The Brookfield Craft Center in Brookfield, Connecticut has been open for business as a non-profit showcase for local and national artist to hone their skills and display their work to the delight of customers who have come from far and wide for the last 50 years. Or more simply put in the words of local resident Maggie Lyons, who doubles as an aspiring artist and regular customer, “Oh yeah, I’m all about it.”
Ms. Lyons stands with many others in the area on the same page as Nancy Haymeyer did in 1955 when she saw the opportunity to help preserve the skills of fine craftsmanship and promote the artists hoping to pursue them. The building next to the brook served as a grist mill for almost 200 years and had been a center for agricultural issues until it was pretty much abandoned by the late 1940’s, according to the center’s Executive Director Jack Russell.
Today, the old mill still appears on the register of historical places in Connecticut, but making its own mark on history for the craft center remains mostly in the past. “It’s really at the heart of our civilization,” says Mr. Russell, “because people have always been makers of things – whether they were making tools or art or clothing.“
They haven’t always had a place where so many minds could meet under one roof with common cause. “The craft center offers upwards of 400 classes and workshops during the year in almost every topic imaginable from traditional things like woodworking, ceramics and weaving to some fairly unusual craft skills like wooden boat building, wood turning, glass blowing and blacksmithing,” says Mr. Russell.
It often translates into visits that end happily for gift givers like Lisa Bonavita. “I love the idea of giving something that’s different that they can’t get somewhere else,” she says, and the more the merrier as recepients realize the artisans mostly hail from the area, she adds.
The art appreciation and creation also flows both ways as New York City resident Michelle Melton has found. Having developed a liking to the wood objects over the years that are offered at the center, she says a class in wood turning lays ahead because “I want to learn how to make them.”
Other artists come from transcontinental locations such as California, Canada and Europe, but most find their way to the cozy three story artisan Mecca from the tri-state area and the mid-Atlantic region, says Mr. Russell. And whether their art pays most of the rent or only serves as an original birthday present, Mr. Russell piggy backs the words “very interesting” to profile the artists augmenting their skills at the center.
“In addition to being craft artists, many of them are musicians, many of them are great cooks, many of them have interests in gardening or farming or nature,” he says. Mr. Russsell describes it all as being part of their whole lifestyle, while the center finds the average student taking between three and five glasses a year. They continue on at the center for about three to five years until they get to a point where they are able to go out and do it on their own.
Doing it on their own and at home without five years of working on a fine line gives all ranges of artists the opportunity to make easy functional art in the center’s polymer clay workshops. Polymer clay is a man made material invented about 15 years ago. It has been very popular as hobby art for children but has been picked up by professional artists in recent years with the wide range of colors it offers. The real appeal to both the home and the all the way artist, is that it can be hardened at home in the oven with the baked ziti at 250 degrees.
The Brookfield Center does not recommend the mix but this has become a very popular class according to Mr. Russell because “People can learn how to form pots on a wheel and fire them and take them home and use them.”
It definitely can get more complicated than spinning clay on a tray especially when the center moves backwards and east to the middle. A course earning the name Rediscovering Damascus, which dates its technique back to the middle ages and Middle East, is a highly technical form of Blacksmithing. “Steel is layered and pounded out and layered and pounded out and over time after layer upon layer you get a contoured kind of surface where the various layers of the metal show as profile rings on the surface,” says Mr. Russell.
Originally perfected to make swords, it seems the Brookfield artists have stuck to the basics on this one, as no weapons were on display but Ms. Bonavita finds prices very reasonable no matter where and when they date from “If you’ve ever done any type of artwork,” she says, “you know how much time that goes into it.“
Maggie Lyons, besides liking the upstate New York feel of the place, chimes in on the same wavelength regarding the wide range of prices available off route 202 in Fairfield County. “I think anything hand crafted is reasonable,” she said especially if one spends a little time browsing the local malls.
It follows then, according to Mr. Russell, that large manufacturers cut corners, use the most economical material, and put profit motive ahead of all other concerns. As long as the rows of shelves are filled with cost effective ash trays, no one notices – except maybe the surgeon general. In contrast, he says, Brookfield “artists make this work to be the best it possibly can be by using the best materials and thinking very much about the end user, which is the consumer.“
The floor workers at the center also think about the end user by appearing not to be thinking so intently about the end user. People are free to browse without the feeling of being rushed into their wallets by an eager teenager hoping to make quota. “Many of the volunteers are artists themselves, says Mr. Russell, “so it’s a good human experience because it’s the opposite of high pressure sales.”
It is the opposite of low volume learning though. The mission statement claims “to act as a clearinghouse for information related to handcrafts.” A claim that Mr. Russell can express in detail.
Since the artisans and students are often very intelligent and have varied experience over a wide spectrum of knowledge, there is a sharing of ideas that separates Brookfield from the typical classroom experience. “We call them workshops,” he says, “because they’re more than just classes where the instructor knows everything and the students know nothing and the instructor just talks and the students just listen.”
He describes this fellowship as a hallmark of these workshops which allows people to perfect there skills. And when students take that journey to a point of their own choosing, “it really makes us feel great when someone starts at the beginning and ends as a working artist,” he says.
Rich Monetti interview of Jack Russell, Maggie Lyons, Lisa Bonavita, Michelle Melton