CATA celebrates 25 years with its Berkshire community
A Creative Force Ali Flynn proudly shows a piece of art that she made. Community Access to the Arts offers nearly 1,300 workshops a year to some 700 participants.
Photos by John Dolan
Local fiber artist Crispina ffrench is cutting, one by one, strips of fabric, while Eric Schumann and Scott Thomas tie the scraps to a giant “chandelier” made out of curved PVC pipe. Schumann is meticulous, looking for spaces where there is a fabric void. While he works nimbly, he talks about the sweet-and-sour chicken his girlfriend made on Valentine’s Day. And about the future.
“I’m thinking about retiring at 90,” he says. “I know I’ll be too tired to be doing this.”
“It does take a lot out of you,” adds Thomas.
This is just one of the workshops the two men will attend through Community Access to the Arts (CATA), a unique educational program of visual and performing arts which, with the talents and time of teachers and volunteers, serves hundreds of people with disabilities living in the region. On this particular Friday, participants are preparing the nearly 12-foot “rag” chandelier, which will hang in the air above the stage at Shakespeare & Company, for CATA’s 25th anniversary gala performance on May 12 and 13. Under this magnificent central prop, CATA performers will deliver intricate dance, comedy, and straight-up theater to an audience of friends, family, visitors, and people who are a looking for pure entertainment.
“It’s that public piece that really completes our story,” says Margaret Keller, CATA’s executive director. “Art-making is crucial to promoting cultural growth, and CATA has come a long way. Our larger culture has come a long way. But we still have a long way to go, to truly have an inclusive community.”
Founded in 1993 by Sandy Newman, CATA began with a few art classes that catered to a largely invisible disabled population at what was then the Interlaken School of Art (now IS183) in Stockbridge. CATA’s scope has expanded exponentially, offering nearly 1,300 workshops a year to some 700 participants. The mission is to “unleash” their creativity and to use that energy, that art, as connective tissue with the wider community.
“People come to the show because it’s a fantastic show by fantastic artists,” Keller says. “It’s the quality of that artistic experience where much of the connection and revelation happens.”
The expansion of CATA’s reach—geographically and programmatically—since its humble beginnings is significant. Although its headquarters is in Great Barrington, participating artists are invited to exhibit their work at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts in Pittsfield and the Clark in Williamstown, as part of the organization’s annual “I Am a Part of Art” campaign. There is a yearly September poetry reading at the Mount in Lenox, as well as other exhibits and programs at places such as Kimball Farms Life Care, also in Lenox, and the Good Purpose Gallery in Lee. More than 600 artists have sold work for a commission throughout the years.
“There is an extraordinary amount of growth because of the art process,” says Keller. “One thing that one of our participants said when we were talking about art and the community: ‘You can’t replace yourself.’ That resonates. It speaks to the value of each person.”
In seven school districts across the Berkshires, CATA teachers bring workshops to students in special-education programs at least once a week. Gretchen West, who is the special-education director at the Pittsfield public schools, says that the demand for CATA programming has increased. These students, alongside adult CATA artists, perform and display their work countywide.
“Our students absolutely love it,” West says. “It honestly does not matter what their disability is, all of them are very engaged in the workshops. And I myself have purchased some of their work. It is such a moment of pride to exhibit their work, to perform for the school. These are lifelong skills that they are acquiring.”
And CATA keeps building on its very public roster of performance art, including slapstick, standup, choreographed dance pieces, improv, and, of course, Shakespeare. David Zahorian, a longtime CATA participant, is all about “the Bard.” Outside of the Shakespeare workshop, he also makes frequent trips to the Mason Library in Great Barrington.
“I found some old scripts there. They have a really great collection,” says Zahorian. He is soft-spoken and philosophical. “I just started reading Henry V—I think that’s the one—and it has some great lines. I mean, it’s Shakespeare. But I think this one might become one of my favorites.”
Photo: Talented instructors teach at CATA, like visual artist Marlene Marshall, who has held workshops for 20 years.