Artists at Work in the Berkshires are focused on community
By Elizabeth Nelson, 1Berkshire
In the Berkshires, something creative is always afoot, which is especially true for the many artists who call this region home. Despite livelihoods that were swept away in an instant by COVID, six artists have gone back to work—with living-wage salaries and health care benefits—as part of a new program aptly named Artists at Work (AAW). Incepted by THE OFFICE Performing Arts + Film and the FreshGrass Foundation, AAW is a pilot partnering the artists with cultural institutions: Hancock Shaker Village, Images Cinema, Institute for the Musical Arts, Jacob’s Pillow, MASS MoCA, and The Mount. The goal: keep artists creating.
“AAW is pairing each artist with a community hub,” said Brece Honeycutt who is working with Hancock Shaker Village (HSV) and Camphill Village, a residential community for adults with developmental disabilities. “Both Villages are centered around communal living. Both have a farm, run seed businesses, and grow healing plants.”
Before COVID, Brece was slated to teach a series of plant dyeing workshops, all of which were cancelled. Now, for the six-month duration of AAW, Brece has a studio at Hancock Shaker Village where she spends time each week, researching Shaker culture and studying the 90 types of plants growing on the grounds. Her online blog showcases her process, including eco prints using coreopsis ink made from flowers and leaves foraged at the Village.
“They have a deeper spiritual practice through everything, from text and song to picking a vegetable or sweeping the floor,” said Brece of both Villages. “They take the daily and put it on a higher plane. That is feeding my project, especially in the time of COVID. Many hands working together for the whole.”
Community is the thematic link between the Berkshires’s AAW artists. Choreographer Dante Brown is partnering with Jacob’s Pillow and Roots Rising, a youth empowerment organization that builds community through food and farming. His project explores the intersection of food sustainability with the “sustainability” of mind, body, and spirit for marginalized communities.
“My project is multifaceted. It’s centered on the uniqueness of the Pittsfield community, and the importance of perseverance within its community,” said Dante. “I will create an online documentary highlighting where perseverance resides in food sustainability, racial injustice, and self worth during this pandemic.”
Brown also plans to lead movement workshops to locate “methodologies on how to self persevere through art making.”
MASS MoCA is creative partner to visual artist Sarah DeFusco, co-founder of WallaSauce in North Adams where she and her partner make handmade items from up-cycled and alternative materials. Imagine a rain coat and backpack fashioned from blue plastic IKEA bags, or funky jackets patched with playfully mis-matched fabrics and patterns.
“Our work situation during the pandemic shifted from full-time jobs to working full-time for ourselves at WallaSauce. Despite being in a pandemic, AAW has given us many things to be grateful for,” said Sarah. “MASS MoCA is helping us with outreach, sourcing materials, arranging potential spaces for storage and classes, and discussing possible connections with other artists in the upcycling field.”
Sarah and MASS MoCA’s community partner is Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, and her project centers around sewing classes in the North Adams community where she and her partner will encourage new ways of thinking about “waste.” They hope to teach people how to reuse what they have before making a new purchase.
At The Mount, local poet and theater artist Lia Russell-Self is working with The Rusty Anvil to guide young people through writing workshops, using poetry, nature, and various states of well-being to encourage creative expression. They are focused on engaging queer youth of color, aiming to create space for marginalized voices in the Berkshire community.
The lasting impacts of the pandemic are yet to be seen, in both the Berkshires and our country, but the AAW’s goal to support artists and “foster healthy communities in the wake of the financially catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic” is a positive and creative approach, one the founders hope will be modeled in other communities.
“Artists are the messengers who will lead us into the future—their work will help us to understand our new world,” said Rachel Chanoff, Director of THE OFFICE. “AAW’s outcomes will reach beyond artists to institutions and to culture workers of all stripes, and beyond the culture sector itself into communities through civic engagement and community health initiatives, with wide-ranging impacts.”
“Working in community and for community is what all the projects are about,” said Brece. “Artists have a little different way of seeing—they problem-solve in different ways. That is helpful to communities.”
AAW’s national partners include the Sundance Institute, the International Storytelling Center, and Theater of War Productions. Learn more here.