Norman Rockwell Museum celebrates area youth with radio playMore Info
Stockbridge — February is poised to be an auspicious month at the Norman Rockwell Museum. The annual Berkshire County High School Art Show, a foundation of the organization’s work with high school students, will celebrate its 33rd anniversary when it opens on Saturday. Sunday, Feb. 4, marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of the iconic American illustrator. Finally, the exhibition “Gregory Manchess: Above the Timberline,” on view through Sunday, Feb. 24, means the 36-acre campus is virtually buzzing with excitement in the midst of an otherwise dreary month.
In a rare opportunity for NRM to deepen its commitment to engage, inspire and support high school students while simultaneously demonstrating ways to support workforce development in the field of illustration, a colossal collaboration is underway. The result? “Above the Timberline,” a radio play based on the critically acclaimed novel by illustrator/author Gregory Manchess. The award-winning illustrator, known for his work for National Geographic and the new Coen Brothers film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” believes in communicating emotionally with the viewer through his art. Now imagine five local high school students, huddled around a pair of microphones in the wood-paneled library at Linwood House, and the outcome is clear:
“What’s wonderful to watch is how these students can change on the fly to embrace a new edge of inflection to their voice, broaden a character or add an emotion to the reading. They are so enthusiastic about this material that has become a touchstone in my life as an artist,” said Manchess. “To watch an idea come alive, transmitted through others’ embrace, and see how the idea becomes theirs as well. The connection there is rich and creatively very deep.”
According to Mary Berle, chief educator at the Norman Rockwell Museum, the genesis of this particular project was simple: “How do we connect with high school students, give them some ways to participate, and create a product that can travel with the show and also further our deepening commitment to area students?” The answer presented itself in the guise of an old-school radio play, directed and performed by talented Berkshire County high school students and set to a backdrop of Manchess’ illustrations, which will be animated with sound effects.
The play itself will be based on 34 images from Manchess’ book, performed by what Berle calls “a very, very talented group of high school students,” all seasoned actors who are having fun making this project come alive. The five students—from Monument Mountain Regional High School, the Berkshire Waldorf High School and one home-schooled student—are rubbing elbows with a remarkable team of experts in their respective fields: Jesse Kowalski, curator of exhibitions; Richard Bradway, director of digital learning and engagement; and Patrick O’Donnell, education program and outreach manager. Berle sang the praises of each of them: “Jesse recognized Gregory Manchess as someone really special; Rich has been visionary with his digital engagement work; and Patrick is responsible for doing the Photoshop that makes it possible to animate Manchess’ original paintings,” she explained.
“The seed of this idea came from conversations that we had with Greg Manchess,” said Bradway in a nod to “very sophisticated concept drawings” that he imagined being used in a movie, one rife with special effects and a lot of great scenes. “We have animated [Manchess’] images, but all with the intent of preserving what he has done. We are trying not to go too crazy with adding anything that would take away from what [the artist] has accomplished,” Bradway explained, which means the project has been done with Manchess’ consent and full involvement.
Manchess’ first fully painted novel “Above the Timberline,” the subject of the museum’s current exhibition, draws attention to the use of light and shadow, color strategies, figure construction, and tonal design—all of which the artist will discuss during “Real and Imagined: A Master Painting Class” Sunday, Feb. 3. Manchess has created a lavishly painted novel—comprised of 124 oil paintings across 240 pages—that chronicles the son of a famed polar explorer searching for his stranded father, and a lost city buried under snow in an alternate future. In “Above the Timberline,” when it started to snow, it didn’t stop for 1,500 years.
“What a great opportunity to expose kids to a medium that is not as common today as it was 50 to 60 years ago,” said Bradway of the idea for a radio play. “It goes back to much of what we try to do with Rockwell’s imagery: Make it accessible. Here’s a great way to show where we came from and how we used to use this medium to entertain and to communicate,” he added, noting that, “the kids have totally jumped on board with it.” Case in point? Toby Keenan, a senior at Monument Mountain Regional High School, who is serving as the director: “Working on ‘Above The Timberline’ has been nothing short of thrilling. It’s been an incredible experience working with such talented actors who I’ve known all my life! The Norman Rockwell Museum has given me, and everyone involved, an opportunity to prove ourselves and work on something big. Working with Greg has been a blast. He’s a real visionary who has created an intricate fantasy that subtly reveals itself, rather than shoving an overload of information onto the listener. I can’t wait for everyone to see the hard work we’ve put into the making of [this production].”
As for Manchess? He is in agreement with Keenan: “The students have propelled me back to the days when I was onstage at my high school, acting in productions and falling in love with literature and theater—a full circle of passing on the passion.” And passion certainly abounds. The shifting mission at NRM is very much about Norman Rockwell himself, but also how American illustration as a whole reflects changes in the world at large. “We’ve got to show kids what illustrators are capable of doing,” Berle emphasized. “Even though it’s an old-school radio play, the fact that we are using the paintings and doing a little bit with special effects does sort of show the runway for kids about what illustrators are doing now and how [that work] ends up being used.” Not to mention that it’s fun: “Really fun,” Berle said enthusiastically. “Come February in the Berkshires, having a light and exciting moment that includes intergalactic battles is just pure fun. That will, I think, rub off on the audience.”
“Above the Timberline: A Radio Play” will be performed Friday, Feb. 1, at 7 p.m. by area high school students at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington; an artist talk with Gregory Manchess will follow. The event is free. For more information and to reserve tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar.