Writers Reinvigorating Pittsfield's Rich Literary History

Jul 20, 2017

An art and architecture fellowship is underway in Pittsfield, Massachusetts to draw attention to the city’s rich literary history. 

Tessa Kelly and her partner and fellow architect, Chris Parkinson, have set up a program to honor authors who spent time in Pittsfield.

Kelly says her hope is to build an anthology of works created by writers in the program.

“And revive Pittsfield’s legacy of being a starting point for some of our country’s greatest writers,” Kelly says.

The studios’ designs are inspired by 19th century American Renaissance authors: Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Kelly says the program’s name – the Mastheads Writers' Residency – is a nod to Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

“The Mastheads idea started with trying to think about ways that Pittsfield’s history could be used to create new life and new programs in the city that would be completely tied to this particular place that couldn’t happen in the same way anywhere else,” Kelly says.

The $200,000 project was partly funded by a grant from MassDevelopment – matched and exceeded by private funding sources – as well as a $75,000 National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town grant.

The studios are located around the city at Arrowhead – Melville’s former home, the Springside House, Pittsfield High School, and Mass Audubon's Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary. Kelly says they spent a lot of time determining the amount of space a person needs to feel comfortable, inspired and creative in a day’s work.

“So essentially every studio is an eight foot by eight foot floor area with a built-in bench along one wall and a built-in desk along another wall, a big door that opens out onto a view that surrounds the studio. And then in every studio a different combination of skylights and windows that highlight different views or connections or some way resonate with one of the five historic authors,” Kelly says.

“For instance, this structure was that we’re right now was inspired by a very specific part of Arrowhead, that’s behind us, like it’s taken basically from the structure of the house and remodeled as a studio space,” Pinto says.

Maria Pinto is a program resident from Wellesley, Massachusetts. She’s working on her second novel.

“It’s about a young women who has lost a large portion of her family in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti,” Pinto says. “She has a tremendous amount of survivor’s guilt so having just lost her mother and her family but also having dedicated the better part of her 20s to starting a business. She doesn’t really know what to do now, because one of the big things that gave her life purpose was sending money back to Haiti and supporting basically a whole village and her family members back there – and that’s sort of been wrenched away from her… she really doesn’t know how to live.”

She says her protagonist is on a journey of self-discovery – like herself in many ways.

“This landscape is inspiring and I think there is just something about the mountains.” Pinto says. “I have a view of Mount Greylock, and a field of tall, swaying grasses. And sometimes you can see deer galloping out the door.”

Pinto says she hoped to be inspired by the vistas of the Berkshires – similar to her heroine’s hometown of Kingston, New York.

“This area is finding ways of creeping its way into the narrative for sure,” Pinto.

Pinto says the studio – and a lack of WiFi internet – has made her incredibly productive.

“For the most part, people have been minimally curious. I think they get briefed when they’re actually in the Arrowhead Museum that they are not really supposed to disturb us, but I think curiosity does get the better of them and they just say ‘Hi’ and some people are like ‘You have a nice little woman cave,” Pinto says. “And I agree, it is nice.”

Greg Allendorf is a poet with a studio on the other side of the field from Pinto.

“It’s a very strangely shaped building that looks like several different polygons stuck together,” Allendorf says. “It was actually, it was a concern that sitting out in the field would be torture, might be a sweat box that used to be a punishment.”

Allendorf, a Cincinnati, Ohio, native who is finishing his doctorate at the University of Missouri, says it’s been cathartic.

“Every once in a while I will open my eyes and it’s actually, literally sublime,” Allendorf says.

Allendorf is considering naming his 80-page poem “Beyond Greylock.”

“It has to have Greylock in the title somehow because the word itself is just so mysterious, mystical, evocative,” Allendorf says.

“Mount Greylock looms behind me
wound in clouds of periwinkle crinoline
these odes ailed the misty error in my mind…”

Pinto and Allendorf, alongside the other members of Masthead’s inaugural class, will be reading excerpts of their works on July 25th. The program concludes August 1st.

Next year, Kelly and Parkinson say they might expand the program to honor other great authors who spent time writing in Pittsfield. Potential subjects include abolitionist Fanny Kemble, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and Reverend Samuel Harrison.