Marilyn Kalish is a woman possessed.


Written by Amanda Rae Busch / Photography by Scott Barrow

At least that’s what a visitor might think upon entering the artist’s Great Barrington, Massachusetts, studio-salon to find her assailing a pair of seven-foot-tall canvases with fistfuls of graphite pencils.

Clad in a crinkled, gunmetal-gray raw-silk robe over black wide-leg pants, Kalish windmills her arms in sweeping arcs, the sharp points of her tools scratching and tapping the expanse in a vigorous, passionate symphony. Kalish sways to an imaginary rhythm, her tightly shut eyes like the ebb and flow of passersby on the scorched Railroad Street sidewalk one story below.

She wiggles her fingers to make delicate lines within fluid figure eights—the lithe arm of a dancer, the strong arch of a petite foot—over and over and over again. A strand of pearls swings furiously from her neck. “It’s unpredictable,” she murmurs, breaking her meditation and softening her dark features from a scowl. “I want this thing to surprise me.” This thing is the almighty blank canvas, which Kalish has been confronting in such a manner for more than two decades. These two particular works-in-progress will morph rapidly into part of the artist’s ongoing Sensuality of Dance series, her most celebrated body of work, produced during a winter-long residency in the archives of Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts, in 2006, prefacing the legendary dance festival’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

Each is born on semi-translucent beaded mylar, a flexible polyester film also used to create high-performance boat sails and map overlays; strung about the Vault Gallery, Kalish’s intimate exhibition space named for its spot in the former Mahaiwe Bank building just around the corner on Main Street, the metallic dancers shimmer in the soft glow of overhead lighting and move with the gentle breeze produced by browsing visitors. Stephanie Kouloganis recalls being mesmerized upon wandering into the Vault Gallery four summers ago.

“That’s why I kept going back—and it’s the same thing that still draws me to her work—the movement of her lines. It’s such classical subject matter, but her artwork is contemporary, and people respond to that,” coos Kouloganis, now Kalish’s trusty wingwoman and Vault Gallery associate director.

“We have dancers who come in and they’re stunned; they say they’ve never seen dance captured in that way. For Marilyn, it’s all about light and physics and how to capture that movement.” Ask Kalish if she’s ever been a dancer and she’ll cackle and quip, “Only at weddings!” Yet she’s not totally unlike them. “I’m in awe of their discipline,” she says. “It takes more than talent. It takes excitement.” By measure of the artist’s process—a raw, visceral, intensely physical outpouring of emotion—it’s as clear as the crystal on a nearby chandelier that Kalish channels similar enthusiasm. After dumping her handfuls of pencils into metal cans set on the floor, she grabs two palm-sized chunks of charcoal from a coterie of carved wooden bowls and clasps her fingers around their edges as if the settings of precious smoky jewels. “This is my language,” she says, dragging the soft black rock along the dancer’s developing torso. Swoosh, tap. A fine ebony dust floats to the drop cloth below. “It all smells so luscious,” she declares. “And the sounds are gorgeous.” This is the gritty, down-and-dirty, physically taxing, and psychologically draining part. Beauty—that part comes later. “You have no help,” Kalish states wryly, lounging in a velvet chair at the opposite end of the room just minutes later. “It’s a blank canvas. You have to be sort of crazy to produce a consistent body of work from nothing.”

The sheer number of works occupying the vast rectangular space is testament to Kalish’s inexhaustible ambition. She nabbed this place in February, after learning, rather regretfully, that she was no longer welcome to work in near-obscurity from a loft in St. James Church—the house of worship has been shuttered due to a structural deformity. (“It’s a dark day when a church is condemned,” the former church mouse states solemnly.) Part studio, part gallery, part lounge, the space seems plucked from a chic Parisian pied-à-terre with plush fabrics, glass-topped coffee tables, and gilt galore, thanks to a decorating partnership with Berkshire Home & Antiques. On weekends, Kalish invites the public here to mingle over flutes of sparkling rosé and to view her work as it might appear in their own homes, over their own sofas or beside their own fresh flowers. There’s also opportunity to peek at some of Kalish’s unfinished works, like the two she’s been tackling today, but without feeling as if one’s intruded mid-act. And it’s here that her earlier work—darker pieces that have been showcased in museums from Boca Raton to Manhattan—hang alongside new experiments, like last winter’s series of golden canvases depicting dreamy, abstract Asian provinces dotted with the occasional pagoda or bonsai.

“It’s still in infancy,” she says of her first foray into landscape painting. She’s cast those pieces aside for now. Lured again by the magic of motion, Kalish has been incubating a fledgling series, Exquisite Life of Birds, for the past few weeks, the sketches of which hang in the salon amidst her resident dancers and near a small stone statue of Michelangelo’sDavid. Each depicts birds in mid-flight—“knots of energy,” she chirps—and upon closer inspection, it seems as if the torsos of the avian creatures are late-stage predecessors of the twisting human forms. “The bird series is freest of all,” Kalish admits, adding, almost as an afterthought, that the finished pieces will stray from her traditionally neutral palette. For the first time—aside from a brief love affair with crimson pigment that spawned a large-scale oil interpretation of Lady Macbeth for the April 2008 opening of the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts—she’ll apply ribbons of rainbow color. “I already see them finished,” she says, dreamily enough to make a visitor almost forget that moments earlier she likened her tick-tock-tick-tock approach to life as that of a manic-depressive, minus the slumps. “This fertility … keeps me interested.” The house in which Kalish spent her childhood sits across the street from Forest Park in Springfield, Massachusetts. “That was my playground,” she recalls. “I would take off into the woods on adventures, collect lady slippers, frogs, guppies—I had jars of night science. It’s a lot like painting: discovery. And wonder.”

She recalls, in detail, standing behind the velvet ropes to gaze at Rembrandt’s Polish Rider at the Frick Collection in Manhattan and marveling: How on earth could I ever do that?

It wasn’t until she was a few semesters into a psychology degree at the University of Hartford that she took an art class. Kalish, who’s held an appreciation of the macabre and has had an affinity for dark attire for as long as she can remember, found conformity unappealing. But, she says, “That stopped when I smelled oil paint.” She started painting, along the way meeting her husband, Alan Kalish, now director of the Vault Gallery, and raising two children, Michael and Lauren, now grown. “She always had a studio at home,” Alan says. “When the children were at home that’s the only studio she would ever see.” Still, Kalish developed her own “bag of tricks,” her rituals, which helped her survive the isolation she endured for short periods in remote studios after the kids were grown.

“I do eight to ten pieces at once so when I get stuck….” she says, trailing off. Just last week, she holed up in a secret studio space smack in downtown Great Barrington for nearly two full days and churned out thirty-six of those bird sketches. Taped to every sliver of wall space in the single-room apartment cluttered with drop cloths and floodlights and folding tables topped with supplies, the sketches embody a flock of energy. “I remember, vividly, being moved by the sheer scale of her drawings and her prolific manner of working,” says Susan Stoops, curator of contemporary art at the Worcester Art Museum. It was 1999, and Kalish, who was working at the institution’s conservation lab, had invited Stoops to drop by her studio. “There were drawings hanging on every possible surface, and when she ran out of room in the studio they began to take over her living space,” Stoops recalls. “The physicality of her mark-making was formidable; the seriousness of her enterprise was never in doubt. And the more I looked, the more I came to understand that for Marilyn drawing was both an act and a site of self-creation.” Kalish’s personal growth is tied inextricably to her artistic evolution. After working for awhile in an open studio on North Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, she found herself seeking privacy and knocking on the door of St. James Church.

Almost simultaneously she hatched a plan to launch a gallery representing herself on Main Street with a self-imposed challenge: she’d ask eight of her artist friends to showcase their photography, sculpture, and painting; if any of them declined, Kalish would scrap the project.

Kalish’s Vault Gallery today confirms that dear friends, like famed Stockbridge, Massachusetts, photographer Clemens Kalischer, Leonard Baskin (with whom she’d taken a drawing class at Smith College), and Barry Moser believed in her ambition. Photojournalist Craig Walker had just ventured to Afghanistan when she called him. Kalish marvels.

“After you stand in front of a blank canvas,” she says, “starting a business is not hard.” Her husband agrees. “She has a tremendous drive,” he says matter-of-factly, attributing much of this to her being constantly “discovered” at the Vault, seven days a week, year-round. “She’s physically exhausted a lot, but emotionally she’s ready to work, twenty-four hours a day.” But a reclusive artist Kalish is not. Though she appears as something of a dark force in An Intimate Encounter with Art, the twenty-eight-minute documentary film shot in 2007 by her son, Michael, a Boston-based videographer and founder of Generation Productions, Kalish is as likely to be seen at the local farmers’ market or theater as she is hosting a business after-hours event for the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.

Of special pride is her recent appointment to the Great Barrington Historic District Commission, a board of safeguard-minded citizens selected by the town manager.

“I want to preserve things that should be preserved,” Kalish opines. “I’m terribly proud to be considered. My community is important to me.” Kalish doesn’t distinguish between clients and her community. “You go there and she’ll invite you to have tea—you haven’t bought anything yet!—and she wants to know what you enjoy about [her work],” gushes collector Lisa Ross-Benjamin, 52, a Great Barrington second-home owner from Stamford, Connecticut. “It’s crazy: she just wants to know you and she wants you to know her.” Speaking from a cellphone during a Berkshire shopping excursion, Ross-Benjamin becomes so animated about her interactions with the artist that her husband and college-age daughter can be heard in the background, pleading with her to please calm down.

“Her artwork reflects all the movement and the beautiful feeling we have up here in the Berkshires,” Benjamin-Ross continues. “There’s a Jewish word called kvelling—you ooze love for somebody. I’m proud to know her and own her artwork and share it with other people.” Lady Godiva, depicting an ethereal woman on horseback, is one of two pieces that Ross-Benjamin gave to her daughter, a history major, upon college graduation. (Ross-Benjamin’s other daughter, a dance major at Skidmore College, also found a personal connection with Kalish.)

Photos of the works hanging above a couch in a starter apartment are sealed into a scrapbook at the Vault Gallery, per Kalish’s request that patrons send documentation of her pieces in their new settings. Two new homes for Kalish’s work are just up Route 7 in Lenox, Massachusetts: at the Spa at Cranwell. Both are site-specific custom installations of her Dancers in significant locations, such as opposite the broad windows that line the elongated atrium leading to the reservations desk at Cranwell.