Public Art in the Berkshires Honors the Past, Lights Up the Present, and Envisions the Future
The vibrant engine of art powers our economy and sense of pride in the Berkshires, extending beyond the stages and museums and out onto the streets. Once you start to look around, you’ll find that artists have contributed their visions to several public art projects that show civic pride, bring excitement and color to our cityscapes, and tell the stories that have shaped our towns.
A common theme that has emerged in this moment is the need, and opportunity, to use art to tell our stories honestly and fully, by highlighting the contributions of under-represented groups such as immigrants, people of color, and women.
Artscape is a volunteer-led committee in Pittsfield that sponsors and oversees annual juried exhibitions of public art. In 2020, a Black Lives Matter Art Committee was formed, composed of 20 community members and city officials. In development is a mural project by artist Frances Chlöe Jones-Whitman, based on a concept of Mount Rushmore that replaces the likenesses of American presidents with people of color that have played important roles in our history.
The NAMAzing Initiative in North Adams has a vision to develop projects that include art as a necessary component in creating public spaces that foster community connection. The recently completed mural by artist Gaia, covering an entire wall of the North Adams Housing Authority, has subject matter culled from 250 survey responses. In a vibrant and bold design, it honors and acknowledges the town’s industrial history, as well as three under-represented groups. Lue Gim Gong emigrated to North Adams in 1870 and, with a group of other Chinese workers, was brought in to replace strikers at the Sampson Shoe Factory. He went on to become a respected horticulturist and developed a frost-resistant orange in Florida. Child laborers worked at the North Adams Mills in the early 1900s. The women of Sprague Electric, who played important roles as long-time employees of the company and in the strike of 1970, are shown. Though their stories include struggle, the artwork that honors their contributions illustrates commonality in those struggles. Visibility and representation bring positivity and pride.
Berkshire pride extends to one of its prominent sons, civil rights pioneer and scholar Dr. W.E.B Dubois, born in Great Barrington in 1868. A desire to fully honor and reclaim a legacy that has been minimized in the past, and connect it to our present day, has produced heartfelt artwork and community conversations. Railroad Street Youth Project has been at the forefront in bringing 3 large murals to the town center of Great Barrington. In collaboration with artist Sophie Shron, Multicultural BRIDGE and community members, a celebration for Dubois’ 150th birthday was coupled with the unveiling of colorful murals depicting his life. Last year, RSYP’s Black Lives Matter mural was introduced to the community, with an honest discussion about what more needs to be done to achieve racial equity. The rainbow-hued design, painted by artists Mika Antonia-Cookwright, Lanna Knoll and Sarah Wohl, depicts the late 19-year old Florida BLM activist Oluwatoyin Salau, with the words “Rest in Power” forming a halo over her head. Below, African American youths dance in a circle holding hands, wearing the words “Unity” and “Peace” on their clothing.
When the art moves from the sides of buildings to the front, it can reveal the architecture in fresh ways. Berkshire Lightscapes is a Pittsfield-based organization with a mission to illuminate entire facades of downtown buildings with color, energizing the after-hours experience. Phase 1 included iconic buildings such as City Hall and The Colonial Theatre. Phase 2 will focus on working with private owners to light up their buildings, and will seek grant funds to illuminate churches and nonprofit-owned buildings. The possibilities inherent in the Colonial Theatre’s massive south wall inspired a two-part spinoff project. Part 1 consisted of six short videos created by artist Joe Wheaton. Part 2, the “Video Projections Project,” is currently open to the entire community, through a partnership with the Berkshire Art Association. See BAA’s Call for Art. A jury of artists will choose the works to be displayed in Fall of this year, with an Opening Night Video Party in September.
Devoted communities, and significant financial support from local and state donor organizations, have made it possible to pay artists and move these projects from vision into reality.
Step outside and explore. In the Berkshires, #creativityliveshere! So come enjoy our outdoor gallery that reflects our love of creative expression and pride in our region. You just might get inspired to create a project of your own!
Written by Deirdre McKenna