John Stritch lights a spark: Artist honored in companion shows
PITTSFIELD -- He is a Massachusetts milltown boy who became a flight surgeon for the Air Force. In England, he flew with the first helicopter rescues, pulling people out of the North Sea. He lived and traveled around the world. And when he and his wife came to the Berkshires in the 1960s, he built sculpture from iron farm tools at their old farm in Hinsdale and taught at the DeSisto School, where the students would come to his studio to watch him paint.
The county knows John Stritch for the ironwork in his fields, for the gallery he and his wife, Jean, once ran in Hinsdale, and for his silk-screened posters for local inventions from Tanglewood to Moby Dick to the Josh Billings Runaground.
Now the city is celebrating his work and his life in two companion shows -- his posters at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, and his painting and sculpture -- flame-like women, lost cities in mud and copper, scrap-iron thunder birds -- at the Whitney Center for the Arts.
"We want to celebrate him while he's here," said Megan Whilden, director of Cultural Development for Pittsfield and curator at the Lichtenstein.
"He is a legendary part of the Berkshires," agreed Ghazi Kazmi, owner of the Whit, and co-curator the show there, admiring the amber and dark shine of Stritch's "Cornithian Leather."
Stritch speaks passionately about making and about wonder.
But "Art" and "Culture" in capital letters, "I have no interest in that," he said.
He grew up in a mill town, in Ware, in the Depression.
He remembers sitting at the dining room table one night, doing his Latin homework, conjugating verbs: "amo, amas, amat: I love, you love, he loves ..."
His father called him in to stand by the tall radio -- it ran on batteries -- to listen to the broadcast.
It was a Sunday afternoon, Dec. 7, 1941, and they were listening to the first news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
That day, his life changed course. He had dreamed of becoming an English professor at Amherst, he said, of smoking a pipe and wearing sweaters with elbow patches.
Instead, he went into the service, Army and then Air Force. A Catholic program helped him into college early (his family is Irish), and the military saw him through medical school.
In England, in the Air Force, he married Jean. He was living in a cottage in point-to-point country, where the horses raced in the fields. Jean gave him a set of paints, he said, and he started painting horses.
She looked at one of his paintings and said "ghost riders in the sky."
His horse "was floating," he said. "It had no weight. When [Sir Alfred James] Munnings painted a horse, you could feel the weight of it" on solid ground.
He wondered how Munnings had gotten that solid mass and muscle into his paintings.
Stritch had been to a museum once, he said, on a high school field trip -- and had snuck out to see Gypsy Rose Lee instead. In England, he began to look at paintings for the first time.
"Now, if I see a Rembrandt, I'll look at how many strokes it took to paint that nose," he said. "If you stand up close to a painting, you're standing where he stood."
He would see what the artist had done. And he would feel a power larger than the brush strokes that formed a shadow or an eyelid. He began to look at art and to make up his own mind about it, he said. He began to be moved.
"There's a side of you that feels things, that finds mystery," he said.
From then on, he became an artist.
"When we were in Aruba," Jean said, "you decided to paint. You gave up medicine."
After the Air force, John practiced surgery for 15 years.
"I never fell in love with it," he said.
So he left it behind.
After 13 years away from the U.S., he and Jean settled on 68 acres that had been a Hinsdale farm. He found scrap iron, shoes for draft horses, pieces of tools, and he learned how to weld them into sculpture.
He and Jean opened a gallery.
In Hinsdale in the late 1960s, galleries were not a usual part of the landscape.
They met some challenge and even occasional anger from people who may have thought, as he once had, that art and "culture" and museums did not belong to them.
He challenged people to feel that it could belong to them. He challenged people to feel.
Stritch taught physics and chemistry at the DeSisto School in Stockbridge to generations of troubled teenagers. They needed discipline, he said, and a sense of their own worth.
"There was never a period in my life when I wasn't needed," he said. "Who needs the kids today?"
"I would tell the kids, ‘Listen, you're wonderful.' Every human being is a miracle" of cells and systems and microscopic detail. "That's something I brought with me from medicine."
He had a studio at the school, and the students would come in as he worked.
In these years he met John Ahlen, a Berkshire craftsman who knew silk-screening. Stritch describes Ahlen as a very bright man who had never gone to college, who had a brilliant eye for color -- he is retired now and drives back roads coast to coast, looking for local flavor, eating hush puppies in small towns in Louisiana.
With Ahlen, Stritch made the posters he became known for.
The Stritches still have the sign that hung over their gallery. Kazmi asked Berkshire signmaker Bob Stone to repair it, and it hangs now over the door to the show at the Whit, inviting people in. The community has come out for this show, he said.
Maybe they respond the way Stritch sees art -- delicious and unexpected and sometimes messy -- like trying crawfish for the first time.
"That's what it's for," he said. "you have a sense of wonder. It comes free the day you're born. If you don't nourish it, it dwindles."
What: John Stritch retrospectives
Where: Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, 28 Renne Ave., Pittsfield
Hours: Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.
When: Through Saturday, Feb. 1
Posters are for sale, and on Saturday, all will be half-price, starting at $25
Information: (413) 443-0289, discoverpittsfield.com
Where: Whitney Center for the Arts, 42 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield
When: Through Saturday, Feb. 1
Hours: Wednesday to Friday
4 to 7 p.m., Saturday noon to 5
Information: (413) 499-9348, Whitney Arts Center on Facebook
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