The creative vibe in the hills: Hilltown Open Studio Tour will profile the work of 32 artists in seven towns

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 09-22-2023 9:53 AM

The Hilltown 6 Pottery Tour, in which potters in the region open their studios to visitors, has been a staple in the Valley for almost 20 years.

Now the Hilltown Open Studio Tour is making its move to become a mainstay annual event.

The Hilltown tour, started in 2018, returns Sept. 30 through Oct. 1, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days, for its fifth iteration. And this year it will showcase the work of its largest number of artists yet — 32 — spread out among seven towns, from Westhampton to Plainfield.

It’s a diverse group of artists — sculptors, painters, printmakers, jewelry makers and more — a good number of whom have national reputations and have moved to the region for its quiet and rural beauty.

At the same time, the tour, centered in Cummington where numerous special events are scheduled, draws on the tradition of the former Cummington School of the Arts. From the 1920s to the 1990s, the school hosted artist residences, workshops and performances that drew names such as Willem de Kooning, Diane Arbus, Marianne Moore and Archibald Macleish.

“There’s a real unique history of the arts in this area,” said Kathryn Koegel, a consultant to the Hilltown Art Alliance (HAA), the organizers of next weekend’s tour. “And it’s now become a place where artists from other places relocate because it really sparks their creativity.”

Cummington center also received designation this year as a Massachusetts Cultural District, which ideally will enable the town to secure state grants for helping the arts, such as refurbishing old buildings for studios.

“Artists in the Hilltowns reinvent 19th century barns and mills into light-filled creative spaces,” said fabric artist Kathy Ford, president of the HAA. “Seeing how people live and work in such a beautiful rural area is the unique experience of the Open Studio Tour.”

Art in the country

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Jen Parrish-Hill, a Worthington jewelry designer and sculptor, is one of the artists who has found a home in the Hilltowns. She moved here about eight years ago from Malden after previously having studied at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, taking classes in subjects such as stained glass as well as art history.

It’s her interest in history that animates many of Parrish-Hill’s designs — amulets, necklaces, earrings — which she crafts using old-style techniques, including applying a patina to give her pieces a time-worn look.

Her amulets are a particular study of work with an historical touch. She carves them from wax and then casts them into recycled sterling silver and bronze. The designs can incorporate elements from Victorian and Renaissance art, or even further back, such as amulets inspired by medieval tapestries and the windows of Gothic cathedrals.

“I like making accessories that are more than just something sparkly,” said Parrish-Hill. “To me, these pieces can tell a story or evoke emotion — it’s more than simple adornment.”

Her stylistic and historical touches — nature is also an inspiration — have attracted quite a few noted clients over the years. She created work for two historical exhibits for British museums, including one on Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered by henchmen of King Henry II of England in 1170.

And the “B” necklace she initially created for a Tudor production became a key piece of fashion for America Ferrera, who played the lead role on television’s “Ugly Betty,” the ABC comedy-drama series that ran from 2006 to 2010. Her work also popped up on some characters’ necks in “Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix.”

Parrish-Hill jokes that she’s kind of a shy person. But she says she’s really enjoyed being part of the Hilltown studio tour, both as a way to connect with the public and as a link to other artists in the Hilltowns.

“I love being part of the arts community here,” she said. “There are a lot of talented people, and it’s been great to get to know some of them … You can sometimes be a little isolated working on your own, so it’s good to have those connections.”

Cummington sculptor Beckie Kravetz has also created work for clients other than art lovers. In the 1980s, she began her career making theatrical masks and later became the resident mask maker for the Los Angeles Opera, where she also handled makeup and wigs. Among the many singers she’s outfitted are Placido Domingo, Sir Thomas Allen and Carol Vaness.

Kravetz later moved on to do her own sculpture, from full-size bronze and ceramic figures to freestanding masks and heads and relief work. She continued to do some work for opera companies and today creates wigs and does makeup for the Berkshire Opera Festival.

A native of Arizona, Kravetz moved with her husband to Cummington in 2007 — the couple had various connections to the Northeast — without knowing that much about the town. But since then, she’s researched the Cummington School for the Arts, and in fact she lives in a house that was once part of the school.

“It feels great to be part of that tradition today, to live and work in area with such a rich diversity of talent,” she said. (Her husband, Alan Weisman, is a noted environmental journalist.)

Kravetz also was part of what was initially known as Hilltown Arts Alive, the precursor of the Hilltown Arts Alliance, whose members created a number of events such as art fairs and talks to raise public awareness of local artists. Eventually, she said, consensus emerged that artists hosting visits to their studios, combined with other art-related events, would be the best means to publicize the work of Hilltown artists.

“You can give people a hands-on, intimate look at how you work and make some really personal connections,” said Kravtez.

She’s been part of past Hilltown studio tours but is not doing it this year. But she will demonstrate how to use theatrical makeup to create a character at 4 p.m. on Sept. 30 at the Community House Tour Hub in Cummington.

Landscape painter Susanna White, who lives in Huntington, took part in a previous Hilltown open studio tour simply as a visitor to see how the process worked and to meet other artists. Following that, her partner and a few of her friends suggested she should be part of the tour, too.

“It was a no-brainer,” White said with a laugh. She opened up her studio last year and is doing so again in 2023.

White, a California native who graduated from Mount Holyoke College and ended up moving back to the Valley after attending graduate school elsewhere, does a lot of her painting outdoors: “This is a wonderful area to do that.”

And the open studio tour, she notes, “is a great way to get the word out about the artists who live and work here. It’s such a talented group of people, and I feel lucky to be a part of it.”

For more details about the Open Studio Tour, including demonstrations in artists’ studios and related public events in Cummington, visit hilltownartsalliance.org.

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

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