Enhancing North Country Lives Through Art

By Nicole Caldwell

Originally published at TruthAtlas

WATERTOWN, NY—Self-expression and art go hand-in-hand, and art isn’t just for galleries, either. The history of art tells the history of governments, cultures, war and peace, farming, gathering, and exploration. Art tracks every human frailty and triumph, pushing us to solve problems creatively and to think more critically.

“Any community is more vibrant with an arts scene,” says Kris Marsala, 58, president of the North Country Arts Council (NCAC) in Watertown, New York since January 2014. “We create different cultural opportunities for the community.”

The NCAC is a nonprofit organization seeking to develop and promote the arts in northern New York State. The North Country Artists’ Guild was created in Kris’ hometown in 1949 to promote fine artists, and it become the NCAC in 2009, expanding to encompass all arts– music, theater, dance, literary arts, visual arts, and crafts—and reaching out to artists and arts organizations alike with networking, educational, and collaborative opportunities. Their mission is to offer North Country residents a clearinghouse of opportunities for artists, arts-related retail options, workshops, lectures, and cultural diversity.

This isn’t such an easy task in an area that shares state funding with culture-centric New York City, but whose rural demographics, economics, and monoculture are light years away from Manhattan sophisticates. Northern New York’s pristine landscapes, open St. Lawrence Seaway, low population, and multitude of outdoorsmen and manual laborers camouflage the ever-growing arts scene. Arriving in the North Country for the first time, you’d be astonished at how many artists call this region home, and how hungry the public is for cultural and creative opportunities. The mission of Kris and the NCAC is to scratch the artistic surface of the region and shine a spotlight on its art scene.

Kris’ own artistic arc has run the gamut from videographer to potter, writer, and musician. He understands the effect art can have on a person–he’s lived it, and his work with the NCAC is what he describes as a way to give back.

“I’ve always been full of creative energy,” Kris says. “It got stirred up by my Watertown High School art teacher and it’s kept me motivated over the last forty years.”

He attended Watertown High School before studying painting, pottery, and photography at the Lake Placid School of Art, a school operated in the 1970s where the Lake Placid Center for the Arts sits today. He then concentrated on pottery at the Thousand Islands Arts Center in Clayton, New York, and lived on a wooden Trojan boat on the St. Lawrence River less than a mile away. He ended up meeting a master potter from nearby Livonia, who lived with his wife in a converted funeral home and made art and music. Kris took up a traditional apprenticeship and moved in with the couple to create pottery before moving back to Watertown to start his own pottery shop on downtown State Street while also performing a number of theater shows.

North Country Arts Council President Kris Marsala stands in the council's gallery space in Downtown Watertown, N.Y. Photo by Nicole Caldwell

North Country Arts Council President Kris Marsala stands in the council’s gallery space in Downtown Watertown, N.Y. Photo by Nicole Caldwell

Not loving the business-centric world of retail, Kris started a television series called Krazy Kris on the Beat. He describes it as “reality TV before reality TV,” featuring a camera following Kris around while he surprised DJs on-set. This work would turn into a rock ‘n’ roll talk variety show, Variety Tonight, that would win a National Ace Award in 1984 and capture the imagination of personalities like David Letterman, who called the show the “last best hope for cable TV.”

Kris knows what it’s like to be a struggling artist. While developing, producing, writing, and performing on the show, he also worked as a waiter at any number of upscale restaurants. “I practiced the time-honored tradition of working in something creative and doing something else to pay the way,” he says with a grin.

Kris’ experience in the art world informs his work as the NCAC’s president. “We’re the conduit for artists and arts organizations,” he said. “Studies show that kids who take part in art classes and music classes do better in college; if you play an instrument, certain parts of your brain are more developed.”

The NCAC keeps itself busy. They’re currently working on projects such as a gallery space for buying and selling art in northern New York; an events and performances calendar boasting what Kris says is some of the finest work in the area; events throughout the year; and a website constantly updated to reflect events, performances, concerts, and other cultural opportunities and arts organizations throughout the region. The organization is the only lifeline of its kind for artists and arts organizations in Jefferson County–making its reach all the more important.

“My resume is an eclectic mix of art forms that I’ve embraced throughout my life in order to unleash that energy,” Kris says. “One of my primary goals as president of the NCAC is to give others a variety of opportunities to do the same.”

The NCAC’s latest project is a fundraising effort to establish Screen on the Square, a new room in the building where the gallery space is located that would create a venue for movie screenings, recitals, performances, classes, and more. Screen on the Square would offer the NCAC a sustainable revenue source by selling tickets to events held there, fueling future work and creating jobs for curators, educators, and performers. They hope to reach their $125,000 goal by July 2014 in order to get Screen on the Square’s doors open to the public. So if you’re in the area, be sure to stop by.

Want to learn more?

The North Country Artists’ Guild was established in 1949. This organization served the North Country by providing promotional opportunities to fine artists. In 2009 our mission was expanded and name changed to The North Country Arts Council to reflect our hope of encompassing all arts.

Learn more at nnyart.org