 workers lost their jobs and the city was pushed into a downhill spiral. As retail shops along once glittering North, South, East and West Streets went bankrupt, much of downtown was boarded up. And it stayed that way for an agonizingly long time.

Fast-forward 25 years, and the energy downtown, especially on North Street, is palpable. “We’ve undergone an amazing transition,” said Megan Whilden, the city’s director of cultural development. “For Pittsfield, the arts have been like Prozac.”

Whilden is part of a female triumvirate that spearheaded the revival of Pittsfield and now make it an obligatory cultural stop for travelers on the Western Massachusetts arts trail. The others are Sienna Patti, owner of Sienna Gallery in nearby Lenox, and Leslie Ferrin, who moved her well-known ceramics gallery from Lenox to Pittsfield five years ago.

Ferrin and Patti came up with the idea for Covet, which will play out in special exhibitions at their galleries through September, as well as drive traffic to 2012 Art Berkshires summer programs and Dish & Dine, their collaborative ventures.

The Ferrin Gallery space on North Street will be divided into two sections for Covet, showing studio pottery and teapots in one, and 20 gallery artists exhibiting new work inspired by traditional works in museum collections in the other.

The Covet projects range from simple updates of content by changing a cast of characters and the recreation of an object using a new technology, to conceptual perspectives that focus on details drawn from conversations with curators.

Artist Molly Hatch, for example, focused on 16th century prints, exploring the relationship of painting to object by rendering figures in porcelain and placing them at the front of her painted scenes. Mara Superior is presenting an Obama teapot based on her viewing of a George Washington commemorative jug. And Sergei Isupov is taking his inspiration from a work by German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder.

In Arts Berkshires, participating artists will lead trips to museums and open their studios in addressing the Covet theme. Dish & Dine includes a series of dinners at the Ferrin Gallery, followed by discussions with Covet artists about their work. “When the dinners are cleared,” explains Ferrin, “we have conversations.”

Art in Pittsfield extends all over town. The Berkshire Museum has undergone a facelift, thanks to the city, which donated half a million dollars for renovations. And it has a new executive director, Van Shields, who came with lots of fresh ideas. Rather than compartmentalizing, Shields says his aim is to mount exhibitions that cross disciplines.

Through mid-June, the museum is showing “Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds” which pairs Audubon prints with bird specimens and exhibits on the science of feathers, flight and the lives of birds. At the end of the month, renowned glass artist (and native son) Tom Patti will unveil two huge site-specific glass installations, similar to those he’s already done at the Mint Museum of Craft + Design in Charlotte and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in the museum’s entry area and lobby.

“This is the largest single work I’ve ever created,” Patti said of the Berkshire Museum project. “The surfaces are two-dimensional, so it can be seen from both sides.” Titled “Reflection on Time and Space,” the installation will be coupled with an exhibit on Patti’s creative process, including maquettes from the project.

Covet won’t be the only themed event in Pittsfield this summer. The other is “Call Me Melville.” Taking its name from the famous first line of Pittsfield native Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the epic tale of man versus whale, it’s what Megan Whilden describes as “an out-of-the-box summer long celebration… because Melville was an out-of-the-box kind of man.”

Among the many planned events, the city will showcase 10 works of public art on the Melville theme throughout downtown. In addition, local artist Douglas Paisley will exhibit work inspired by the Melville theme at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, the city’s public art gallery.

Artist Maggie Mailer, a daughter of the late author Norman Mailer, says she moved to the Berkshires in 2002 because she was attracted to its natural beauty and landscapes. She was the first to conceive of Pittsfield as an arts center, and started a program known as the Storefront Artist Project.

Mailer got several property owners along North Street to let artists set up studios in vacant retail space rent-free. As more artists gravitated to the city, new restaurants and cafes opened. Businesses returned, and eventually the North Street storefronts were vacant no more.

Its mission accomplished, the Storefront Artist Project has since moved on, but Mailer stayed in Pittsfield, and she has become one of the Ferrin Gallery’s most famous artists. Mailer’s paintings range from abstractions to landscapes to portraits with historic references. She, too, is participating in Covet and will mount a solo show at the gallery this summerery.

When asked whether she thinks Pittsfield will one day replace Lenox to the south and North Adams to the north as an art center, she says no. “We’re not trying to compete with Mass MoCA,” she replies, “but Pittsfield is now a place where artists congregate. It’s definitely become one of the must-see cultural stops along the way.”

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