From the dedicated yogis of Kripalu to the myriad musicians, painters, actors, writers, and other artistic types who flood the western edge of Massachusetts, the Berkshires’ ability to attract creative energy is downright otherworldly. It’s almost as if there’s a mysterious force hidden in the region’s mountains and forests, pulling every nearby idealist and dreamer into orbit.
On Saturday, March 9, at Lenox Commons, the portal to that font of cosmic energy opened for one night only. That’s when IS183, the Berkshires’ only community arts school, hosted its hotly anticipated annual costume gala: The Big Bang at the Energy Vortex
“It’s playing on the idea of the Berkshires as this energetic, magnetic healing center," says IS183’s marketing coordinator Dina Noto. The party conjured up a mid-century vision of the space age with a retro gourmet dinner curated by Red Lion Inn
chef Brian Alberg, a silent auction with more than 120 prizes, and a rollicking electro-swing dance party. Some 375 guests attended, clad in elaborately imagined costumes that ran the gamut from greasers and astronauts to aliens, caped Star Trek
villains, and sun queens bedecked in metallic lamé. (For a little extra fashion inspiration, Bill Wright Photography
put together a swinging gallery of costume ideas
.) The party was expected to raise $75,000 to benefit IS183’s extensive arts education programming.
Of course, an intergalactic party is nothing without stellar decorations. A volunteer crew headed by Williams Theatre technical director Maia Robbins-Zust
worked for weeks to create an unforgettable atmosphere featuring robots, space guns, enormous vinyl records, and a swirling energy vortex. On the packed dance floor, video art inspired by 1960s sci-fi flickered on the walls while DJs spun tunes from atop a giant cardboard mountain. “It’s like walking into an installation art project," says IS183’s executive director Hope Sullivan.
The intricately planned evening is typical of IS183's can-do attitude, a lens into the sophisticated, creative spirit that guides the arts institution. Much of the credit for that ambition goes to Sullivan, the school's own one-woman energy source. A former advertising executive in New York City, Sullivan took the helm of IS183 more than seven years ago because she wanted to seek new ways to build community through the arts. “What the responsibilities of a community are, how we ensure it’s a place we want to live — these are questions that resonate with me," Sullivan says.
Under Sullivan’s leadership, IS183’s myriad arts programs have helped fuel the Berkshires’ innovative, civic-minded spirit. Its K-12 after-school program, Learning Through the Arts
, uses multimedia projects to teach academic subjects from geology to math, reaching 350 kids a week at 19 regional public schools. A rotating series of workshops and classes
offer children and adults the chance to master everything from digital animation to improv to calligraphy. And with more than 75 painters, sculptors, photographers, and other creative professionals on staff, IS183 employs more artists than any other regional organization.
“Our primary goal is to be a transformative force in the community," Sullivan says. “We’re a small organization, but we have a big job. And it starts with education and engagement."
Particularly close to Sullivan’s heart is IS183’s multi-week creative enrichment summer program for at-risk kids. Last summer, Pittsfield eighth-graders learned about water and river ecosystems — including their very own Housatonic — with Fluidity
, an arts-focused service learning program. Sullivan says this kind of experiential, hands-on approach to learning can help make abstract academic concepts concrete. “Kids may have trouble learning words about boats if they’ve never seen one," she says. “But if you paint boats or create a flotilla, you can create context."
Much like the ever-expanding universe, IS183’s reach only continues to grow. A new partnership with Williamstown’s Little Red Schoolhouse
has been bringing the school’s artistic offerings to North County since December. And IS183 is currently accepting nominations for its inaugural Berkshire Arts Educator Award
, which honors the area’s most inspiring K-12 arts teachers. The winners will be revealed at an April 25th ceremony at the Colonial Theater
Proceeds from the gala will go a long way toward making sure that IS183 can continue its massive arts outreach efforts. But the Energy Vortex is far more than a fundraiser. “This is a way for practicing artists to have a public voice," Sullivan says. “There’s an amazing egalitarian spirit to it. We’re bringing a lot of different collaborators, people from all different perspectives, to find common ground in making this massive installation." With that kind of creative investment, there’s no doubt gala guests will get a very big bang for their bucks. —Sarah Todd
IS183 Art School
13 Willard Hill Road
Stockbridge, MA 01262