Once off the Pike, it doesn’t take long to feel the lure of the Berkshires. Very quickly, the pace of things slows down, and big city life starts to feel far away.
What makes the Berkshires so special? Few places in New England can match its mix of nature, culture, good food, and relaxed vibes. In many ways, it’s a perfect place to unplug and unwind in a world apart.
Ashuwillticook Rail Trail: A Hidden Gem
It doesn’t take much to get off the beaten path in the Berkshires.
The Ashuwillticook Rail Trail is a beautiful bike path on an old freight line that passes by wetlands, a reservoir, a lake, and great views of the Hoosac mountain range. The highest point in Massachusetts, Mt. Greylock, is just northwest of here.
Nearly all of the roughly 14-mile route is flat, making for very easy biking. For long stretches, few other people are around as the trail passes through the rural towns of Adams, Cheshire, and Lanesborough on its way to its southern terminus in Pittsfield.
The trail passes by several areas that MassAudubon considers to be birding “hotspots.” Among the more than 100 species spotted along the trail so far this year are bald eagles, ospreys, barred owls, and great blue herons, as well as dozens of less familiar waterfowl and songbirds.
Scenery all along the trail is great, with many spots overlooking tranquil waters and views of the Hoosac Range.
Studio E: A New Venue at Tanglewood
Amid all of the scenic beauty, there’s an amazing variety of cultural venues in the Berkshires.
A relatively recent addition to the Tanglewood campus — opened in 2019 — is Studio E. Part of a four-building cluster, Studio E is an intimate space for year-round concerts, lectures, and other special programs.
In the summer, Studio E hosts a series of free performances, when Fellows in advanced musical study at the Tanglewood Music Center can showcase their work. Here, two Fellows performed lovely art songs by Claude Debussy.
Large-Scale Works at Mass MoCA
It can take many hours to tour the dozens of shows at Mass MoCA — and even then, it’s tough to see them all.
Housed in former factory buildings that once were the home of the Sprague Electric Company in North Adams, Mass MoCA makes great use of the spacious grounds and interiors.
One of the high points of the exhibits is a huge installation of large-scale wall drawings designed by Sol LeWitt. Mounted on nearly an acre of specially-built interior walls, the drawings will be on view through 2043.
Though the drawings may seem simple in design, they’re actually quite complex. LeWitt wrote up instructions and made a general diagram for each drawing that he had in mind. Then, a team of 65 artists from several museums and schools came together in 2008 to carry out the site-specific renderings.
Each drawing required careful measurement and drafting yet allowed for many on-the-spot creative touches, making for unique works of art. A video accompanying the installations provides some fascinating glimpses of how the teams made the drawings.
LeWitt made half a dozen black and white “scribble drawings” near the end of his life. From afar, these drawings look like simple, solid, alternating rings of black and white — almost like a bullseye. But up close, it’s easy to see the optical illusion in these works — the varying density of the scribbles gives the impression of solid bands of black or plain white.
Timely Show at the Norman Rockwell Museum
The Norman Rockwell Museum in Lenox always delivers a provocative surprise. In its temporary exhibits — which usually fill about half of the museum — the curators have a knack for staging excellent and highly engaging shows on controversial themes.
This summer, a large exhibit considers the history of racism in America. Through political cartoons, lithographs, drawings, oil paintings, posters, magazine ads, and even consumer product packaging, the show examines how illustration as an art form has either debunked or reinforced racial stereotypes in our society.
Several works for Harper’s Weekly by the cartoonist Thomas Nast are a key part of the show. Here, in an image published barely three weeks after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Nast conveys a sympathetic view of African American domestic life (center) surrounded by images from the devastation of slavery (lower left) to the future promise of paid work (lower right).
During the Harlem Renaissance period (roughly 1920 through the late-1940s), Miguel Covarrubias created lively celebrity caricatures for popular magazines. In this lithograph of a couple dancing the rumba by moonlight, Covarrubias made an image that was very popular but drew sharp criticism from the activist W.E.B. DuBois, who found it an offensive work that reinforced stereotypes.
During the Civil Rights Era, Norman Rockwell took a strong interest in illustrating matters of pressing social concern. Outraged by the 1964 murders of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi, Michael Schwermer, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, Rockwell painted an imagined tableau showing them facing their outside-the-frame murderers
Interestingly, when Rockwell worked for 47 years at the Saturday Evening Post, he had to remove an African American from one of his illustrations — company policy had mandated that Blacks could only be shown in service industry jobs. Freed from such restrictions after moving to Look magazine in 1963, he adjusted his approach and became much more focused than ever before on civil rights and related issues.
Gardens and Outdoor Sculptures at The Mount
On top of her exceptional gifts as a writer of fiction, Edith Wharton had deep knowledge of design and architecture.
With architect Ogden Codman, Jr., she co-authored The Decoration of Houses, a highly influential book touting the values of proportion and symmetry that led to “a new American aesthetic” in home design.
In Italian Villas and Their Gardens, Wharton described her vision of gardens as elegant outdoor “rooms” that should complement a house and its surrounding landscape.
Wharton’s estate, known as The Mount, is also a perfect site for outdoor sculpture.
This year, for the eighth year in a row, SculptureNow curated a juried show of outdoor pieces blending in with the paths and woods on the property. The 30 installations this year reflect a wide variety of styles that connect to the surrounding landscape — much like the designs in Wharton’s gardens.
Here are several sculptures that were especially engaging — both as works of art and as thought pieces about how sculptures can “speak to” and inspire the people who see them.
Reflecting on the Berkshires
Visits to the Berkshires always remind us that it’s much too easy to breeze past scenery or walk past works of art that don’t immediately grab our attention. But whenever we spend time in this beautiful and peaceful region, we find that our pace eases and the wider world seems to melt away.
Being in the Berkshires calls for slowing down, relaxing, and simply taking the time to be with nature and art. We can hardly wait until our next visit!