CHARLESTOWN — Artists and craftsmen have long created communities and colonies where they have worked alongside one another while finding inspiration. Today, the South County Artisan’s Loft at the Fantastic Umbrella Factory seeks to provide this kind of cooperative environment for local artists and craftsmen while also being a store that can market their work.
Deb O’Connor of Westerly, the manager at the loft, restarted the place last September after it had shut down a year ago. O’Connor had been using the space, in a recently restored and renovated second-floor barn loft, to show her silhouette work. The Umbrella Factory is at 4820 Old Post Road.
She says she was a little timid taking over because she knew it would be a big commitment to manage and run a nonprofit artist co-op.
“I don’t make any kind of profit or salary running this place as all the money we make goes back to pay the rent,” O’Connor said. “But because I’ve traveled all over the world with my silhouette work, I’ve always had a dream of having a shop or gallery to have as a home base; one location where I go every day to work and make friends.”
The only rent that artists have to pay to show their work at the loft is 10 percent of their sales and working at the loft one day a month.
O’Connor said that the owner of the property and grounds, Dave Turano, has been very gracious in adjusting the rent when things were slow and artist profits were low.
“Dave really wants to see this place continue to work out because people really love being able to see and purchase local artwork that they wouldn’t otherwise know about,” she said.
O’Connor encourages and welcomes artists of all backgrounds and talents to get involved in the artisan’s loft. Some of the artists, who number nearly 20, are very experienced while others have never shown their artwork before.
She seeks to encourage community and interaction between the artists, who often don’t know each other, by hosting a meeting once a month for everyone in the loft.
“Last month we had a meeting with some wine and food and we all hung out and exchanged ideas,” O’Connor said. “This is a friendly environment; we don’t want to own the artists but rather promote and encourage them to find inspiration.”
Having sloped ceilings and wood plank walls, the loft is very warm and inviting to all who enter, even to visiting children who are encouraged to play beneath one of the sloped ceilings in a small toy room.
Depending on what the artists are showing, O’Connor may give them a wall on which to hang their artwork or a table to show their crafts or wares. Occasionally she rearranges the space to allow a new artist to have some space to show their work.
Although there isn’t enough room for the artists to each have a studio space to work in, O’Connor gives them an option to offer art classes in a sectioned off portion in the rear of the loft space.
Art has been a passion for the 62-year-old O’Connor since she was a student at Cranston East High School. Every day after school she studied under the Bulgarian painter Eugene Tonoff at his Providence studio. That is where she says she learned how to focus intently on something and not become distracted.
She then attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for a year before she got married. Even though she only completed one year of college, she still wanted to continue doing some kind of artistic craft so she taught herself how to cut silhouettes.
Today, silhouette cutting is a rare art form, O’Connor says, as she is only aware of 11 others, besides herself, who cut silhouettes professionally in the entire country.
“When I first started cutting silhouettes, I would make a sketch and cut from that sketch but after a year of practice, I started doing it all freehand,” O’Connor said. “You’re able to cut freehand a silhouette once you’re able to be in the zone enough so you’re in that place where you are thinking only with the hand holding the scissors.”
O’Connor says she loves feeling that she is in a position where she might be inspiring others to be creative.
“I don’t have the time to do all of the artistic projects that I would like to but someone always comes along and tells me they’re already doing it, which is absolutely wonderful,” O’Connor said.
Another artist, Wayne Marcotte of West Greenwich began making pottery pieces again this past year, after a 40-year hiatus, and is now using the loft as his storefront.
“I always wanted to get back into pottery but it wasn’t until last year when my brother gave me a kiln that I started again,” Marcotte said. “Everytime I come to the loft I get more and more excited about my art and I find inspiration from being around other artists.”
Jenn Galloway-Boyce of Warwick said that the first time she walked into the loft about a month ago, she felt that her, her quilts and other handcrafted fabric creations belonged there and immediately inquired about getting a space to show her work.
“The artists here are wonderfully talented and they inspire me too, “Galloway-Boyce said. “Each artist has their own style and vision that is beautifully captured in their art.”
As for the future of the loft, O’Connor feels that it’s all a work in progress and so the place changes a little bit every day. She hopes that people will begin to take on and share more responsibilities, so it continues to be a joint effort and community based cooperative.
“We simply want this space to remain a community-oriented place for artisans to display their creations and that is welcoming and friendly to everyone,” O’Connor said.
To inquire about a space to rent call the loft at 401-364-1600.