Common Folk Opens Doors For Artists And North Adams

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
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Jessica Sweeney and the Common Folk artists collective are bringing energy and support to emerging artists.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — What is Common Folk?

Co-founder and creative director of Common Folk Jessica Sweeney admitted that that question is a bit hard to simply answer.

Although she did say the artist collective was born out of the need in North Adams for a forum that worked as an engine for all artists to present and share work.

"There was little support for young artists to help them grow or have more opportunities to show their work on like an entry level," Sweeney said. "So we thought we would make an artist collective, get together, and do things for the community and for artists in the community."

The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts graduate said she originally tried to implement an early form of the collective as an all-encompassing open mic night event in Northampton.

"My whole idea was it to be less focused on musicians and more open to artists of all shapes and sizes," she said. "We would have a featured artist show their work. Then we would have musicians, poets, comedy, and whatever else came up."

After some time in Northampton, Sweeney said she returned to North Adams but found it difficult to implement her vision in a city that is already saturated with open mics.

Common Folk was created with other MCLA alumni and since 2013 has been working behind the scenes bringing artists together and opening doors for young artists or those digging into their more creative interests.

Sweeney said Common Folk holds a lot of strings at once and has a large membership of artists of all kinds ranging from high school students to middle aged adults.

She said beyond just being a collective, Common Folk unifies North Adams artists and knocks down the lofty walls that often disconnect not only artists, but people.

"It is also about identity, and I think a lot of the culture that is carried in North Adams is very much carried by MCLA and Mass MoCA," Sweeney said. "They have a lot of support but there is still this group of people that don't identify with those groups of people and there needs to be another way for the community to get involved."

She said by breaking down this divide, Common Folk allows artists to identify with each other.

"That is kind of the goal to bring all of those people together in the same room and like find common ground because we are all living in the same community," she said.

The group's humble beginnings began at MCLA, where one of its first big projects was the creation of a book that included stories, poems, and art from the first wave of the collective.

Sweeney thought this may have been a mistake because of the scale, but it was an eye-opener nonetheless

"We very quickly realized that was the worst thing to do because we had no money and we couldn't even print it," she said. "We just did this huge project and we didn't have the resources to do what we needed to do."

This began a new chapter for Common Folk as members started to find funds to feed the creative machine. What better way to do this and concerts and art exhibits?

Common Folk is occupying 87 Main St. during DownStreet Art this summer.

Common Folk established events at The Parlor Cafe and soon began to host shows throughout the city, some free some at a cost. Common Folk has hosted bands and artists within the group along with regional bands and groups on tour.

"We have a few people in our group who are really connected with regional bands and we try to bring them in here and try to help support them on their tours," Sweeney said. "It's not just for supporting local artists, but also emerging artists."

After a few shows and events, the collective gained the ability and attention to bring in larger acts and draw bigger crowds. Sweeney said they were even able to draw people out during cold Berkshire County winters.

"We had 200 people walk through our door on a Thursday night in February and it snowed that day so we thought no one was going to come out," Sweeney said. "We found that people do want something to do, and they want to do something that they want to do."

Sweeney said the group has grown to more than 30 members who meet every Monday night at the Common Folk headquarters on 87 Main St. to discuss upcoming projects, concerts, and ways to expand. The space, formerly McClellands, is also part of the Downstreet Art summer series.

The group has grown to a level where members are starting to branch off and create subcommittees.

"Our whole structure is starting to change because we are getting bigger," Sweeney said. "We have 30 people coming to meetings now, which is fantastic, but that is too many people to have in one room trying to make decisions."

She is not surprised by the new vastness and complexity that has surged throughout the collective. She said the more organized Common Folk was always part of her vision.

"My personal dream is to have a community center that is focused on an artistic space where people can walk into and art is always available," she said. "They don't have to purchase it ... and there is always something someone can do."

Common Folk had the opportunity to somewhat live this "all-encompassing community art center dream" this summer. Unfortunately, it will soon to come to an end.

Sweeney said Common Folk has always worked closely with DownStreet Art, which let them occupy the Main Street location for the summer. It allowed the group to hold shows, meet, work on projects, and captain the citywide art initiative from a visible location.

Sweeney said she is not sure where Common Folk will call home next with insufficient funds to rent a new spot. But Common Folk may not need a home to make its mark on the community.

"If we don't have a space, we are contributing to small businesses," she said. "We put a show on at the Freight Yard Pub or somewhere else and people go and spend money. So if we don't have a space, we are stimulating the economy by bringing people to different places."

She would be willing to collaborate with other groups or businesses to keep some form of central hub for Common Folk. But it may be fine just floating throughout the city.

There are multiple ways to get involved and support Common Folk. Those looking to join or help can go to one of the Monday night meetings at 7 at the Main Street location or

Common Folk will be free-floating again after DownStreet Art ends, but Sweeney sees that as an opportunity to collaborate with local business.

Common Folk also has a PayPal account and a Patreon account for monetary donations to help fund marketing, free shows, and free art supplies readily available for all at the Common Folk gallery.

Sweeney said people can also stop in the gallery, make a donation, and take some art that Common Folk artists donate.

"People can make a donation from 2 cents to $500 and take something that they enjoy," she said. "Not everyone can afford art and not everyone should have to afford art, but art is powerful and is comforting so we want to make sure that opal can have access to it."

Sweeney said Common Folk also is a resource for people in the community whether they want to hire one of the many bands connected to the group or hold an art party.

Sweeney said she did not feel comfortable starting Common Folk in Northampton because it felt "stable." She said North Adams felt like it was "growing," which was an important aspect Common Folk needed to thrive.

She said she hopes the many people investing at the grassroots level in North Adams continue to push the city forward and help it continue to flourish and grow.

"North Adams is growing and gaining attention," she said. "I have been here since 2007 and I feel the tide changing. Multiple people are doing things at the same time and that is kind of what it takes, everybody rising at the same time."

A list of upcoming Common Folk shows can be found on the Facebook page. 

Tags: artists,   creative economy,   DownStreet Art,   

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