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Taking to the Woodshed

Collage artists hold creative marathon

Max Jeffers of Boston takes a break from collage-making to play the guitar at the Woodshed in North Adams. Max Jeffers of Boston takes a break from collage-making to play the guitar at the Woodshed in North Adams. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / February 5, 2011

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NORTH ADAMS — Jazz musicians have a term, “take it to the woodshed.’’ Go out back with your ax and work it out. For five days in January, 30 collage artists converged on North Adams with their axes — stashes of paper and fabric, kits filled with pencils and scissors and paint — for a marathon trip to the woodshed. The results of their efforts can be seen in “100 Hours in the Woodshed III,’’ at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Gallery 51, through Feb. 20.

Last weekend, the artists were set up two to a table in two rows down the narrow gallery. Occasionally, someone would pick up a guitar to strum, but mostly the mood was quiet and focused, with murmured critiques and encouragement mingling with the sounds of scissors slicing and pencils scribbling.

Every two years, artists come from as far away as California and Wisconsin to participate in the collage marathon, making art from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days. This is the third Woodshed event.

“Everyone comes with a plan and a purpose,’’ said artist Daniel O’Connor, also known as Danny O, as he took a break from dabbing paint over pages of text. “Hopefully, that gets shattered.’’

O’Connor and New York art dealer and artist Scott Zieher masterminded the Woodshed. The two have met up to spend weekends working alongside artist friends for almost 20 years.

Zieher staged a more commercial version in his gallery, ZieherSmith, in 2006. Then it migrated to North Adams, where O’Connor lives, and where Zieher can participate as an artist, which he didn’t feel he could do at his own gallery. The MCLA took up the event’s stewardship.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for artists,’’ said Zieher. He had thrown over working with found text to crafting sleek abstract collages. “It becomes competitive in a good way. You look over your shoulder and see what somebody else is doing.’’

“You’re allowed to steal in this room,’’ O’Connor added. “Not things, but ideas.’’

At the back of the gallery, Lana Z Caplan has set up shop across the table from Melora Kuhn. It’s Kuhn’s first trip to the Woodshed. Caplan has come to all three.

“I was really nervous. I tried to do a bunch of prep,’’ said Kuhn, pausing from painstakingly cutting elegant silhouettes with a slender blade. “It’s nice to work in a place where other people are working. It’s energizing. Then, I’m ready for a glass of wine at 10 o’clock.’’

“There is a sense of urgency. You can’t stop,’’ said Caplan, who was splicing together bits of film that Zieher had stumbled over on a Brooklyn street after the first Woodshed, and salvaged just for her.

“The other two times, I’ve made some of my favorite work of the year,’’ Caplan said.

Some artists reinvent themselves at the Woodshed. Henry Klein, a plein air painter, started collaging wave patterns at a previous Woodshed. “It’s more conceptual,’’ he said. “I sent slides to Sol LeWitt to see if he would crit my stuff. He wrote back and said ‘you could develop it more.’ I’m going to blow that letter up and make it into a wave pattern.’’

O’Connor sees the collage artists as a tribe. They’re all recyclers. They all have a passion for treasures other people toss away. “I came in yesterday and said there’s a liquidation sale at the thrift store, and everyone wanted to go,’’ he said.

The public was free to wander through the gallery as the artists worked.

“It’s something people don’t get to see usually,’’ said Jonathan Secor, director of the MCLA Berkshire Cultural Resource Center, which oversees the event. “It’s mythical, mystical. We’ve been able to share art. Now we’re sharing the art and the artists.’’

Zieher, O’Connor, and Gallery 51’s manager Ven Voisey planned to curate the show once the artists put down their tools late Monday, and mount the exhibit the next day. “We’ll say to an artist, what do you love? We love that one, too,’’ O’Connor said. “Most curators, their whole vision comes across. Ours is based on a public that will come in and say ‘this was made in less than a week.’ We want to share the energy.’’

Cate McQuaid can be reached at cmcq@speakeasy.net.

100 HOURS IN THE WOODSHED III At: MCLA Gallery 51, 51 Main St., North Adams, through Feb. 20. For information: 413-664-8718 or www.mcla.edu/gallery51