Guild of Berkshire Artists evolves outdoors

Eight tall forms stand in a wide circle like dolmens. They are metal frameworks 8 feet tall, and each one is bright with color. They are holding glasswork, ceramics, encaustic panels protected in wax and more, and all of them will have to stand up to the weather.

The Guild of Berkshire Artists has adapted their annual fall show and open studios into Six Feet Apart, Zero Degrees of Separation, an outdoor art exhibit at Turn Park Art Space formed by the pandemic — in its ideas and in its physical space. It will run in the field through October 24, free to all comers, and the artists will set their work apart in carefully spaced 15-foot circles marked on the meadow grass in chalk that will wash naturally away.

They are coordinating the opening with the Foundry, where the West Stockbridge Chamber Players will play Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Cavallini and Schubert outdoors. Boston Symphony Orchestra musicians Catherine and William Hudgins on clarinet and William Rounds on cello will perform on the patio at 7, and guests can gather in the evening around new heaters and bring Vietnamese takeout from Truc, or Rouge around the corner, or stop by the SOMA food truck and get a drink at the patio bar.

“I’m glad to be in the Berkshires,” said GBA president and ceramics artist Margaret ‘Margie’ Skaggs.

A year ago she would have come up here from New York City on weekends. She would have been throwing pots on a wheel inspired by mingei, a 20th-century Japanese folk art movement that believes work can be both useful and beautiful. Hamada Shoji and Kawai Kanjiro led the movement, she said: “Two potters who became famous, living treasures. We have no tradition like that, venerating artists.”

Their influence spread to artists working in wood and ceramics, metal, cloth. She has visited their homes and studios and kilns in Japan, and she talked about the trip recently in a virtual conversation with the Guild. GBA has been active in these fallow months — since March the group has grown, she said, from 125 people a year ago to nearly 160 now. And they have been meeting online as they used to get together at No. 6 Depot to share their work. They will paint in watercolor or oils as they talk about tints and shades, landscapes or still lifes or abstracts.

This fall exhibit took root in the spring, Skaggs said. The Guild was planning for the summer when Covid hit. They would usually have group shows of 30 or 40 artists in the summer and weekends of open studios. Out of concern for health and safety, they have moved outdoors — and that’s no small challenge for a group of artists who often work small on paper or canvas.  

“It’s a completely different approach,” Skaggs said. “… A lot of the guild looked at those frameworks and said ‘I paint, I draw, I make prints — I work in two dimensions.”

Some artists are experimenting in new media, found objects and natural ones.

The Guild of Berkshire Artists sets up Six Feet Apart at Turn Park Art Space. Press photo courtesy of GBA.

The Guild of Berkshire Artists sets up Six Feet Apart at Turn Park Art Space. Press photo courtesy of GBA.

Amy Pressman has made her own encaustic pigments from beeswax. She and her husband made many of the frameworks the artists will fill with their work, shaping the tall triangle structures from cattle fencing. And she has found herself collaborating in this show in new ways, she said. Art is usually an isolated activity for her, and in this show the artists have come together to support each other. 

Her friend Marcie Kammel, a ceramics artist, is staying with her in this time. Kammel has turned to writing poetry as she faces her anger at the chaos she sees escalating around her. She finds a moment of rest on a mountain lake, she said, and asks herself what she can do as an artist to get through and shift this mess.

She and Pressman have gone kayaking together often this summer, and Pressman too is thinking about being out on the water, in her work.

“Who knew the Berkshires has 50 lakes?” she said. “I’ve always liked to hike, liked being outdoors, but this is deeper. (Before) I’d have to get back or out to a show. Now it’s all on the lake.” 

They would bring a picnic and stay out for hours.

“When we first got our kayaks, we went out every single day,” Kammel said. She felt a deep need for it, until missing a day would ache. “Even this week, May to October, every single time we’re on a lake, every lake, we’d stop. The hush is like a sound. And we’d say, this is awesome. It’s amazing.”

Many of the artists in the show have taken up the challenge to consider how the pandemic has affected them. Kammel has also turned to making ceramic masks inspired by African artists and their ceremonial masks. Hers have long faces like Modiglianis, she said, long lines in the eyes and mouth.

In their simplicity they can hold strong emotion, Pressman said. When someone feels overwhelmed, their expression can shift broadly, eyes dilated, mouth mobile and anguished. A few lines, a circle can show horror at what’s going on in the world.

Skaggs feels deeply thankful to be here and to be healthy and  able to work on her art, when so many people have suffered badly in many ways. Her artwork has changed in these months, she said, because she has no access to a wheel, or glazes or a kiln to fire them at high heat. She would usually throw clay on a wheel, she said, and fire a work once to bisque it, to dry it. Then she would glaze it and fire it again at nearly 2400 degrees. That heat melts and vitrifies the glazes and gives them texture and variation and depth.

Now, up here in the hills, she is talking with friends and building by hand.

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