Amherst Biennial brings back town-wide art exhibits starting this weekend

Last modified: Wednesday, November 21, 2012

in 2010, Amherst opened a town-wide art exhibit with an ambitious title: the first “Amherst Biennial.”

But two years later, the implication that the artistic celebration would in fact become an every-other-year event has been realized. This weekend “Amherst Biennial e_SSRq12” will open with 100 works from 45 Valley artists. Expanding on the 2010 event, it has added several locations to go along with the exhibit’s theme: “Art in Expected and Unexpected Places.” Among the new settings are the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, the Emily Dickinson Homestead, the Strong House Museum and all three college campuses in town.

“I really wanted to build on what we did two years ago and make that town-gown connection, and I found the colleges very open about being a part of this,” said Terry Rooney, who heads the Amherst Public Art Commission and has spearheaded both biennial exhibitions. “It makes this much more of a town-wide project.”

In fact, Rooney’s co-curators for “Biennial e_SSRq12” are Elizabeth Barker, director of the Mead Museum of Art at Amherst College, and Loretta Yarlow, who heads the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The three women have selected a range of paintings, sculpture, photography, mixed-media presentations, even some performance-type pieces, that, as Rooney puts it, “are great examples of the incredibly exciting art produced in the Valley.”

“I’m from New York,” Rooney said, “and I’m continually amazed at how talented the artists are here.”

“Amherst Biennial e_SSRq12” starts this Saturday when nearly all the exhibits become available for viewing. At 5 p.m. that day, multidisciplinary artist Samuel Rowlett will hike from the UMass Fine Arts Center to Amherst College with an 8-foot-by-6-foot canvas on his back, which he’ll eventually turn into a painting.

The walk is part of a video/photographic project that Rowlett began earlier this year, which included hiking up Skinner Mountain in Hadley with the canvas on his back in homage to Thomas Cole’s 19th-century painting of the Connecticut River oxbow, made from that same vantage point.

On Sunday, conceptual artist Karen Dolmanisth will begin building a public installation, using natural materials that honor “sacred texts,” at Stearns Steeple at Amherst College, next to the Mead. Dolmanisth will work on her project each weekend, in public, for the length of the biennial, which runs through Nov. 30.

For the artists involved in this year’s biennial — Rooney says there are many new contributors this year — the event is not just an opportunity to display their work. They say it’s also a chance to be part of a larger celebration of the Valley’s artistic talent and to make personal connections with one another.

“That’s one of the things that drew me here,” said Dawn Howkinson Siebel of Easthampton, who moved to the area a year ago after living in Colorado, New York City and upstate New York. “I heard this was a really great place for an artist to be.”

Siebel has contributed a small sample to the biennial of a project that’s consumed her for the last several years: oil portraits of all 343 firefighters who died in the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center. Her 4-inch-by-6-inch portraits are painted on blocks of charred wood. Three prints of paintings from this portfolio, which Siebel helped finance by selling her former Colorado home, are now on display in the Frost Library Gallery at Amherst College.

Two other first-time biennial artists, Kim Carlino and Jeff Stauder, also have their work on display at the Frost Library. Carlino uses watercolor and ink to create her abstract paintings, while Stauder, an art teacher at Amherst Regional High School, offers two works in graphite and watercolor, including the surrealistic “Flood” — seemingly disembodied heads of American bison adrift in a churning sea.

“I think [the biennial] is a great idea,” said Stauder, who will have a solo show of his work at Herter Gallery at UMass in January. “Biennial e_SSRq12,” in fact, represents the first time his work has been displayed in Amherst, he noted, “and it’s fun to be part of something this big.”

Anne Burton, an Amherst mixed-media artist, credits Rooney with not only having a good eye for selecting art but also using the biennial to help forge an expanded identity for the town.

“She’s really hatching a plan to brand Amherst as a cultural center and a visual art center,” said Burton, who also has work displayed at Frost Library for “Biennial e_SSRq12.” As Burton sees it, that’s a way of building on other attractions in town, like the Dickinson Homestead, that have long been draws for tourists.

Collaborative effort

Rooney and the other organizers of the 2010 biennial conceived of the project as a response to the closing of some art galleries in town. She worked with Tony Maroulis, the executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, on the exhibit, which was based on the belief that public displays of art are a good way to connect with people who might not otherwise visit a gallery.

The 2010 biennial, Rooney joked, was “kind of done on the fly — we didn’t have much time to put it together.” For this year’s edition, Rooney was able to start the planning much earlier, allowing her to develop more venues, draw on a larger pool of submitted art and enlist the support of the colleges.

Barker, the Mead Art Museum director, says she’d really enjoyed the 2010 biennial and was thrilled to be a guest curator for this year’s event.

“I’ve learned something new at every stage,” she said. “The process of selecting the participating artists felt like a crash course in contemporary art from our region. ... Now I’m looking forward to watching the continuous trail of biennial installations bring new visitors from downtown onto the campus, and vice versa.”

Hampshire College is also making a key contribution to “Biennial e_SSRq12” via “Encounter 2,” an otherworldly-looking metal sculpture by William Brayton, an art professor at the school. The piece will be displayed outside the Lord Jeffery Inn. And Easthampton metal sculptor Matt Johnson, who contributed “Portal,” to the 2010 exhibit — the sculpture is still on display in Kendrick Park, as the town raises money to buy it — will have a new piece this year, “Coils 16,” outside the admissions office at Hampshire.

Other artists in “Biennial e_SSRq12” include photographers Anne Krauss and Anita Licis-Ribak, painters Charles Miller and Lourdes Morales, and sculptors Chris Nelson and Lee Hutt. Hutt, of South Hadley, has made three life-size, painted cast-resin rabbits that will be set up in Kendrick Park with an eye to using them as a starting point for creating a playground there.

As in 2010, several businesses in town, including Zanna and Hope & Feathers Framing, will host exhibits. Art will also be on display at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, Town Hall, the Jones Library and the Henry Hills House on Gray Street.

“This really is a great collaborative effort,” Rooney said. From town officials to businesses to the colleges and the artists, she said, “a lot of really helpful, creative people worked hard to make this happen, and I’m grateful to all of them.”

For information obout ‘Amherst Biennial e_SSRq12,’ visit

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


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