Damp, dreary, dark, early December conditions were no match for the sparkle and glow cast by the Holiday aura of the latest edition of Upstreet Pittsfield’s “First Fridays Artswalk”. Opening night “Artswalk” strollers were treated to a plentitude of exciting exhibits clustered within the borders of the flourishing downtown cultural district. More than fifty artists are showing a broad range of work for the month of December in a multitude of venues throughout the immediate area of the North and South Street corridor.
I always hope to stop in for as many receptions as possible during the opening night of these shows because, well, primarily, the shows are fresh and that’s when most of the artists, my friends, and colleagues are around. However, there are always a few that I end up not getting to just because there just plain isn’t enough time. I also always try to have some sort of plan when developing an itinerary for the evening, but there again, flexibility is a key word. In the case of the “Artswalk”, though, these are nice problems to have and speak of a three-hour time period, and beyond, that provides a wonderful context to indulge, thoroughly, in all that the reinvigorated Pittsfield cultural scene has to offer.
As a board member and incoming Vice President of the Housatonic Valley Art League, I’ve been co-curating with Jesse Tobin, curator for the BINGO! Gallery, located in the basement of Crispina ffrench’s Shire City Sanctuary, to put together a special Holiday themed show featuring small works created by members of HVAL. With nearly twenty pieces, one by each artist, hung on the curved semi-circle south wall, the show is a very special sampling of the fine work that is produced by this close-knit enthusiastic group of artists.
I did have a bit of a guilty conscience leaving this reception after only a short stay, but there were just so many great shows besides this one waiting beyond that I felt the balance weighed more towards going mobile. Before I left, however, the Taconic High School Chorus filed in and took their places on the low stage in front of the artwork and beautifully sang three requested selections from their repertoire. Timing is everything. Thanks!
After the delightful caroling serenade, I made my way upstairs, as did the carolers, to take in the sights of the “Shire City Holiday Shindy”. Crispina ffrench has had a Holiday studio sale since 1989 and since 2006, when ffrench and her husband purchased the former Notre Dame Church at 40 Melville Street, the event has been held there. This year, ffrench previewed the event during the “Artswalk”, in addition to the traditional two weekend days that it usually runs.
Beyond the “Shindy”, the evening offered promises and definitely promises fulfilled of arts advenures throughout the entire Pittsfield center. From the Melville and North corner, I chose to start out with a northerly buttonhook with stops at circa, Mission Bar + Tapas, Y Bar, and Aerus Electrolux.
It’s always great visiting savvy circa proprietor, Becky Barnini, in her prime location in the Greystone building. For December, Barnini is featuring Thomas Fahey’s intriguing limited edition hand-painted stencils. After a nice run at Aerus Electrolux last month, Fahey has brought a diverse selection of work to circa until the end of the year and is building momentum towards his highly anticipated solo show at the prestigious BCC Intermodal Gallery located at the corner of North Street and Columbus Avenue. The Intermodal show will focus on the largest pieces of Fahey’s oeuvre.
I wish I had more time to stay at Mission Bar + Tapas during my tour. Mission was jumping with the sounds of the Pittsfield Sister City Ambassadors laying down a nice groove for its discerning patrons. Good to see Pastor James Lumsden of the First Church of Christ, Andy Kelly, and the other Ambassadors rocking the house. Music, particularly Jazz of the Berkshire’s variety, of late, is increasingly becoming an integral piece of the intricate fabric of a complete “Artswalk” evening.
Y Bar is currently featuring Diane Firtell’s beautiful larger than life oil on canvas close-ups of flowers. Firtell’s work is looking as gorgeous as ever. While Aerus Electrolux, in a break from art shows, is featuring a seasonal display of a miniature, lighted village, which harkens back to a previous era when it seemed as if every downtown business establishment, not only in Pittsfield, but also everywhere, had some sort of elaborate and enticing holiday display window going.
After the heartwarming little village of lights, my next stop brought me to the TREEHOUSE Gallery at 305 North Street. Lisa Merullo is showing the latest of her work there in a tandem show with fellow artist Thomas Goodrich. For this show, Merullo continues on her spiritual journey with an absorbing show focusing mostly on her large-scale pieces, work that brings recycled found objects, inspired brushwork, and text to canvas to share Merullo’s quest along her path on the streets of Pittsfield. As her path evolves, so does the work. Merullo continues to grow and flourish as she establishes herself amongst the true and complete artists in the region whose work and life show little or no separation.
While a good portion of the evening’s path was generally catch as catch can and essentially serendipitous, I had definite forethought to be at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts by 6:30. The show on the walls and shelves was created by the resident Lichtenstein Center artists themselves and the show on the floor, scheduled to kickoff at 6:30, was to be a performance by Nicole Rizzo and other members of Gypsy Layne, part of a growing and enthusiastically received regional cadre of like-minded burlesque revivalists in the area.
As I had arrived just in time for the scheduled start of the show, I didn’t mind too much that there was a ten-minute delay for the entertainment to begin. While I waited, I was glad for the opportunity to take a quick tour of the artwork and to catch up with friends and colleagues in attendance.
Rizzo, artist/director, choreographer, and producer for Gypsy Layne, acted as impresario and did the setup for the first act “Champagne Taste”, performed in high camp style with boozy aplomb and vigorous gusto by Mike Monaco, aka Jonathan Ambar. Monaco’s impeccable lip-synching and lasciviously draped, and often not so draped, bath-robed presence made full and broadly gestured use of a chair, a bottle, the audience, and finally the floor in this engaging sendup of the popular Eartha “Catwoman” Kitt vehicle.
With the ice thoroughly broken and the bubbles still gently gliding to the surface, the next performer, Kitty “Bang Bang” Halloway, aka Morgan Quigley, a near dead-ringer for Betty Paige with all the attendant dark-eyed, banged, silkily feigned innocence, put a thick coat of steam on the windows of the Lichtenstein. Obviously, for the time being, a coat of her own was nowhere to be seen.
Rizzo herself and dance partner Justin Green closed the all too brief set with a number that showcased Rizzo’s fine choreography chops and the strength and athleticism of Green. While not nearly as cheeky as the first two performances, the alluringly talented pair capered and cavorted and finished the tantalizingly short set on a high note with the audience wishing for more.
Immediately afterward, I was delighted to be able to speak with Rizzo directly and to jot down some Gypsy Layne background information first-hand. The troupe came together and triumphantly debuted with a sparkly, tasseled, pastied performance at the incredible Red Herring restaurant in Williamstown during the summer of 2010. A typical GL show, while heavily steeped in burlesque tradition, also adds a certain modern twist in all the right places. For instance, Rizzo listed Lady Ga Ga as an influence. The Lichtenstein performance was only a mere tease and a taste of a full GL show, which includes broad comedy farce, titillating poetry, earthy dancing, and sultry singing.
Rizzo, who listed some of her influences as Bob Fosse, Edith Piaf, Sally Rand, Betty Paige, and Peggy Lee, informed me that a full GL show often includes belly dancing, cigarette girls, and a decidedly speakeasy vibe. Gypsy Layne covers a broad range of material that runs the gamut from the era of the formal origins of the Burly Q in the 1860’s to Bollywood to the previously mentioned Lady Ga Ga; something for all interests and passions.
Following the time well-spent at the Lichtenstein, I made my way over to the Marketplace Café at 53 North Street to make the acquaintance of Dominick Avellino. Avellino has had a long and prodigious career as a fashion designer and as such, as part of his business, often found himself present during the fashion photography sessions for his designs. It was a natural progression and a small step forward from this casual/professional interest in photography to full realization as a professional portrait photographer.
Avellino, now pursuing this interest for ten years, says he works exclusively with film cameras, decidedly steering clear of the digital medium. As a portraitist, he also prefers to work exclusively in a studio so as to have more accurate control over the light on his subjects. Characteristic of his work are the direct looks his subjects give the camera. Avellino begins each portrait session with conversation over coffee or lunch; a nice period of time for the subject and photographer to become more familiar with each other and the studio process. Avellino particularly enjoys drawing out folks that insist they are not photogenic and proving just the opposite.
By now, time was drawing near to the official end time of this edition of the “Artswalk”, but I wanted to make one more stop to the BCC Intermodal Gallery at the corner of North and Columbus Avenue before wrapping it up back at BINGO!
Joseph Katz, a finished carpenter by trade and a teacher of likewise, has been, for the last three years, re-inventing himself as a retired emerging artist. Katz, always a very creative producer of functional work, felt the time was right to push his approach into more formal works of art. Berkshire Community College provided the perfect nurturing environment for him as he began to work his way through instructional art courses and mentorships with the fine array of professors that teach art at BCC. During his time at the college, Katz worked under close tutelage with noted professors Colleen Quinn, B. Chilla, and department head, Lisa Griffith.
Two main veins of work have emerged during Katz’s development as an artist; a figurative perspective and a geometric perspective. Katz sites the work of Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth as strong influences. Up until recently, Katz worked exclusively with wood and metal, as these provided a measure of comfort, being materials of his trade. Recently, Katz as begun to paint and has discovered the world of color more fully. I decided to photograph Katz with this more recent work to also illustrate that perhaps a Keith Herring influence has crept into his work.
So, this indeed was quite an “Artswalk”. Occurring during the height of the Holiday season and somewhat removed from the Berkshire summer season, its success speaks very well of continued positive advances in the Upstreet Cultural District’s art scene and bodes well for further advances and continuing success. I wish I had more time to visit more of the highlights during opening night and to provide accounts of more visits, but I am also very thankful to have had a chance to spend the quality time that I did at the ones I was able to fit in. Congratulations to the artists, galleries, businesses, and supporters for a very fine Upstreet evening!