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Art school extends its reach

IS183 goes off campus to public schools, downtown Pittsfield



Contributing writer

Over the past two decades, IS183 Art School of the Berkshires has become well known for the classes and workshops it offers at the historic Citizens Hall building in the village of Interlaken.

But the nonprofit art school also has been branching out geographically in the past few years and expanding the scope of its offerings with off-site classes and other activities.

“At one time IS183 was a destination where people came to take classes and workshops,” said Hope Sullivan, the school’s executive director for the past seven years. “Citizens Hall is our home, and the programs here are still at the core of what we do. However, now we are also doing more to bring activities to people in their own communities.”

This summer, for example, IS183 has added an international element with its new Berkshire Residency Exchange, a cross-cultural program that is hosting residencies for three contemporary visual artists, including one from the Philippines and another from the United Arab Emirates.

The artists are being provided with temporary “pop-up” studio space in the One Fenn Street office building at the corner of Fenn and North streets in downtown Pittsfield.

During their residency, which began July 16 and continues through Aug. 13, the artists are working on their own creative projects while absorbing local culture and interacting with the community at receptions, art talks and other events. The program ends with a public open house from 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 12, at the Pittsfield studio.

“Art is a great way for people to share different perspectives and to communicate across cultures,” Sullivan said. “Residencies like this provide that for both the community and the artists.”

The visiting artists include Noor Al Suwaidi, a painter and curator from the United Arab Emirates, and Bembol dela Cruz, a painter and installation artist from the Philippines.

The third participant, Dina Noto, an experimental animation artist, is a member of the faculty at IS183. She is also the school’s coordinator of residencies, exhibits and visiting artists and is participating to gain firsthand experience to help plan future residencies.

The IS183 residency is the result of a collaboration with Omi International Arts Center in Ghent, N.Y., which hosted the two visiting international artists for the previous month. Other partners in the residency include Project Art and ArtBerkshires.

Housatonic theme

Another way IS183 is expanding its role is through its affiliation with Bridge 2o12, a summer program in the Pittsfield public schools that helps students make the transition from eighth grade to high school.

This summer, the Bridge students have been taking classes in study skills, substance-abuse prevention and other aspects of personal development, as well as academic and vocational courses with an emphasis on learning through experience.

One interdisciplinary course in the Bridge program is called Fluidity. Students taking the course have been learning about the history and environment of the Housatonic River watershed while creating paintings, sculptures and other art projects on related themes.

The international artists visiting the area through IS183 have been attending the Fluidity classes regularly to interact and provide creative guidance to students. They also will be hosting a public presentation of the students’ projects in early August at Ferrin Gallery in Pittsfield.

“It's been amazing to see the kids blossom as they work on their projects,” said Angel Heffernan, a fiber artist and IS183 faculty member who is teaching the Fluidity course. “They are very engaged in the process and the results. And when the international artists come into class, it takes things to a whole different level. The students get a lot from that.”

Bridge is funded through a larger federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant to the Pittsfield school system. The Bridge program has been primarily for at-risk students, although the school system’s goal is to expand it as an orientation available for any student entering high school.


Supporting public education
IS183 was founded in 1991 by a group of area residents to create a public venue for classes and workshops in painting, photography, ceramics and other visual arts for people of all ages, incomes and skill levels in the Berkshires.

There are fees for the public classes, but the school provides financial aid to people who cannot afford the full cost. A 13-member board oversees the school. IS183 has a four-person staff and employs about 75 artists as part-time instructors.

The name of IS183 is a localized takeoff on the “PS” designation for public schools in New York City combined with the route number of the nearby state highway in Interlaken.

Citizens Hall is a former schoolhouse and meeting hall, built in the 1870s. IS183 originally leased the building from a local organization formed to preserve the structure. In 2005, the two organizations merged and subsequently engaged in a complete four-year restoration of the building.

Five years ago, IS183 launched Learning Through Arts as an after-school K-12 curriculum at Morningside school in Pittsfield. The program brings IS183 faculty artists into area schools to instruct and lead students in art projects. It is currently offered in 16 schools, and Sullivan said other schools will be added over time.

IS183 arranges the terms for the program and its funding individually with schools and parent-teacher organizations.

The after-school program helped to spark the formation of a summer art camp for children, held at Citizens Hall.

Sullivan said IS183 is working in other ways to advance art education, including providing opportunities for networking and other support for professional arts educators in area schools. IS183 recently launched the Teaching Institute, a program of classes and seminars to train artists to be K-12 arts educators -- and to train professional K-12 educators in how to integrate the visual arts into their curriculum.

IS183 has undertaken these efforts at a time when arts education in public schools has been cut back or eliminated because of budget cuts and the heightened emphasis on preparing students for standardized testing.

“The benefits of art education for young people can be astounding, and it is urgent that art continue to be available in schools,” Sullivan said. “However, we've lost that perspective with today’s culture of testing, and art is often the first program to be cut.”

Sullivan added that IS183’s involvement in schools, and its other activities, are based on the principle that creating art has benefits that extend beyond the specific techniques being taught and the actual objects being made.

“It is not only about teaching and learning art,” she said. “Creating art helps to stimulate critical thinking and the ability to solve problems. It’s about trying something new, taking risks and making something unique. That is important at any age.”

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