Big steps ahead for Mastheads writers studios in Pittsfield

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PITTSFIELD — Leveraging the past to inspire the present, five writers studios named for literary giants who once worked here are set to open this summer as temporary havens for current authors. The project, known as The Mastheads, will be accompanied by a series of public programs.

"This is about enabling young people to take a new look at our city and to put forth new ideas about what this place is all about," said project co-director Tessa Kelly.

Kelly, 31, and Chris Parkinson, 32, who are married, are Berkshire County natives, graduates of Mount Greylock Regional High School and Yale School of Architecture. They returned to the area in October from New Haven, Conn. to be with family, raise their infant daughter and launch The Mastheads.

The studios, the heart of the project, are architectural interpretations of the original structures used by American Renaissance authors during the mid-19th century: Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., all of whom wrote in or took inspiration from Pittsfield.

"We really saw that history as an opportunity to create a platform to start bringing more creative young people through the city and to see the city of Pittsfield as a place that is developing in unique ways," Kelly said.

Three milestones for the project are approaching.

Applications from authors interested in the month-long July residencies in the studios are due by March 1. A poetry program for third-graders at Morningside Elementary School begins March 13. And Parkinson and Kelly have until March 17 to raise a match for a $50,000 grant from MassDevelopment, one of several funding sources for the $200,000 project.

Kelly said the relatively modest cost of the project was meant to demonstrate "we can still add value to the community without huge investment."

The eight-by-eight studios, which are portable, will be located at four locations in the city: Arrowhead, Springside House, Pittsfield High School, and Mass Audubon's Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary

The project name comes from Melville's "Moby Dick." The book's narrator, Ishmael, is among the crew members who watch for whales on the masthead. From that solitary vantage point, he finds an opportunity for self-reflection and self-discovery.

Kelly and Parkinson said they want their project to afford the writers-in-residence a similar experience.

They also want to engage the broader community

A collaboration with Morningside Elementary, which melds creative writing instruction and local literary history, a July lecture series, and a variety of other programming, in development, is designed to do that, Kelly said.

Poet and scholar Sarah Trudgeon will lead the poetry pilot program at Morningside, Mastheads Fireside, named after the New England writers group known as the Fireside Poets. Third-graders will be the focus because students that age are shifting from learning to read to reading to learn, she said.

"We want to jump in at this crucial point with some fun, nontraditional programming that builds on the excitement about reading and writing that their teachers are already helping them cultivate," Trudgeon said.

The poetry curriculum is "grounded in physical space and local history" because of the Mastheads studios and local writers' houses such as Melville's Arrowhead, she said,

"We can connect the creative writing that our students are doing with the creative writing that authors in this area have been doing for a hundred years," she said.

The student poetry as well as excerpts of the work created by the yet-to-be determined artists-in-residence will be shared with the public. But Kelly said they are still determining the form that will take.

Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 413-496-6221 or @carriesaldo


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