FITCHBURG — A bold, geometric ‘A’ stands tall above the fold, followed by an elegant, loopy ‘B’ in blue, then a ‘C’ designed after the vintage logo of a Fitchburg steam engine firm. The letters, each flanked by snippets of local lore, are part of Anna Schuleit Haber’s “The Alphabet,” a public art project unfolding daily on the front page of the Sentinel & Enterprise.
The Fitchburg Art Museum commissioned Schuleit Haber, 40, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow based in New Orleans, to carry out the third leg of a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant. Collaborating with 26 typographers from around the world, each of whom is contributing a letter, Schuleit Haber is creating an alphabet that is at once universal and deeply rooted in the community.
Historical pieces, poetry, and personal vignettes inspired by the letters and the region, some by Fitchburg State University students interning with the project, grace the front pages alongside the type designs. Journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, born in Leominster, contributed a piece called “Ancestry” to the first issue. Other topics have ranged from a baby carriage manufacturer to young-adult author Robert Cormier — forming a local encyclopedia of sorts.
Prompted to create something for Fitchburg’s main drag, Schuleit Haber was walking down the road, looking for inspiration and struck, she said, by the gritty substance and “architectural integrity” of a post-industrial American city, but wasn’t drawn to one particular space. Then she came across the building at 808 Main St. , home to the Sentinel & Enterprise, a daily newspaper dating to 1838.
Plunking quarters into a streetside dispenser, Schuleit Haber had an idea that she recalls thinking “could be a transgression of sorts, a true adventure in what public art means.”
Schuleit Haber, who studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design and creative writing at Dartmouth College, is known for her painting and large-scale installations, including a 2003 project that filled an abandoned Boston mental hospital with flowers.
In Fitchburg, rather than create something in an empty lot, something wedded to the pavement, she decided instead to think of Main Street in a metaphorical sense — considering the newspaper, with around 14,000 readers, as a kind of thoroughfare.
Though the world is increasingly shifting to digital media, she said, paging through the newspaper is a morning ritual that for centuries has been the “most basic way of starting civic engagement.”
With this in mind, Schuleit Haber needed to convince the Sentinel & Enterprise to relinquish its front page, which she called “the holy grail,” not for one day, but for 26 — the alphabet being a “neutral” series she could latch onto.
Though it wasn’t a simple deal to pull off, Sentinel & Enterprise Editor Charles St. Amand said he was on board from the beginning, gesturing around his office to a number of commemorative front pages — for the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup win, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 — as evidence that the newspaper is in the habit of taking creative risks.
Barring a major news story, the letters will dominate the newspaper’s front page Monday through Saturday until Aug. 11, with actual front-page content shifting to Page 3. To make it happen, Schuleit Haber is embedded at the Sentinel & Enterprise, her mutt Finnegan curled under her desk, working with a team of 13 interns to produce each issue on deadline.
Sitting by the window in the newspaper’s second-floor office, armed with regional history books leaking Post-its, Fitchburg State student Shannon Gugarty said writing for the project has helped her see her hometown in a new light.
“A lot of people don’t think of Fitchburg in terms of history,” said Gugarty, 23, of Orange, explaining that she was most impressed to learn of Thomas Edison’s fascination with the locally manufactured C. H. Brown steam engine. Her mother’s church friends, she said, are loyally collecting copies of each issue.
“It makes them think very consciously about where they live,” LeBlanc said of the project, calling it a “feat of courage,” on the newspaper’s part, and admitting that she too was learning quite a lot about the area where she grew up.
Fitchburg Art Museum director Nick Capasso called the project a local celebration, a venture that affords a tour of a once-booming gateway city and central Massachusetts, while also linking Fitchburg to the globe. It’s a refreshing change, he said, from the usual headlines about crime and strife.
“The news is about things that people hold dear in this community,” Capasso said. “ ‘A’ is for apples, not arson.”
Cyrus Highsmith, of Providence, who develops typefaces for Font Bureau and designed the goofy, ghoulish ‘G’ — round eyes and boxy teeth complementing what those in the industry call the “ear,” the part of the lower-case letter that sticks up at the top — said he hoped the project would urge people to consider the creative potential of typography and develop a stronger appreciation for their newspaper.
“Letters are everywhere,” Highsmith said. “If you can train your eye to see them in a graphic way, instead of just a literate way, you open your brain to seeing drawings everywhere.”
It’s also an experiment that speaks to the role of print newspapers in a digital age.
“[St. Amand] and his publisher are fully aware that they are presiding over a dying enterprise and this is an opportunity for them to be imaginative and a leader in the industry,” Capasso said.
Indeed. Just 10 years ago, the project would have been unimaginable, St. Amand said, as people still relied on the print newspaper for their daily briefing. Today, he said, that has changed, and Schuleit Haber’s project is leading the Sentinel & Enterprise to reconsider its print product as more than just a “rehash of what we put on the web the day before.”