Sunday, May 18, 2008

Street Art In A Small Town

(originally published by Mass Publishing in the December 2007 print issue of the Local Buzz, and online here)

Number One Small Arts Town in America. Or so the story goes about Northampton, Massachusetts.

I read the articles and press accounts of Northampton's vibrant, diverse, and acclaimed arts community, and always come away yearning for more. I want more depth, more information, more story. And most of all, more variety.

Aside from some of the people who help make it happen, I don't know much about the arts community described in the press accounts. I know that the New York Times -- via a drooling piece in its travel section -- loves the book culture here. I know that glossy magazines from the Berkshires rave about the Paradise City Arts Festival. And, following up on the early 90s declaration of Northampton as the next Seattle, the Boston Globe more recently declared Northampton the next Austin. The Chamber of Commerce extols the virtues of a monthly Arts Night Out, an event that allows you to "...explore 23 open galleries and studios the second Friday of every month in one easy stroll."

But what of the art that graces the streets of Northampton?

Ellis Gallagher -- who signs his work Ellis G. -- is an internationally recognized artist who has been featured in the New York Times, the New York Daily News and New York Magazine. He now works with chalk as his medium on the street, after giving up the danger and hazard that can accompany spraypainting in NYC. I ran into Ellis one summer day last year; he was in town making preparations for his wedding. A native and resident of Brooklyn, I caught Ellis furiously chalking the shadows of trash cans, trees, bicycles, and other objects on Main Street.

It was beautiful -- not just the art, but its creation, his attempt to capture a subject as fleeting as a shadow. As we talked, Ellis spoke of his desire to create art that could be enjoyed by anyone, not just those who might visit galleries or museums. He wrote out the word "contemporary," crossed out "con" and added "pro." This wasn't contemporary art, he explained. It was protemporary art, thrusting itself into your life.

Northampton has a large number of artists who work in this spirit, creating the art that graces our streets and landscapes. Some are acclaimed, some are known only among a small circle of friends, and all are making an almost entirely anonymous, altruistic gesture.

Ellis stopped spraypainting after a friend was killed by a train while the pair were creating a work in a New York City transit tunnel. Since trading spraypaint for chalk, he's enlisted the help of the NYCLU in redefining the state's graffiti statutes. As he explained to New York Magazine, "Graffiti is marking or painting of public property with intent to damage. I am technically placing a mark, but not intending to damage. I found a loophole, and they're not happy with it."

Walking on the railroad overpass above Main Street in Northampton late this summer, I found a relatively new piece -- two silver blobs outlined in blue, with "dript dropt nyc" written underneath and "156 pi nyc" (the graffiti crew that Ellis and his friends had formed while young men in Brooklyn) tagged elsewhere.

I smiled. Ellis G. had been here. In town to be married in Amherst in August, likely having received many gifts, presents, and well-wishes, he made one stop before he went home. He wanted to take the time leave a gift for Northampton.