Portrait of the Pittsfield Artist as a Young Man
Michael Boroniec calls himself an Art Soldier, which is fitting since he’s on the front lines of Pittsfield’s cultural revolution. A ceramic artist and painter who graduated from Taconic High School and went to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) on full scholarship, he returned to his hometown after graduating from RISD in 2006 to teach ceramics at his alma mater. “It was an offer that was too good to be true,” he says. “When you leave college, you lose your studio, your wheel and your kiln, and my teaching job provides me with that. My being a working artist is very inspirational for my students.” Boroniec gives lie to the old notion that those who can’t do teach. He is part of a two-person exhibition, The Things They Left Behind, with Gerit Grimm, which opens on Saturday, April 10, at Pittsfield’s Ferrin Gallery, which is one of the leading dealers in contemporary ceramics in the United States. The exhibition is timed to coordinate with Pittsfield’s Big Read Project in which the entire city is encouraged to read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a collection of short stories about the Vietnam War, and participate in events that address the war (including an exhibition of photographs of contemporary Vietnam by Joe Wheaton in the Berkshire Museum and staged readings of the book directed by Julianne Boyd at Barrington Stage Company on April 16 & 17.)
“One of my best friends from high school, Sam Russo, went to West Point and then off to Afghanistan,” says Boroniec, who has the shaggy good looks and demeanor of a peace-loving hippie. “We obviously took different paths, but he is still one of my best friends, and before he deployed to Afghanistan I borrowed his boots to make a sculpture.” He paired the ceramic boots with doves covered in newspaper headlines about the war as a peace statement, and it got a lot of attention as part of an exhibit, The Perfect Fit—Shoes Tell Stories at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA. “Now, I’ve done other interpretations,” he says, showing Russo’s hat and canteen that he hand built in clay as part of a residency at Leslie Ferrin’s Project Art studio in Cummington, MA. “It’s all really serendipity,” says Ferrin. “We had studio space available, and Michael was doing work that dovetailed perfectly with Pittsfield’s Big Read. The timing was perfect.”
Boroniec has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. After all, he returned home to Pittsfield about the time Leslie Ferrin moved her gallery from Lenox to Pittsfield. “Leslie and her partner, Donald Clark, have really been my mentors,” he says. “She works with and shows Sergei Isupov. We studied his work at RISD.” A couple of years ago, Boroniec was in his classroom at Taconic High School when the octogenarian artist John Stritch walked in looking for “the cool young teacher,” recalls Boroniec. Stritch, a doctor-turned-sculptor-turned-printmaker who made the annual Tanglewood poster for decades, had thousands of pieces of work that had never been catalogued, and Boroniec volunteered to help him organize his archive. “I’ve learned so much about being an artist from him.” What’s more, Boroniec told Ferrin about Stritch’s stockpile of serigraphs (see below) which are now being exhibited at the gallery. “These posters are a cultural history of the Berkshires,” says Ferrin.
Boroniec hopes to follow in Stritch’s footsteps, and he is making, collecting or thinking about art all the time. His four-room apartment in a brick house on Pittsfield’s west side is jam packed with art by himself and others as well as an assortment of instruments including a sitar, which he plays remarkably well. It’s only a few days before the Ferrin opening and he is still trying to decide what work he wants to include. He’d like to create a vignette that pairs Russo’s canteen and boots with a painting he made using motor oil that’s called Shroud of America, which depicts a barely discernible American flag (shades of Jasper Johns) that’s apparently engulfed by a desert storm.
“People really respond to my paintings,” say Boroniec, who also considers himself a performance artist. “Michael confuses people,” says Ferrin. “He is so energetic, young and filled with ideas.” He shows a visitor three dishes that are among his most favorite creations. “I called this the Daily Reminder series,” he explains. “I went to Walmart and bought their Mainstays™ white dishes made in China. I made decals of two starving children and put them on the plates and bowls and refired them so they would be dishwasher and microwave safe. I took the plates back to Walmart and put them on the display rack. I watched people’s reactions. And then they threw me out of the store. I haven’t been able to get anyone to exhibit them yet.”
Why didn’t Boroniec follow his friends from RISD—“where the caliber is really intense and everyone is 100 percent dedicated to art”—and move to New York City to pursue his career? “I love the Berkshires,” he says. “I love hiking and fishing and my family. There’s nothing better than being able to go down the road and go for a hike.” He does not like what he knows about being a young artist in New York. “Everyone is at each other’s throats,” he says. “I have been surprised by how many serious artists work in the Berkshires. I feel part of that community now, and I feel that I have respect and impact.”
The Things They Left Behind
North Street, Pittsfield;
Opening: April 10, 5 - 7 p.m.
Gallery Talk: Michael Boroniec & John Stritch in Conversation
April 21, 6:30 p.m.