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Former student uses art to enhance urban area

Date: 2/11/2013

By Carley Dangona

AGAWAM — Students enrolled at Agawam High School (AHS) witnessed firsthand an AHS gradute's application of art to beget a difference in an urban environment.

On Jan. 29, the AHS Art Honors class visited the Studio 9 gallery of the Sovereign Bank building in downtown Springfield; a fieldtrip sponsored by a grant from the Agawam Cultural Council.

"This program is supported in part by a grant from the Agawam Cultural Council," Deb Florek, art teacher and advisor to the AHS art class, said. "This Visiting Guest Artist/Art Gallery was made possible through the generosity of the council."

Robert Kadis, chair of the Agawam Cultural Council, said, "We've always supported art at the high school [because it enriches and inspires the students]."

John Simpson, professor at Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst and AHS alumni, teaches the college's "Creative Minds and Local Invention: Past and Present" course and runs the gallery, located on the ninth floor of 1350 Main Street.

During a tour of Studio 9, Simpson told Reminder Publications that his students in the class are not art majors and have either little or no previous experience in the field.

Simpson provided a synopsis of the "Creative Minds" class. He said, "Students are encouraged to experiment with imagery, paint and ideas. They are introduced to creative methods to explore and transform any latent artistic skills that they may have into active channels for expression. Students gain an understanding of museums, the curating of space, Springfield's history and the need for artists and students to create a sense of vitality in a city to fuel its economic engine."

He continued, "Students will humanize the historical figures and illuminate their inventions by incorporating the stories and innovations into art works that will be exhibited to the Springfield community. In addition, students will be able to participate in the creation of exhibitions for the Springfield Museums and will gain an understanding of the many professional opportunities in museums, galleries, cultural institutions and non-profit organizations."

According to Simpson, the UMass Amherst students will also collaborate with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra to create paintings in accordance with this season's theme, "Passion, Love, Murder and Mayhem," that will be displayed in conjunction with the season finale of the symphony.

Jill Harvey, "Creative Minds" student and anthropology major said, "I like the split format of the class. The first semester is focuses on drawing and studying history and the second semester is dedicated to recreating a masterpiece painting. I love coming here [to the studio], it's inspiring to see the other students' and John's work. I definitely recommend the class to others."

Florek stated, "John is an amazing artist who has a connection to AHS. A graduate in 1983, John has become a consummate painter and Renaissance man. He might be sculpting with clay, using oils for a portrait or drawing huge charcoal renderings or in the midst of planning to expand his huge gallery on the top floor of Sovereign Bank. Working with realtor, Evan Plotkin, John has brought culture and class to downtown Springfield."

Plotkin, president and owner of NAI Plotkin, a commercial real estate company, is known for his efforts to revive the cultural atmosphere of downtown Springfield.

"I am in pursuit of inherent drama — The idea is that something dormant can come alive. As a real estate agent, every day I put life into empty space. Why not utilize public space for the good of the community? I established Studio 9 out of love for what I do," Plotkin said.

He continued, "When I first bought the building, the public space outside the building was a wasteland." Plotkin described the plaza adjacent to the property as having a lack of seating and a fountain overgrown with plants. He explained that he installed benches and a coffee shop for "the good of the building," to create a welcoming and vibrant atmosphere. In warm weather, live music can be enjoyed in the plaza.

"I've created something different from the other Class A [office] buildings downtown," Plotkin said. He stated his long-term goal to help establish Springfield as a "cultural mecca." The next step in that process is to have more events such as art walks and festivals that "connect the dots to these cultural areas" around the city.

"The City Mosaic concept means that each piece is important for the city to become whole. We're building the mosaic as we go to ultimately create a visual masterpiece," Plotkin explained.

"Studio 9 is an integral piece in the mosaic. I want to make its artists economically viable. I want to create a way that they can sustain themselves," he said.

"The students that visit the studio see the work of the students, which is brilliant," Plotkin added. "They marvel at the beauty of the work and revel in the fact that the artists are not fine arts majors. The studio is a window that speaks to society's general lack of interest in the arts — [careers in the arts] are not economically viable, so the students are pursuing other interests to support themselves. This [the art] is what we could be cultivating — the studio is a window that shows what's possible."

For more information about the UMass Amherst Honors College, visit To learn more about the "Creative Minds" class, contact Simpson at