Artist Pioneers Bring New Life To Pittsfield

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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Pittsfield's focus on the arts has been attracting a creative population to the city for about a decade. Three distinct “waves” are represented in one particular space, known as Pittsfield Contemporary. It's one of the temporary "pop-up" galleries that have occupied vacant retail spaces for the past few months.

Inside, wooden church pews are lined up in the center of the room. A bike is propped against a glass display case. Affordable hipster art hangs on the walls. Owner Jay Elling, 24, describes it as a "gallery/studio/workspace/meet-up space."

Elling opened Pittsfield Contemporary in June. Since then he has organized music events, film screenings and literary events — but also what he calls "geek web-building workshops." Elling himself is a photographer.

"People walk in here and they say, 'Where’s your artwork, Jay?' "

His answer?

Jay Elling, left, owner of Pittsfield Contemporary, a temporary “pop-up” gallery, sits next to Don Clark, owner of the permanent Ferrin Gallery down the street. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Jay Elling, left, owner of Pittsfield Contemporary, a temporary “pop-up” gallery, sits next to Don Clark, owner of the permanent Ferrin Gallery down the street. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

"Well, this whole place is mine, I've kind of created the lighting, I’ve painted and cleaned the floors, and it’s all pretty much DIY — my father used to own a hardware store."

Moving To Pittsfield

Elling grew up about 20 miles from Pittsfield Contemporary, in West Stockbridge. After college he moved to nearby Great Barrington, but last year set his sights on Pittsfield — despite its scrappy reputation.

"They just called it the Wild West years ago. And tumbleweeds in the streets, and the drugs and the thugs and all the undesirables," he says.

Elling’s friends thought he was insane for moving to Pittsfield, he says. Regardless, the young art entrepreneur wanted to add his energy to the artistic boom he kept hearing and reading about.

Before his bricks-and-mortar gallery was even a glimmer, Elling did what any young creative-type does these days: He designed a website, hoping to generate buzz about the creative scene in Pittsfield.

"I’m an advocate for commerce," he explains. "I’m trying to advertise all the small art venues in town under one name online and try to create a critical mass. And if people see that, then they’ll kind of start to recognize that and follow that and say, "Oh, yeah, there is stuff going on in Pittsfield.' "

Thirty-year-old artist Huckleberry Delsignore, originally from California, moved to Pittsfield three years ago.

"As you’ve heard, it was a ghost town for so long," she says. Now, this young mother-of-three helps curate shows in Elling’s gallery, and shares workspace in the back room.

Delsignore crochets whimsical but creepy full-head masks, a la Jim Henson’s Muppets. A bright red rabbit looks more menacing than cute, like Frank in the cult film "Donnie Darko." And a pair of fox heads remind people of "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," Delsignore says.

Like Elling, Delsignore came to Pittsfield hoping to join the artist community and its efforts to revitalize the former manufacturing city. She says she noticed immediately how just being a young person changed things.

"They just called it the Wild West years ago. And tumbleweeds in the streets, and the drugs and the thugs and all the undesirables."

Jay Elling, Pittsfield

"When I moved to town three years ago there was an impact just being present. It didn’t even necessitate making things," she says.

"Because before that people were noticeably affected by the wreckage GE left with both mental instabilities and economic depression. So to be fresh and new and stable and excited was the pioneering moment."

Art Pioneers In Pittsfield

But it wasn’t the first pioneering moment. An earlier wave of pioneer artists settled in Pittsfield about five years before Delsignore. In 2002, 57-year-old painter and performer Douglas Truth was the second artist to take part in the city-sponsored Storefront Artist Project.

"I had a space the size of this all to myself, and I had installations, I did performances in there," he says. And the studio was free.

These days, Truth lives in California. He came back to Pittsfield just for the summer to share this space and its rent with some of the “young guard” following in his footsteps.

"That’s one stark thing I can tell you, is that 20 years ago, nine years ago, whatever it was, there was almost nobody here between the ages of 20 and 45. Now it’s like, yeah! That’s one reason I came back here, is I find it such an exciting place," Truth says.

While it sounds exciting, the artists in Pittsfield still face a tough reality.

Elling struggles to pay his cell phone bill. He has a “day-job” at a market down the street and says he has health care. Huckleberry Delsignore has the ubiquitous waitressing job. She admits living in Pittsfield is necessary because she –- and most artists like herself — are priced out of the tonier places in Berkshire County.

"I couldn’t do this in Great Barrington, I couldn’t afford Lenox and the customer base in those other towns are so limited to the more well-off second home owners and that’s not what I’m going for. I’m just going for a working class, working artist-type environment, and that’s what I find here," Delsignore says.

And she says she can also find some sketchy-looking characters on her bike ride to work. Even with the changes, Pittsfields still a gritty place. Delsignore wonders about the city's economic future — and her own. She’s curious to see if she can sell enough of her work here to make the numbers add up.

"I think it’ll all work out, but I would love to one day have this be my full-time gig," she says.

In Pittsfield?

"In Pittsfield, yeah! Absolutely."

The Pittsfield Contemporary pop-up gallery is scheduled to close in October, but Delsignore and Elling hope the landlords will let them stay open through the winter. If not, Elling says they’ll adapt, gypsy-style, and seek out a different alternative space in town to continue their endeavors.

This program aired on September 24, 2010.

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Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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