New North Adams gallery: 'These kids are leaving their mark'

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NORTH ADAMS — We don't know much for sure beyond the mark itself: One summer day in July 1954, a Drury High School student named David was sufficiently moved by his feelings for Pauline that he scrawled it in marker on a shelf in the store room of Jack's Army and Navy Store on Eagle Street. Who knows who exactly he was writing it for, but chances are he didn't expect that 60 years later it would be seen again in the same place, now an art gallery, in a very different North Adams.

David's earnest teenage love message is just one of the notes, tags and cartoons that Anna Farrington found when she began clearing out the shelves of the old building last summer as she began turning it into an art gallery. They are now on display for a few weeks to celebrate the space's history as a beloved shop, and the people who worked there.

"I just want people to come in and make their own stories," Farrington said. "Maybe someone will come forward and knows something about these people, [but] it's just for fun."

From 1923 to 1998, 49 Eagle St. was the home of Jack's Army and Navy Store, where generations of North Adams folk did their back-to-school shopping. For most of that time it was run by Ida "Mama" Goldberg, who was well-known for her friendly, expansive salesmanship (she was always ready to tell you how great those jeans looked when you tried them on) and for slipping a pack of gum in with purchases.

"When I purchased the building, I didn't realize what a rich history it had with the community," Farrington said. "As I started to talk to people in North Adams who grew up here, and shopped here, there was this great reaction. People's faces would light up."

After the shop closed in the 1990s, the space — with its distinct "J. Lenhoff" spelled out in tiles at the front — had been used for storage. Farrington, who works as a graphic designer and is based in Cambridge, bought it with plans to turn it into a gallery, which she is calling INSTALLATION SPACE. She was surprised by all the notes she found around the storerooms upstairs, as she cleared out the old stuff with a sledgehammer.

She thought there might be value in sharing it with the community as a way to acknowledge the building's past. "It's just a simple presentation," she said of the exhibit, which will run until May 20. "I wanted to get the gallery open as soon as possible, and I wanted to give a nod to the history of the building."

Part of the interest in the marks is just how mundane they are — not the elaborate imagery of street art or anything, but just the toss-away commentary of young people at a specific moment in the past. Most appear to date from the 1950s, a time when the store's newspaper ads listed items like summer dress pants for $1.98, men's dress shoes for $5.98 (with a free pair of socks) and "Don't forget the Good Old Levi's (Western style)" at $3.98.

Most of the bits of graffiti were found in the stockroom. There is David, who the previous autumn had also protested his affection for another name that was scratched out in favor of Pauline, a latent drama that you are free to imagine. There were the exploits of "Don," who is subject of both a "Don + Nancy" and a "Don + Peg." Others are what Farrington called "declarations of being." A few calligraphic logos from a self-styled "FRAN Originals" ("this guy was working on his brand," she joked). Based on Drury yearbooks she thinks she may know who this was, but she has no idea who "Uncle Soda" might be.

"From a graphics perspective, it's less the style or the nuances of the graphics and more about the branding," she said. "These kids are leaving their mark."

One mark refers to a specific person, a scribble by John Unsworth, labelled as "Red Bird." It's dated to the early 1950s, and upon seeing a recent column in The Eagle by Jim Schulman, Farrington realized that was Mama Goldberg's employee, writing on the shelf at the start of his 38 years working in the shop.

Farrington said she did some research, but didn't intend for this to be a historical reclamation project. She looked up old yearbooks, checked with some voter rolls at City Hall, and visited the North Adams Museum of History & Science, where she found some photos of the space from even before Jack's Army and Navy, when it was a cigar store.

But the images, including a few boards, and a variety of objects that she found hidden beneath the boards, present a more complicated look at life — there are a few shelves featuring some rather crude nude drawings, as you'd expect.

While most of this material is the stuff of throw-away thought, and hardly the kind of big, elaborate graphic imagery that has become the stuff of serious art thinking. But even scratchings by unknown folks in the past have a certain place. In Britain, for example, the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey is a volunteer-based effort to record the stray marks left on England's medieval churches. "Graffiti can offer a voice to the lost population of the medieval world," they note on their website.

Farrington owns her own graphic design business, and specializes in architectural signage and way-finding systems for institutional clients like Boston University and Mass MoCA's Building 6. While based in Cambridge, she has long been interested in the North Berkshires.

"I'd been coming out here for 10 years," she said. "It's such a great combination of cultural institutions and natural beauty that you can't get anywhere else, and I think people are starting to catch on to that."

She said she was interested in finding investment properties here, at first considering apartments but then deciding to pursue her dream of owning a gallery.

"I just got to thinking about it, and being able to take a neglected piece of downtown and turn it around, and have a space where I can present the kind of art I think is interesting, really seemed so much more fulfilling to me."     arrington turned the upstairs of the building into an apartment, and cleared the space, with its strange wedge shape — it is 25 feet wide at its front and 7 feet wide at the back — into a gallery, preserving the white wooden walls and panels. She plans to use it to display what she calls "immersive and interactive art," primarily by Massachusetts artists.

The next exhibit will be by Sam Okerstrom-Lang (who goes by Samo), which will open on June 1. His work "Glitche" is about as different as the first show of found art — a carefully calibrated room full of strips of fabric, with light projected into them and a surround-sound system creating an entirely immersive environment.

If you go ...

What: "American Graffiti - Behind the scenes at Jack's Army and Navy Store"

When: On view now through May 20

Where: INSTALLATION SPACE, 49 Eagle St., North Adams

Information: www.49eaglestreet.com


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