Last weekend, we all flew up to New Hampshire to see Adrianne’s sister graduate with her Master’s degree. I’d been there once before, but we flew into Logan and spent most of our time in Boston. This time, we flew into Manchester, which is a tiny airport by comparison. It actually reminds me a little of Burbank — my favorite airport to fly in and out of when I go back to visit Southern California. We arrived pretty late and most of the airport was closed. Usually they are so chaotic with passengers arriving and departing but after midnight, everything is quiet — especially in these smaller, regional airports — and they feel strangely surreal, as if finally allowed to exhale from the busy day. The next morning, we all went to the ceremony, after which we had to drop Adrianne’s niece off at a dance competition a few miles away.
Once we dropped off Anya, it was time to grab some breakfast. As luck would have it, just up the street from the venue was a terrific little diner called Gormley’s, which I cannot recommend enough (Craig makes a terrific Eggs Benedict). I love diners, from the decor to the food to the staff, and Gormley’s is no exception. There’s a little diner/coffee shop in Burbank called Frank’s that I used to go to quite a bit, mostly for the chicken fried steak. Neighborhood diners and cafes like Frank’s and Gormley’s are a vanishing piece of Americana that need your support to survive. Also, if you want to get terrific street portraits, visit diners. They are often the social hub of the community and home to a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, like this terrific-looking fellow, taken at Frank’s on my last trip to California.
Our server Joann asked if we were local. We told her we were up from DC and she asked if we liked art, which (as you might imagine) led down another rabbit hole. Long story slightly shorter, she said there were two places we had to visit before we left: Mill No. 5 and the Western Avenue Studios. Lowell, Massachusetts is an old mill town, and when the manufacturing dried up, several of the mills were converted to lofts and retail spaces in an effort to revitalize the town. Mill No. 5 is a textile mill built in 1873 that now features shops, restaurants, a farmers market, and an incredible independent movie theater called the Luna, which is currently running a David Lynch film festival as well as a pair of lectures deconstructing two of my favorite Beatles records: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album. Just up the road, Western Avenue Studios is another converted textile mill that is now home to more than 300 artists and craftspeople. On the first Saturday of every month, they open their studios to the public — three chances to guess what day we happened to be there.
One of the things that was apparent after visiting just a few artists is how much of a maker community this place is. There are painters, glass blowers, jewelers, sculptors, textile artists and woodworkers and the artists not only know one another, they actively promote and support each other. For example, several of the artists we talked to asked what we had seen so far and said to make sure we visited a woodworker named John Francis, who they told us was making a [insert product here] for them. As it happened, John was actually one of the first artists we visited, and yes, his work is stunning and he’s only too happy to talk about his craft. Overall, the sense of community felt like a real-world version of the “you might also like” buttons you often find at the end of a blog post.
Another artist we met is Nancy Tobey, an encaustic painter whose work dotted the walls of the corridors and both Adrianne and I loved straight away. The walls of Nancy’s studio are covered in absolutely gorgeous pieces of art. I introduced myself and told her that I had been been researching encaustic for some time a potential addition/replacement to my current mixed-media process, but only if I can get similar results. She asked if I had samples of what I was trying to achieve and I showed her a few pieces from my portfolio. For the next twenty minutes or so, Nancy gave me an impromptu one-on-one workshop in encaustic process and techniques, confirming to me that what I was after (and more) was absolutely possible with encaustic. She also gave me tips on equipment and even a quick tutorial on making my own paint sticks. While she was taking me through various techniques, we talked a little about how she got into encaustic. She explained that for years, she worked with blown glass and that her foray into encaustic was relatively new. I stopped her there and asked her if she would be willing to be a guest on Process Driven to share her story. She happily agreed and added that she was actually going to be visiting in Silver Spring in June. I’m already looking forward to sitting down with her.
I left the Western Avenue Studios energized and inspired, not just by the art, but by also by the few brief conversations around making the work. Having these open studio days is a brilliant way to reduce the barrier between artist and viewer as well as art (Art?) and viewer. Seeing in-person where and how art is made validates and reinforces that art is a process, not just an end product and offers visitors — whether or not they are artists themselves — a greater recognition and appreciation of the time and effort that goes into making. Some of the locals call Lowell a “dead mill town” while others say it’s a place to be avoided altogether. The fact that it borders Lawrence — a town Boston magazine once called “the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts” — doesn’t help much. However, we found just the opposite to be true. While the mills themselves may be gone, creativity and the spirit of making seems as vibrant as ever. You just have to know where to look.
Do you currently belong to any creative/maker communities? How might you develop a creative community where you live?
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I’ve been a fan of Dire Straits since a friend in high school gave me a copy of Love Over Gold. Since then, Mark Knopfler has been one of my favorite guitarists. I’ve seen Dire Straits live and he is a master at making the ridiculously complex look effortless. In this video from the documentary Soundbreaking, Mark talks about his process for learning the guitar and deep-dives into some of the craft behind his impeccable technique.
In September 1942, Marjory Collins, a photographer for the Office of War Information, documented the process of assembling an issue of The New York Times. It’s a fascinating look at what was once a very messy, labor intensive process that happened every day in order to bring news to the masses.
As a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, two things I love are video games and analog synths — I begged my mom for a Prophet 5 back in the day — so when something comes along that’s a mashup of the two, I’m in. In this case, it’s a reimagining of the music from Zelda called Switched On: A Link To The Past. performed on analog synths by musician Will Patterson. The cassette version is sold out, but you can still get the digital download. Bliss.