A man in a baseball cap stares at nothing. He’s clutching paperwork. Down the bench from him, a teenage girl is captive to a cell phone. Everybody’s in it for however long it takes. One guy has given up hope—he’s stretched full-length, as if he’s tubing down a river, his paperwork jutting up from his belly like he’s keeping it dry. It’s often this way at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, where desperate citizens get trapped in a slow thud of time.
But this is Eastworks, the old mill building in Easthampton, and it’s a busy place. Something curious is going on only 30 feet away in a glass-walled space. Odd, stone-like objects sit on shelves, each one tagged. Maybe a dozen remain. A woman is taking down the display, gathering up the colorful artificial stones. She’s working behind the shut doors of MAP, the Mill Arts Project.
Behind some other nearby doors, a lone worker taps at a computer in a stark, minimalist office. Other spaces hold brightly lit nothing. Down the big hallway, a shop called Knack offers all comers a chance to rummage through secondhand materials and create crafts on site. Inside The Lift, patrons get their locks styled and shorn. There’s a restaurant, a travel agency.
In the other direction lies what appears to be an unpromising space, one much like the others—lots of windows, a shut door, and a small, unassuming sign: Waugh Agency. The space inside is an awkward L-shape, with a shallow front section, then a second section stretching into darkness. I’ve been told repeatedly that this is the place, steps away from the grim Registry crowd, where one of the most interesting flowerings of the new Easthampton unfolds. Sure, this is an old mill, a place where remnants of the hulking technology of yesteryear can still be found, where corners and crevices in the far industrial reaches of the building hold decades’ worth of dust. But inside the Waugh insurance office, you’ll find the unusual infrastructure that fuels digital and multimedia art, stuff like multi-channel audio and video systems, and a projector that wraps images around the L-shaped wall.
In William Gibson’s novel All Tomorrow’s Parties, there’s a curious character. Her name is Tessa, and she’s a media student who’s obsessed with filming. She tags along with one of the novel’s protagonists, hoping to accompany that character to her former home on a San Francisco bridge, a place where the desperate and the adventurous have taken up residence and created a whole new kind of culture, a culture of those who’ve fallen through the cracks and didn’t come back, or maybe just liked what they saw in that narrow middle of nowhere. Tessa wants to make a documentary about the bridge, and she calls herself an “interstitial” artist, an artist of the spaces between.
Gibson’s novel, published in the late ’90s, looked at the then-near future, more or less what’s now the present. Things haven’t fallen apart so spectacularly as in Gibson’s world, and the technological advances he depicts have proceeded at their own stubborn pace in our universe. But Gibson would understand exactly what’s happening in Easthampton these days.
Burns Maxey, Easthampton City Arts+ Coordinator, works at a small desk. It’s tucked neatly into a corner of a small room in the former Easthampton City Hall, an impressive edifice on the main drag. Like Eastworks, the old hall has been repurposed. It holds Flywheel—an organization in the vanguard of Easthampton’s turn toward the arts, established long before there was such a thing as an arts coordinator—and the Big Red Frame with its Elusie Art Gallery, as well as the ECA+ office. Though “office” isn’t quite accurate.
Maxey works in an art gallery. The office aspect of the space seems secondary. It’s this spirit of wedging in art anywhere and everywhere that pervades Easthampton these days.
It hasn’t always been this way. When, in 2002, I moved to Easthampton (I no longer live there), the arts claimed a few outposts, with galleries and venues peppered into the mix of storefronts. PACE—the Pioneer Arts Center of Easthampton—soon joined Flywheel as an early focal point of arts performances, but in its first few years ran into trouble with building codes and struggled to find a more suitable home in town. Claims of an Easthampton “renaissance” seemed premature, maybe even naive, though it was undeniable that increasing numbers of artists and musicians migrated in for low-cost digs even then. It wasn’t clear if the city’s industrial bones and mill-town scrappiness would prove to be fertile ground for the bohemian element.
Maxey says the business community has indeed been accommodating, especially in light of the increased patronage newcomers and visitors to arts spaces bring: “Businesses have been, for the most part, receptive. It’s a win-win. They’ve seen how it affects things.”
Like other towns in the area—Greenfield, and particularly Pittsfield—Easthampton has now embraced the notion of arts as cultural and financial driver. Maxey’s position heading up ECA+ is largely funded by the city, and there’s a clear sense of direction. Just as in Pittsfield, a section of town has now been dubbed an official “cultural district” by the Mass. Cultural Council.
Maxey points out that the Cottage Street Cultural District is the end of town that first brought artists there, and well before the word “renaissance” arrived. “The One Cottage Street building was where artists first started coming, back in the ’80s and ’90s,” she says.
When, in the past decade or so, arts destinations began popping up in earnest, they faced an interesting problem: how to fit into Easthampton’s available real estate, most of it the product of the industrial needs that reigned decades ago. “People were starting businesses and organizations, but they had to figure out how things work in small spaces. There was the idea that people were starting to tap into something, but they weren’t quite sure what.”
Easthampton City Arts+ was, at first, an unofficial gathering of minds to figure out how to keep the city tapping into the newly arrived energy and vitality. “ECA+,” Maxey says, “was asking, ‘There are all these new things happening, so how can we connect them?’”
No matter what reluctance might have existed in the old guard of Easthampton, the influx of people and capital seems to have made its own case—the unofficial gathering dubbed ECA+ became, Maxey explains, an official city committee.
“The only way through a crisis of space is to invent a new space.” Fredric Jameson, Universal Abandon?
When I head to The Loft Parlor, I figure I know the way. The Advocate used to reside in Eastworks, and my walk to work involved winding through some of the weird alleys and unpexpected passages between and through the massive stretch of old mill buildings on Pleasant Street.
I pop into the first door I see marked “Mill 180.” No signs are in evidence to point me on. I head up a stairwell full of spiders and dust, and find a dark, unpopulated hallway. The industrial silence of the next floor inspires even less confidence.
I head back out. The bright sun illuminates unmowed grass up a steep slope, and a crumbling old stairway heads up the hill. In the other direction lies the American Legion, then, across Ferry Street, the hulking ruin of One Ferry, a mill building whose development came to a standstill after its gutting.
The next Mill 180 entrance, more an oasis than anything, shows signs of recent human activity. A small sign says “Loft Parlor” and directs me to the third floor. Old mills don’t give up their secrets readily, and I can’t find stairs. I give up and take the elevator.
When the doors slide open, I’m greeted by the sight of a massive woodcut print. Other prints fill both sides of a short, wide hallway/foyer leading to a sleek office space behind walls filled with bubbling water. I look at the placard beside the first print, and realize that this is it—this is the Loft Parlor gallery. No door leading in, no big sign, just artwork in the hall. In the middle of a half-populated building in the middle of a hard-to-find nowhere in Easthampton.
When Kim Carlino, who does marketing and outreach for Eastworks and runs the Loft Parlor, exits the elevator, she shows me the rest of the place. Turns out the Loft is, more or less, two spaces. Or maybe one really long one with art at each end. The hallway veers around the aquatic office, then arrives at another space. It’s hard to imagine what it was ever meant for. On one end, there’s a bright yellow freight elevator. On the other, there’s a doorway to a gorgeous patio space overlooking Mount Tom. On a side wall, there’s a sink and kitchen cabinets.
It’s weird. But not just weird. It’s also impressive. The prevailing spirit of Easthampton is clear: Why not put art here, or in an L-shaped office? Why not beside the freight elevator and the sink?
Carlino, originally from Michigan, is an accomplished artist herself, and holds a BFA from UMass-Amherst. Her work with the Loft Parlor is right in line with the new Easthampton and its fruitful connection of business and arts. Before the current show (Big Ink, featuring large-scale woodcuts by a dozen artists), Carlino says, the gallery hosted an invitational exhibition of artwork from students of the Five Colleges.
“There wasn’t a lot of connection between the art departments at the Five Colleges,” she says. The connections the exhibition fostered are likely to mean more Five College exhibitions—in Easthampton, which, of course, holds no colleges.
Carlino sees the gallery as a great place to “focus on emerging artists and work that isn’t being seen in other venues.”
It’s an easy thing to accomplish in Easthampton these days. “Paragon [the building next door] is full of young artists,” she says.
It hasn’t always been that way, of course. Carlino, now a key player in the Easthampton arts scene, arrived here before it was the cool place to be. She moved from Brooklyn. “When I first drove into town, and we came down Cottage Street—I’ll be honest,” she says. “I cried.”
She laughs about it now. “Easthampton has a supportive vibe, and there’s just enough here to not have to leave town—there’s even good coffee!”
Interstice: A space, especially a small or narrow one, between things or parts.
When I finally track down Matt Waugh of Waugh Agency, he tells me about his strangely shaped Eastworks spot. “I was looking at another space, but [Eastworks owner] Will Bundy said, ‘I know you’re into music and art, so why don’t you take this first-floor space?’”
Waugh, a Canadian transplant who studied music at UMass, has made the most of that location. “I’m focusing on digital and new media art projects,” he says. “I’ve got multi-channel audio and video, video projection and computer control. I’ve had a few performances so far.”
Waugh’s recent calendar included a musical performance by Salvatore Macchia that tapped into the in-between, multimedia approach he favors. Macchia’s performance style involves “live double bass and electronics with interactive video and music—he plays bass and the camera’s trained on him and, based on his movement, you’ll get different effects.”
In March, Waugh Agency hosted artist Maggie Nowinski’s Wish Tower, a sculpture, audio/video and performance installation.
Waugh embodies much of what makes Easthampton’s arts/business economy tick. Though he studied music, he ended up working in health insurance. He brings money into the local economy via his business, but the same space, like ECA+, like Loft Parlor, is fertile ground for the arts.
“I imagined building an infrastructure for artists to do these kinds of pieces, then eventually making a wider call for artists. I’d like to do something with video via web, with images coming in from elsewhere. It could be Holyoke or it could be China.”
Or maybe any other place where, like Easthampton, the art is growing up through the cracks.•