Beyond galleries, local artwork is found on any blank canvas
Sydney Lester is a barista and social media guru at Tunnel City Cafe, where she also curates the wall space that displays artwork.
Photos by Megan Haley
Although she has been painting for years, Natalia Bystrianyk of West Stockbridge was reluctant to refer to herself as an artist. A human resources manager by day, Bystrianyk says that it wasn’t until very recently that she started telling people that she’s an artist—in earnest, thanks mostly to her first formal exhibit at Dottie’s Coffee Lounge in Pittsfield, which runs several exhibits by local artists every year.
Jess Lamb, owner of Dottie’s, approached Bystrianyk about doing a show there. Her bright, layered paintings are immediately eye-catching and inherently ethereal: A girl in a sari with a tiger, a woman on a swing waving long, celestial hair. They fill her home studio with energy, and “it would be great to get into a gallery,” she says.
There are more than 30 galleries scattered throughout the county. Yet, there are hundreds of artists in the area, many working in the typical isolation of carved-out home studios or, less commonly, in “affordable” spaces—converted mills, vacant offices—and whose work is rarely seen in the public realm.
“Most of the artists in this place have never shown in a traditional gallery, so alternative and unexpected spaces are essential for exposure,” says artist/photographer Diane Firtell, who has curated many of the exhibits at Dottie’s. Firtell relocated to the Berkshires from New York two decades ago with the “sole purpose of doing art fulltime.” She says that campaigns like Pittsfield’s First Fridays Artswalk, where more than a dozen local artists exhibit in retail spaces, cafés, and hotels up and down the city’s cultural district, are pivotal for many artists wanting, and needing, to be seen.
“First Fridays was huge for Pittsfield because it actually gave artists venues,” says Firtell. “The city appreciates the value of art and encourages projects that support art. There’s something totally validating when a stranger sees your work.”
In addition to Dottie’s, several cafés and businesses, including the Marketplace Cafés in Sheffield and Pittsfield, Hotel on North, Fuel Bistro in Great Barrington, multiple bank branches, realty offices, medical offices, are known for their vibrant wall space. Even taverns like 20 Railroad Public House in Great Barrington proudly display serious, high-end oil landscapes by Erin Potter.
Despite the willingness of business owners to show the works of Berkshire artists on their walls, there are a number of challenges, mostly for artists themselves, which go hand-in-hand with non-gallery spaces. Ruth Kolbert lives in Sheffield. She is a prolific painter, a student of the late Oskar Kokoschka. Her studio pays homage to her talents, with giant portraits of beloved local characters as well as abstract landscapes and tiny drawings. Kolbert has run the gamut of non-gallery exhibitions, including an entire barn series at Castle Street Café, a one-month show at a realtor’s office, a series of ten drawings at No. Six Depot Roastery and Cafe in West Stockbridge—the list is long, and somewhat costly.
“In one of the venues, a restaurant, the heating wasn’t regulated, and there was steam from the dishes being prepared, so I had to re-stretch a few canvases during the year that the paintings hung there,” says Kolbert, who has sold several paintings through local exhibitions. “And with all of these showings, I needed to do my own publicity—cards, mailings, fliers, framing, hanging—and it really adds up. But it is a wonderful opportunity for new artists who have not shown before to get their foot in the door.”
While art in eateries and hospital waiting rooms may seem to be the equivalent of background music, around here it is a potent outlet that people have come to expect. That is to say, a naked wall stands out like a sore thumb. Before she came to Tunnel City Café and Roastery in Williamstown (with a satellite café at MASS MoCA) as a barista and social-media guru, Sydney Lester worked as an intern at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, where art was everything.
“I worked with the art director there and she would guide me through the building. At one point, we stopped in the heart-transplant waiting room, and she said, ‘This is where families find out if they’re getting a heart. Or if they need one. What’s on these walls matters when you get that kind of news,” Lester says. “There are many important places for art to be.”
And Tunnel City is apparently one of those places. Lester says that café regulars develop a de facto relationship with the art while they throw back their Monday red eye. That engagement is what she banks on when she books wall space for artists up to a year in advance.
“People are here to pursue art. That’s why a lot of people come to this area,” she says. “It’s a big priority for us to have local artists on our walls. It’s a serious part of the business.”
On exhibit –– For many local artists, a cafe is their first opportunity to display their work—and such venues rarely take a commission.