The year was 2009.
The country was in the midst of its deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. People were worried about their jobs, their families, their futures. 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 had held throughout her life. “When things get bad, art is one way we can deal with our frustration,” she recalls.
Pilarczyk admits she’s thought about those words a lot over the past few years. The economy recovered after 2009, but the pandemic that began in 2020 and continues to impact our lives to this day has created a whole new level of uncertainty, frustration and fear. And once again, people 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 much of the correspondence she has received during that time from Artsplace students of all ages who talked about how being able to attend class and focus on creativity helped their mental health or provided an escape from 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 to keep them from despairing about the state of the world.
“That’s the beauty of art,” Pilarczyk said. “There is no right or wrong in it. (For many) it’s the escape.”
Artsplace began in 1987 with the formation of the Cheshire Fine Arts Committee – 11 politically appointed volunteers who share one mission: to ‘promote the arts’ in Cheshire. Artsplace was originally located 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 received four classrooms, handicap access, 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 in annual funding, of which the center itself generates well over $100,000. Since moving to its Waterbury Road facility, Artsplace has seen an increase of enrollment to the point where many classes now fill up shortly after registration opens.
“We often have waiting lists,” Pilarczyk said. “It’s really all about the quality of the teachers. We have some of the best (artist) teaching classes in the facility. I found out 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 and oil artist who has had 10 works shown over the years in 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 taught at Artsplace since 2003.
“Everyone is so wonderful,” Pilarczyk said.
When Artsplace returned from its enforced shutdown in September 2020, it opened just one large classroom to accommodate all Centers for Disease Control guidelines on 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 one person to another.
Still, despite the timing and protocols, Pilarczyk has seen interest in Artsplace grow. Normally, the facility offers 12-week courses, but given the uncertainty of the moment, Pilarczyk decided to reduce the classes to three-week sessions so that if an unexpected shutdown due to COVID-19 were to occur, it wouldn’t cause as many cancellation problems as it would. would occur in the middle of longer sessions.
“I can tell you that the work done in these first (post-pandemic sessions) was like professional work,” Pilarczyk said. “The students were so focused. They were so in tune with what they were doing. I think many just wanted that release (from what was going on in the world).”
Artsplace has also become a haven for children, although Pilarczyk admits that the first time younger students returned to the art school, it was clearly the toll the pandemic had taken.
“We originally reopened for adults only,” Pilarczyk said. “When the kids (Sessions) came back, I was surprised how much stress the pandemic had caused them.”
There were some behavioral issues that emerged, ones that were extremely rare before the pandemic, that caught Pilarczyk’s attention. “It was clear how much it affected (the children),” she explained.
“The kids really got their mojo back this summer,” Pilarczyk continued with a laugh. “I looked at them in class and thought, ‘There, that’s recovery.'”
Over the past two-plus 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. Yet one of the pillars of the Coalition’s movement is art and the promotion of creativity throughout the Cheshire community.
According to Coalition founder A. Fiona Pearson, Artsplace’s presence and the unique role it plays in the community has helped Cheshire continue to gain national recognition for its sustainability efforts, and within Artsplace itself there is a focus on more traditional initiatives. for conservation.
Pilarczyk explained that the facility accepts donations of used items, all of which are cleaned and then put to good use. Donations have increased during the pandemic, Pilarczyk said, because “it seems like every artist or crafter (has) gone through their supplies and brought us donations. Sometimes we got 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. “The canvases are repainted and reused for children, teenagers and adults whenever possible. If we cannot use supplies, we pass them on to students at a “free” table. Re-used frames are particularly popular.”
Outside of Artsplace, you’ll find Pina’s Giving Garden, which provides free produce—cucumbers, squash, zucchini, or tomatoes, and a few herbs—for all.
Still, in the end, it’s the work that happens inside the facility that means the most, and for Pilarczyk, it’s about making the connections that help build the connections that matter within a community
“I just love it, every day is different (for me),” she said. “You come in expecting to do one thing and end up doing something completely different. It’s so special.”