- Associated Press - Saturday, July 18, 2015

FITCHBURG, Mass. (AP) - Anna Schuleit Haber knows how to focus on the big picture.

The German-born visual artist is working in Fitchburg on a project revolving around a collaborative alphabet, the Sentinel & Enterprise front page, an embedded visiting artist, local writers and reporters, and 26 typographers from around the world.

These may seem like too many elements to create a cohesive work, but not for Schuleit Haber.

Putting all the pieces together, she said, is “the kind of challenge that resembles a puzzle, but one that has multiple ‘correct’ outcomes.”

“The real task is to assemble all the pieces in a creative way that exceeds the sum of its parts,” she said. “To make something out of all the contributions which, in the end, manages to soar and inhabit its own artistic space.”

Her works often include multiple pieces and have multiple layers of meaning.

Take, for instance, Schuleit Haber’s inspiration for this current project, called “The Alphabet.” Commissioned by the Fitchburg Art Museum with an National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant, Schuleit Haber came to the city last year with the intent of finding a way to re-interpret “Main Street.”

“I was looking to reach those who live near and work on and pass through Main Street, without making a sculpture, but reaching them nonetheless, creatively,” she said. “That’s why I noticed the newspaper, which is another form of the Common, in a way: the shared public realm of the city.”

So her inspiration, she said, was the city of Fitchburg itself. But Schuleit Haber’s lifelong fascination with graphic design, sparked by her industrial designer father who worked with text in many of his projects, also contributed to the conception of “The Alphabet.”

“I remember visiting (my father’s) Swiss office as a young girl, watching a gifted graphic designer draw different versions of letters perfectly by hand,” Schuleit Haber said. “I was mesmerized by the art of design, layout and typography. How balance is visually achieved and made interesting. How content is carried and communicated. I went on to study painting in art school but have always remained in love with great design, looking for it wherever I go.”

Schuleit Haber grew up in a family of artists, in an environment where being an artist was not something glamorous but was a way of life like any other. Her parents, both artists, cared deeply about art, theater, music and books, and Schuleit Haber grew to have similar passions. When she decided to study painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, she said her parents were neither surprised nor concerned.

“I didn’t have to justify to them wanting to study painting,” she said. “I feel fortunate, since I wasn’t at odds with my family in that way of finding my own path.”

Schuleit Haber graduated with honors from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1998 and moved to Massachusetts and then New York. Since then, she has worked on two dozen public projects, commissions and gallery exhibitions in Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont.

In 2003, she was commissioned by Harvard Medical School and the state Department of Mental Health to create a closing installation at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, formerly the Boston Psychopathic Hospital. Inspired by the persistent absence of flowers in psychiatry hospitals, she filled the vacant Massachusetts Mental Health Center with 28,000 flowers in bloom, marking the flowers that had never been given to its patients over 92 years. That installation was her second for a psychiatric hospital. Her first was a sound installation in Northampton in 2000, in which she turned the abandoned state hospital into a sound body. Both installations were reviewed by international media.

In 2010, she designed the stage set for a New York dance production based on the life of Peggy Guggenheim. In 2013, she began a creative collaboration with neuroscientists at Columbia Medical School, using eye-tracking technology for drawing.

Though she will be an “embedded artist” in the Fitchburg community while her project is ongoing, Schuleit Haber currently calls New Orleans her home.

After years of living in New York City and New England, Schuleit Haber and her husband, Dutch-Israeli composer Yotam Haber, are both “getting used to life in the South.”

“The weather, the people, the music and the food, all of which are luscious and colorful,” she said, “are very different from the Northeast, where I spent the last 20 years.”

“I come back to New York City for my work often enough to continue to feel connected to both North and South, and perhaps one day we will come back altogether, to teach and to settle somewhere more permanently,” she added. “For the time being, the Deep South is a great place to be, filled with inspiration and light for new art.”

Her current project in Fitchburg is not the first time that Schuleit Haber has worked within a Massachusetts city, trying to create a piece reflective of the community.

In 2013, Schuleit Haber was chosen from among 70 contestants to design a public art piece in Beverly. Called “The Beverly Oracle,” her design combined frescoes and poetry, but due to funding issues, it never made it past the conceptual stage. While she was designing the piece, however, Schuleit Haber was an artist-in-residence at the Montserrat College of Art, one of the project’s commissioning organizations. Several students interned for her, and she worked with Stephen Immerman, the college president.

“With the project, we were trying to establish something that was interpretive of our city, but also something that would pull the city together and make the city proud,” Immerman said. “That’s a tall order.”

Schuleit Haber delivered, he said.

When she presented her concept for “The Beverly Oracle,” Immerman said she embodied the idea that “artists do things that have never been done before.”

“A lot of what we do in terms of the art that is taught here is conceptual, and art nowadays is a lot about the idea,” he said. “There was power in Anna’s work and the idea behind the work. She researched the city, spent a ton of time talking to people and immersing herself in the city, and was very thorough.”

Schuleit Haber is approaching “The Alphabet” with a similar thoroughness and dedication. She has visited the community numerous times since last fall, and, with help from Eugene Finney, Community Relations director for the Fitchburg Art Museum, has recruited local writers, designers and videographers to contribute to her project.

Fitchburg Art Museum Director Nicholas Capasso said working with Schuleit Haber is “a great opportunity” for the museum.

“The idea of an artist taking over the front page for 26 days - I knew immediately that the museum wanted to do this,” he said. He wanted the museum to be associated with this groundbreaking, progressive art piece, and thought the idea fit perfectly with his goal of the museum focusing on the Fitchburg community.

And, Capasso said, “we knew that we could count on her.”

“She takes on these huge, ambitious projects, but she only thrives when she’s doing something enormous,” Capasso said.

Schuleit Haber, for her part, said intertwining art with an active daily newspaper, is “a dream come true in some ways.”

“The sheer urgency of the news every morning is something that normally eludes the arts, which are slower and more reflective,” Schuleit Haber said. “Combining these two, the daily city news and the arts, is a joy. And perhaps that’s what has been one of the themes in my work, the joy of experimenting with diverging elements that rarely come together on their own, and then doing it rigorously.”

As for putting together all the pieces, Schuleit Haber said it is “really an immense team effort.”

“It’s intended as a creative gift to the city and our readers and viewers,” she said. “We hope that local readers will go out and collect their sets of 26, have them framed, and dive into the stories that these pages will tell.”

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Information from: Sentinel & Enterprise (Fitchburg, Mass.), https://www.sentinelandenterprise.com

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