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‘A great antidote to the sadness’ at Snow Farm craft school

A view of the campus of the Snow Farm Craft School in Williamsburg.
A view of the campus of the Snow Farm Craft School in Williamsburg.Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

WILLIAMSBURG ­— On a Saturday in April, Thérèse Ebarb, an elder-law attorney from Long Island, bent over a potter’s wheel and coaxed a round bird feeder out of wet clay.

“I’m a real beginner,” said Ebarb from behind a Plexiglas divider in the pottery studio at Snow Farm, the New England Craft Program, which had just opened for its six-month-long season.

Ebarb has lost several clients to COVID-19. She came to Snow Farm for self-care.

“This is a great antidote to the sadness,” she said.

Students working with clay to make birdhouses at the Snow Farm Craft School in Williamsburg.
Students working with clay to make birdhouses at the Snow Farm Craft School in Williamsburg.Matthew Cavanaugh/For The Boston Globe

Snow Farm has been around for nearly 40 years. But unlike bigger programs such as Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, in Maine, it has flown under the radar. First it catered exclusively to high school students. Then it partnered with Road Scholar, an educational travel program for retirees, which handled the school’s outreach. That relationship ended last year.

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But Snow Farm has been a seedbed for crafters from New England and beyond, offering a wide variety of workshops for all levels. “Makers and Mentors,” an exhibition at Fuller Craft Museum through July 4, spotlights Snow Farm teachers and alumni.

“Snow Farm has been such a key figure in the craft ecosystem,” said Beth McLaughlin, artistic director and chief curator at Fuller Craft. “These skills used to be passed generation to generation, through families and communities, but now schools are where artists are inspired and influenced by each other.”

During COVID, some schools, including Haystack, switched to all-digital formats. Snow Farm reopened in August.

Mary Jo Murphy, executive director of the Snow Farm Craft School in Williamsburg,
Mary Jo Murphy, executive director of the Snow Farm Craft School in Williamsburg,Matthew Cavanaugh/For The Boston Globe

“We had to pick one lane or the other,” said executive director Mary Jo Murphy. “Because of our small staff, our strength is in the studio. We don’t have a big endowment. I didn’t want to get so deep in debt we couldn’t recover again.”

Other craft schools have inquired about Snow Farm’s COVID protocol.

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“Penland called. Peters Valley called and asked, how are you doing it? I spent hours on the phone with them,” Murphy said.

Classes are restricted to six to eight students, and Plexiglas dividers are up between work spaces. Four dorms that normally house 80 people now accommodate only 40.

It’s easy to spend time outdoors there: Snow Farm is on 50 acres on the western edge of the Pioneer Valley, heading into the Berkshires. The offices are in an 18th-century farmhouse. The studios are in old farm buildings.

A student uses a rolling pin to press objects into clay during a class at the Snow Farm Craft School in Williamsburg.
A student uses a rolling pin to press objects into clay during a class at the Snow Farm Craft School in Williamsburg.Matthew Cavanaugh/For The Boston Globe

The school had been growing before COVID, since Murphy became director six years ago. A nonprofit, it rented the property from glass artist Josh Simpson, a longtime supporter and former board member. Then in 2016 Snow Farm purchased it. Murphy and her staff could then seek grants to renovate studios.

Clay birdhouse instructor Liz Rodriguez, owner of nearby pottery school Easthampton Clay, had not taught at Snow Farm before. She marveled at the facilities.

“It’s the most beautiful pottery studio,” she said. “There is nothing here an instructor couldn’t ask for.”

Clay being thrown to make a birdhouse at Snow Farm, in Williamsburg.
Clay being thrown to make a birdhouse at Snow Farm, in Williamsburg.Matthew Cavanaugh/For The Boston Globe

Before Murphy’s tenure, most of the classes were taught by a small cadre of instructors. Now, 145 instructors teach April through October, and each year half return and half are new. The programming is eclectic. Workshops in May include “Dolls for Change: A Weekend of Doll Making” and “Open Your Heart with Polymer Clay.”

“Snow Farm is my happy place,” said Janice LaBroad, a realtor from Enfield, Conn., who was taking a fused-glass workshop in April. LaBroad discovered the school in 2019 and this was her fifth class.

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A propane torch being used to melt glass in a fused-glass collage class at Snow Farm, in Williamsburg.
A propane torch being used to melt glass in a fused-glass collage class at Snow Farm, in Williamsburg.Matthew Cavanaugh/For The Boston Globe

“The community provides a way to tap back into joy, a sense of peace. People put everything on hold and connect with life and other people and working with their hands,” said program director Dani Thompson. “Craft is well-situated to meet this moment.”

In May and September, Snow Farm will offer Art & Wellness workshops, with crafts in the morning and yoga, meditation, and journaling in the afternoon.

The school’s founder, Jane Sinauer, opened Horizons: The New England Craft Program for teenagers in 1982 (the name changed in 2000, to reflect the site’s history). The youth curriculum remains central, with a pair of two-week summer sessions for high school students.

Graham Deckers was in the high school program in 2019 when he made “Guilty for My Actions,” a painting in “Makers and Mentors.” In technique and concept, it’s professional. A deft portrait of himself and his brother, the piece considers how masculinity is shaped and performed.

Graham Deckers, “Guilty for My Actions,” 2019.
Graham Deckers, “Guilty for My Actions,” 2019.Graham Deckers/Courtesy Fuller Craft Museum

The students in the high school program, Murphy said, sometimes go on to become professional artists. Alumni include glass artist Joe Peters, wood- and metalworker Forrest Stone, and ceramicist Steve Théberge.

Suna Bonometti, an Italian jewelry designer who has brass “donut spoons” in the Fuller Craft show, started at Snow Farm as a 15-year-old student in the early 2000s while visiting from Milan.

“I fell in love with the place and ended up going back every summer,” she said over the phone from her studio in Brooklyn.

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Bonometti has been back several times to teach. A fraction of the teens pursue art careers, she said, but she did run into a former student, Bailey Fontaine, at an opening in New York. He had become a sculptor and furniture designer.

Some young students, Bonometti said, have simply never had the right creative outlet.

“A lot said, ‘I cannot believe this is an option. This is what life should be,’” she said. “They were coming from realities that haven’t offered them that.”

In this era of screens, Snow Farm helps teens and adults scratch that hands-on, creative itch.

“They’re able to feel the materials. They’re able to smell the raku. They’re able to manipulate glass in a way they’ve never done. That tactile experience is important,” Murphy said. “Artists know that. Artists have to make and create. But there’s so many other people who may not know how needed that experience is.”

Leaning over the bird feeder on her potter’s wheel, Ebarb echoed the sentiment. “This saves my sanity,” she said. “Live classes and a safe environment. You’re out of your head. Your whole body is making a pot. You’re totally immersed. That’s how you learn the craft.”

MAKERS AND MENTORS: The Art and Life of Snow Farm — The New England Craft School

At Fuller Museum, 455 Oak St., Brockton, through July 4. 508-588-6000, www.fullercraft.org

SNOW FARM: The New England Craft Program

5 Clary Road, Williamsburg. 413-268-3101, www.snowfarm.org

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Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.