IS183 celebrates 25 years

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STOCKBRIDGE >> IS183 Art School of the Berkshires. To some people, it may just be a place with an odd or swanky sounding name. But to others, that name has come to mean so much more in the past 25 years of its existence.

The name "IS183" has been in Kai Nielsen's vocabulary for most of his life. He first encountered it as a first-grader at Morningside Community School in Pittsfield, the year that the school piloted IS183's Learning Through Arts after-school program there. This past summer, Nielsen, now an eighth-grader at the Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public School in Adams, returned to Morningside and Learning through the Arts as mentor to younger children.

Nielsen said it's a program worth giving up part of his summer for.

"Looking back, I really liked the teachers and the fun projects, and it was different than my other classes," he said of the IS183 program. "I felt really happy getting there after a stressful day. To sit down and make art with a bunch of my friends with a nice teacher was just really relieving."

According to its mission, "IS183 is a non-profit community art school encouraging people of all ages, means, and skill levels to enrich their lives through hands-on art-making."

The art school's current executive director, Hope Sullivan, said that students like Nielsen exemplify the power hands-on art-making can have on people's lives.

"Our mission is not just about offering a studio experience, it's about engagement," Sullivan said.

She noted how, when Nielsen's family moved to a different part of Pittsfield, which had a different elementary school closer by, the boy's family would walk him back to Morningside, specifically so he could stay with the Learning Through Arts program.

"Over the years, we've looked at how can an art school change outcomes — and that's where my calling for social justice comes in. We believe that by creating engagement we can transform our community," said Sullivan.

Nielsen said the skills he was taught has helped him become a better artist. He hopes to use these skills to work with animation and design. After a time in fifth-grade, when a classmate offered him $2 for Nielsen to draw a picture for him, the boy embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and taught himself how to set up an online account to share and sell his designs, and has learned open-source software that helps him advance his three-dimensional designs.

That knowledge, he said, "Definitely changed the way I approach things. I think of things now from every angle — like how is that made and what did that person go through to make it."

Nielsen added, "The way you perceive something is based on how you're taught." Which, he said, is what motivated him to continue to find ways to share art and help teach it to others, including his younger sister who was part of this summer's Learning Through the Arts program at Morningside for which he was a mentor.

"When I went there, I really felt like I could really change the world with my art," he said. "Whether it's IS183 or some other way, I think every elementary school should have some kind of elementary school after-school program to expand kids' minds."

And that's just one chapter that's been added to IS183's 25-year history.

It began with a much different approach in 1991, when its founders, including weaver Sam Kasten, aimed to create a community-based, studio-minded art school that would become a regional and national destination in the Berkshire cultural landscape, in the sleepy, serene Stockbridge village of Interlaken. What was then known as the Interlaken School of Art would bring in premiere artists to teach their mediums, and host special events, showcases, and workshops to inspire the spirit of making, doing and expression through the arts.

In its first decade or so, the school experienced its fair share of successes and growing pains. It did bring in a great deal of talent, like designer Kaffe Fassett and ceramicist Frank Bosco, while at the same time struggled to bring in finances and keep a steady director. Sullivan, who recently marked earlier this month her 11th year with IS183, is the school's longest serving executive director, with about 10 other preceding her.

But, said Sullivan, the art school has always had a dedicated, active and fiercely creative Board of Directors, which included Nancy Fitzpatrick, owner of this historic Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, who helped found the school, and who has been a sustainable supporter. Back in July, a benefit Fitzpatrick Fandago gala was attended by more than 200 guests, netting more than $95,000 for IS183's year-round programming.

Throwing big, lavish, decadently detailed parties has long been the school's signature approach in creating excitement in the community about its mission and purpose. In 1999, heading into its 10th year, then still the Interlaken School of Art, hosted "Strangeness in the Night," a benefit masquerade ball, complete with enormous chandelier, an Hell's Kitchen inspired dessert and drinks bar, a costume and mask-making shop, and a raffle for a trip for two to Spain.

Then Interlaken School of Art Board President Lucy Holland Nader — who later served as executive director — said in an October 1999 interview with The Eagle that the hype in planning a ball was intentional.

"We do it on purpose," she said. "We design events to encourage participation in the art-making process. Each of us has artistic expression in us and it is important to take time to make art and help a place like Interlaken grow in the community."

Similarly, this year's gala, slated for Oct. 29 at the Shire City Sanctuary in Pittsfield, carries the theme of "OZ," with some you're-not-in-Kansas-anymore style decor, digital projections, music and another grand prize trip for two raffle, this year to Australia.

With the excitement of these events, it eventually became the school's mission to redirect that energy towards building collaborations within the local community, an approach that is still employed by the school today.

Along with that shift came the school's name change, a nod to being located off of Route 183, and the spirit of New York City's public schools being named by numbers. It also came on the hinge of a legal dispute with Michigan's Interlochen Performing Arts Academy.

Lucy Holland Nader said that the conflict served, in a way, as a positive indicator of the art school's growth in success. She said in a 2002 interview with The Eagle, "We were delighted when Interlochen felt we were becoming nationally known, and we consider it a benchmark of our success in the marketplace."

At the same time, IS183 was offered ownership of the Citizen's Hall building on Willard Hill Road that it had been leasing for many years. The building was owned by Old Curtisville Inc., a nonprofit group made up of local residents, who were ready to turn it over, contingent on the terms that IS183 would renovate the exterior of the historic mansard-roofed Second Empire building. The 1870 former school house was restored in the 1970s by Old Curtisville Inc., but needed significant repairs by the turn into the current century.

The school accepted the challenge, which, by 2003, had compounded a slowly mounting debt into a $100,000-plus deficit. Still, private donors continued to supplement the grants and other donations that helped supplement the modest incomes from class tuitions and materials fees.

That year, Karin Watkins had stepped in as executive director, with Megan Whilden stepping on board as the school's new marketing director. Increased enrollment across the board, from adult's and children's programming also offered signs of hope.

On July 13, 2006, IS183 Art School of the Berkshires celebrated its 15th anniversary, with another new director, Hope Sullivan, at the helm.

"I think it is remarkable," said Sam Kasten, the school's founder, told The Eagle then, "especially when there are so many long-standing, much larger concerns in the area. The school has been supported all these years by our students who really love it ... I'm grateful that the school has survived."

At that celebration, Sullivan called IS183 a "scrappy little school" with a lot of moxie to continue to foster people's creativity. Sullivan was willing to balance that with some concrete measures to make that happen, starting her tenure by working with stakeholders to compose a strategic plan.

In an Oct. 14 interview with The Eagle, in her sun-drenched office, with neighboring artists, administrators and artists working soundly in neighboring spaces, Sullivan echoed her sentiments with similar poise.

"In strained social times, offering a high quality experience and embracing an entrepreneurial spirit becomes even more imperative, despite fiscal challenges, which are nature to nonprofits. We know that our programs are having measurable impact, and this is why it's worth the struggle," she said. "If fewer dollars are in the forecast, our model is to fiercely collaborate."

Longtime painting instructor, Yura Adams, says it's this spirit, and students like Eleanor Windman of Egremont and Erica Florin in Lee, that drives her to stay committed to this cause. Each Friday, for the past several years, these adult students have faithfully come to the studio to expand their abilities.

"She gives me the motivation and everything she says helps me understand who I am as an artist," Windman said.

For Florin, it's about finding connection to people, as well as access to art. "I like seeing the different things people do," she said. Florin's art of Sullivan's dog hangs in the director's office, along with other works of students past and present.

Said Sullivan, "Twenty five in some ways is just a number, but it's also a remarkable moment for this school. I think there's something really symbolic in navigating through challenges and at the same time knowing that while there's more work to be done there's more impact we can make."


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