By Jennifer Solis
---- — What do a fuel pump, a saute pan and a 42-year-old lottery ticket have in common?
Each is part of a public art project currently going on in Groveland, Merrimac and West Newbury — the three towns of the Pentucket Regional School District.
The project — a brainchild of the nonprofit Pentucket Arts Foundation — marks the first time that these communities have collaborated on this type of artistic endeavor.
“In honor of our 10th-year anniversary, this fall, we launched an ‘Arts Connecting Community’ campaign,” said Sue Stasiuk, vice chairwoman of the Pentucket Arts Foundation.
The public art project is one component of this yearlong celebration, which seeks to highlight the organization’s milestone by infusing the community with innovative fine and performing arts experiences throughout its cultural season.
With this in mind, Stasiuk and other members of the foundation’s all-volunteer board of directors reached out to municipal and community organizations and businesses from the three Pentucket towns, inviting them to each donate one item — no bigger than a shoebox — that in some way distinctly identifies the group or its mission.
With sponsorship from the Institution for Savings and the Eastern Bank Charitable Foundation, they commissioned local mixed-media artist Sean Bixby to assemble the various donated items into one cohesive piece of artwork.
Over the next several months, nearly 50 groups spanning the tri-town region stepped up to donate items — a response far exceeding the board’s wildest expectations. Particularly rewarding, Stasiuk said, were the participants who expressed how grateful they are to be part of a project like this that brings people in the community together.
On a cold Monday in mid-December, Stasiuk and fellow board members Diane Doyle and Karen Rubino hauled the donated booty into a visual arts classroom at the high school, carefully spreading it out across the wide tables to photograph each piece individually before turning them all over to Bixby.
As part of the project, a photograph of each item is paired with a statement — drafted by its donor — explaining how it symbolizes the organization that donated it. Photos and statements will be bound together into a viewbook accompanying the finished art piece.
A Pentucket alumnus, Bixby is an award-winning children’s book illustrator who lives in Newburyport and teaches visual art at Pentucket High School. As Stasiuk and her colleagues unloaded box after box, snapping pictures with their phones, he slowly circled the tables, thoughtfully taking in the found treasures for the first time.
He examined each item, lifting some in his hands to get a feel for their heft: an intricate-looking fuel pump from Brunault’s Auto in West Newbury; the coupling section of a 1963 fire hose from the Groveland Fire Department; a small saute pan representing the “home cooking, warmth and coziness” of Rhythm Cafe in Merrimac.
“I’m looking for combinations — shapes, colors, textures — for things that naturally go together, but also things that are unrelated but look interesting when put side by side,” Bixby said.
He continued taking stock of the bounty scattered across the tables: wooden drumsticks, library cards, police badges, pizza boxes, coffee mugs, a hair stylist’s scissors and hairbrush, a pine derby racer, original pieces of pottery, and sculptures created by other local artists specifically for the project.
Bixby points out that many of the items not only represent different groups in the community but also different time periods.
West Newbury’s town clerk offered two postcards from the 1950s with renderings of the 1910 Town Office Building and the Congregational Church, erected on Main Street in 1856. The Groveland Council on Aging also gave an antique postcard — featuring a kick line of old-fashioned bathing beauties.
Cindy Adams of Long Hill Orchard in West Newbury contributed a section of a wooden apple crate dated 1965, while Don Fowler of the West Newbury Food Mart donated a lottery ticket from 1972 — the year the 55-year-old store first started selling scratch tickets.
A brand-new yellow safety vest from the Merrimac Police Department sat in stark juxtaposition on the table to a well-worn pair of tiny pink ballet slippers from Dance Technics in Merrimac and some tattered gloves worn by gardeners at West Newbury’s Knapp’s Greenhouses for 40 years.
Doyle said the most challenging part of the collection process was getting people to understand what kind of items would make a good donation. After sending out an initial letter, Stasiuk, Doyle and Rubino followed up with phone calls — and even personal visits to donors — to explain just what this public art project was all about. But once people understood the concept, enthusiasm for the idea steadily grew.
As the three women finished documenting the large collection of items, Bixby asked them to email the photos to him so he could play with some ideas digitally and start sketching out possible ways to compose his piece.
“This is the kind of piece where you don’t know the outcome prior to doing it,” Bixby said.
While making a piece of quality art out of random, unconnected objects might seem unfathomable to most people, it’s clear that Bixby considers the challenge to be part of the fun.
“There’s a lot of interesting shapes here,” he said. “Once I put it all together and shuffle them a bit, an idea is bound to come up.”
A public unveiling of the collaborative art piece is planned as part of a 10th anniversary party that the foundation is hosting for the community at the high school on May 22. The viewbook will be on hand so people can first see the individual items and then find them within Bixby’s work.
A documentary of the process created by students in Bixby’s videography class will also run during the event, Stasiuk said. Eventually, the artwork will be on permanent display at the high school.
“Our hope is that this public arts project challenges, delights, educates, illuminates — and ultimately draws us together — for years to come,” Stasiuk said.
To view the entire collection of items donated to the “Arts Connecting Community” public art project, visit www.pentucketarts.org.
Local organizations and businesses participating in the Pentucket Arts Foundation’s “Arts Connecting Community” public art project include:
Brunault’s Auto Repair
Crane Neck Auto
Donaghue Elementary School
GAR Memorial Library
Groveland Board of Selectmen
Groveland Council on Aging
Groveland COA’s Monday afternoon art class
Groveland Fire Department
Groveland Garden Club
Groveland Police Department
Groveland post office
Holiday Helper Program
Jon Val Salon
Long Hill Orchard
Merrimac Lions Club
Merrimac Police Department
Merrimac Public Library
Merrimac Santa Parade
Merrimac Savings Bank
Merrimacport United Methodist Church
Page Elementary School
Pentucket Arts Foundation
Pentucket Athletic Association
Pentucket Education Foundation
Pentucket Middle School Underground Art Society
Pentucket High School visual arts department
Purple Sage Pottery
Sweetsir Elementary School
West Newbury Council on Aging
West Newbury Cub Scouts Pack 26
West Newbury Food Mart
West Newbury Garden Club
West Newbury Pizza Co.
West Newbury Police Department
West Newbury post office
West Newbury School of Music
West Newbury Riding and Driving Club
West Newbury Town Hall