“Somerville Open StudiOS changed my life,” says Nancy Anderson.
This was a few years ago. Anderson, a 49-year-old Randolph native, had studied art in high school but had never gone to art school. She hadn’t picked up a paint brush in years. At the time, Anderson was working in “corporate America,” in what she calls “a fluorescent-lit cubicle farm.” On a lark, she and some friends went to visit Somerville’s annual Open Studios.
Anderson was awestruck by the art she saw.
“I just inhaled the aroma of the solvents and paints, to me it was just an inspiring aroma.” Moreover, she said she was “floored” that she could meet the artists who had made the work. “You mean you can go and you can just go into where these artists are working and ask them about it?” she remembers saying to herself.
Seeing the art set into motion a cascade of change over the next few years. She quit her corporate job, moved to Ball Square in Somerville, and started a business as a dog walker and canine herbalist. She started taking art classes and began to paint. Last year, at Somerville Open Studios, she showed her work — big, bold portraits of, you guessed it, dogs. Her first show.
Anderson will be exhibiting again this year at Somerville Open Studios, now in its 15th year and among the nation’s largest open studios. In 109 locations, 424 painters, photographers, sculptors, multimedia artists, graphic designers, potters, and other crafters will open their homes and studios to strangers. Somerville’s event is part of a burgeoning open studio movement stretching like a canvas across Boston and the suburbs. This spring alone will see more than a dozen events. All told, the Boston area, from Lowell to New Bedford, hosts at least 40 open studios a year, depending on how loosely you define the term “open studio.”
For sure, these peeks into artists’ workspaces are, first and foremost, opportunities for the public to experience art. But the artists themselves offer myriad reasons why showing their work can be helpful, or even critical, to their careers. Some cite community building and networking. Others want to make sales, get rid of old work (at cheap prices), or need an excuse to gussy up their workspaces once a year. For others, like Anderson, open studios provide the psychological step of setting a deadline and putting themselves, and their work, out there for others to see and judge.
“A big part of making art is about making communication,” says Matt Carrano, a cofounder of Somerville Open Studios who’s kept a studio in Somerville for 18 years. “We all have something we want to say to other people. Having a venue to exhibit art, even if one weekend a year, is very important.”
Indeed, the brave act of exhibiting one’s collages, jewelry, prints, furniture, handmade books, or mosaics to the public can help cement one’s identity — and push a hesitant painter, photographer, or ceramicist into self-identifying not only as an amateur but as a true artist.
“I just threw my stuff up on the walls. All of a sudden, I started getting phone calls and e-mails from people. It was very affirming,” Anderson recalls.
An open studio has been the stage for many an artistic debut.
“Many artists have that ‘coming out’ story when they called themselves an artist,” says Rachel Mello, a painter, printmaker, and this year’s coordinator of Somerville Open Studios. “People sign up to open studios as a way to force themselves to show their work to someone else.”
Another goal: To see if your series of paintings or pots work in concert. “Most people don’t have a solo show every year,” says Ellen Fisher, director of the Newton Open Studios. For the weekend, she can put all her work up “and see it all together.”
The general public can also be naive about the mysteries of artistic creation. If you’re a teacher or a programmer or a car mechanic, people know what those professions are like, Mello says. “You say you’re an artist, what does that mean? What does your office look like? You can start to look around. See the coffeepot and the stereo.” And the piles of paint tubes, or wood shavings, or tubs of wonderfully toxic potions. See an art space, and the “how” an artist makes work comes into focus.
Unlike a museum, “where works are displayed at a distance and interpretation is guided by the curator,” open studios humanizes the art process, says Gwen Ossenfort, executive director of Brookline Open Studios in an e-mail. “Like talking to the farmer who grows the lettuce I eat, and I love talking to the artists who create the work.”
“The idea of ‘studio visits’ goes back at least to the emergence of independent artists working for paying clients and patrons in the wake of the French Revolution,” says Matt Kaliner, who is completing a dissertation in sociology at Harvard that explores, in part, open studios and art communities in relation to change in Boston area neighborhoods. Kaliner says by the early 20th century, Rockport, the Fenway Studios in Boston, and other artist communities across New England hosted tours of artists’ homes and studios.
Which local community had the first modern open studio — with the aim to create a market independent of galleries and museums — is a point of contention.
“Each say they’re the first,” Kaliner says. But according to a book called “Painting in Boston, 1950-2000,” published by the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, in 1969 a group of artists unable to show their work in Newbury Street galleries banded together as the “Studio Coalition” and held the first Boston-area open studios. Waltham Mills Artists Association, in 1976, and an event called “ArtWeek Boston” in 1978, also led this artistic revolution.
Other communities like Fort Point in Boston, and Vernon Street Studios and Brickbottom Artist Association in Somerville, followed in the 1980s. Then came what Kaliner terms “the real explosion” of open studios in the 1990s and 2000s.
In his research, he’s also drilled down into census data to determine the number of artists in metro Boston. A 2009 survey puts that number at 1,942 — counting only those who live in Boston, Somerville, Cambridge, Newton, and Brookline and “self-identify” as artists.
“We all live in this amazing neighborhood and all these artists moved in and no one knows what’s here,” says June Krinsky-Rudder, cofounder of East Boston Artists Group. “We felt like nobody knows what’s here.” Open studios let people know that artists exist. Krinksy-Rudder says her event attracts all types — from “random tourists” to “a fair balance of dogs and babies that show up.”
With a map in hand, visitors select what artwork looks interesting, and embark on their own self-guided tours into strange, new neighborhoods. That ability to snoop in a private home or converted factory not only satisfies our curiosity of what goes on in there, it also lets people see their own neighborhoods anew.
The open studio idea “brings new people in but strengthens the bonds that are there,” says Jason Weeks, executive director of the Cambridge Arts Council, which runs the Cambridge Open Studios. “It creates a sense of joy, an opportunity for people to get off their couches and out of their homes and break their commuting behaviors and dig a little deeper into our neighborhoods.”
There’s an economic argument, too. “Open studios may be pretty pictures to you, but it provides an economic engine,” adds Gregory Jenkins, executive director of the Somerville Arts Council. Art lovers come to town, and spend their money on a cup of coffee or dinner or a work of art. “These are small business owners who live and work in this city.”
At the Newton Open Studios event in early April, a group of three female friends and one of their daughters hoped to sell their paintings, jewelry, digital art, and silk chiffon scarves on display in a bank lobby. One advantage of the open studios, they all found: direct sales to customers, and no sharing with a gallery.
“There’s art as a product you can buy, and there’s art you can ask a question of,” says Rachel Mello. “How did you do it? Why did you do it? Those are two very different questions. You can’t do that unless you can ask the artist.”
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.” Contact him at www.ethangilsdorf.com or follow him on Twitter @ethanfreak.