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Artist wins MCC grant

By Michelle Kealey

Staff Writer

WESTFIELD Local photographer Tara Conant is one of 33 artists from across the state to recently receive a $5,000 grant through the Massachusetts Cultural Council's (MCC) Artists Grant program.

Conant is a freelance photographer and also teaches photography classes at Westfield State College and Holyoke Community College.

When she received the news that she was chosen for the grant, she said she was "very excited and very shocked because so many people apply for it."

Conant said that she has been aware of the grant over the years and had applied for it a number of years ago, but was not selected.

"I re-applied this year, and surprisingly I got it," she said.

The body of work that she submitted with the grant application is one that she has been working on for close to 10 years.

She explained that the project documents many locations across western Massachusetts where women have been abducted or have been found murdered.

"I started to do [the project] in 1995," she said. "Then there seemed to be a rash of murders in western Massachusetts."

She added that the project was a reaction to all of the murders and she wanted to do something about it.

"It was kind of more of an emotional response to what was happening," she said, adding that her photography project also helps people to think about and memorialize the victims.

Conant explained that she took a very structured documentary approach when she took the photographs.

Conant took a couple of years off from the project, but decided to continue with it as the Molly Bish case drew national attention.

She has taken photographs at over 50 locations in western Massachusetts since she began the project.

Conant has exhibited her work at a number of shows, most recently at Westfield State College as part of the college's month -long celebration of women.

She also presented some of the project's images at a conference in Springfield titled "Why Kids Act that Way, Longterm Effects of Child Abuse and Family Dysfunction."

Conant said that the District Attorney's Office requested her images for the conference, which was sponsored by Baystate Health Systems, the Family Advocacy Center and the Hampden County District Attorney's Office.

She said that her photographs are received very well by viewers. She said that the "combination of the photographs, which are very plain" and the text that describes the photograph and what took place there helps the work to be well received.

According to Conant, the scene in the photographs look nice and average, but once someone reads the description, it has a diffferent feel to it.

Conant said that she hopes to have her project will be seen nationally because what she documents "is such a world-wide problem and it happens all of the time."

Conant explained that she plans to use the grant funds to enlarge the images of her project and to include the type on the same piece of paper as the photograph.

Now, all of her photos are 8x10 in size and she said that enlarging them will create a bigger impact.

Since she began documenting the sites with film, she has continued to do so, although she does use digital cameras for other work.

She added that she develops the film herself and plans to enlarge them herself. She said that larger photo paper and framing the images can be costly.

Prior to becoming a photographer, Conant graduated from college with a degree in psychology that she said "was not going anywhere."

She explained that she was at a transition point in her life when she was in her 20s and decided to go back to graduate school to pursue photography.

"Photography has always been an interest," she said.

Conant was one out of 735 artists who applied for the grant, which are given in the categories of crafts, film/video, music composition, photography, playwriting/theater works and sculpture and design.

Greg Liakos, communications director for the MCC, explained that the Artist Grant Program began when the MCC was created over 30 years ago.

He said that the amount given to artists was reduced when the MCC's budget was cut in 2002.

He said the $19 million MCC budget was cut 62 percent, which brought it down to $7 million.

He added that the Council has been level funded since.

This year, the MCC gave out $165,000 in grants to artists.

"Artists are the creative heart of Massachusetts' cultural life," Liakos said. "We have a state that is known for our cultural institutions and programs that they offer, but without individual artists, none of that happens."

He added that it is important for the MCC and the state to support artists.

In addition to the 33 grant winners, 19 artists were named as finalists.

Liakos explained that, although the finalists did not receive grants, they distinguished themselves through the process and it was important for the MCC to "recognize them for their excellent work."

He added that the recognition is important because the applicants went through a "competitive, rigorous panel," which included recognized authorities in their discipline.

"It gives a seal of approval to a lot of artists," Liakos said.

State Senator Michael Knapik (R-Westfield) and State Representative Donald Humason (R-Westfield) are both proud that Conant's work has been recognized by the MCC.

"I am very pleased the MCC has chosen to recognize Ms. Conant for her work," Knapik said. "Her skill and devotion to her art are evident in her fine work."

Humason said, "The MCC and its' programs provide excellent opportunities for artists, both accomplished and novice, in the Westfield area.With the addition of new studios in the downtown neighborhood Westfield is beginning to see a new interest in the arts and humanities, including painting, dramatic presentations, dance, music and poetry. This prestigious recognition of Tara's work provides added incentive to our local community."

The application deadline for the 2005 MCC Artist Awards is December 12. The grants will be given in the categories of choreography, drawing/ printmaking/artists books, fiction/creative non-fiction, painting, poetry, traditional arts.

For more information about the MCC or the Artist Awards, visit