Eight years ago I came to live, work and paint in the rural Berkshire mountains leaving Philadelphia, where I had spent most of my life. For the first time I had a studio space separate from my home and it was located, in the lush woods of my backyard. I felt as lucky as Norman Rockwell. West Stockbridge, MA is pretty isolated making for some great “alone” time in the studio spent contemplating paint and mark making. Finally I had the space I needed to breath, think and work but finding a supportive community of artists was also high on my list of priorities. How does one forge connections in a new place?
The Berkshires are a popular destination for many people from New York and Boston. They come to relax and enjoy the landscape and culture in a place where we read the Local Yokel and the Berkshire Eagle. A place where there is more livestock than there are people. Developing an artistic community was going to take some work. One of my first opportunities to show came by invitation from the West Stockbridge Library. It was a small show with no formal opening, but the exposure afforded me the opportunity to make new connections with some local folks.
Soon after that, in the Fall of 2014, I was asked to help chair a show at the Richmond First Congregational Church. The exhibit included about 30 regional artists and drew more than 100 attendees. It gave us the momentum to form an artist group which we named the Richmond West Stockbridge Artists Guild (RWSAG). Developing a board of directors helped us to organize and within the first year we became a non-profit entity in the state of Massachusetts. Members are full or part-time residents of Berkshire County or nearby upstate New York who work in a wide range of mediums.
RWSAG provides weekly life drawing and painting sessions , small non-scholarly group critiques, informal “meet the artist” events, intimate open studio tours, opportunities to share media and technique demonstrations. Oh – and let’s not forget the paid members pot luck dinners… Part of the reason this all works is due to cultivated community support and participation; life drawing is held in a donated space (a member’s barn); critiques happen in the town community building and we partner with local small business like coffee shops for our meet and greets. Finding alternative exhibition spaces for member’s work is both challenging and exciting.
Because of the Berkshires naturally beautiful scenery the group plein-air painting sessions are some of our most popular events. They also give RWSAG more exposure to our community. No experience necessary! Members work together to share specialized knowledge. Seminars and workshops are always free and usually open to non-members. Last month I hosted some folks in my studio who wanted to learn how to write an inspiring artist statement; a valuable skill that I learned in an Artists Writing course during the first year of my low-residency MFA as a student at PAFA.
The Guild is a great type of organization in so many ways for rural artists with common goals. The combination of exposure to other art makers, opportunities to show work and finally a heightened dialogue about studio processes is invaluable for artists who might otherwise come to feel isolated. I will finish my MFA at the end of summer 2017 with the flourish of a final thesis show. Looking ahead to the loss of my now rigorous academic schedule I am glad to have the backstop of the RWSAG to cushion my fall. I suppose it’s fine to be a “guilded” local yokel and a lifelong student of the fine arts.
By Ilene Spiewak
Ilene is a painter living and working in the Berkshires. She is currently finishing her MFA at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Ilene is the VP of the RWSAG and has been involved with the organization since its inception in 2014 and is also a founding member of Proximityarts.org.