activist art generator, april 2018
Writer Jan Maher presents the culmination of her group's brainstorming session with Eggtooth Productions director Linda McInerney.
[Trish Crapo photo.]
First Activist Art Generator “unconference” held at the Shea Theater, Turners Falls, MA
On a rainy day at the end of April, more than two dozen artists of varying persuasions — actors, poets, costume designers, visual artists, installation artists, puppeteers and musicians, to name a few — met for an “unconference” at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls, MA.
The gathering, titled an “Activist Art Generator,” was the brainchild of Samantha Wood, managing editor for news at The Berkshire Eagle and a poet and installation artist. Wood wanted to create a situation in which artists, often used to working alone, could brainstorm ways to collaborate to make art that would address political, social and environmental concerns and — no small task — bring about change. Upon hearing Wood’s idea one morning when they’d met for breakfast, Linda McInerney, director of Eggtooth Productions of Greenfield, did what McInerney does: she made it happen.
The day-long event, held April 29, was also sponsored by Art Week, Turners Falls RiverCulture and the Fostering Art and Culture in Franklin County Project.
The morning began with comments and presentations from a panel of artists and art administrators, then opened up into group work sessions so that participants could generate projects that, in a few months’ time, could be presented to Eggtooth and other production and funding organizations for consideration.
In her opening remarks, Wood told the audience that in this political climate, in which, “We are facing a serious assault on free speech and our rights, any artistic action is activist art.”
Wood spoke of how her own experience collaborating with the performance group Exploded View had given her access to the skill sets of other artists, as wells as expanded her sense of what her own skill set could be.
“Where I might have politely stayed inside my bubble,” Wood said, “Now I can play.”
Both McInerney and Wood reminded participants that, although lots of information and resources were going to be presented by the panelists initially, the process was theirs to steer. And indeed, the event’s agenda changed several times throughout the day.
Panelists were Suzanne Lomanto of Turners Falls RiverCulture; Leo Hwang, Dean of Humanities at Greenfield Community College; John Bechtold, theater instructor at Amherst High School; Terry Jenoure, director of August Savage Gallery at UMASS Amherst; and Lisa Davol, Marketing and Membership Manager for the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.
Lomanto welcomed the audience and assured them that, if they wanted to create art projects in any of the five Montague villages, they had an instant partner: “Me.”
Hwang, a founder of the Fostering Art and Culture, spoke of the work that organization has done with “asset-mapping,” helping to identify the region’s creative assets. He encouraged the audience to brainstorm what assets might be important to artists. Some of the first to come up were familiar and expected: money; skills such as carpentry, accounting or choreography; materials; venues. Others were less tangible but just as important: friendliness, energy, diversity, time.
“We tend to think money’s the most valuable thing,” Hwang said, “but really time is.”
McInerney, who since 2004 has been bringing theater and other productions to the area, agreed with Hwang’s assessment that money was not the most important factor in making a performance or art event a reality.
“There are so many currencies artists have,” she said, “and money is sort of like #11.”
“The most useful tool I’ve found in collaborating is love,” McInerney said.
Bechtold spoke of the “mix of intention and the role of chaos” in creating art, the tension between control and letting go. He said it was important to begin collaborations as relationships, saying that the power comes from “the stuff that happens between people, not from people.”
Jenoure told the audience that, in McInerney, she had found the “open loving collaborator,” she’d been seeking. Chuckling, she described how, for her, an idea has to rattle around for a while, “become part of my dream life, attack me when I’m in the shower, etc.” In contrast, she said, McInerney “knows right away” when an idea is good and wants to get right on it.
Jenoure asked the audience to consider, “What have you learned that you can share?”
Stitching back to the idea of love, Davol told the audience of a project she’d done when she was the director of Montague RiverCulture. Lots of “unlove” had developed in town because of a drawn-out bridge construction project, Davol said. Residents were frustrated by the difficult access to their town, and the construction workers, just doing their jobs, had become the primary targets of that frustration. Davol wanted to work out a way to change that.
The result was a project in which the construction company donated hard hats, local artists decorated them, and then they were auctioned off to raise money for RiverCulture. Davol was able to convince the head of the DPW to model one of the hardhats for the event’s poster, and bridge workers came to the Shea Theater and modeled them during the auction.
The event ended up being a lot of fun, and Davol smiled as she emphasized the importance of bringing people together.
“Especially people that don’t like each other,” she said.
McInerney asked the audience to envision similarly unlikely art projects. “What would be an art form you wouldn’t expect but that you could see in your imagination?” she asked. “Is there a biscuit you could bake? How huge can this topic be?”
The topic of loneliness in our culture, and how smart phone and other screens contribute to it, brought about some audience riffs on an installation that would use screens to create positive experiences that compelled people to look out and up, instead of just down; or sent them through a portal into another room in which people, or videos of people, expressed what it was like not to be lonely.
The topic of homelessness got participants talking about building art installations under railroad bridges, or creating tents for homeless people, or creating possibilities for people in shelters to make art.
Already, less than an hour in, connections were starting to be made. When Ashfield artist Bob Markey, who has taught children in Cambodia, India and Brazil to make mosaic murals, said he’d been unable to find a wall anywhere closer than Springfield, MA, both Lomanto and Amy Shapiro, of the Fostering Arts & Culture Project, said, “I’ve got walls.”
When Greenfield writer Jan Maher said that thinking about homelessness made her think about a project that involved juggling — because “homelessness happens when you’ve dropped all the balls” — but added that she didn’t juggle, McInerney said, “I can find jugglers.”
Janelle Matrow, a communications therapist and improv actor from Westfield, described an idea for a large bubble on which video projections of individuals telling their stories could be projected, which caused Wood to say, “You’re blowing my mind.”
Lots more mind blowing was to come throughout the day, as participants broke for lunch and formed groups to examine ideas in more detail. By the end of the day, at least seven projects were incubating, with a few other, “softer,” ideas floating around. Here’s a list of the seven, garnered from the many oversized Post-it pages that fluttered from the theater walls:
1. New Diverse and Welcoming Traveling Improv Group
2. A Mosaic created by Recovering Youth in three towns: Millers, Turners and Greenfield
3. Opioid Addiction Healing through Improv to be carried out through Service Net
4. A permanent space for artists and more perhaps in an unused school in Amherst. Perhaps this also becomes a space for Tiny House Structures? Perhaps an Outsider Art Museum?
5. A Facilitation/Consulting Cooperative that offers resources to artists.
6. A Turners Falls-wide Festival of artists with an emphasis on the sacred natural attributes of this area.
7. Using the Shea Theatre as a visual arts gallery and an artists’ haven beyond the performance space.
A second Activist Arts Generator, to follow up on these projects and perhaps incubate more, will be held in late May or early June. At the end of June, Eggtooth will put out a call for proposals, offering artists a chance to have their ideas considered for production.
Trish Crapo is a freelance arts journalist, collage artist, poet and photographer. She lives in Leyden
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