Creative careers: Tucked in the hills of Southern Vermont, Brattleboro-West Arts members make beautiful art and live rich lives
Tucked in the hills of Southern Vermont, Brattleboro-West Arts members make beautiful art and live rich lives
By Chris Lann
West Brattleboro basket maker Jackie Abrams’ studio shelves are filled with sculptural woven baskets.
The body of her own creative work sits side by side with pieces that exemplify the traditional techniques she teaches. Walls and doors are covered with photos of people she’s met and taught in her travels around the world. As much as in her vessels, Abrams has woven a career of colorful strands, fitting art and teaching to good purpose.
“I have a really rich life,” she says.
Abrams is a member of Brattleboro-West Arts, a group of nearly three dozen artists who create their art and make their homes in and around the watershed of the Whetstone Brook in West Brattleboro, Marlboro, and Dummerston. Spreading awareness of the local arts is a key component of BWA’s mission.
Marta Bernbaum, another BWA member, clearly agrees: “For me, glass making is an addiction. It’s something I’m excited about, and I love getting other people excited about it,” she says. Bernbaum has taught workshops throughout New England for about 12 years, and is gearing up to offer classes in the West Brattleboro glass studio she shares with her husband, Josh Bernbaum.
“(Glass is) alchemistic at times and magic, and it’s like nothing else they’ve experienced,” she says of her students. “There’s this ‘wow’ moment for them.”
And that “wow” can launch a creative career. Bernbaum recalls asking a class, “Who wants to sculpt?” Only one student, Joe Peters, raised his hand, but eagerly. Bernbaum remembers he jumped in with gusto, experimenting with creating a praying mantis in glass.
“That caught him so passionately that he started putting in 18 hours a day,” Bernbaum says. “He’s now top of the line,” teaching classes himself at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina and exhibiting his glass creatures nationally.
Naomi Lindenfeld, another BWA member and the ceramics teacher at The Putney School for the past 15 years, also knows the satisfaction of seeing her students succeed. Students of hers have won honors in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards three years running — and their accomplishments certainly won’t end there.
After taking his first ceramics class with Lindenfeld and graduating from The Putney School in 2003, Joey Foster Ellis went on to become the first American to graduate from China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts. Now, at 28, he sees his functional sculptures commissioned by the likes of Greenpeace; he was named a TEDGlobal Fellow; and his works have exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and have homes in the private collections of George W. Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
From Southern Vermont to the world
In addition to exhibiting her baskets in galleries and museums, Abrams has traveled the globe, going beyond simply teaching a skill in her efforts to effect broader change. A former fifth-grade and preschool teacher, Abrams teaches workshops in traditional basket-making techniques in the United States and as far as Australia.
But increasingly, she has been drawn to projects with social and environmental benefits. Since 2005, she has used her expertise to teach women in Ghana and Uganda to support their villages by selling purses they weave from discarded trash bags.
“I’ve tried to develop a microcraft industry that is composed primarily of women,” says Abrams. “They have to be able to make the work and sell the work and do everything on their own without me. The idea is to make it sustainable and not dependent on me at all, so that … they have a life that is a good life for them.”
“By artists sharing their lives and what they’ve discovered, it shares a great wealth of meaning with another body of people,” says Doug Cox, a violin maker and the executive director of the Arts Council of Windham County.
Cox has hosted instrument makers from Norway, Russia, and Nebraska who’ve benefitted from his experience of 30 years and 800 instruments. And why?
“The growth of the artistic community is not in people having the opportunity to consume more art; it’s in people being able to be part of the artistic process. Teaching our craft is one of those ways,” Cox says.