In digital age, tiny studios offer writers solitude — and ties to a literary past

Tessa Kelly and Chris Parkinson are the cofounders of The Mastheads, a Pittsfield organization that aims to connect a new generation of writers with Western Massachusetts’ literary history.
Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe
Tessa Kelly and Chris Parkinson are the cofounders of The Mastheads, a Pittsfield organization that aims to connect a new generation of writers with Western Massachusetts’ literary history.

NORTH ADAMS — Theater professor Peter Campbell was drawn here from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, more than content to sit in an unheated box of 8 by 8 feet, bundled in a jacket on a cold and rainy day, and write of an imagined life of Aristotle.

“I knew the weather would be bad,” said Campbell, hunched over as he used pen and paper to write on a spare, wooden shelf. “But it's been great — the solitude, the quiet.”

Campbell bent to his work one recent afternoon inside the Herman Melville studio at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, using one of five bare-bones writing spaces inspired by 19th-century American authors who found inspiration in the Berkshires.


The studios are part of the Mastheads project, a first-year experiment conceived by a pair of Pittsfield architects as a way to connect a new generation of writers to the heritage and creative potential of the region.

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Clustered outside the old brick mills that house the sprawling museum, the studios offer established and aspiring writers a quiet, unplugged place to work for three hours at a time. In an age of digital distraction, the minimalist quarters provide an increasingly scarce commodity: simple peace and quiet.

Feel free to leave the cellphone behind.

“If I could have a place like this, I think I’d be so much more productive,” said Campbell, a professor at Ramapo College in New Jersey. His wife, Luissa Chekowsky, searched for inspiration only yards away in a studio named for Nathaniel Hawthorne.

What binds the 19th-century authors — other studios are named for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. — is a link to nearby Pittsfield, where all of them spent time writing.


Before the studios moved to the museum, also known as MASS MoCA, they stood in outdoor locations in Pittsfield, where they were used this summer for one-month residencies for writers chosen from a nationwide pool of applicants.

Two of the studios were on the grounds of Arrowhead, the Pittsfield farmhouse where Melville wrote “Moby-Dick.” The others were placed in Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary and Springside Park.

The studios have been at MASS MoCA since September, both as workspace and installation piece. They are available until Nov. 26, and will then be stored in Pittsfield until the summer.

“We’ve been figuring this out as we go along,” said Tessa Kelly, who cofounded the project with Chris Parkinson, her husband and architectural partner.

That figuring might apply to logistics and other nuts and bolts, but the pair’s vision for the project is deeply rooted. It takes inspiration from Pittsfield’s rich literary past and seeks to build on that legacy by breaking new literary ground.


Funded by a diverse array of donors topped by the National Endowment for the Arts, Mastheads also strives to reconnect Pittsfield to a cultural heritage that is often overlooked by locals and outsiders alike.

“There’s very little in Pittsfield that tells you these authors were there,” Kelly said of the small city (population about 44,737), better known in recent decades for hemorrhaging jobs at General Electric and pollution in the Housatonic River.

Kelly, a Pittsfield native, is determined to change that. In addition to providing space for promising writers, the project offers educational programming designed to illuminate the past and build excitement for the future. Sarah Trudgeon, the project’s director of education, has worked to bring poetry to Pittsfield’s elementary students.

“Our goal is to get them to think of writing as something fun to do,” Trudgeon said.

It’s also hard, as John Babbott can attest.

The 33-year-old from Portland, Ore., set to work on his second novel as one of the five writers in residence for the month of July. Perched atop a knoll at the Canoe Meadows sanctuary, Babbott was able to write three-quarters of the novel as he faced the Berkshires from a small door he propped open at the Holmes studio.

“It was a pretty incredible experience,” Babbott said. “I had nothing to focus on but the world inside my head.”

The studio is a spartan container of exposed cross-laminated pine, rising 13 feet high and set on wheels 30 inches above the ground. There is a chair, a wooden shelf, and a bench. There is no plumbing or electric outlets, although the summer writers received battery packs to recharge their laptops.

Skylights and small, adjustable openings in the walls allow sun and air into the studios, each designed with a nod to its 19th-century namesake. Writers seeking 21st-century comforts need not apply. This is a pre-industrial environment.

“There were no distractions,” Babbott said. “I would just write and write and write, pretty much until I got too hungry to write.”

The five writers received bicycles, food, $900 stipends, and living quarters in a communal home in Pittsfield. Babbott said that tossing around ideas with the others — three novelists and two poets, in all — was invaluable.

“What blew me away is the space actually worked for the writers,” said Kelly, who is looking ahead to next year’s residencies. While Pittsfield’s legacy will remain the cultural link, the 2018 program will focus on 19th-century social activism.

The five studios will retain the names that inspired their design, and Melville will again be represented. New figures for study will include historical novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick, British actress Fanny Kemble, poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and W.E.B. Du Bois, the African-American scholar and civil rights leader who was born in Great Barrington.

The Mastheads project, an allusion to “Moby-Dick,” borrows its name from the perch high above the whaling ship Pequod, from which Melville’s character Ishmael searched in solitude for whales. From there, Ishmael saw more than just the vast sea. He also looked inward to his deepest thoughts.

The project’s founders hope this holds true for the studios. “In a way, they are little viewing platforms,” Parkinson said.

For the Berkshires and beyond.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at