In advance of the 1984 Summer Olympics, the city of Los Angeles commissioned 200 public murals. Pasqualina Azzarello remembers that transformation vividly. On hot afternoons, at the end of a long day at elementary school, she would climb into the backseat of her father’s car and sit looking out the window, stuck in traffic, at urban murals being painted.
Changing worlds impressed themselves on her young eyes, and got into her head. Over the next few decades, Azzarello became an accomplished painter, public muralist, educator, and community advocate. She attended UMass Amherst, then lived and worked in New York City. But she moved back to the Valley this past fall, and in November she accepted the job of City Arts Coordinator at Easthampton City Arts+ (ECA+) in Easthampton.
ECA+ was founded by the city in 2005 and relies on a coordinator — plus a volunteer committee, community volunteers, and interns — to help create a “strong cultural identity” city-wide. This means creating and supporting cultural programs that enhance public access to the arts and humanities, as well as improving economic opportunities for artists.
Some programs, like Easthampton’s annual spring street festival Cultural Chaos, are tradition (this year it’s June 10). Other programs, like the salon speaker series Grist for the Mill, are brand-new this year — that series kicks off Easthampton Book Fest on April 6 with a talk featuring Michael Musto of the Village Voice and Mickey Boardman, the editorial director of PAPER Magazine.
The Advocate sat down with Azzarello at the end of 2016 to take stock of where ECA+ is headed. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Hunter Styles: Did you always know that you wanted to work in the arts?
Pasqualina Azzarello: As a high schooler, I did a mural at Wellesley College, in a funky little underground cafe. The second day I was working on that mural, the Rodney King verdict was announced. Being on a college campus, and feeling that intensity of response, changed everything for me, and my mural changed as a result of all of that. I started to understand what murals can mean, and the function they can serve. But I also learned a lot about what I cared about, as an artist — how to use art in public spaces to engage in conversation and question assumptions about how we want to make this world together.
When I graduated from UMass, I sold three paintings from my BFA thesis show. I thought: I’ll be an artist for as long as I can. I moved to Boston, and right away, I thought my work should be in spaces where people were living their lives already. So I did a show at the Somerville Cafe. I put up my work in restaurants. I sold art on the street. And I did my first public mural — it’s in Cambridge at Central Square, at Norfolk and Massachusetts Avenue.
Styles: Three weeks into your new job, ECA+ threw its annual fundraiser, with a twist. STRUT was a DIY fashion show that pulled in more than 550 people. What kind of introduction to the job did that provide?
Azzarello: It was a spectacular way to say hello. I learn through working, so I got to experience a lot right away. It was an all-inclusive, supportive, positive fashion show, and this community is so rich and thriving and committed that everyone, from all walks of life, had a different reason for being there. Someone made a dress out of origami. A body painter based in Connecticut brought some painted people. Bill from Whole Foods in Hadley dressed in a tailored blazer and vests made out of up-cycled reusable bags.
Styles: Sounds quirky. Was this familiar turf to you, in some way?
Azzarello: I’ve had quite a lot of experience working with groups to create spaces where a vision comes to life. I used to be the executive director of a nonprofit organization called Recycle A Bicycle in New York City, which is a youth-oriented leadership organization. Most recently, I was the director of public programs at the nonprofit Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens. One summer event was called the Festival of Kites and Kayaks — we brought in 12 artists to do kite-making projects out of recycled material with more than 2,000 children. They flew kites all over the five-acre park while 350 kayakers paddled up the East River. That event drew more than 6,000 people into the park within four hours.
Styles: Why leave all that to move back here?
Azzarello: I love the Valley. I always thought that at some point I’d move back. I appreciate how diverse and progressive it is here, but also how accessible all of the creative efforts really are.
Styles: Since ECA+ is part of Easthampton’s planning department, you‘re now employed by the city and work with city planner Jessica Allan. Are arts jobs like this unusual?
Azzarello: I’ve been a public muralist for over 20 years. I’ve worked with developers. For years I painted the temporary fences that surround construction sites in New York City. So I can say that it’s very unusual for a public artist and a city planner to be in such close conversations about public art and cultural events.
I see my role as one of service. It’s about saying: what are the existing resources and ingredients — through people, projects, and initiatives? Not just in the arts community, but in the city itself. Then we grow those means, and develop new ones.
One example is the MAP Gallery in Eastworks. That’s a curatorial program, so the work that we show in the gallery is designed to support artists who are new to curating. Because some artists are more politically driven, the MAP Gallery becomes a platform for community education and workshops, while artists are learning professional development skills.
Also, in 2013, Cottage Street was acknowledged as a cultural district. That now falls under the umbrella of ECA+. That means we’re talking with all those local businesses — not just the “arts” ones — about how to better support the community.
Styles: And who supports you?
Azzarello: The coordinating committee is really dedicated and hands-on — that’s how we share ideas and approve a budget each year, which guides our programming. We also have a solid volunteer corps of about 100 people, who are very involved. Out of a population of 16,000, that’s a big number of volunteers. And of course the members of ECA+ — these are mainly working artists who live or work in Easthampton, Southampton, or Westhampton — support us, and each other.
Styles: What’s it like to predict, or at least consider, what Easthampton will look like in five or ten years?
Azzarello: One of the reasons I left New York City is that I wanted to live on a more human scale once again. But the amount of arts and cultural programming happening here is remarkably large. And as times keep changing in Easthampton, our responsibility is to pay close attention to the needs of artists and the public.
It’s not about the forms things come in — it’s about the quality of what’s happening, and what’s being generated. Easthampton’s cultural history is rich and strong, in ways that I don’t even understand yet. But as people wake up to that, they want to be a part of it.
Honestly, there’s work to do, but I feel we have everything we need to do whatever we want. And that’s a remarkable thing.
Contact Hunter Styles at firstname.lastname@example.org.