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Homing in on Dickinson’s poems

Teen’s ‘Little White House Project’ displays poet’s works on museum property in Amherst

Deerfield Academy student Peter Krasznekewicz, 17, stands among some of the 34 houses in his public art installation at the Emily Dickinson Museum.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Deerfield Academy student Peter Krasznekewicz, 17, stands among some of the 34 houses in his public art installation at the Emily Dickinson Museum.

AMHERST — When Peter Krasznekewicz took his English literature AP exam earlier this month, he offered some thoughts on Emily Dickinson and her disregard of punctuation in one of the essay questions. Little surprise, considering that two days later the 17-year-old Deerfield Academy junior was the star of a modest gathering at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst where a project that took root the summer after his freshman year was ready for its public debut.

A blend of installation art, literary analysis, and architecture, Krasznekewicz’s “Little White House Project” is a collection of 34 houses, each about the size of a family sedan, displayed on the museum’s 3 acres and extending about 2 acres beyond to public and private properties. Each house is made from sustainably harvested wood and features a line from a Dickinson

Assembled at a Turner Falls church, the houses are now on museum land (above).

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Assembled at a Turner Falls church, the houses are now on museum land (above).

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poem; a word or two is stenciled on each of its four outer walls and the roof panels. The shape of the house is a reflection of the traditional New England barns that dot the Western Massachusetts landscape, the region Dickinson was obsessed with and inspired by. The setting, a stark contrast from the ranch in Big Sur, Calif., where he grew up, had a similar effect on Krasznekewicz.

“I wanted the houses to relate to the surrounding community. I made them white so they could be simple enough that they don’t distract from the property,” said Krasznekewicz, who bears a likeness to actor Jonah Hill. At last Saturday’s ceremony, he sported standard prep school garb — a navy blazer, khaki pants, a yellow tie. He has poise well beyond his 17 years. “I’ve always been interested in concepts that are spread out, in art that you can touch and feel and that’s interactive and changes with the environment.”

But a project that changes with its environment is at the mercy of environmental changes. The “Little White House Project” was first installed on the Deerfield campus. Two weeks before it was to be set up, remnants of Hurricane Irene flooded the school’s sports fields. Practices and games were relocated to the grounds where the houses were going to be set up. A new location and layout had to be established. Stat.

Then there was the run of logistical setbacks, an inevitability with any project of this scale. The team working with Krasznekewicz received imperfect plywood from a lumber yard in Oregon. To give the project a green slant, the wood was supposed to be formaldehyde-free. It wasn’t. Krasznekewicz estimates he devoted about 20 to 30 hours each week to the project. That planning time included choosing the appropriate Dickinson quotes, writing fund-raising letters, and filling out papers to establish a nonprofit, Action Art Inc., so he could continue to raise funds. (He can’t legally be president until he’s 18, so his father, John, a Wall Street expat, currently holds the title.) Then when Peter broke his shoulder in a skiing accident in January, he underwent two major surgeries.

With Krasznekewicz’s rigorous course load, his grades slipped, but not by much.

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“There were late nights every once in a while, but I tried to use my time as best I could and do most of the work on the project on weekends,” he said. “In the fall term I managed to maintain honors, but I probably could have done better in some classes.” It was a hectic year for most of his friends, he said, but there were times he had to skip out while his friends were socializing. On Deerfield’s historically big game day with Choate, a rival prep school, Krasznekewicz was in meetings in Boston.

The community appreciates the sacrifice.

“When Peter first came to me, it was clear he was thinking about the wider Pioneer Valley. Part of the concept was integrating it with the bigger landscape,” said Jane Wald, executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum, which is set up in the home the poet’s grandfather built in 1813. The museum is owned by the Trustees of Amherst College. “The museum has been working to figure out how to connect Emily’s poetry to other art forms and artists, and maybe find an edgy way to do that. This is a little edgy.”

Connecting with other artists — and the Pioneer Valley community at large — was Kraszne­k­ewicz’s intention from the outset. The Amherst Public Arts Commission helped him realize that goal. That his goal echoes Wald’s hope of leveraging other artists to promote Dickinson’s poetry only moved things along more quickly. About 500 square-foot panels were left over from the construction of the houses. Those panels became canvases for professional artists and local children to put their spin on Dickinson’s verse.

“Teens tend to be self-involved. For Peter to think beyond himself and for the greater good makes him a great role model,” said Terry Rooney, chair of the Amherst Public Arts Commission. “Peter’s work is a response to Emily Dickinson’s work, so I invited other artists to respond to her work.” The panels, currently on display at the museum, will be part of the Amherst Biennial in the fall.

In the past Rooney orchestrated small-scale installations, like stained glass windows and ceramic tiles featuring quotes from famous authors on the town hall, but “Little White House Project” is, she said, the biggest installation ever displayed in Amherst.

The project has an indoor aspect, with two houses elaborately painted by Boston-based artists on display at the Jones Library, a public library nearby. Todd Robertson, one of the artists whose house reads “Dwell in possibility,” has lately been focusing on designing intricate Japanese kaiju monster dolls. “Little White House Project,” an exercise in minimalism, showcases his versatility.

“It was a chance to blend contemporary art with traditional iconic figure,” he said. “It was a challenge, and a direction I never saw for myself, but I like the idea of doing something different that’s not a canvas or a toy. There’s a connection to the roots of Americana and a chance to see my own expression in a different place and format.”

To hear Krasznekewicz’s mother, Sarah, tell it, the work embodies many of the interests Peter has nurtured since childhood. She said he was always busy building things in the barn on their California ranch. Family activities included composing haikus, a form that evokes Dickinson’s crisp, minimalistic verse. And in eighth grade he built a website about Christo, the renowned environmental installation artist.

The houses, which are on the museum’s property until June 30, will ultimately be broken down, the wood donated to Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity for the construction of a house. Until then, Wald hopes they provide a means for people to slow down and perhaps see the environment the way Dickinson saw it.

“The way they’re spread out, you can’t understand a complete thought unless you pay attention to the individual panels on the sides of the houses. The words on the roof aren’t always contiguous with the word below,” she said. “Emily had a skill with language. She doesn’t lay it all out as narrative. She puts things together in unexpected ways. Sometimes you have to work a bit to unpack one of the poems and put it together again. It makes you stop and pause, and that’s what these houses do.”

Liza Weisstuch can be reached at liza.weisstuch@gmail.com.

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