Building community through art

By Kate Abbott
Published December 2, 2019
Hill Country Observer

On Tuesday nights, the bar will be open, with a SoMa food truck by the door.

On Thursday nights, Tom Truss, a choreographer with Berkshire Pulse, emcees a regular open mike.

Even in January, locals can gather at The Foundry after dark for board games or live music. The central room that has held flexible gallery space in the summer and fall has opened into a lounge with comfortable chairs and art on the walls. A tapestry of cross-stitched linen squares give 21st-century messages — part of an exhibit of fiber art from around the world.In its first year, the Foundry has become the kind of place where musicians from Pittsfield High School may play informally on the patio, or where a cast of New York and local actors may share a potluck and talk into the night.On a late fall weekend, comedians and actors The Fremonts (Justin Badger and Stephanie Dodd), a couple who recently moved to the Berkshires from Boulder, Colo., revealed the depths and heights of a lasting relationship in their darkly comic show, “The Failure Cabaret.”And the Del Sol Quartet came from San Francisco to perform new compositions from their “Angel Island Project,” telling the stories of Chinese newcomers to America who were held, sometimes for years, at the Angel Island immigration station in the San Francisco Bay, and inscribed poetry onto the walls there.

Amy Brentano of Richmond has launched The Foundry as a new venue for art, music and theater.

Drawing on more than 20 years’ experience in theater and entrepreneurship, she opened the doors quietly in the spring and broadened her space and programming in the summer, and as winter comes she is keeping the doors open year-round.

“I want to sit on this couch and look out at snow falling,” she said, “and have a drink, and look at interactive art by a 20-year-old in the city who can’t yet get a show there.”

 

Following the thread
In December and January, though, she will bring in work by an artist known around the world, one who is already showing her work in New York.

On Dec. 7, the Foundry will open a part of the “Tiny Pricks Project,” which gathers fiber art from artists worldwide.

The show is based on a contrast — embroidery and politics. Diana Weymar, its artist and curator, now lives in the United Kingdom, Brentano said. Weymar has worked in film and fiber art in New York City and joined in projects with Build Peace, the W.E.B. Du Bois Center at UMass Amherst, and Open Arts Space in Damascus, Syria, and many others.

Weymar has paired thread and political awareness before. In 2016, she created an art exhibit with Syrian journalist and activist Mansour Omari. He had disappeared in 2012 into an underground Syrian prison, “and when released, he promised his fellow inmates to let their families know they were still alive and smuggled out pieces of textile on which their names had been written,” according to the library at McGill University, where the exhibit is now on display. When Weymar heard his story, she proposed to stitch those names and make them visible.The “Tiny Pricks Project” began in early 2018 as a response to the words of President Trump. Weymar found a piece of her grandmother’s needlepoint, unfinished since the 1960s, and stitched a quote, a presidential tweet, into the fabric — “I am a very stable genius” — and posted the image on Instagram.

For Weymar it was a way to respond to a president speaking in “unpresidential text,” she explains in her artist statement. And her embroidered message got a global response.“It exploded” online, Brentano said.

Soon Weymar had responses and contributions from around the world, Brentano said. She started collecting and curating similar stitched records of the president’s words — without comment, and without any change or embellishment. These pieces record the president’s tweets and direct quotes in a form that will not disappear off a screen in a few seconds. They can give a way to address frustrations and make connections.

“She says … there’s a contrast between the vintage linens and fabrics, the permanence of them, and the impermanence of social media,” Brentano explained. “For the first time, we have a president and a White House communicating mostly through social media.”

Weymar already has more than 2,020 pieces of fiber art to exhibit in 2020, Brentano said, and the exhibit is touring internationally. This section of it has come to the Berkshires from Lingua Franca, an upscale upcycling clothing shop on Bleecker Street in New York City.

Weymar will come to the Foundry Dec. 7 for the opening, Brentano said. She will lead a workshop in the gallery before an evening of music and spoken word.

And this winter the Foundry will invite people in the Berkshires to join the project. On Tuesday nights, the Foundry will hold its own “stitch and bitch” – a name for sewing circles common in the World War II era and earlier – as the presidential election year unfolds.

The Foundry will have needles and thread, cloth and embroidery hoops on hand, as well as local artists to teach simple stitches.

“I’ve never embroidered before, and I’ve started to create a piece,” Brentano said.As a companion to the “Tiny Pricks Project” show, Brentano said she will exhibit work from the Berkshires this winter. Both shows will run through Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend.“My training is as a theater artist,” she said, “and I’m interested in new and emerging work that changes perspectives and leads people to question.”

 

Space for emerging work
Brentano studied at the experiential theater wing of New York University, and she has worked in theater for more than 40 years as a director, producer, actor and playwright. She lived in New York for 25 years, she said, and she moved to the Berkshires in 2002. Since then she has worked locally with Berkshire Theatre Group and Barrington Stage, and she has worked for four years with WAM Theatre as a teaching artist.

At The Foundry, she is transforming a place and building a community.Brentano said she bought the building in January 2019. It was built in 1994 as a glass-blowing studio, and she has renovated it into a center for visual art, theater and music with a flexible art gallery, a black-box theater with lighting, stage and sound system, and a patio bar along the river.In the summer and fall, the West Stockbridge farmers market meets just outside on her land.Brentano said she wants to invite generous souls into this place. She has kept The Foundry a for-profit venue, because it is centrally important to her to have independence and flexibility, and to bring work that aligns with her mission to serve the local community and all local communities.She said she wants to create a place where unheard voices can lift. She wants them to feel more than welcome — she wants them to feel they belong, and they have a say.

Brentano has coordinated programming with WordXWord, a network of poets based in Pittsfield, and the area civic group Multicultural Bridge.

She also has announced a partnership with Bazaar Productions, the theater group that created the Berkshire Fringe Festival. Sara Katzoff and her husband, Peter Wise, and Timothy Ryan Olson co-founded Bazaar Productions in 2005.

“I’ve worked in New York and Los Angeles and everywhere,” Brentano said, “and Sara’s one of the most brilliant artists I’ve worked with, and really kind. She cares about people first. It’s great to watch her teach.”

In their 12 years with the Berkshire Fringe Festival, Katzoff, Wise and Olson brought more than 600 artists to the Berkshires from across the nation and the world. For most of its run, the Fringe was centered at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where the founders are alumni. They brought in theater artists from many countries, and the college could house them.

The Fringe Festival lost that space some years ago, and Brentano said she has welcomed Bazaar Productions to The Foundry. They are exploring the form of their collaboration in this new space. The alliance has already yielded a performance over the summer — “In the Heartland,” a play the group describes as about losing sight of America and trying to fall back in love with it – and a residency around a Fringe Festival performance from 2015, a rock opera by May Oskan, inspired by Julia Pastrana.

Pastrana was a Mexican musician and performer who toured the United States and Europe in the late 1800s, Brentano explained. She was well educated and spoke many languages, but she was effectively enslaved, and made to perform in sideshows, because she had a rare condition that produced hair all over her body. This new work explores her life as a powerful woman and an artist.

Katzoff wanted to take a new look at the work and invite the Latino community in the Berkshires to be a part of it, Brentano said. She reached out to local organizations including Manos Unidas and the Tyler Street Lab, and people from the community worked together with actors and dancers, a choreographer and director from New York.

 

Planning for the new year
The community has come to The Foundry casually throughout this year. People have brought picnics to the patio and danced to 1970s music in the theater. And they have been asking for more.

“People in the community are saying, ‘There’s nothing open on Tuesday and Wednesday, and we loved your patio bar — can you move it inside?’” Brentano said. “We’re getting a following. People feel it’s their secret place.”

She is bringing varied performances in December and January.Berkshire drag queen Boxxa Vine (Aaron Posner of Monterey) will perform her original show, “Dragged through the Holidays,” on Dec. 13. Brentano said Boxxa Vine has been making a name for herself and currently is costuming in New York City for Sasha Velour, the winner in the ninth season of the reality television competition “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Velour is touring internationally and has won national acclaim for her regular performances in Brooklyn, N.Y.

On a classical note, The Foundry will welcome the Harlow Chamber Players on Dec. 28. Hannah Lynn Cohen and Noah Krauss are young musicians who are dreaming and working to create a network of musicians with a passion for chamber music, large enough to form versatile small groups or a chamber orchestra.

Local musicians will perform on Saturdays in early January. Brentano has already lined up the Pittsfield band The Riverside Brothers and longtime Berkshire jazz musicians Blue Light 5.And on Jan. 13, state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, will hold a public conversation that Brentano said will seek to empower people who feel they have not been heard.

“The political climate we’re now living in is set up to divide people,” she said.She hopes in her programming to bring people together and make them think. It feels crucial to her now.

“This is not, ‘Sit back and enjoy the show,’” she said. “It’s ‘Sit on the edge of your seat and have your breath taken away. Walk out into the world and see things differently. Meet the person next to you … and maybe buy them a drink.’”