The River Art Project An intersection of art and activism

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STOCKBRIDGE — The relationship between a landscape artist and his or her surrounding landscapes is a sacred one.

"Landscape artists are honestly dependent on, if not a healthy, then at least an aesthetically pleasing landscape," said artist Bart Elsbach of Sheffield. "So we, in a sense, make our living off of nature and are therefore very invested in having nature that is inspiring, and healthy nature tends to be more inspiring than polluted nature."

Elsbach is one of five local painters who have contributed a combined 26 paintings depicting rivers including the Housatonic and Hudson rivers for the River Art Project, now on view at Stockbridge Station on Depot Street. The project — which also includes a series of talks given by local environmental experts involved in river cleanup — is a collaboration between the Schantz Galleries, several local artists with interest in nearby rivers, and three environmental protection organizations focused on cleaning up the Housatonic and Hudson rivers. The gallery will donate 50 percent of net proceeds from the sale of these paintings to the Hudson Riverkeeper, the Housatonic River Initiative and the Housatonic Valley Association — all organizations tasked with the cleanup and continued preservation of the two rivers.



Schantz Galleries co-owner Jim Schantz erected temporary white gallery walls over the antique brick walls and wooden benches of the former commuter station, which is now a historical landmark, so that no damage is done to the building. Artists with paintings hung on these crisp new walls include Mary Sipp Green of Stockbridge, Stephen Hannock of North Adams, Scott Prior of Northampton, Elsbach and Schantz himself.



Elsbach contributed five oil paintings to the River Art Project. Each one, depicting the Housatonic River, was painted specifically for this show.



"As somebody who's participated in the gallery and art world for many years, I'm very happy to be involved in projects that have redeeming environmental or cultural or community aspects," said Elsbach.



Karla Reid manages the River Art Project and has overseen the arrival of landscape paintings and professional environmentalists to the small, comfortable gallery space.



"I see this project as the intersection of art and activism, especially given the current climate," said Reid. "The onus of taking care of the environment seems to rely on individuals and on small businesses that step forward."



Schantz is one of these individuals. Living with wife and Schantz Galleries co-owner Kim Saul near the Housatonic River, many of Schantz's paintings have been inspired by the river. The recent availability of the Stockbridge Station as a potential project space led Schantz to consider a project combining artists and professional environmentalists who share his love for the river and concern over its degradation.



Schantz first reached out to friend Dennis Regan, the Berkshire director of the Housatonic Valley Association.



"I feel very strongly that the [Housatonic] river should be utilized as a town attribute rather than a negative resource. We're trying to get people to realize that we have this resource and that it's free and it runs through a lot of our towns," said Regan. "Jim is taking that to another level, where he is allowing people to come in and get all jazzed up by seeing these wonderful paintings of the Housatonic and other rivers."



Schantz then contacted Riverkeeper, the Hudson Valley Association and the Housatonic River Initiative, all of which were quick to get involved. The lectures scheduled throughout the summer will be given by leading members of these organizations and will take place inside the gallery with attendees surrounded by visual reminders of our local rivers' beauty.



Regan will give a talk on Wednesday, Aug. 9, about how locals can help protect the Housatonic River's water quality.



"In about 50 percent of the nation's rivers, including the Housatonic, the water quality is impaired and that is due to runoff. Everything the rain passes over — roofs and lawns and roads and parking lots — goes right into the river," Regan said. "That's why we get involved in educational programs, to teach people more about the river dynamics, especially things that ordinary people can do on an ordinary day to help better protect the Housatonic River."



Regan's suggestions include avoiding the use of pesticides and herbicides, washing vehicles on the grass instead of a paved surface so the ground soaks up pollutants, such as phosphorous and soap, refraining from putting anything down a storm drain that you wouldn't want to swim in and, for those living right on the river, allowing a path of vegetation to grow between the edge of your lawn and the riverbank. This provides a natural buffer to screen out pollutants that would otherwise run right over mowed grass and into the river during rainfall.



Schantz hopes that the River Art Project will draw people interested in art and conservation, and that these usually disparate passions will combine to spread awareness of local river conservation and provide dollars to help those who fight for it. Painting prices at the gallery range from $500 to $260,000.



"If someone buys a painting from the show and some of the price went toward helping the river in some small way, they can look at that painting and say, `That's a beautiful river, and this helped somehow,'" said Schantz. "A lot of people in the Berkshires care about where they live, and we are all able to contribute in our own way. This just happens to be how we can do it right now."



Though cleanup of polluted rivers is a slow process, Schantz has his eye on a simple goal.



"Ideally, our kids and grandkids will be able to swim in the Housatonic, and to fish and be able to eat that fish," he said. "Hopefully, that day will come."



If you go ...

What: The River Art Project gallery

When: 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, and by appointment

Where: Stockbridge Station, 2 Depot St., Stockbridge

Information: 413-298-3044, riverartproject.com.

Upcoming talks: Berkshire Director of the Housatonic Valley Association Dennis Regan from 6-7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 9; Housatonic Riverkeeper Tim Gray from 6-7 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 16. Talks held at the Stockbridge Station. Free, and wine and snacks will be served.


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