It was the year 2009.
The country was in the midst of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. People were worried about their jobs, their families, their future. Circumstances seemed uncertain and frightening to many.
It was in January of that year that Joan Pilarczyk, director of Artsplace in Cheshire, spoke to members of the community, reiterating a belief she has held throughout her life. “When things get bad, art is a way to manage our frustration,” he recalls saying.
Pilarczyk admits he’s given those words a lot of thought over the past few years. The economy recovered after 2009, but the pandemic that began in 2020 and continues to affect our lives to this day created a whole new level of uncertainty, frustration and fear. And once again, people have turned to art for comfort.
“We were closed for many months (at the start of the pandemic),” Pilarczyk explained. “When we reopened, the feedback from students was overwhelming. They were so grateful.”
Pilarczyk has in her possession much of the correspondence she received during that time, from Artsplace students of all ages who talked about how the ability to take class and focus on creativity helped their mental health or allowed him to escape the constant negative and worrying news. of the day. One even went so far as to describe Artsplace as “my sanity in a crazy world,” crediting the classes they took for keeping them from falling into despair about the state of the world.
“That’s the beauty of art,” Pilarczyk said. “There’s no right or wrong in that. (For many) it’s that escape.”
Artsplace began in 1987 with the formation of the Cheshire Performing Arts Committee – 11 politically appointed volunteers who shared a mission – to ‘promote the arts’ in Cheshire. Artsplace was originally based in the old brick firehouse on Maple Avenue, but in 2001, the city decided to move it to a much larger facility: the former VFW building at 1220 Waterbury Road. Immediately, Artsplace gained four classrooms, handicap accessibility, additional parking and air conditioning.
Artsplace is unique in that it is the only city-supported arts center in the state, with a budget of more than $200,000 annually in funding, of which the center generates more than $100,000. Since moving to its Waterbury Road facility, Artsplace has seen enrollment increase to the point where many of the classes now fill up shortly after enrollment opens.
“We often have waiting lists,” Pilarczyk said. “It’s really about the quality of the teachers. We have some of the best (artist) classes teaching at the facility. I realized a long time ago that this is what keeps people coming back. It’s not about me, it’s about (the instructors)”.
These include Rita Paradis, a world-renowned colored pencil artist and oil painter who has shown 10 pieces over the years at the International Exhibition of the Colored Pencil Society of America. But it also includes someone like Tony Ruggiero, a former science teacher and self-taught artist who has been teaching at Artsplace since 2003.
“They are all so wonderful,” Pilarczyk said.
When Artsplace returned from its enforced hiatus in September 2020, it opened only one large classroom, in order to accommodate all Centers for Disease Control guidelines on social distancing and safety. Masks were required, cleaning was constant, and the facility invested in new air filtration systems designed to help kill viruses before they could spread from person to person.
However, despite the time away and the protocols in place, Pilarczyk saw increased interest in Artsplace. Normally, the facility offers 12-week courses, but given the uncertainty of the moment, Pilarczyk decided to cut the classes to three-week sessions so that if an unexpected closure induced by COVID-19 were necessary, it wouldn’t create as many problems cancellation, as it would occur in the middle of long-running sessions.
“I can tell you that the work that was done in those first (sessions after the pandemic stopped), it was like a professional job,” Pilarczyk said. “The students were very focused. They were very in tune with what they were doing. I think a lot of them just wanted that release (of what was going on in the world).
Artsplace also became a haven for children, though Pilarczyk admits that when younger students first returned to art school, the toll the pandemic had taken was obvious.
“We originally reopened for adults only,” Pilarczyk said. “When the kids (Sessions) came back, I was shocked at how much stress the pandemic had caused them.”
There were some behavioral issues that emerged, ones that had been extremely rare before the pandemic, that caught Pilarczyk’s attention. “It was clear how it had affected (the children),” he explained.
“This summer, the kids really got their mojo back,” Pilarczyk continued, laughing. “I looked at them in class and thought, ‘Now, that’s payback.'”
Over the past two years, with the help of the Coalition for a Sustainable Cheshire, the community has focused on efforts to promote everything from environmental awareness to energy efficiency in the town. However, one of the mainstays of the Coalition movement has been the arts and Cheshire’s promotion of creativity throughout the community.
According to Coalition founder A. Fiona Pearson, Artsplace’s presence and unique role in the community has helped Cheshire continue to gain statewide recognition for its sustainability efforts, and Artsplace itself there is a focus on more traditional conservation initiatives.
Pilarczyk explained that the facility accepts donations of used art supplies, which are cleaned and then put to good use. Donations increased during the pandemic, Pilarczyk said, as “it seemed like every artist or crafter (came through) their supply depot and gave us donations. Sometimes we were getting donations from three people a week.”
“Children’s classes, workshops and camps often use recycled items to complete works of art, including collages and sculptures,” she continued. “Canvas are repainted and reused for children, teenagers and adults whenever possible. If we can’t use materials, we pass them on to the students on a ‘free’ table. Especially popular are the repurposed frames.”
Outside of Artsplace, you can find “Pina’s Giving Garden”, which offers free produce (cucumbers, squash, zucchini or tomatoes and some herbs) for everyone.
In the end, though, it’s the work that goes into the installation that means the most, and for Pilarczyk, it’s about making the connections that help build the bonds that matter within a community.
“I love this, every day is different (for me),” he said. “You come expecting to do one thing and end up doing something totally different. That’s what’s so special.”