A piece of their art: New project replicates CSA model to help artists

  • Justin Lander and Rose Friedman of Modern Times Theater are part of a new CSA in which people can buy shares to receive delivery of artworks. IMAGE COURTESY GABRIEL HARRELL

  • Poet, actor and farmer Sophie Wood of Conway is part of the new “CSA” for art.

  • Documentary filmmaker Terersa Camou Guerrero is part of CSArts. IMAGE COURTESY GABRIEL HARRELL

  • Illustration by visual artist Chelsea Granger, a UMass graduate who’s also involved in theater. She is one of the project’s artists. IMAGES CONTRIBUTED/ GABRIEL HARRELL

  • Acclaimed hammered dulcimer player Max ZT is also taking part in CSArts.

  • UMass grad and painter Chelsea Granger is another participant in the project.

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2021

The idea behind CSA — community-supported agriculture — has been a popular one in the Valley. Farmers offer “shares” in their harvest, and people who purchase one get a regular pickup of fresh local vegetables and other produce during the growing season.

Now some area artists, and others with a connection to the region, have come together to offer an artistic model of the CSA: Sign up for a share in this “harvest” and you can expect a monthly delivery of some kind of artwork or creative product.

It’s called the CSArts Project, and the artists involved come from diverse fields — music, visual art, theater, film, poetry. Principal organizer Gabriel Harrell says the idea behind the project is to generate some money for artists who have seen their incomes fall dramatically during the pandemic, as well as to “bring real, holdable art into people’s homes during a really hard time.”

“So much of what we’ve been seeing in the arts for months now is in a virtual format,” said Harrell, a recent graduate of a master’s program in theater from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Music, theater, dance, a lot of visual art, too — we’re all missing that coming together and sense of community you get from the live arts, or actually touching art,” he said.

“And as sick as a lot of us are of spending so much time on Zoom, I know many artists are also pretty sick of not having work,” he added.

Harrell was in the directing program at UMass when the pandemic hit. Aside from dealing with the chaos of having to move to an online format for his own work, including teaching undergraduate students, Harrell keenly felt the loss of the collaborative nature of live theater.

“The theater that thrills me, that I can't stop thinking about after the fact, literally involves sharing air space with a group of people, which of course isn't a responsible action at the moment,” he noted in a follow-up email.

“It's not that I don't appreciate the work that theater and performance artists are making available online, (I have felt buoyed and less alone through their efforts), it’s just that it rarely touches me in a way that live theater can.”

Harrell’s interest in using the CSA model for art actually predates the pandemic. He and his partner, poet and actor Sophie Wood, had been thinking of doing something along these lines for a while. Once COVID-19 arrived and showed no sign of abating, “We both thought, ‘This is the time to do it,’” he said.

The basics of CSArts are this: For $165, shareholders will receive, starting in January, an original work of art each month over the next six months from each of seven artists involved in the project. Wood, the poet (she’s also a farmer), is joined in the effort by painter and illustrator Chelsea Granger; musicians Max ZT and Geoffrey Lamar Wilson; theatrical presenters Rose Friedman and and Justin Lander; and filmmaker Teresa Camou Guerrero.

Harrell says the project is also working on ways to reduce the cost of the program for people who’d like to take part in it but may be struggling financially themselves. “We know [$165] can be a pretty big chunk of change … we don’t want to make the art inaccessible, though we want the artists to get paid, too.”

Some of the artists have local connections, though most now live elsewhere. Wood is a Hampshire College graduate, and Granger, the illustrator, graduated from UMass Amherst. Granger now lives in New Haven, but comes to the region at least a few times a year to be part of a theatrical group, the Royal Frog Ballet, that was co-founded by Wood. Each year the players put on outdoor performances in the Valley; in recent years (not in 2020) those have taken place at Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton.

In other cases, Harrell and Wood have enlisted artists they know from other places. For instance, Max ZT is an acclaimed hammered dulcimer player — the Brooklyn, New York-based artist was part of the recent virtual First Night Northampton 2020 performance — who Harrell met when both were students at Bard College in New York state.

Harrell also previously worked with Bread and Puppet Theater of Glover, Vermont, a group that has performed regularly in the Valley over the years. Through that ensemble he met Guerrero, a past Bread and Puppet performer who now makes documentary films in Mexico. Harrell also got to know Friedman and Lander, a Vermont couple who run Modern Times Theater, which presents a mix of puppet theater and vaudeville shows.

“It made sense for us to reach out to artists that we knew and had worked with to do this,” said Harrell, who’s originally from North Carolina and has set up the CSArts project through the website of a theatrical group there that he co-founded, Rural Academy Theater. “These are all really talented people.”

What the participating artists will deliver to shareholders in CSArts will be left up to artists, Harrell says. Friedman and Lander are working on a musical comedy album, he notes, and will likely share parts of that with shareholders. Max ZT and Wilson — the latter is a singer-songwriter, saxophonist and composer based in Minnesota — will presumably make recordings available.

“I think part of the appeal is that what you’ll get will be a surprise,” Harrell added. “And it will come in the mail — something you can hold, not just see on a screen.”

Beyond that, his hope is that the project will not only put some money in artists’ hands but give them some emotional reinforcement that people value their work.

“By being a part of this, I think you can send a message that artists are important, that we all need art, and that both of those things we still be true when the pandemic finally passes,” he said.

For more information on the program, visit theruralacademytheater.com and click on the link for “CSArts.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.