Thursday April 8, 2010


Two men: Both age 26; both from Pittsfield; childhood friends, now worlds apart.

Michael Boroniec is a local ceramist and Taconic High School art teacher, whose hands carry and cure clay, paint over brick and stretch frames.

His friend, Samuel J. Russo, is a soldier, deployed for his second tour of Afghanistan last month. Russo's fingers know very well the laces of military boots and the controls of the Blackhawk helicopters he flies with the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Air Force.

The things they carry have come together, translated by Boroniec into clay, for two exhibitions this month.

Locally, the exhibition "The Things They Left Behind," featuring the work of Boroniec and Gerit Grimm opens this Saturday with a reception beginning at 5 p.m. at the Ferrin Gallery on North Street. Boroniec's pieces are the forms of Russo's boots, captain's hat and canteen, now with Russo in Afghanistan.

On April 30, Boroniec's work, using Russo's boots from his first tour in Afghanistan, will be featured in an exhibition titled "The Perfect Fit: Shoes Tell Stories," installed at The Nicolaysen Art Museum & Discovery Center in Casper, Wyo.

The Ferrin Gallery exhibition is part of Pittsfield's city-wide literacy project, The Big Read. The program focuses on Tim O'Brien's 1990 novel, "The Things They Carried," a fictional narrative of a platoon going through the Vietnam War. It also serves as a vehicle to explore the general themes of war, veterans and how war affects the community.

Though Boroniec's work is stationary and silent, Russo's father Samuel J. Russo Jr. says it speaks volumes.

"Unless you have a son, daughter, family member or friend involved, most people don't really know what's going on in terms of war. Seeing those boots is a reminder of what hundreds and thousands of kids are going through or have gone through in Iraq or Afghanistan. There's a story there, a story of sacrifice kids go through to keep us safe," said Russo Jr.

The story of Boroniec and Russo begins when the two were youngsters.

"We were little kids, like 3 years old. Sam used to visit his grandparents nearby in the summer, which is how we met," Boroniec said from his West Housatonic Street home and studio.

Boroniec was an artistic youngster. "Every kid loves to have a crayon or a paintbrush in their hands. I was the kid that never stopped," he said.

According to Russo's father, it wasn't until middle school that his son knew what he wanted to do.

"Our son went to a football game at West Point in eighth grade with friends from the area. He came back from there and said to me, ‘Dad, I'd really like to go there."

In 2002, Russo and Boroniec graduated from St. Joseph Central and Taconic high schools respectively.

Russo did go onto to West Point where he graduated in 2006 with a bachelor of science degree in systems engineering and went on to become a become a brigade staff captain and Blackhawk pilot.

Boroniec studied at Berkshire Community College for a while and in 2006 graduated from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design with a bachelor of fine arts degree in ceramics.

The artist said he never thought that his ceramics would reflect anything political.

"This is not the kind of art I do," Borniec said.

His pieces are usually based on things he experiences from hiking to studies of indigenous cultures, or are commissioned pieces, like the graffiti-style art that hangs in the local restaurant Mission Bar & Tapas.

"When I was at RISD, I had these drawings and paintings that were pretty politically charged. There was this professor who told me, ‘You should really use that in your ceramics.'

"I said no. For me, ceramics was where I would go to mediate and feel zen. Who would've thought -- that damn professor was right," Boroniec said.

Around the time of Russo's first deployment in 2008, Boroniec asked his friend for his boots.

"He thought it was cool. For me, they're like fingerprints, a reflection of where he's been," Boroniec said.

The artist created "Messages," an installation in which he sculpted copies of Russo's boots. The installation was made up of more than 20 ceramic doves collaged with news articles about the war; silk-screened prints of oil barrels and flags made of crude and used motor oil; and news columns.

This time around, Boroniec used Russo's newer boots, hat and canteen, to make three models -- one a three-dimensional clay still life; one covered with sand; one covered in news articles about the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Mike's work is very, very touching," said Samuel Russo Jr. "If you'd talk to my son, he'd tell you Mike's a talented kid he wants to see do well. As for Sam, he just does his service. He's a humble kid."

Said Boroniec of his most recent work, "I thought I'd try to keep a neutral ground. It's just about what's going on and nothing more. This is just something I wanted to do to honor my friend."

To reach Jenn Smith: (413) 496-6211