WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Sign Commission on Tuesday OK'd an art installation on Field Park that will draw attention to the region's heritage as the homeland of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians.
A group of Williams College employees and members of the community have asked the town's permission to install a four-sided black fence around the 1753 House, a 20th-century replica built using 18th-century tools and techniques.
If all goes according to plan, the fence will be installed on Monday in time for Indigenous Peoples Day and stay up for the two-week period approved by the Sign Commission by a unanimous vote on Tuesday afternoon.
"The idea of the project is to imagine what the green would look like symbolically if the 1753 House wasn't there," Randal Fippinger told the commission in introducing the proposal. "The 1753 House is obviously a representation of colonial Williamstown.
"The idea is to surround the 1753 House with a fence, a freestanding fence from Berkshire Fencing. … GVH Printing in Bennington will create a black mesh that goes around each side of it. On each side of the mesh are symbols from the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. Each image represents cardinal points on the compass."
Fippinger, who serves on the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Advisory Committee, said the concept was created by a local artist who wishes to remain anonymous. The concept grew out of conversations between himself, former DIRE Committee member Bilal Ansari and Williams College Museum of Art Deputy Director for Engagement Christina Yang.
In addition to the fencing designed to obscure the view of the replica structure, the petitioner plans to display a reimagined version of the town flag, adopted in 2015, that erases the structure.
"We had a conversation with Bonnie Hartley from the Stockbridge-Munsee Community," Fippinger said. "They like the idea."
So did the chair of the 1753 House Committee when Fippinger pitched the idea to the group responsible for maintaining the historic replica, Fippinger said.
The Sign Commission, which is responsible, among other things, for making sure that public displays do not create unreasonable distractions to motorists, considered whether the thought-provoking temporary display would pose a hazard on the rotary at the junction of Routes 2 and 7.
Community Development Director Andrew Groff, who staffs the commission, said neither he nor interim Town Manager Charlie Blanchard have an exception to the installation.
"If you look at the broader issue of signage as it relates to vehicular safety, generally what your commission is concerned with is readability in an area where the speed limit is 20 mph," Groff said. "This [fence] is set back from the road, there's vegetation there. … I have not raised this to [interim Police Chief Mike] Ziemba, but I don't think they'd have a problem with that."
Sign Commission member Kathy Thompson, who identified herself as a past chair of the board of the Williamstown Historical Museum, pointed out that the museum directs its visitors to the 1753 House and that visitors to the replica spike during fall foliage season. Thompson asked whether it would be possible to create a break in the planned 20-by-20 fence that would allow visitors to the house while the installation is in place.
"I'm really interested that the 1753 House Committee isn't more concerned," Thompson said. "I totally like the concept. I'm not against that at all. I'm pro indigenous people. I just think cutting it off from people who might want to visit in fall foliage time … ."
Sign Commission Chair Anne Singleton pointed out that the question of whether the house could be accessed for two weeks is not part of the commission's purview.
And a resident who spoke from the "floor" of the virtual meeting pointed out that the installation's timing is both intentional and appropriate.
"This town should be so proud of our Mohican-Stockbridge-Munsee heritage, and any way we can amplify it is wonderful," Arlene Kirsch told the commission. "What better time than Indigenous Peoples Day? It's a great project to educate people, a visual statement that educates people and amplifies our history."
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Doing this "to make a point" is absolutely absurd. Having art and celebrating people is one thing, but to do it out of misguided spite is petty. My grandfather worked on the 1753 House to demonstrate what it was like to build a house in that era with original tools, as survival in this climate was difficult. The only point this anonymous artist is making is ignorance.
OBSCURING WILLIAMSTOWN’s 1753 HOUSE TO MAKE A POINT
The article by Stephen Dravis in IBerkshires (October 6, 2021) left me hoping for more detail. According to the article, the idea was conceived with considerable discussion among DIRE Committee members (present and former), a “group of Williams College employees and [other?] members of the [Williamstown?] community.” The proposed temporary structure was approved by all requisite town boards as an “art installation.” The “four-sided black fence” with symbols from the Stockbridge-Munsee Community is designed “to imagine what the green would look like symbolically if the 1753 House was not there.” Interesting idea. I had hoped that more information about the “art installation” would be forthcoming. And perhaps it will be once the structure is installed.
Below are some questions that I hope will be answered:
• I understand that the artist wishes to remain anonymous, but is the artist Native American; in particular, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians?
• If this is an “art installation,” is there a message the artist hopes to convey in addition to visually “cancelling” the 1753 house and the colonial Williamstown that it represents?
• If there is an additional message, does it rely on Mohican symbolism? For example, why is the structure rectangular not circular, as are many creations in Native American art? (The photo in IBerkshires makes the structure look more like the Kaaba, and I strongly suspect that is not the intention.) Was black chosen for a particular reason grounded in local Native American culture? Do the images of the cardinal points on a compass suggest a story?
Others will have additional questions. This is an excellent opportunity to begin educating Williamstown residents about the indigenous people of this area. I hope more detail is forthcoming.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Phil Kline's walking symphony experience, "Unsilent Night" returns again to the Berkshires on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021.
"It's like a Christmas caroling party except that we don't sing, but rather carry boomboxes, each playing a separate tape or CD which is part of the piece," said Kline in a press release. "In effect, we become a city-block-long stereo system."
This free community event starts at the '62 Center on the Williams College campus and will end at the Williams Inn.
Participants collectively create the event by walking in a group with boomboxes, bluetooth speakers, and other amplified audio devices.
The initiative grew out of a recent listening session several DIRE Committee members conducted at the Harper Center. They heard a number of concerns, including issues with parking, interpersonal conflicts in the apartment complex and the need for cooling station access during extreme weather.
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