Reach for the stars

Town’s artists over the moon about new home


Artists may have been lured to Swampscott by the beautiful waterfront in years past, but it was often a solitary existence — until now.

The nonprofit group Reach Arts has tirelessly been working to build a center where community and arts meet. In April, the group signed a two-year lease with the town to restore and rent the property at 89 Burrill St., at a cost of $1 per year. The goal is to turn the vacant building, a former senior center, into a space for artistic expression, creative learning and community functions.

“It’s thrilling,” said Jackie Kinney, co-president of Reach Arts. “Having people on the board as enthusiastic as we are and having [Town Administrator] Sean Fitzgerald over the moon about it really helped to make it a reality. We talked to him and he just said, ‘Let’s get this done.’”

89 Burrill Street, home of Reach Arts.

The first floor will house a gift shop and/or museum space, an instruction room and a cozy reading room with a fireplace. The basement offers the perfect setting for gallery and instruction space. Also in the basement is a kitchen, which will be used for cooking classes and functions. Upstairs is what Kinney calls “the jewel” of the building. It’s a ballroom, already outfitted with a stage, that will be used for theater and musical performances, receptions, open mic nights and more. There will be a juried competition to select artists to paint the recessed ceiling panels in that room. A smaller, top floor will offer office space.

In preparation for a fall opening, nearly 50 volunteers have been working to renovate the space, which had been neglected and inhabited by raccoons in recent years. Through a capital campaign, the group will also be raising money to install an elevator, rebuild the porch, replace windows and repair the balcony and floors.

Self-taught photographer Stefanie Timmermann, who documented the “before stage” through photos, sees great possibilities within the building.

“It had an abandoned feel, but the bones are really good. For shows and exhibits, you have to think about lighting and giving space for the work to breathe, and we’ll have that here,” said Timmermann, a former scientist who loves the experimental nature of photography and digital editing.

Putting 01907 back on the map

More than a century ago, Swampscott attracted talented international artists such as William Bradford, Albert Van Beest, William Partridge Burpee, Edward Burrill and Charles Woodbury, who were inspired by the town’s shoreline, sailing vessels and fishing industry. As early as the 1850s, these beach painters, also known as the American Marine Impressionists, spurred a flourishing arts movement that lasted for decades. It was the development of Lynn Shore Drive and the construction of the beach wall that pushed the painters toward Gloucester in the 1920s.

In the decades since, Swampscott has been unable to rebuild the momentum that it lost with their exit.

Nearby cities and towns like Lynn, Beverly, Essex, Newburyport, Gloucester and Rockport have continued to thrive and have been designated cultural districts by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Marblehead and Salem are each home to numerous galleries and studios and host a range of art exhibits and festivals. Lynn, boosted by its designation, has become a mecca for artist loft space and studio space and is home to organizations such as LynnArts and Raw Art Works. Lynn’s latest art installation project, Beyond Walls, kicked off this spring and will celebrate a mural festival this summer, during which 10 murals will be painted by international and local artists. The Greater Lynn Photographic Association, to which Timmermann belongs, has more than 200 members.

“The give and take is important,” said Timmermann, describing the synergy of the association. “What’s lacking in our town is a place for artists to meet and support each other, to grow and exchange ideas in a place that promotes creative energy.”

Timmerman’s work is defined by the use of atmospheric light, innovative flash techniques and creative points of view. A native of Germany, she moved to Boston from Paris and has been living in Swampscott for nearly a decade. During her eight years in France, she gained a deeper appreciation for the arts. 

“Art is just a part of life there,” she said. “The museums are full. There are paintings and prints around almost every corner. It would be amazing to have more opportunities here in town for exhibits.”

Reach Arts co-president Jackie Kinney, standing in front of a mural from the former Machon School, shows off the space in the Reach Arts building.

Leah Piepgras, who has volunteered at RAW and Marblehead Community Charter Public School, is looking forward to a place where Swampscott artists will be able to gather, teach, perform, create and exhibit. Piepgras was trained in sculpture and performance art, but has also added painting to her repertoire. She holds an impressive record of exhibitions both nationally and internationally, including solo shows at the Winfisky Gallery at Salem State University, the GRIN Gallery in Providence and the SPRING/BREAK Art Show in New York City. It baffles her why there hasn’t been more of an arts presence in a town as picturesque as Swampscott.

“I was originally from Texas, so it’s an utter privilege to be so close to the ocean and to see that view every day,” said Piepgras. “It’s a huge inspiration to me, the constant and always changing seascape. I try to walk along the beach as often as I can.”

Artist Marc Morin, who moved to Swampscott two years ago, admits that the lack of space in town has forced him to offer classes, workshops and drawing boot camps in Marblehead and Watertown.

“I’d love to be able to offer classes in the Reach Arts building,” said Morin, a fine art painter who studied at the Art Institute of Boston. “I hope this has a positive influence on the whole town. It seems like it was more of a resort town in years past and right now it’s still finding its identity. The building is a start, but hopefully murals and sculptures and more projects can come out of this.”

“It feels like Swampscott is becoming,” said Nancy Wolinski, a graphic designer, vocalist, jewelry designer and member of the Reach Arts board of trustees. “There’s the 10-year plan, the beautification committee, the rail trail and now this. It’s our time to become a community that serves its community. We’re not just a sleepy town next to Boston and we shouldn’t be playing second fiddle to Marblehead, Salem and Lynn.”

“Places like Marblehead and Rockport have always been so active,” said abstract artist Carin Doben, who came to the Bay State from New York City. “Swampscott really needs a push in the arts. In the ’70s, we tried to build an association that would meet in the basement of the library, but it never really went anywhere.”

Abstract artist Carin Doben finds a creative oasis in her backyard studio.

Doben, who was educated in art history, regularly exhibits with the Experimental Group of the Rockport Art Association & Museum, as well as with the Abstract Artists Group of New England, which operates under the umbrella of the Newburyport Art Association.

“We need more events and more shows right here,” she said. “Swampscott has always been at the bottom of the list in that regard, and it’s such a shame because it’s a perfect place to be for photographers and landscape artists.”

Swampscott native Beth Balliro, an artist and associate professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, calls Reach Arts “the town’s moment to become more inclusive of the arts.” A 1991 graduate of Swampscott High, Balliro remembers hopping on the commuter rail into Boston as a teenager to spend weekend days at the Museum of Fine Arts, taking classes and exploring the exhibits.

“Growing up, two of my friends and I were known as the ‘art kids.’ I really had to seek it out, and I was lucky I had parents who were so supportive,” said Balliro, whose mother, Anita, has taught art in Swampscott Public Schools for years and has tried to resurrect plein air painting over the years, in attempt to inspire the next generation of beach painters.

Balliro, who moved back to Swampscott four years ago, after calling Jamaica Plain home for 20 years, is serving as chairwoman of the Swampscott Cultural Council—also a relatively young organization that formed to enhance the quality of life for Swampscott residents through community cultural activities. The council has provided funds to the North Shore Philharmonic Orchestra, the Concert Singers, the Swampscott by the Sea Summer Concert Series, school-based art programs and such one-day events as the Gift of Song: Voice of Black America, held at the First Church in February. The Summer Concert Series, held on the lawn of Town Hall, is expanding to seven concerts this year, with the last show on Aug. 16.

Finished pieces and experimentations by Carin Doben hang in her studio.

Connecting the dots

Prior to this year, Reach Arts had functioned only as a virtual network of artists and volunteers. Now, it seems, the arts community is finally planting its roots.

“We had existed in this nebula online, but people hadn’t really met each other,” said Kinney.

“All these creative people are coming out of the woodwork,” said Cheryl Fray, a self-taught artist who works in acrylics and mixed media. “I was shocked to discover there were so many of us in town.”

Glass designer Ingrid Pichler is serving as Reach Arts’ artist liaison, connecting artists with one another and introducing them to the community at large.

“It was all very underground before,” she said. “As an artist, you can be on your own, but maybe you’d like to collaborate with and meet other artists. There was a need for a physical space to come together.”

A native of Italy, Pichler now calls Swampscott home, but she also lived in England and studied  architectural stained glass at Swansea College of Art in Wales.

“When you think artists, you typically think painters, but there are so many different types of artists just here in this town,” said Pichler. “We need to support each other in our various styles, both in the exchange of ideas and in practical matters.”

Glass artist Ingrid Hale installs a stained glass window at the Clifton Lutheran Church.

Morin, still new in town, was seeking just that when he stepped up last year to launch Artists for Artists, which he describes as a support group for creative people.

“Sometimes you can feel isolated, so I wanted to bring artists out of their studio spaces to meet each other, share projects, get feedback and offer motivation and encouragement,” he said.

Meetings have been held monthly at the library, but he admits it hasn’t been the most ideal setting in terms of space to critique work.

“An actual arts center with a gallery and wider access will be hugely beneficial to us as a group and to every artist in town,” said Morin.

If they build it, will they come?

It’s a question many members of Reach Arts are wondering.

“If we go by early indications, I think people will be lining up to get in here,” said Kinney. “And with the library down the street and the waterfront a block away, it’s really going to be a vibrant, cultural hub.”

Musician Mark “Whiskey” Wolinski, a percussionist with the North Shore Philharmonic Orchestra and member (with his wife, Nancy) of local classic rock band the Navigators, thinks Swampscott was long overdue to have a dedicated home for the arts.

“I grew up here during the Stan Bondelevitch football years, so it’s nice to see some recognition for the arts,” he said. “We’ve always had to go to other towns before, so this space will be a much-needed amenity.”

While Swampscott is considered by many to be a sports town, Balliro — whose brother, Chris, was a talented athlete who went on to an 11-year professional basketball career in Italy — says that the passions of all individuals, from athletes to artists, should be equally encouraged by the community.

“It’s the obligation of society to celebrate and nurture those gifts,” Balliro said. “It’s development for their life careers, in some cases.”

Balliro, who helped found Boston Arts Academy — the city’s only public high school for the visual and performing arts — says there’s a need to give students and artists a sense of place. She’s done research in artist development, studying what it means to be self-identified as an artist.

“It’s an issue of access and allowing art to become part of our core values,” she said. 

A stained glass window Lutheran Church designed by Ingrid Pichler.

Doben, who in 1985 created an educational program called Art Quest to teach children critical and creative thinking skills using visual images, couldn’t agree more. She would certainly entertain the idea of putting on her teaching hat once again.

“We need places like this for students and aspiring artists to go,” said Doben, who retired five years ago after a 30-year career in education.

Luckily, there’s a long list already growing for potential programs, instructors and events.

“In five or 10 years, I hope this building is not only humming, but we’ll need to take on more space,” said Kinney, pointing out the vacant, former police station just across the street. “I want to see something going on here seven days a week.”