There won’t be much to see if you walk through the pedestrian way that sits across from Salem’s Old Town Hall and Derby Square during the winter months, save for some gated-off stalls and a season-ally closed seafood joint. Come May 18, however, and the public plaza will be alive with artists and artisans making and selling such handcrafted products as wooden bowls made from fallen Salem trees, ceramic vases, dishes and amphorae, and even paper-bag hats and burlap wreaths.
“It’s a unique place that says, ‘Art happens here,’” says public art planner for the city of Salem Deborah Greel, who manages Artists’ Row, a seasonal program that provides space (four stalls for maker spaces and classes; the fifth belongs to The Lobster Shanty) for artisans “interested in building their audience through daily engagement with residents and visitors to Salem.”
The program, which is supported by Salem’s Mayor Kim Driscoll, is now in its 13th year, but once Greel came on board in 2014, changes to the program were made to en-sure that the stalls would remain creative, educational spaces. These changes included an application process for creative entrepreneurs interested in renting the space, new doors on the stalls and a revamped interior, and hours of operation that match a retail schedule to reflect businesses nearby.
Artists’ Row, or “the Row,” as Greel calls it, is “an opportunity for artists to grow their business and be a part of the community.” The program runs until November 1, but Greel says tenants, whose yearly rent goes directly to the city, often stay for more than six months because they’re trying to “incubate” their work. “We’re trying to help build capacity for their art business—the business of art,” Greel adds.
Tommy Gagnon of Boston Wood-turning is one tenant who not only utilizes the space for more than six months at a time but also has utilized it for several years. Established in 2014, Boston Woodturning creates-one-of-a-kind handcrafted fine art, as well as usable utilitarian pieces, from local reclaimed wood that “breathes new life into things.” This will be the business’s third year at Artists’ Row.
“[The Row] allows me to work on my craft in the best possible way—with like-minded artists, even though we’re not all doing the same thing,” says Gagnon, who, to get the spot several years ago, had to create a proposal.
“The city was looking for different artists than they had in the past 10 years—a workable medium in front of an audience,” Gagnon says. “You have to be able to demonstrate and talk about your craft.”
Gagnon has both a working studio and a gallery space where people can watch, take a lesson, and then shop around. And in addition to creating his own work and teaching classes in the space, he will often feature other artists’ work in his gallery if it is relevant in some way. “The focus is on wood and all the possibilities and on woodturning with all of its possibilities,” says Gagnon, a Salem native who now resides in Marblehead. Also returning for the third year is Ceramics by Sibel, the working pottery studio and gallery of Turkish ceramic artist Sibel Alpaslan, who moved to the U.S. six years ago from Turkey, where she left behind a ceramics gallery.
“Now America is my new world,” Alpaslan says. “In a way, I am a Turkish artistic ambassador to America. As I mix my Turkish past with many new American influences, I love the new artistic recipe that is created.
“This space makes me live here; we made our lives here because of this space,” adds Alpaslan, who lives in neighboring Beverly with her husband and teaches at Salem State. “I like the artists’ community a lot—coming together, being connected to the social life here, the workshops. The Row allows me to connect more with everyone.”
Alpaslan, who holds a master’s degree in ceramic arts from Turkey, has been creating handmade ceramics for 25 years. Her work, she says, is inspired by nature using bright colors, especially turquoise. “I like selling what I’m making; I like to connect with customers,” says Alpaslan, who adds that she hopes to be a part of the Row for another year or two. “I’ve created a studio there; I can’t be proactive as an artist without it.”
Alpaslan shares a stall with Karen Scalia, founder and owner of Salem Food Tours. And rounding out the third stall is Grace and Diggs founder Joy Mullen, an architect by day and creator of small things, from paper-bag hats and burlap wreaths to aprons and throw pillows, by night. Her workshops and pre-made works “invite the public to experiment in the design of small things.” As of press time, applications are still being accepted for the fourth stall.
“As both a resident of Salem and on Artists’ Row, and as someone who introduces the Row to guests on my Food Tours, I’ve seen first-hand the positive impact it has both for the artists and the city,” Scalia says. “The Row and its maker spaces—watching art come to life—bring vibrant texture to our thriving downtown. Seeing someone’s face light up when they watch a beautiful handcrafted vase being made, or an artist’s face when they see their work being truly appreciated, is just the best. The support from the mayor on down has been wonderful. These spaces are another re-minder that Salem is a great place to live, work, and visit.”
And it’s not just what’s inside the stalls that’s worth visiting, but what’s on the outside as well. Another change implemented by Greel during the three years she’s overseen the program is the process of turning the exterior of the stalls into an area for creative “placemaking” activities to “engage and keep people coming back.”
“We want people to say to them-selves, ‘Oh wow! I’ve just walked into this very creative place,’” Greel says.
This year’s activities are still in the exploratory stage, but Greel says the city will initiate a pilot Artist in Residence program for summer 2017 that “seeks to bring the Salem community into the creative process by activating Artists’ Row through proprietary project-based work-shops over a six-week period.” Past activities have included games such as corn hole, photo booths (built by Gagnon), tables, chairs, and umbrellas, and even a community piano.
“We keep transforming,” Greel says. “But we’re committed to hav-ing it be a fun place where you can be engaged—a creative space for everybody,” she adds.
“I think for all of us that have been here the last few years, and for the newcomers as well, it’s a learning experience,” Gagnon adds. “You have to wear many hats, and they change throughout the day. Now I’m feeling ahead of the game, where I used to be playing catch-up. It’s an awesome experience.”
Also new are the 11 different murals that line the Row’s back wall, created in a Mural Slam last year in honor of the Salem Arts Festival. Greel says the murals will be taken down and moved to a different location to make room for this year’s slam, which will take place in June to coincide with the festival.
“[The murals] have totally enlivened that space,” says Greel, adding that the Row offers a direct connection to an artist. “You can say, ‘I know how they made this; I watched them make it.’ There’s a wonderful opportunity to have that connection to something that’s handmade and that’s not something you have every day.”
Ceramics by Sibel
Salem Food Tours