Words, spoken and written: Easthampton celebrates the arts


Staff Writer

Published: 04-06-2017 9:49 AM

Reading is generally a solitary pursuit. But at the Easthampton BookFest, organizers are finding new ways of making it a group activity.

For the third straight year, the city has prepared an all-day celebration of the written word — and more — in multiple venues around town on Saturday. From readings for both adults and children, to printmaking and bookbinding workshops, to a literary market in which over 30 writers, comic book makers, illustrators and others will be selling their work, BookFest offers numerous options for book enthusiasts.

The festival features a new event this year that will serve as something of an introduction to the main program, which takes place Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. On Thursday evening, two noted New York arts writers will kick off “Grist for the Mill,” a salon speaker series that aims to promote what the the city’s arts coordinator calls “culturally relevant discussions.”

Pasqualina Azzarello, who became the new Easthampton City Arts (ECA) head last fall, says “Grist for the Mill,” which she hopes to offer twice a year, is designed to look at a variety of artistic and cultural topics “at a time of great cultural change, of political change … I think people are looking for a way to come together to talk about these issues.”

“And what would make more sense as an introduction to BookFest than to have a couple writers give our first presentation?” said Azzarello.

Thursday’s speakers, Michael Musto and Mickey Boardmen, are longtime observers of the arts and the fashion world. Musto writes for The Village Voice and contributes to the New York Times “Styles” section and other publications, and Boardman is editorial director of PAPER magazine, a New York fashion publication. Both men also are cultural commentators for CNN and other TV programs.

In her first stint in being the lead organizer for BookFest, Azzarello says she’s also excited by Saturday’s lineup of events and speakers/readers, including novelist Ellen Meeropol, poets Richard Michelson and Gail Thomas, and music writer and professor Steve Waksman.

The book fair, put together with the help of myriad volunteers, also seems an embodiment of the city’s commitment to integrating the arts into everyday life, she said, a feeling that’s extended to her personally since she arrived last fall: “I’ve never encountered a warmer welcome.”

Painting and planning

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Azzarello was born in New Jersey but grew up partly in southern California, where in 1984 she saw dozens of public murals, commissioned by Los Angeles officials, being painted as part of the city’s preparation for hosting the summer Olympic Games.

The idea of sharing art with the public through murals stuck with Azzarello, who came to the Valley in the 1990s to attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst. After graduating, she lived in Boston and then New York, where she began a successful career herself as a public mural painter.

She also got involved in programming for a couple of nonprofit groups, and when she moved to Easthampton last year — “I just felt ready to operate on a new, human scale,” she said — she took on the ECA post after Burns Maxey, the former director, took a position with New England Public Radio.

“Burns did an incredible job of elevating the arts in town,” Azzarello said. “I’m so grateful for what she’s built here.”

When it came to this year’s BookFest, Azzarello was looking to add something new to supplement the event — she uses the term “compound programming’’ — and she discussed the idea with Rachel Phillips, another former New York artist now living in Easthampton who’s also a member of the ECA Committee.

It turned out Phillips knew Michael Musto, so he was invited to give the initial “Grist for the Mill” talk. And in looking around for someone to pair him with, Azzarello and Phillips eventually asked him who he’d like to share the stage with.

“His first choice was Mickey Boardman,” said Azzarrello.

The two New York writers and commentators are in fact friends and have both covered arts and pop culture for many years; Musto, for instance, wrote the “La Dulce Musto” nightlife column for 29 years for the Voice.

“They both have this historical perspective on how [art and culture] have changed over the years that I think will make for a great conversation,” said Azzarello.

She added that the topic for Thursday’s discussion, which takes place at 8 p.m. at The Bolyston Room, 122 Pleasant Street (next to Eastworks), has been broadly defined as “What is the role of the arts in a time of cultural shifts?”

Within that context, both speakers have been encouraged to talk about their own experiences, and there will plenty of time for audience members to ask questions, Azzarello noted: “We want to have this be pretty open-ended.”

Future “Grist for theMill” talks are still being discussed, including one for the fall, but Azzarello’s hope is that a broad range of speakers — both from the Valley and outside it — from different areas of the arts will ultimately take part in the event.

“We’ll see how Thursday goes and take it from there,” she said.

BookFest highlights

A key BookFest event kicks off Saturday at 9:30 a.m. at Easthampton High School with a visit from the husband and wife team of Tony and Angela DiTerlizzi, children’s book writers and artists from Amherst. Tony DiTerlizzi is the co-author and illustrator of “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” which was made into a 2008 movie, and Angela DiTerlizzi is the author of the children’s books “Some Bugs” and “Some Pets.”

Eastworks, meantime, will host a variety of events all day long, including cookbook sales and cooking demonstrations, a workshop on self-publishing, a story slam for adults, and the literary marketplace, which takes place from noon to 5 p.m.

And White Square Books, a cornerstone of the city’s Cottage Street Cultural District, will host readings and discussions with several writers; the store also offers a forum on literary translation and what’s involved with maintaining the meaning of text in another language.

“I’d had the idea for a BookFest about five years ago, and I’d mentioned it to Burns Maxey, but then I’d got caught up in other things and didn’t pursue it,” said Eileen Corbeil, White Square’s owner.

“But Burns came back and kept pestering me about doing it,” Corbeil added with a laugh, “and I’m glad she did, because it’s turned into a great event for the community.”

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

Ticket prices and more information about “Grist
for the Mill” can be found
at gristforthemill.event-brite.com. A complete schedule for Easthampton BookFest can be found at www.easthamptoncityarts.com/bookfest2017.