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UMass ‘Cross Town’ exhibit brings town and gown together

  • Printmaker Rob Swainston glues down the edge of one of his large-scale woodblock prints to a plank of wood at UMass Amherst as he readies for “Cross Town.” GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Printmaker Rob Swainston moves one of his prints during its installation at UMass Amherst as part of “Cross Town,” an outdoor art exhibit connecting the university and the town. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Printmaker Rob Swainston works on one of his large-scale prints at UMass Amherst as he readies his work for “Cross Town,” an outdoor art exhibit connecting the university and the town. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Rob Swainston, left, and CD Lefebvre, right, put finishing touches on one of Swainston's woodblock prints for “Cross Town,” an outdoor art exhibit connecting UMass Amherst and the town. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Rob Swainston, left, and CD Lefebvre, right, put finishing touches on one of Swainston's woodblock prints for “Cross Town,” an outdoor art exhibit connecting UMass Amherst and the town. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Rob Swainston, left, and CD Lefebvre, right, flip one of Swainston’s woodblock prints over at the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center as they ready it for inclusion in “Cross Town,” an outdoor art exhibit connecting UMass Amherst and the town. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • UMass Amherst senior Jackie De La Rosa paints the edge of one of Rob Swainston’s woodblock prints at the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center, as they ready it for inclusion in “Cross Town,” an outdoor art exhibit connecting the university and the town. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Robert Perreault, left, of Chicopee, and Mike Querceto of Southampton hang one of Rob Swainston's woodblock prints at the UMass Fine Arts Center as part of “Cross Town,” an outdoor art exhibit connecting the university and the town. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Robert Perreault, left, of Chicopee and Mike Querceto of Southampton examine a woodblock print by Rob Swainston that they’ve installed at the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • “Bridging Our Community,” by visual artist Pamela Matsuda-Dunn, was designed with input from several Amherst Regional High School students; the structure includes attached messages from community members. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Made of fiberglass and steel, “All the Time in the World,” by UMass art professor Benjamin S. Jones, reflects on the duality of time — especially the notion of not having enough of it. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Roberley Bell’s “a visitor and one other” encases a tiny tree within a curved, multicolored steel latticework, raising a question: Who’s the visitor, the viewer or the tree?  GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • “Ghost Shed,” by visual artist and sculptor Tom Friedman of Leverett, plays with the meaning of the word “shed,” both as a simple structure and something that’s discarded. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Erika Zekos, a lecturer in architecture at UMass Amherst, created “Common Sounding” by suspending a series of chimes from a structure attached to trees in Kendrick Park.  GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • “Family Reunion,” a flowing wooden sculpture crafted from two fallen branches from a Live Oak in Florida, was created by Harold Grinspoon, founder of the Agawam philanthropic foundation named after him.  GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Made of fiberglass and steel, “All the Time in the World,” by University of Massachusetts art professor Benjamin S. Jones, reflects on the duality of time — especially the notion of not having enough of it. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



Staff Writer
Thursday, August 02, 2018

Relations between the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the town have been a fraught affair at times, with issues such as student behavior, traffic and the cost of housing creating conflict.

Various efforts have been employed — some successful, others less so — to find common ground and improve communication. Now planners are trying a new one: art.

“XTCA: Cross Town Contemporary Art,” an exhibit of outdoor sculpture and installations stretching from the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center to Kendrick Park in downtown Amherst, is being hailed by organizers as a “bridge” between the town and university — a physical connection and an emotional one.

“Art is something that draws people together,” said Loretta Yarlow, director of the University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA) at UMass. “It can be a bridge and a change agent … this is the first-ever outdoor exhibit between UMass and the town, and we’re excited about it.”

Yarlow, along with Sandy Litchfield, a painter and an assistant professor of architecture at UMass, are the two principal organizers of “Cross Town,” which includes 12 outdoor installations (a 13th exhibit will open at UMCA in September). But they’ve designed the project with help from numerous others, including Amherst town officials and members of the UMass community, such as Eva Fierst, former education coordinator for UMCA.

“Cross Town” also features the work of artists — some nationally known, others who are relatively new on the scene — who all have some connection to the area, and who also have a variety of artistic backgrounds, whether as architects, painters, sculptors or digital media designers.

From massive woodcut prints hanging from the Fine Arts Center, to an extensive set of steel-made musical chimes strung between trees at Kendrick Park, the installations are designed to highlight the “gateway” from Amherst to UMass that extends along North Pleasant Street from Amherst center, said Yarlow.

“The idea is to have people be able to walk from one installation to the other, to connect the university with downtown [Amherst], and to see and think of that corridor in a new way,” she said.

Yarlow adds that she and Litchfield were pleased that Amherst officials like Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Tree Warden Alan Snow and Amherst Public Art Commission member Rene Therberge were open to the exhibit’s theme and helped get the necessary town permits for the project.

“All of them really helped make this happen,” said Yarlow. She adds that the project has been funded through a number of grants, including one through the UMass President’s office, and contributions from a number of area organizations.

Litchfield, the UMass architecture professor, notes that outdoor sculpture “can also contribute to a sense of place” and ideally will get viewers to look at a familiar spot or landscape in a new way.

She says the idea of “Cross Town,” which she and Yarlow first started discussing in a general way about three years ago, got an early boost from Therberge, who approached her at one point and said he wanted to see the town and the university collaborate on a public art project. “That seemed like a real endorsement of what Loretta and I wanted to do,” she said.

Litchfield, who earned her MFA in painting at UMass and later taught art classes at the university, adds that she was hired in 2014 to teach in the architecture department specifically “to be a bridge between art and architecture, and that was a really exciting idea to me.” The nexus between art and architecture, in turn, served as an important dynamic for which artists were chosen for “Cross Town,” she said.  

To help explain the concept further, the exhibit includes a guided audio tour, available through the UMCA website and accessible on any smart device, in which the artists talk about the ideas behind their work.

The art

The Fine Arts Center serves as the unofficial start of the “Cross Town” tour, through one can also walk or bike from Kendrick Park to UMass and see the installations in reverse order.

It’s hard not to notice the five additions to the Fine Arts Center, hanging from the front of the building, that are part of the exhibit: large woodblock prints by Rob Swainston. 

Swainston, who teaches printmaking at SUNY Purchase College in New York and has displayed his work in many locales, studied art and political science at Hampshire College. His installation, “Free The Press,” is designed to invoke the long history “of how printing has been used for social movements,” as he puts it.

On the “Cross Town” audio file, Swainston explains that his large prints, heavily inked so that the images are visible from either side of the polyknit fabric he uses, are also designed to mirror the different styles used for woodblock prints over the past 600-odd years “so that it collapses the time element” to make a “bridge across time.”

Some of his inspirations include 15th-century medical texts, images from 19th-century newspaper satirists such as Thomas Nast, and the early 20th-century German sculptor and printmaker Käthe Kollwitz, who was noted for her anti-war themes. 

Meanwhile, along a section of North Pleasant Street once home to several now-demolished fraternity houses, Leverett architect and visual artist Tom Friedman has built “Ghost Shed,” an abstract construction of painted wood that riffs on the dual meaning of “shed”: a simple storage structure, as well as something that has been discarded.

Friedman, who has exhibited his work around the world, says he was intrigued by the site he built on, envisioning the former fraternities as “ghost houses,” and his installation captures some of that theme: The white wood he uses goes off in odd, seemingly aimless directions while still forming the vague outline of a roofless building, or perhaps a child’s climbing structure.

Just a bit away on North Pleasant Street is Pamela Matsuda-Dunn’s “Bridging Our Community,” another abstract structure, this one made of different kinds of stiff but flexible, colored plastic piping.

The installation, which Matsuda-Dunn designed in conjunction with several Amherst Regional High School Students, is also festooned with taped-on messages that the creators collected by asking children and students from several area schools and organizations — Whole Children, the UMass Stonewall Center, Amherst Community Connections — how they would describe the idea of “community.” 

Perhaps the most varied group of exhibits can be found in Kendrick Park. Harold Grinspoon, founder of the Agawam philanthropic organization named after him, is also a wood sculptor whose “Family Reunion,” crafted from the felled branches of a Live Oak in Florida, rearranges those branches into a twisting sculpture that spirals up toward the sky, like a tree reaching for new life.

And Erika Zekos, a lecturer in the UMass Architecture Department, where she also directs the undergraduate program, is the designer of “Common Sounding”: a set of 42 steel chimes that hang from a wooden structure connected to two trees, an exhibit that she describes as “art that wants to be touched.”

“I’m not a musician, and I’ve never worked with sound before,” Zekos says on the “Cross Town” audio file. “I had to do a lot of work to make these lengths of steel pipe sound good.” But she adds that she loves the idea of people sounding those chimes and sharing “a moment of creativity.”

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

A number of special events related to “XTCA: Cross Town Contemporary Art,” which runs through November 1, are scheduled in August, September and October. For more details, and to download a brochure of the exhibit and get access to an audio file for it, visit fac.umass.edu/UMCA/Online/, and follow the link to the exhibit.