hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture July 2016


Building a community through art

Common Folk collective aims for permanent role in North Adams


The Common Folk artist collective, which has hosted a series of arts and community events over the past year around North Adams, has a new home on Main Street downtown. Courtesy photoBy JOHN SEVEN
Contributing writer



The Common Folk artist collective, which has hosted a series of arts and community events over the past year around North Adams, has a new home on Main Street downtown. Courtesy photo

With its new location at 33 Main St., the Common Folk artist collective is hoping to widen its already considerable footprint in North Adams.

The collective, which has been working for several years and now claims about 30 active members, defines art broadly and sees the arts as a way of building community, solving problems and empowering people.

The new space on Main Street is being made available to the group as part of Downstreet Art’s new Creative Business Incubator program, in which the annual summer arts festival partners with a proposed art business to provide space and tools for the effort.

Jessica Sweeney, Common Folk’s co-founder and creative director, is now working to extend the location beyond the Downstreet Art season into a state of permanence. She says the new location gives the group’s members a sign that the initial phase of their effort has been successful and that now is the time to focus on their original intent.

“A founding principle of the group was how do we use art as a tool, as a catalyst for change in our community,” she said. “We can’t support our community if we don’t have a strong foundation. So we’ve spent the past year building that foundation and really understanding what it is that we want to do and how we build a stage that we can use. Now it’s really about going back to that principle and really starting to harness what that meant to us, and how can we engage in the community in doing that.”

Over the past year the collective hosted a number of events at a couple of temporary homes, including one at 18 Holden St., as well as at various other locations in the city.

Common Folk’s regular events include the monthly Art of Conversation, which invites people to take part in discussions about contentious issues. The collective also has organized charity yard sales, a monthly open mic comedy night, art shows, and meetings of writers and tiny-instrument enthusiasts. These and other local events and efforts have all been in service of its mission of community building.

The new location will continue Seth Brown’s Thursday Comedy Open Mic Series as well as the Art of Conversation, which on July 7 will feature a special conversation with Adam Hinds about engaging with local systems of government.

The collective’s new home also will host music events, something the group was not able to offer in its previous space. The first of these, with Cactus Attack, was held June 30, and Magic Island will perform on Thursday, July 28.

There will be some new events, like “Grooves & Spins: A Night of Vinyl and Board Games” on Wednesday, July 6, and a “’90s Game Show Night,” presented by NAMA Prom, as well as art shows throughout the summer, including a show focused on addiction, scheduled for September in observance of Addiction Awareness Month.

“Our definition of art is very broad,” Sweeney said. “Someone facilitating a conversation is art to us. Or someone organizing a music show is art to us. Our boundaries are unlimited in that way, and I think for our artists that’s really empowering: to not have boundaries to what you want to say.”


College roots
The collective began several years ago in Northampton, with Sweeney and a group of her friends hosting open mic events with an eye toward community building. Most of the founding members, like Sweeney, were graduates of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, so they had a connection with North Adams already.

When Sweeney returned to North Adams to work at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, the group’s efforts shifted there as well, starting with a regular night on which a group of artists would gather to watch a TED Talk and then discuss it.

“We all found this common ground on the fact that we are all very engaged in our communities, we care about our community, and we all are really passionate about the arts and creativity, and we really wanted to share that with other people,” Sweeney said. “So we started meeting regularly and continuing to organize those events.”

The next step for the group was to expand into exhibiting members’ own art and the work of other local artists seeking an outlet at the grassroots level.
“We really made a point to start supporting local and emerging artistry,” Sweeney said. “We have Mass MoCA, we have all these professional-level art museums and galleries, but there’s no place for an emerging artist, or someone who still needs to build their skills and how to promote themselves and how to get their art out there. There’s no place for people to dip their feet in the water.”
The group procured its first Downstreet Art space in 2015. That event, a convergence of all the collective’s previous efforts, would put it on track to today.

“That was a huge stepping stone for us to understand what it was like to do that and if we had the capacity to do that,” Sweeney said of the group’s first formal space. “It was really helpful in getting us to where we are.”

The group also maintained a regular space on Holden Street for several months earlier this year before moving into its current Main Street location.


A voice for youth
One large point of engagement for the group is with younger members of the community. The collective, for example, has worked with the forthcoming Roots Teen Center to create programming for teenagers and to build a relationship with them. That has led to plans for an experimental small festival -- Aug. 13 at North Adams Heritage State Park – that will raise funds for the teen center.

Sweeney says this partnership is integral to the core values of the collective.
“As someone who works with young people in my full-time job, I’ve seen so many times that they have very thoughtful opinions about things going on in the world and our communities, and they are often not engaged in those conversations,” she said. “Part of the teen center is to really leverage that voice and support that voice. We also want to support that voice.”

Many members of the collective identify with the predicament of young people who feel shut out of community processes and without a voice but are eager to engage, Sweeney said. The Common Folk collective believes it’s crucial to offer a sense of value to the voices of young people, she added.

“That’s how we achieve progress and change, when everyone has a voice and can say what they think might help fix things,” Sweeney said.

But that’s just one component of a bigger end goal for the group: bringing people together and facilitating communication, particularly between younger and older people. The idea is not just to help them find common ground but to help them feed off each other’s knowledge and energy to make change.

“You have an older group sharing the history, especially in North Adams,” Sweeney said. “That’s one of my favorite parts when you have folks who have been living here for awhile who can really speak to what North Adams used to be like and then we get to this moment of, ‘Wow, there have been significant changes. Things have moved forward. How do we keep them moving forward?’ And this sparks that inspiration to keep that momentum going.”

As the Common Folk collective sees it, this momentum is the hope for the future. The group aims to build on the spark it has created.

“Young people are just as important in that process as seniors, and we have that, we’ve created that, a group where both ends of ages are sitting in a room and saying, ‘What do we want to do together?’” Sweeney said. “They’re finding that common ground, and hopefully they can network on different things in the community together as well.”


Find out more about the Common Folk artist collective online on Facebook or at commonfolk.org.