How do you grow art? Collaboration!
By Pat Wilk
There’s a reason why artists of all sorts have talked about the importance of the muse for hundreds of years, even though there’s really no such thing. The creative process can be fragile—vulnerable to all sorts of aggressive forces, including self-doubt, isolation, and the need to actually earn a living. Creating art is not like building a chicken coop. But the joy that results—for both the artists and those who discover their work—is just about always worth it. That’s where Common Folk comes in.
Once a week, a steadily-growing group of local artists meets in North Adams to practice, play, plan, brainstorm, and collaborate. Nothing is predictable. There could be as few as five or six people at a meeting, or as many as 40. The population evolves; the skill set varies; the projects change. But the goals of the Common Folk Artist Collective, said Creative Director Jessica Sweeney, are always the same: “Connecting with the community to help leverage and move artists along.” Meetings offer both a networking opportunity and a chance for collaborative project building. In the end, she says, it’s a win-win for the community.
Sweeney, who graduated from MCLA in 2011, started Common Folk in 2013 with some other MCLA alums. At first, the membership was dominated by MCLA grads in their 20’s—people who loved the city and wanted to build a career here. Today, about 60 percent of their members come from North Adams, and the membership includes artists in their 30’s and 40’s, retired people, and four people under the age of 15. “Sometimes we have a pretty strong Pittsfield contingent,” she said. “And we’ve been building a relationship with the Adams Arts Advisory Board. They’re working on building Adams, and they’re primarily retired people.” She feels Common Folk fills a logical space between the young artists who graduate form MCLA and the professional context created by the presence of MASS MoCa.“MASS MoCa supports us on a lot of things. They’ve helped us with marketing, and most recently we’ve been talking about some larger projects.”
Because the work of the group grows out of the experience of its members, Common Folk is like an octopus with many arms. It includes musicians, painters, photographers, graphic designers, writers, two puppeteers, and a videographer. A typical meeting, Sweeney said, begins with a round of introductions.“Because there’s that energy in the room, people get really excited about an idea and start talking about it. It’s like this natural, living, moving organism. We prioritize local and emerging artists,” she continued. “We’re helping to move nonprofessional artists into the professional realm, and hopefully to help them make a living off of their art.”
This year, during the Downstreet Arts Festival in North Adams, they will occupy 33 Main Street, and work on a long-range business plan. “It’s pretty cool stuff we get to do,” said Donna Motta of North Adams, who plays keyboard, sings, and draws. She and her husband Dave moved here from Fall River a year and a half ago, with their two daughters, learned about Common Folk at the Winterfest in North Adams, and “totally fell in love with art.” Now, she says, “We go to Common Folk as a family.” Hope, who is 10, is interested in music, fashion, and acting. Faith, who is 11, draws. At the meetings, Motta says, “Everyone’s voice is heard.” Since joining, Motta has started a group called “North County Casual Writers,” which meets the second Thursday of every month at the Uno Center on River Street in North Adams. Her daughters have joined a “tiny instruments band” (which features instruments like harmonica, ukulele, and banjo) and created a community art piece on canvas. Hope suggested a sidewalk art chalk festival that will become a reality this summer.
“I’m new to North Adams and have found a true home with Common Folk,” said artist Misa Chappell, Director of Exhibitions. “Last summer, I put together an exhibition called ‘Clockpunchers,’ which featured artwork by the wage workers at MASS MoCA—security guards, custodians, maintenance, etc. It was a huge success in both attendance and in sales. We even got an old time clock from MASS MoCA’s basement so visitors could punch in and punch out when they came to the gallery.” This spring, Common Folk hosted a surrealist-themed show curated by 2016 MCLA grad Nate Massari. More shows are planned for this summer. “I would also like to start a CSA—community supported art—with pieces by local artists,” said Chappel.
Common Folk meets on Mondays at 7 p.m. at 33 Main Street. Everyone is welcome. Questions or ideas can be sent to the organization’s e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org.