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Boston: Cradle of Craft

Boston: Cradle of Craft

Boston: Cradle of Craft

April/May 2012 issue of American Craft magazine
Author Philip Bishop
Mediums Jewelry
Jay Rogers Piranesi “Prisons” #2

Jay Rogers; Piranesi “Prisons” #2, 2009; walnut, curly maple; 18 x 14 x 14 in. Photo: Jeff Magidson

Beantown did more than help spawn the United States. It also helped anchor craft in this country and continues a flourishing tradition to this day.

You might not be reading this magazine if it weren’t for the city of Boston. Known for rabid sports fans and top-notch universities, Boston is also the birthplace of the arts and crafts movement in the New World.

By the late 19th century, cheap factory-made products in England had driven many craftspeople from their trades and threatened to wipe out skills that had been passed from generation to generation over centuries. To prevent this from happening in the United States, in 1897 a group of Boston craftspeople and their supporters held the first craft exhibition in the country and founded the nation’s oldest nonprofit craft organization, the Society of Arts and Crafts.

Located in Boston’s Back Bay in the city’s gallery district on Newbury Street, the Society today is the perfect place to begin a craft tour of Boston. There are two floors to see – a retail space on the first floor and an exhibition gallery on the second, where four shows are held annually.

“Boston is a vibrant community, which includes a wonderful group of artist studios, collectors and would-be collectors, art centers, schools, galleries, and museums that focus on craft,” says Beth Ann Gerstein, executive director of the Society.

Gerstein acknowledges that studio space is more expensive in Boston than in some other cities, as does Donna Veverka, owner of Donna Veverka Jewelry, located about a mile south of the Society on Washington Street.

When developers “kicked all the artists out” of Fort Point – Veverka’s former neighborhood and once “the largest artist community in New England,” she says – she moved her home/studio to the Laconia Lofts building, where she has been since 2006.

“This location is central to everything I need,” says Veverka. “I can walk across this street and see great art or visit other people’s studios. I can get downtown to the Jewelers Building in five minutes for supplies. I have a gallery that sells my work on a regular basis one block away,” she says. “I feel part of the greater artist community.”

Veverka’s Washington Street location is the northern border of what in recent years has come to be known as SoWa – south of Washington – a commercial neighborhood a mile southwest of downtown, more traditionally known as the South End.

Peggy Russell, principal of IRO Design, makes clothing and accessories using hand-mixed dyes. She has lived and worked in the South End for more than 25 years and experienced all the seismic shifts in Boston’s craft scene, including rising rents. When she first rented 750 square feet of space in 1986, she paid $230 a month; now rent is about $1,300.

Russell’s building at 450 Harrison Ave. houses about 75 art studios, including those of silver­smith and jeweler Amy Casher, encaustic painter Linda Cordner, jeweler Sophie Hughes, and photo­grapher Debby Krim. 

For a long time, the South End and Fort Point neighborhoods, with their large mill and factory buildings and low rents, were prime territory for artists. But in the 2000s, much of Fort Point was sold to developers, and the neighborhood lost many of its inexpensive studio spaces. The artist population dropped from about 600 to 300 today.

But Fort Point is resurgent, says Gabrielle Schaffner, a potter and executive director of Fort Point Arts Community, a nonprofit art/neighborhood organization. She says in the past three years, Fort Point artists have sold about 250,000 works. And more affordable studio space is opening up. “Through hard work and negotiation, we’ve been able to include artists’ units in some of the more traditional developments around the neighborhood,” she says.

One beneficiary of this development is Amy Nguyen, a textile artist. “I moved to Boston from New York City in 2005, drawn to the textile history of New England,” says Nguyen. “With hand-dyeing, quilting, and piecing, I felt I was becoming part of that history.”

Nguyen lives and works at Midway Studios, a converted warehouse located on Channel Center Street in Fort Point. The building, which opened in 2005, has 89 live-work studios, on floors two through six. The first floor houses two-story spaces, a café, and office and retail space for cultural organizations and arts-related businesses.

At the other end of town, the North Bennet Street School is another bastion of Boston’s craft tradition. The school, whose founding predates that of the Society of Arts and Crafts by 12 years, began as an “industrial arts” school. Current programs include cabinet and furniture making, preservation carpentry, and jewelry making and repair; woodworker Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez became president in 2009, and faculty include furniture maker Lance Patterson and jeweler Eva Martin. The school also has a gallery and store.

While the center of Boston has a thriving arts and crafts community, the nearby suburbs are equally vital. Four miles to the west, following Huntington Avenue most of the way, you leave the bustle of Boston’s central districts for the leafier life of Brookline. Although it is one of the wealthier suburbs of Boston, craftspeople still find a home here, particularly if they pool their resources. That’s what Feet of Clay pottery founders Robin Henschel, Mona Thaler, and Marlene Liederman did in 1974.

Liederman started a simple pottery cooperative in her basement on Druce Street in Brookline before the trio moved to their current location at 21 Station St. in 1997 to accommodate a growing membership list. Feet of Clay now serves more than 80 members, most of them using the studio as their primary workspace, says current owner Jennifer Wyman. The 4,000-square-foot workspace holds 26 wheels, six work tables, and four electric kilns. Feet of Clay teachers serve some 60 students per week. Twice a year, there are shows and sales.

“A Brookline location is much better for craft, because the spaces tend to be less expensive than in Boston,” Wyman contends.

Cross the Charles River on Harvard Bridge, and in a matter of moments you’re in Cambridge. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is straight ahead, home to the MIT Glass Lab.

Founded in 1972 by Pam and Kim Vandiver, a cousin of glass legend Dale Chihuly, the MIT Glass Lab came into its own in 1986 under the leadership of engineering professor Michael Cima and program director Page Hazelgrove, “who realized the program’s potential to reinforce core MIT values like teaching teamwork and outside-the-box thinking,” says Peter Houk, the lab’s director.

In addition to offering beginning, intermediate, and advanced glassblowing classes for members of the MIT community and an annual lectureship, the Lab has annual public sales around Halloween, Christ­mas, and Mother’s Day.

Houk, who has his own glassblowing studio on Sherman Street in north Cambridge, is encouraged by the vitality of craft in Boston, in part because of recent developments at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, located back over the Harvard Bridge on Huntington Avenue.

“The fact that the Boston MFA [recently held a] Chihuly show – one of their most successful shows ever – tells me that they are getting more serious about the importance of craft,” he says. The museum also hired its first curator of contemporary decorative arts, a position funded by collectors Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick, in late 2010.

A mile to the east of MIT you move into a residential retreat, and charming Tufts Street. At No. 7 you’ll find Judith Motzkin, a ceramic, mixed-media, and installation artist whose work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is represented in the permanent collection of the MFA. Her studio is an old stable, sitting alongside her 150-year-old house.

“My early vision, as a self-employed artist, designer, and craftsperson, was to have all aspects of my life be integrated. I am very blessed to have a spacious studio next to my home in a supportive community. And I like the commute,” she quips.

Jay Rogers also has an enviable commute – upstairs. The artist makes architecture-inspired wood sculptures that are also containers with secret compartments; he works out of his home, three miles north of Motzkin, on Cogswell Avenue in Cambridge.

“Although having a woodshop in a second-story bedroom is a bit cramped and makes the house pretty dusty, I save a lot on rent, and the light is great,” says Rogers. “I have a woodworker’s supply store right around the corner and lots of artist friends nearby.”

While you’re in the area, you should travel 40 minutes to the south to Brockton, home to Fuller Craft Museum. Set on 22 acres of woodland, the light-infused museum houses an impressive permanent collection of craft works, along with a variety of exhibitions.

Back in Boston’s SoWa arts district, Peggy Russell reflects on the appeal of the region for craftspeople. She says Boston is a desirable place to live and work because of all of its amenities, not least its prestigious institutions of higher learning. “The area has a ton of artists in it, largely because so many students decide to make it their home after graduating,” says Russell. While this regular influx is great for the vitality of the craft community, it also adds to the competition for space – whether that space is a studio, a spot in a craft show, or the attention of the craft-buying public.

“You have to be a diligent marketer to succeed,” Russell says. It’s how she’s survived for 25 years. Russell’s latest marketing venture is Pop Gallery in Gloucester, a seaport with a burgeoning arts community, 40 miles northeast of Boston. Between her new and her old location, Russell says, she has the best of both worlds.

Philip Bishop’s writing has appeared in The Guardian and on The Huffington Post.