The year was 2009.

The country was in the midst of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. People were worried about their jobs, their families, their future. Circumstances seemed uncertain and frightening to many.

It was in January of that year that Joan Pilarczyk, director of Artsplace in Cheshire, spoke to members of the community, reiterating a belief she has held throughout her life. “When things get bad, art is a way we can deal with our frustration,” she recalls saying.

Pilarczyk admits she has reflected on these words a lot over the past few years. The economy recovered after 2009, but the pandemic that began in 2020 and continues to affect our lives to this day created a whole new level of uncertainty, frustration and fear. And again, people have turned to art for comfort.

“We were closed for many months (at the beginning of the pandemic),” Pilarczyk explained. “When we reopened, the response from students was overwhelming. They were very grateful.”

Pilarczyk has in her possession a large body of correspondence she received during that time, from Artsplace students of all ages, who talked about how being able to take a class and focus on creativity helped their mental health. or provided an escape from the constant negative and disturbing news. of the day. One even went so far as to describe Artsplace as “my sanity in a crazy world,” crediting the hours it took to keep them from despairing about the state of the world.

“That’s the beauty of art,” Pilarczyk said. “There is no right or wrong in it. (For many) it’s that escape.”

Artsplace began in 1987 with the formation of the Cheshire Fine Arts Committee – 11 politically appointed volunteers who shared a mission: To “promote the arts” in Cheshire. Originally, Artsplace was based in the old brick firehouse on Maple Avenue, however in 2001, the Town decided to move it to a much larger facility – the former VFW building at 1220 Waterbury Road. Immediately, Artsplace gained four classrooms, handicap access, additional parking and air conditioning.

Artsplace is unique in that it is the only city-supported arts center in the state, with a budget of more than $200,000 annually in funding, of which the center generates over $100,000 itself. Since moving to its Waterbury Road facility, Artsplace has seen enrollment grow to the point where many of the classes now fill up immediately after registration opens.

“We often have waiting lists,” Pilarczyk said. “It’s really about the quality of the teachers. We have some of the best (artist) teaching classes in the facility. I realized a long time ago, this is what keeps people coming back. It’s not about me, it’s about (the instructors).”

These include Rita Paradis, a world-renowned colored pencil artist and oil painter who has had 10 pieces exhibited over the years at the Colored Pencil Association of America’s International Exhibition. But it also includes someone like Tony Ruggiero, a former science teacher and self-taught artist who has taught at Artsplace since 2003.

“They are all so wonderful,” Pilarczyk said.

When Artsplace returned from a forced shutdown in September 2020, it opened only one large classroom in order to accommodate all Centers for Disease Control guidelines regarding distance and safety. Masks were required, cleaning was constant, and the facility invested in new air filtration systems designed to help kill viruses before they spread from person to person.

However, despite the timing of the move and the protocols in place, Pilarczyk saw growing interest in Artsplace. Normally, the facility offers 12-week courses, but given the uncertainty of the moment, Pilarczyk decided to reduce the classes to three-week sessions so that if an unexpected closure caused by COVID-19 were required, it would not to create so many cancellation problems as it would come in the middle of longer sessions.

“I can tell you, the work that was being done in the first ones (sessions after the end of the pandemic) was like professional work,” Pilarczyk said. “The students were very focused. They were very in tune with what they were doing. I think many just wanted that release (from what was going on in the world).

Artsplace also became a haven for children, although Pilarczyk admits that the first time the youngest students returned to the art school it was clear how much the pandemic had taken its toll.

“We originally reopened to adults only,” Pilarczyk said. “When the kids (sessions) came back, I was surprised at how much stress the pandemic had caused them.”

There were several behavioral issues that emerged, ones that had been extremely rare before the pandemic, that caught Pilarczyk’s attention. “It was clear how much it had affected (the children),” she explained.

“This summer, the kids really got their mojo back,” Pilarczyk continued, laughing. “I looked at them in the classroom and thought, ‘Now, that’s healing.'”

Over the past two years, with the help of the Coalition for a Sustainable Cheshire, the community has focused on efforts to promote everything from environmental awareness to energy efficiency across the city. However, one of the pillars of the Coalition movement has been the arts and Cheshire’s promotion of creativity across the community.

According to Coalition founder A. Fiona Pearson, Artsplace’s presence and the unique role it plays in the community has helped Cheshire continue to achieve national recognition for its sustainability efforts, and at Artsplace itself there is a focus on more traditional preservation initiatives. .

Pilarczyk explained that the facility accepts donations of used art supplies, which are all cleaned and then put to good use. Donations increased during the pandemic, Pilarczyk stated, as, “it seemed like every artist or craftsman (went) through their supply stash and sent us donations. Sometimes we got donations from three people a week.”

“Children’s classes, workshops and camps often use recycled items to complete works of art, including collage and sculptures,” she continued. “Canvases are repainted and reused for children, teenagers and adults whenever possible. If we can’t use the materials, we pass them on to the students at a ‘free’ table. Repurposed frames are particularly popular.”

Outside Artsplace, you can find Pina’s Giving Garden, which offers free produce—cucumbers, squash, zucchini or tomatoes, and some herbs—to everyone.

In the end, though, it’s the work that happens in the facility that means the most, and for Pilarczyk, it’s about making connections that help build connections that matter within a community.

“I just love it, every day is different (for me),” she said. “You go in expecting to do one thing and end up doing something completely different. That’s what’s so special.”

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