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Must-See Arts in the East Bay

The East Bay's creative citizens are making the area a premier art destination - and helping each other along the way

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Rhode Island is renowned for its art and artists. Providence, however, often hogs the spotlight as the “creative capital,” home to RISD, one of the most prestigious arts universities in the world. Over here, just a proverbial stone’s throw south, the East Bay is quietly boasting a stunning number of artists, collaboratives, nonprofits and organizations that are furthering the arts – and that community is growing. We scouted around a bit and spoke to some of these individuals and organizations to hear their thoughts on why and how the East Bay has called so many creatives to roost. They all seemed to agree that between natural beauty, historic heritage and an unparalleled sense of community, the arts scene in our little corner of the state is one of a kind.

Sharing Space, Making Art
Artists often recognize their power in numbers and opt to band together, forming collaboratives and shared studios and galleries to help with expenses. The gift shop Made in Warren only sells art by Rhode Islanders, and Gallery 4 in Tiverton hosts regular exhibits of works by local artists. The Collaborative in Warren is an all-volunteer, nonprofit space for local artists to exhibit, create together, and enjoy gallery nights, classes and other events.

In a historic state like Rhode Island, old city buildings and mills can be converted into beautiful studio spaces, which is what happened to the old Byfield School in Bristol. The Byfield Art and Design group formed nearly two years ago to fight for the opportunity to claim the old school, and the town accepted their proposal.

Textile artist Dawn Oliveira runs her business, Oliveira Textiles, from her studio in the Byfield space, along with eight other tenants including poets, authors, painters and photographers. Roger Williams University occupies one of the first-floor studios. Dawn came in as one of the original tenants, spotting the opportunity right away.

“We’re all experienced artists – it’s been 30 years for me, with 25 of those years in New York City,” says Dawn. “We know what the deal is when you find studio space, but then the neighborhood gentrifies and you’re booted out. We wanted to work with the town to become an integral part of the arts in Bristol. We all want to stay here; that’s the bottom line.”

Byfield Art and Design brings in interns from local universities and teaches workshops and classes on working with fiber, paper, marbling and more. It also opens its studios during Art Night Bristol-Warren.

Although she misses New York City, Dawn says, “It comes down to economics and quality of life. Eventually New York becomes too much, and you want to live in a beautiful place and [have a] high quality of life. For me it was coming back, since I grew up here, on the beach. There’s that connection to the water. I design sea-inspired patterns; that coastal natural beauty is a major draw for a lot of people.”

Connecting With an Audience
Collaboratives are one way of bolstering the arts, but there are other ways to bring artists together, even if they are under separate roofs. Community groups in the East Bay have launched various events and initiatives to provide support to artists and make the arts accessible and engaging to the public. Newport Gallery Night showcases the historic town’s many art galleries on the second Thursday of each month from February through December, providing free guided walking tours during the summer. Westport Art Group started with a small group of women artists in 1955 and grew into a 300-member mainstay of the arts scene, offering adult and youth art classes, shows and open studios at its Main Road building.

The nonprofit South Coast Artists started 14 years ago as a “loose band of artists wanting to form a studio tour,” according to Carolyn Lock, who has served as its president for two and a half years. The tour encompasses Tiverton, Little Compton, Dartmouth and Westport.

“We want the community to come into our studios and meet us and see art where it’s made and have a chance to exchange ideas,” says Carolyn. “We also do a lot of demonstrations right within the studios – some scheduled and some spontaneous, so the public can come in and see artists at work.”

South Coast Artists also hosts regular networking meet-ups during the year for its more than 100 members, including programming on self-marketing and preparing artwork for presentations. The group plans to launch a grant-funded youth artist support program soon.

According to Carolyn, artists are irresistibly drawn here thanks to “a combination of history, geography and time. Artists started coming here by boat and eventually train in the 1800s or earlier. Although we have cultural centers like Providence and Boston close by, we [also] have the peace, quiet and solitude of the water,” she says. When early artists settled here, they were trying to capture these luminous seascapes of light and water, which is still the case today.”

Curating the Creativity
The Bristol Art Museum started in the 1960s without a space of its own, exhibiting instead in the ballroom at Linden Place Mansion. Eventually, the museum raised $900,000 to renovate the old Linden Place carriage house, where it now runs exhibits, rents out studios to artists and authors, and hosts classes and lectures.

Jane Lavender serves as chair of the museum board: “We’re kind of a jewel of the downtown area for the arts, and we also support other arts-related projects like a recent program with veterans; we work closely with the library here too. We have very contemporary shows, and our programs are extremely popular; we just added two more shows because we’re so busy. Usually if someone suggests something to me, I say, ‘Let’s try it!’”

Jane is an honorary member of Art Night Bristol-Warren, an initiative started in 2011 to help expose local artists to the public. Initially it selected two artists each month from March to September to have openings, intending to bring in buyers. Since then, the event has grown to include performance art and strives to expose new local artists to the community. Art Night uses a trolley to shuttle guests on a guided tour to various venues. They recently hosted a children’s theatre event and are looking to expand to year-round programming.

Art Night Bristol-Warren’s co-chairs, Darby Pontes and Susan Rotblat-Walker, describe Art Night as “the collaboration of two towns with contrasting aesthetics supporting the local artistic community; Bristol is quaint and full of history, while Warren is eclectic and hip.” Darby, a Warren resident, attributes the strength of the event to encouragement from local government, as well as a young population moving into town that values music, art and great restaurants.

“They like the vibe here,” she says. “There is a great sense of community in Warren, and Bristol’s new town administrator is also a strong advocate for the arts. The town just put funding into its maritime center and asked Art Night to help coordinate a gallery they’re building there, which will feature working artists for two-month periods. Warren is very tight-knit; there are real bonds here. Everyone wants each other to do well and to be successful.”

Jane echoes Darby’s sentiments: “Every night you can find a lecture, talk, show or live music; it’s constantly going on, and people work really hard to make it continue. It is passing from one generation to the next, it has been here for a long time, and we don’t want to lose it. We know the arts are in danger of losing funding, so people are very protective. We all work together towards one goal: to keep the arts alive in this community. We look out for each other, because it’s the collaboration piece that is keeping us together.”

Help From Town Hall
Naturally, it’s tough for any community to succeed without approval and help from the town itself. Warren and Tiverton both have the benefit of being tax-free zones for the arts, but local governments often offer artists greater opportunities to take advantage of their resources.

Doug Popovich moved to Bristol with his artist husband Bradley Wester several years ago after feeling displaced by Brooklyn’s rising costs of living. “Bristol had all the earmarks of some great opportunities,” Doug says. The town embraced the couple in turn.

The Byfield School was just an old school building which the Bristol administration “organically” offered up as unused space, along with the Walley and Reynold schools. Artists were instantly interested. About 50 people convened to discuss creating an arts district centered around the Bristol town common, a historical meeting place. Roger Williams University was an early proponent of the plan, envisioning a chance for greater engagement between students and the community. Doug became Communications and Outreach Team Leader of Arts in Common, a nonprofit focused on “developing three decommissioned schools… into an arts and culture district… [and] 21st century space for creative civic life,” according to its website.

Doug and other Arts in Common leaders knew that structured, comprehensive, deliberate planning could prevent the type of situation he and Bradley had experienced in Brooklyn. “I think that historically New England, from Roger Williams to the universities, understands the need for a kind of dynamic culture,” says Doug. “The New England spirit is, ‘Don’t wait – create what you want.’ You also have so many different historical and cultural components here – the Herreshoff Museum, the Historical Society, Coggeshall Farm Museum – people grew up with them and they want them to remain here and tell the story of where we came from, and to be a part of where we’re going.”

Arts in Common chair Michael Rich lives in Providence and works in Pawtucket, which he feels has a much more industrial vibe compared to Bristol: “A wonderful community to live in if you have a family or small business, and also a great place to commute to other places in RI or beyond. You have accessible, affordable work spaces, which makes all the difference.”

“Part of the reason Arts in Common formed is to ensure that if we do attract more artists and makers, we have a mechanism to represent them and ensure they can stay – the same with retirees,” Doug says. “We’ll assist with programming and making sure the space stays affordable and sustainable. People want a more authentic life and experience, which is why the arts are important. They don’t want to buy a picture at Ikea. But we do want to make sure we find the right balance.”

A Natural Fit
With its natural beauty, affordability, history and culture, the East Bay provides fertile territory for artists who are serious about their craft. A lack of city distractions and an unusually supportive community seal the deal for many.

Sakonnet Woodworking owner Stephen Kinnane is a member of the Sakonnet Collective, an artist-run gallery and studios based in Tiverton. For Kinnane, “collaborative” is literally a keyword in his success: “As much as I can, I try to incorporate a collaboration with other artists into my work. I’ve enlisted metal work from fellow artists Ned Miller of Miller Metals and Peter Chase of Cafe Cycles, for example. I find that when artists collaborate, the final piece is always more nuanced and dynamic; I’ve seen firsthand how artists can come together to create truly amazing projects. Each brings something special and unique, and the result is something an individual artist working alone could not create.”

Ceramic sculptor Ellen Blomgren founded Mudstone Studios in the Cutler Mill in Warren: a communal, membership-based workspace for ceramics artists and novices. She agrees that having a supportive, collaborative community makes all the difference: “Artists generally need to wear many hats in order to make ends meet. The networking and word-of-mouth recommendations between local artists make it easier for that to happen.”

Painter Kathrine Lovell moved to Tiverton after 25 years in Providence and 10 years in Barrington; one of the South Coast Artist open studio tours convinced her to relocate her studio.

“What I got right away was how connected people were and what a great group it was; the tour was amazing – so well organized, such diverse, good work here and a real community,” Kathrine says. “There’s this way that you can be both public here and also extremely private. My studio is right in the Four Corners in a 350-year-old building, and I definitely get both of those things; in the summer it can be busy, but in the off-season, it’s really secluded. My work is connected to nature, and in Providence, I didn’t have that. Here, it’s right outside my front door.”

For Kathrine, a supportive community of like-minded artists is essential: “It’s easy to say that it’s the nature and beautiful landscape, but it really comes down to the community. There’s a real commitment around here to making art; it’s really valued.”