Festival of Trees goes West

Dream catchers hang on a fir tree decorated as a tipi with birch logs piled in a fire pit outside. Nearby, a visitor walking quietly past the bison and the Conestoga wagon can find voices: “I am poor and naked, but I am chief of a nation …” says Red Cloud, born along the Platte River in Nebraska. He was a leader of the Oglala Lakota until 1909.

“Anyone who limits her vision to memories of yesterday is already dead,” returns Lillie Langtry, an actor and producer who toured from England to America. She ran her own theater company, made claret at her 4,200-acre California winery and owned racehorses.

At the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, trees tell stories. Sasha Sicurella, Visual Arts Coordinator at Berkshire Country Day School in Lenox, has hung her tree in the 2015 Festival of Trees with sepia-toned photographs and words.

Her tree joins about 80 holiday displays in and around the galleries of the museum’s linked fall shows, “American West,” a collection of National Geographic photographs spanning 125 years, and “Go West,” a show grown from the museum’s own collection, ranging from cowgirl rodeo trophies, fashions and poetry to a close look at Bison and ranch life. The Festival will open Saturday.

Sicurella is a photographer, and she has brought her skill to bear on her tree. Working with students of all ages at the Pre-K through 9 school, she has found photographs of Western figures and overlaid them with her students’ faces.

“The kids had a chance to role-play and to think about what it meant to be someone living at that time,” she said. She talked with them about a day in the life of someone living west of the Mississippi 150 years ago.

The voices she found herself, and she did most of her research online.

“Technology is a way to look to the future,” she said, “but it’s also a great way to look to the past.”

Finding Western stories and histories set her a challenge, too, to tell what is real from what is fiction — the same theme Maria Mingalone, director of curatorial affairs and collections, said “Go West” sets out to explore: what ideas about the West come from Hollywood, and what come from the real people who lived in canyon country, in the Rocky Mountains, on the prairie and in the Redwoods?

Looking for western characters, Sicurella compared iconic actor and director Clint Eastwood to Annie Oakley, a star performer and sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and Belle Starr, a well-educated woman from Missouri who moved to Texas with her family, married a Cherokee man, and lived with him and his family in territory settlers were steadily taking away from his people. A National Geographic photograph in in “American West” shows that land grab in action, an Oklahoma Land Rush. Starr and her husband were convicted of horse stealing, and she seems to have died in an ambush — the mystery of her death remains unsolved.

Near Sicurella’s updated photographs of Billy the Kid, Matt Toomey has made the gunfighter out of nuts and bolts, with a drill on his hip like a Colt pistol. He will come as part of Carr Hardware’s display in this year’s show, said Betsy Sherman, Festival of Trees committee chairwoman.

“They have such a good time,” she said, “and it’s all made with things from the store.”

Local artists and entrepreneurs have greeted the Western theme with humor and vigor, Sherman said. Berkshire Carousel will bring hand-painted carousel horses, and Coleen Curley has carved her own wooden ornaments.

Nicole Lewis, Senior Staffing Coordinator, smiled and agreed as she adjusted a Holstein cow tree skirt under a tree trimmed with rope lights, miniature hats and boots to give a rustic feel. Ad Lib’s glittering cactus holds real iron horse shoes, and St. Joseph’s Central School in Pittsfield has made a cyclone from an upside-down fir. Bousquet has set up a cone of wooden skis with metal and leather bindings. And Cara Carroll, co-owner of Dory & Ginger, has decked out a rhinestone cowgirl with a tree for a skirt.

“It’s exciting to see new local businesses taking part,” said Nina Garlington, director of development.

Trees bright with lights and plumed hats have a light and celebratory touch — a playful feeling. The museum celebrates play, said Craig Langlois, director of education and public programs. He has worked with Albany, N.Y., artist Gregory Matusic to create a Western village outside on the lawn with wide vinyl backdrops of a sheriff’s office, hotel, jail, bank, candy shop. Children can borrow from a corral of “ponies” to run through town, and he hopes to see snowball fights.

Inside the museum, artisans of trees have already imagined snow.

David Staples from Zip ’N Sort in Pittsfield has created a softly white tree blending into the feathered face and body of a Yosemite snowy owl.

On a nearby wall, in one of the oldest images in “American West,” loggers in California stand beside a felled 1,341-year-old sequoia. The sawed-through end of the trunk is two or three times taller than the men, and the tree would have stood 331 feet high.

In a more recent image, a climber stands on a foot-wide ledge across the rock face of Half Dome, far above slopes where knobcone pine and incense cedar grow.


If you go …

What: 2015 Festival of Trees, Westward Ho-Ho-Ho

When: The festival runs through Jan. 3, 2016


Holiday concert on Dec. 13.

Where: Berkshire Museum, 39 South St., Pittsfield

Information: berkshiremuseum.org

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