'Berkshire Collects' at the Berkshire Museum


PITTSFIELD -- A hundred years ago, a soldier in World War I fought in networks of zig-zagging mud trenches 12 feet deep. But he spent more time getting shot at.

A unit might spend six days at the front and then move out, relieved by replacements.

In the trenches they lived under the constant firing of artillary from both sides. The spent brass shell casings that held the ammunition piled up in heaps taller than a man.

At rest behind the lines, or convalescing with shattered legs, soldiers carved the soft brass cases -- as sailors on whaling ships carved scrimshaw -- while they waited to return to the front.

Berkshire art collectors Joan and Michael Salke collect these remnants of the war. And they have offered elements of their collection to the Berkshire Museum. Their carved brass will appear along with objects from more than 40 other collectors when "Berkshire Collects" opens Saturday at the Berkshire Museum.

"More people are talking about this show than any I know of," said Van Shields, executive director of the museum.

Some collections begin closer to home. Charles Flint, owner of the Charles Flint Antiques & Fine Art Gallery in Lenox, has often gone antique bottle digging in Berkshire cellar holes, in Tyringham for example. For the museum show he has offered a set of inkwells in glass, limestone and stoneware pottery.

Sometimes, he said, he has been able to date an inkwell and to trace back the famly who might have lived above that cellar hole at that time, to guess at who might have filled an inkwell and dipped in a quill and written a letter.

Flint has held in his hands Mohican dye pots, stone inkwells from the 18th century, or ceramic pots made in London workshops at the end of the day to keep the craftsmen busy.

He looks, he said, for what seems rarest. And he values anything that survives. An object that lasts from the 18th century, let alone the 15th, beats the odds, he said -- not getting chopped up or re-used.

And some collections begin closer in time. Paul Banevicius of Sheffield, a teacher and department chair of art at the Berkshire School, collects autographed sketches by cartoon artists from the 19th century to the 21st -- Charles Addams, Gary Trudeau, Hergé, the Belgian artist who created the teenage journalist detective Tintin in 1923.

In most cases, the cartoonist has drawn and sent or given him the sketch.

He once tracked down Edward Gorey at home, he said, and Gorey gave him tea in his Cape Cod kitchen. Later, he followed William Steig, creator of the original Shrek illustrations, into a Boston bookstore, and Steig drew a sketch on one of his own children's books.

"When I started in 1970, old-timers were still alive who were at the forefront" of comic art, he said. Now he finds the forefront in graphic novels from Art Spiegleman's "Maus" World War II stories to Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis."

"Berkshire Collects" has grown organically as part of the museum's 110th anniversary celebration, said director of interpretation Maria Mingalone, who co-curated the show with museum consultant Linda Norris.

The museum evolved the idea for the show from narrating its own collections, Norris said.

She and Mingalone formed a group of local naturalists, historians, artists and gallery owners to reach out to local collectors, and the museum sent out a call for volunteers.

"It's amazing what people collect," she said -- but she has found the people even more compelling.

Many people start collecting as children, she said.

Banevicius began at 12, writing to Charles Schulz about Charlie Brown.

Flint has collected many things since he was a boy and has been poking into antique shops since his teens. He began learning more about what he found, he said, and the more he learned the more he wanted to know.

Often collectors collect because collecting brings them close to other people, to the past, or to their own past, Norris said. They may collect out of a passion -- for music, for the outdoors, for art or history -- or to remember experiences they have had and people they have loved.

Collecting gives "evidence of the world around us," Norris said.

Things that were used, like insulators on phone poles, become beautiful in a new way when light shines through them.

Scott Wilton collects metal oil cans, a familiar tool from his childhood. He grew up on a dairy farm in Great Barrington, Mingalone said, and his family used oil cans on hinges, sickle-bar mower blades and many more kinds of machinery. Holding one now brings him back to that time.

Norris honors these people who want to know the names of things. They gather knowledge, they meet people and tell stories about themselves.

"Collecting opens up the world," Norris said. "They collect for the joy of it."

In ‘Berkshire Collects,'' Director of Interpretation Maria Mingalone has defined several kinds of collectors: Conjurers find value in the unexpected. Hunters enjoy the chase. Connectors link an object to a person or an experience, like Eric Drury, who has contributed his grandparents' Raleigh bicycles, given to them as a wedding gift. Some meet other people through collecting, she said. Some learn through their collections and teach at schools, libraries, nature centers.

In the galleries ...

* A wooden tern decoy made by Obediah Verity, a carver from Long Island

* Inuit art, including a luminescent stone carving of a three-eyed flatfish

* Silver crafted by Hester Bateman (1708-1794), the first accredited woman silversmith in London.

* The bottoms of paper bags where the people who made them have stamped their names: Marie Clervoyant, Fabio Zaata, Tanya Cheeks, Blanco Morales ...

* Recurved bows made by master bowyer Harry Drake, and much more ...

What: Opening for ‘Berkshire Collects'

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Berkshire Museum, 39 South St., Pittsfield

Admission: $5

Information: (413) 443-7171, www.berkshiremuseum.org


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