‘Cultural Chaos’: All-points arts festival will celebrate Easthampton’s Cottage Street Cultural District

Last modified: Friday, September 12, 2014
Last year, Easthampton won state recognition for part of its historic downtown area when Cottage Street, a section of Route 141, was designated a cultural district. The mixed area of galleries, small businesses, restaurants, music shops and other creative ventures has become a big drawing card in the city’s growing identity as a bustling arts community.

To celebrate Cottage Street earning its designation — one of 24 such cultural districts recognized by the Massachusetts Cultural Council — part of the street will be blocked off to traffic June 14, to play host to “Cultural Chaos,” a full day’s smorgasbord of music, performance art, visual art displays, book readings and more.

The festival, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., will also tie in with the annual spring opening of Cottage Street Studios, in which artists in the converted mill building invite the public into their studios, and with the city’s monthly Arts Walk.

“We’re going to pull out all the stops,” said Marlies Stoddard, owner of Nash Gallery on Cottage Street and head of the committee that oversees the cultural district designation. “We think this should really be a nice showcase for us — a way to give everyone a sense of what we’re trying to do” with the district.

The heart of the festival will take place along the section of Cottage Street between its intersection with Maple Street, right by the Brass Cat bar, and the corner of Cottage and Chapel streets, where Cottage Street veers to the southwest and becomes Holyoke Street. This area will be closed to traffic and will also feature two temporary bandstands with live music; several eateries, such as Amy’s Place and La Casita Azteca, will sell food in outdoor booths.

Some of the Cottage Street artists will also set up booths along the street to showcase their work. Landscape painter Lynne Adams plans not just to display her paintings but to offer demonstrations; Adams, who teaches painting primarily to beginners and people with limited experience, says the opportunity to be out on the street sounded like fun.

“There’s so much going on [artistically] in Easthampton and along Cottage Street in particular,” she said. “I thought it would be nice to be outside, where everything’s happening. I can do some fairly quick paintings and let people know I give lessons. ... My goal is to show people that painting can be a lot of fun, not something that should intimidate you.”

Festival planners like Stoddard and Burns Maxey, head of the city’s arts organization, Easthampton City Arts Plus (ECA+), stress that “Cultural Chaos” will extend beyond the blocked-off section of Cottage Street. Stoddard’s Nash Gallery is north of that area, for instance, but she’s hosting a magic performer in her shop, and eateries like Popcorn Noir and Mount Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream, right by Nashawannuck Pond, will offer sidewalk sales.

Musically, the festival’s offerings will cover a lot of ground: the roots-rock/alt-country stylings of The Lonesome Brothers, music by members of the Woman Songwriter Collective, songs by singer-songwriter Abe Loomis, classical guitar from Peter Blanchette, and much more. Luthiers Co-Op, another Cottage Street business that regularly features live music, will also host some of Saturday’s performers.

Changing arts scene

Maxey, the ECA+ coordinator, says she and other planners began meeting last year after Cottage Street won recognition in April as a significant cultural district. The designation, designed to help cities spur economic development by building on their cultural history and resources, improves chances for those communities to qualify for additional grants and other help from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

With that in mind, Maxey says, planners wanted to find a way to bring more attention to the Cottage Street designation and acknowledge the ever-growing arts community in Easthampton, as well as its important connection to city businesses and government.

“This is our first major event, and it made sense to do it the same weekend as Cottage Street Open Studios,” she said. The artists that are part of that collective, Maxey noted, “have been a mainstay on Cottage Street for so many years, and over that time the street has really changed.”

Stoddard, the owner of Nash Gallery, recalls that when her mother, Mai, opened the gallery 18 years ago, Cottage Street had a good number of vacant storefronts and not all that much in the way of foot traffic. She jokes that her mother, who owned the building, had no background in art or retail but got fed up with “renting to tenants who moved in, painted the walls purple, then moved out after six months owing three months rent.”

“There were always artists in Easthampton, but they weren’t really visible,” said Stoddard, who grew up in the city. “There was this dichotomy between artists and the rest of the community. That’s not the case anymore.”

Maxey, who’s also an artist, notes that many businesses on Cottage Street “have a twist” in which art — and variety in general — figures into their makeup. Luthiers Co-Op, for instance, repairs stringed instruments but also has a bar and hosts live music. At Popcorn Noir, you can get a meal, sip a beer at the bar, or watch a movie in a small cinema. White Square Books, in turn, has an art gallery along with its bookshelves.

That theme of funky, independent businesses is reflected in some of the entertainment on tap for “Cultural Chaos.” Events on or just off the street will include BMX bike stunts, puppet shows, theatrical performances and “living statues.” History tours of the street are also on the agenda.

Kudos to ECA+

The festival comes in the wake of expanded recognition for the job ECA+ has been doing in making Easthampton a cultural and artistic destination. Last month, the organization — essentially Maxey, who’s a city employee, and a group of core volunteers — won a 2014 Humanities Award from New England Public Radio, which each year honors three individuals and/or groups in the region for their contributions to the arts and humanities.

“It seems like ever since Burns came on the job, [the growth of the arts] has really speeded up in town,” said Lynne Adams, the landscape painter, who moved to area some 25 years ago.

Maxey and Stoddard note that the city as a whole, and the business community in particular, has played a big part in embracing that growth. “Cultural Chaos” has been underwritten by funds from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and donations but also sponsorship by a number of businesses in town. Hopefully, Stoddard says, the festival can become an annual event.

Painter Barbara Johnson, another Cottage Street Studios artist, will also set up a booth on the sidewalk to give painting demonstrations, sell prints, and help people make the connection between the festival and Cottage Street Studios. “A lot of local people have never ventured into our building!” she wrote in an email to the Gazette.

Cottage Street Studios has built a strong legacy of its own during its 25-plus years on the scene, Johnson notes, but with events like “Cultural Chaos,” Easthampton as a whole seems to be witnessing “a new synergy, she said. “Old mills never die.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Cultural Chaos” will take place along much of Cottage Street in Easthampton on June 14, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Rain moves the event to June 15. Check culturalchaos.org for weather-related information. Cottage Street Studios will be open June 14 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. — a wine and cheese reception will take place at 5 p.m. — and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.