Itinerant artist envisions an Earth saved by children

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By Thursday, Nov 30 Life In the Berkshires  7 Comments
Illustration from 'The Plant People Kingdom Behind the Waterfall.'

Great Barrington — Dorrie — she prefers to use only her first name — has lived on the road her whole life. She credits her Bronx upbringing with teaching her to be a “tough girl,” which, she admits, “really did me good to survive.” The graduate of NYU — who majored in English — is a self-described artist/anthropologist who stumbled upon some particularly hard times in July following the death of a close friend with whom she was living and for whom she was caring. Within a matter of weeks, she was homeless. But Dorrie did not lose hope. “I have survived by hiding — in the woods and on the street,” she explains. And now she is tired. As luck would have it, She found her way to Construct a few weeks ago — as the days grew shorter and the nights colder — where she and her cat, Noche, were welcomed and provided with transitional housing. Her 1992 Ford conversion van is parked out front, affectionately named after Wilson the volleyball — the sole companion of Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland in the 2000 film Cast Away — simultaneously serving as both comfort and a reminder of her transient existence for the past four months.

The artist Dorrie. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

As the universe conspires to reveal the next chapter of her life, Dorrie is far from idle: the accomplished artist and songwriter has amassed more than 400 drawings — done in ink, watercolor and colored pencil on paper — depicting a slew of creatures at the heart of a wildly imaginative project, seven years in the making: The Plant People Kingdom Behind the Waterfall. As for her inspiration? Copake Falls and Bash-Bish Falls, two equally isolated and intimate spots tucked into a valley in the Taconic Range where the New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut state lines converge. “I begin and end all journeys here,” she says of the locale she has been visiting to pray, to visualize and to root herself in nature since the age of 23. About seven years ago, she was suddenly, “flooded through with images,” from the falls and the plant and animal spirits she felt there. She has been working fervently ever since.

The premise of her story is simple: the earth, sad at its mistreatment by humans, falls out of balance. Her plot and drawings — both of which have been copyrighted — chronicle two human children, Willa and her brother Randy, who try to save the earth. Her story, which her dreams of turning into a movie — akin to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — follows the pair of siblings who spend their summers camping by the falls where she has spent time. The land, depicted as a cradle of power that gently sways when suspended in song, is revealed to be equally capable of destruction when disrespected.

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When the plant spirits gain awareness of this alarming fact, they look to pull up their roots and go elsewhere. What ensues is a captivating story of this life behind a doorway behind the falls — rife with milkweed fairies, talking insects, and baby dragons throwing crystal balls for comic relief — where saving the earth with light and sound remains a possibility. It’s as if Willa and Randy are environmental activists without their knowing, and the setting wholly fictional while based just a stone’s throw from Great Barrington.

Dorrie is smart and insightful, a real feeler; she credits this project as coming to her through God — and it has kept her going — through a series of trials. Her life’s work has been in the social services — from a 10-year stint as a substitute teacher in New Jersey and earning her Massachusetts State Teacher’s Certification to working for the Massachusetts Migrant Education Program and writing non-racist curriculum for the North American Indian Center of Boston (formerly the Boston Indian Council) — but during those years no FICA was withheld and her monthly Social Security income is not enough on which to live. It has been her deep connection to the Native American culture, where she truly feels visible, that has anchored her. After more than three decades on the Native American pow-wow circuit in New England, she has been identified as following the medicine path — in short, a return to the healing ways of our indigenous ancestors. She has been invited to sweats with elders and is pipe-trained with the Lakota — all of which marks her as “very controversial.” As a result, she “did not believe in [her]self” for most of her life. And she is fearful.

Dorrie has felt ostracized her whole life and often feels burdened by the connectivity she experiences with the world around her. “I do not feel alone in the woods,” she explains. “I feel alone in society.” It is no accident that she was drawn first to the Catskills and then the Berkshires; she spent the ‘60s and ‘70s listening to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and is a huge fan of Arlo [Guthrie] to this day. She describes the Berkshires as“[an] area that allows you to be the hippie you want to be without the stigma.” Dorrie explains that while in other parts of the country she has been shunned — by friends and even family who were too embarrassed for her to visit if it meant Wilson would be parked in their driveway — in this neck of the woods, “Arlo makes it OK [to be different.]” She continues, “I feel like I can be myself [here]” and that has been a gift for someone who feels totally bonded to the land if nowhere else.

Dorrie, like Wilson, has been “held together by faith and hope.” She is thankful for all the support she has found in the community, but she longs for the peace of her own space. She dreams of owning her own home — her first — where she can save animals and help children. All of her belongings, save for what is stuffed in her van, is in storage in New Jersey and she can’t afford to retrieve it. Nonetheless, her hands run with palpable energy, and she is desperate for someone to help her market her artwork and help her to bring her dream of making a movie a reality.

Dorrie remains cautiously optimistic; “Wilson has saved my life so many times,” she says of her trusty, decades-old vehicle. She is simultaneously terrified of her van breaking down and leaving her homeless — despite plans for permanent housing falling into place. She has been denied a place to stay in the Pittsfield shelter due to Noche — a cat she rescued five years ago — who has provided her with much comfort in the interim. For someone who used to sing blues in the city, Silverstone has a real gift; in the final moments of our meeting, she is inspired to break into song, one of her own written to accompany her tale of The Plant People: “…the universe is made of glass, it’s reflected in your eyes…we dance in borrowed time…” She trails off before finishing, overtaken with emotion. “How do I walk a path to honor [the gifts I’ve been given]?” she asks. “I don’t know where to fit in.”


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7 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Steve Farina says:

    Thank you Hannah for writing this story. And Thank You Dorrie for being willing to share your circumstances. Dorrie, you clearly have a gift and it is my sincere hope that someone is willing and able to help you realize your dreams.
    Dorrie is not alone in “hiding in the woods and on the street”. Great Barrington’s homeless population appears to be rapidly growing. I would say “is” instead of “appears” if I had a fact based study to back the claim. If nothing else, my awareness of larger and larger numbers of homeless in town is growing. Many are on the streets, in the woods, and couch surfing. The more gentrified we become, the more disparate the housing caste system becomes.
    GB is in need of a homeless shelter, and affordable housing solutions. It is my opinion that going forward the housing issues will be one of the greatest challenges this town will face. Hopefully it can rise to the need.

    1. Steve Farina says:

      I can understand the editorial removal of Dorrie’s last name after publishing the story (though it limits identifying her and her work), but why the the change in title from “Homeless buy hopeful” to “Itinerant”? Is it the stigma we associate with homelessness? Homelessness is a REAL problem that affects REAL people. And, it is effecting people right here where we live. We must not be afraid to talk about it and address it head on.

      1. Steve Farina says:

        * “Homeless but hopeful” – I was sure I fixed that typo :/

  2. concerned says:

    There is a number of hard-working people who just lost their Jobs due to yet another failed business in the Berkshires, one that had been around for years. Please pray, hope or dream that they too don’t end up homeless or couch surfing. It is getting tough to make ends meet, but remember those with kindness and understanding, as they did not ask for this. It was a hard thing to accept. We all need to help each other, as it is our town and our families that suffer. Peace to all and well being as well.

  3. Grier Horner says:

    Congratulations, Hannah Van Sickle for your fantastic story about Dorri Silverstone, her cat, her art and her dream. I know Dorri and her work and you really nailed the story.

  4. C. d'Alessandro says:

    Thanks to Steve Farina for noting what we did: the change in title. As property taxes skyrocket and “the best small town in America” continues its push to add more “high end retail” and “upscale” “luxury” housing, homelessness is NOT something that looks good in print (also, while she is ‘housed’ at Construct she is not completely homeless). Locals are forced to sell family homes because they can’t keep up with rising taxes and the children of the Shire can’t find affordable housing and move farther out. We must ask ourselves whether the needs of our lower income and mentally ill population are issues we should face now, or later when their increasing numbers make them more difficult to hide.

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