Art People: B.Z. Reily | sculptor, art educator

Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2014
When B.Z. Reily retired last fall after teaching art for 33 years in Amherst’s public schools, students gathered for a farewell assembly wearing T-shirts printed with her familiar sayings:

You’re the artist.

Don’t call 911!

Dare to be lousy.

“It was sort of embarrassing,” Reily said with a wry laugh. But it was certainly true, she said, that she always told students to use the knowledge she gave them to create something of their own because ... you’re the artist. If they got frustrated with their efforts, she offered encouragement: Don’t call 911! And she would tell them that trying something new was more important than the result: Dare to be lousy.

Reily, 61, has likely used those phrases at The Common School in Amherst where, post-retirement, she’s been an artist-in-residence since late April, thanks to a six-week grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

“I’m too social of a being” to leave teaching altogether, she said during an interview there last Friday, surrounded by kid energy and the clutter and commotion of art in progress. Much as she savors having time for her own work — creating wall sculptures using found objects and materials from the natural world — she relishes nurturing the artistic impulse in others, especially elementary-school students.

“I love the art that they make because it’s so open and free.” she said. At that age, “it’s the process that’s the fun.”

At The Common School, she’s working with fifth and sixth graders who are making a dozen giant papier-mâché puppets. Reily, who had studied the work of Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theater and the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre of Minneapolis, approached the school with the puppet-making idea.

Inspired by The Common School’s collaborative relationships with the next-door Hitchcock Center for the Environment, and nearby Bramble Hill Farm, Reily and her students decided to make puppets based on nature and farm life, including a pumpkin, a pig, a goat, a bee, a barnyard cat, a bird, a squirrel and the sun.

Puppets are about the fun of making something big, Reily said. There’s the challenge of transforming flat cardboard strips into three-dimensional frames. There’s the doing: drawing designs, making the papier-mâché forms, painting the finished faces. There’s the challenge of using discarded stuff — oars, a cane, fabric, pieces of swimming noodles — that can be repurposed as puppet parts. And the satisfaction of helping students puzzle through questions: How will you make the bird’s wings move? If you’re walking inside the puppet, how will you see out?

The puppets are scheduled to make their public debut June 6 at 10 a.m. in a parade to Bramble Hill Farm where the students will do some spring planting.

Last Friday, leaning against the classroom walls, the puppets, close to completion, minus a tail here, a wing there, almost looked like they were resting up. Reily breezed past them as she left for the day. “Have a nice weekend,” she said.

— Suzanne Wilson

Wall sculpture by B.Z. Reily is included in “Works on Paper,” an exhibit at Deerfield Arts Bank, 3 Sugarloaf St., South Deerfield, through Aug. 1.