By Shelley A. Sackett, Salem Gazette correspondent
Last Thursday, Artists’ Row was a beehive of activity. Alexis Batakis, a UMass Amherst art major from Peabody, donned short overalls and wielded a drill as she hovered over a pile of wood in a corner that was destined to become a 24-foot community table, the latest example of Salem’s commitment to public art.
Kids and parents, teens and grandmas sat down together and created mosaics from buckets of natural and upcycled materials that ranged from mussel shells to pieces of fabric during the first of six weekly Public Art Salons.
The mosaics will eventually become the top a 24-foot long table that will remain in Artists’ Row and become a gathering place for conversation, creativity and community.
This Community Table is the latest brainchild of Salem’s first Artist in Residence, Claudia Paraschiv. She is a Salem architect and owner of Studioful – Architecture, Community Art and Neighborhood Design, and founder of Salem Public Space Project.
She was as busy as a bee, organizing volunteers, like her husband Michael Jaros, who teaches English at Salem State University, and was having a blast brandishing a hammer instead of a piece of chalk. “I love doing this. It is liberating and fun,” he said, obviously meaning it.
The Community Table will be built over five weeks by “anyone who would like to contribute time, artistry, ideas, help, materials or conversations,” Paraschiv said. She likes to imagine people sitting at the table and finding their artistic contribution and sharing that memory with new friends.
Her mission, as Artist in Residence, is to transform Artists’ Row into a local destination rather than a transitional, walk-through space. She intends to accomplish that through a series of creative placemaking events, called Public Art Salons, that will take place every Thursday, July 13 through August 17, from 3-7pm.
Located at 24 Derby Street in historic downtown Salem across from Old Town Hall and Derby Square at 24 New Derby Street, Artists’ Row occupies land that originally functioned as the City’s market place. Today, the space has five buildings that range in size from 370 to 1,000 square feet. Four function as working and gallery space for artist tenants, and a fifth is a restaurant, the Lobster Shanty.
Salem Public Art Planner Deborah Greel, who manages Artists Row and refers to its stalls as “art incubators”, wants to take the Row to the next level.
“It’s a place of challenged space. It’s wide. People don’t know where it is or how to get there,” she said, adding it is seen more as a cut through than a destination.
“We want Artists’ Row to be a creative space, a place that people are curious to stop at and see what’s going on there.”
To that end, the Public Art Commission and Greel launched the Artist in Residence Pilot Program (AIRPP) as an ongoing public art initiative to benefit the community by cultivating Artists’ Row’s potential. “Knowing the skill level Claudia has in creative placemaking, we asked her for a proposal,” Greel said.
Paraschiv was the first Artist in Residence in Dorchester’s Four Corners and recently facilitated the 289 Derby Community Design placemaking events.
Coined in 2010, the term placemaking describes a hands-on approach for improving a neighborhood, city, or region by inspiring people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of their community. Typically, placemaking involves a series of collaborative, inclusive meetings among stakeholders, municipal and professional representatives, and facilitators.
After she was hired, Paraschiv’s first step was to meet with the Artists’ Row tenants over a six week period for listening sessions where she asked them their priorities and needs, and how the AIRPP could help. “The consensus was to transform the Row into a destination rather than a traditional, walk-through space,” she said.
To accomplish that, she developed the concept of a Community Table with each artist tenant contributing materials that will be applied to the table directly and through use in the mosaics.
The Community Table will be designed and built during a series of five creative placemaking events, named Public Art Salons. These are also opportunities for people to cultivate local talent and build productive and meaningful relationships.
The 24-foot long table will be constructed in six parts that people can separate to sit at and lunch separately, or combine together into one long communal table. “The table will also integrate small gardens and spread knowledge about native plants,” Paraschiv said, noting that one thought is to have a birdbath right in the middle of the table.
To facilitate the cross pollination of ideas, she has engaged three professionals to help her host the Salons: ecological landscape designer Annie Scott (thrivedesign.studio); artist Lexiee Batakis (@ayyyitslexayyy); face painter Alison Troy (@AlisonTroy) and reading nook architect David Rabkin (@WentworthArchitecture).
She envisions the Salons as engaging the entire space of Artists’ Row in ways that will evolve over time with community feedback, ideas and participation. Reading areas, gardens and other possible are under discussion.
In the meantime, Paraschiv is very much in the moment, and her enthusiasm for the Community Table she is shepherding into being is contagious. A passerby she engages in conversation happily joins the table to create her own mosaic contribution.
“When Claudia was doing all those different projects each week at 289 Derby, it was just wonderful to go down there and eat and play,” Greel said with a wide smile. “Building community is actually the most important piece of the placemaking process.”