Artists reclaim lost industrial spaces, with wondrous results
Artists searching for solitude, space, and light find themselves in the strangest places.
The approach to the place that houses UConn’s Puppet Arts program is haunting. The road passes empty fields and buildings with boarded-up windows, because this part of campus used to be the Mansfield Training School and Hospital; which once was the Lakeville School for Imbeciles; which morphed into the Training School for the Feeble-minded and merged with the Mansfield Colony for Epileptics.
The hospital closed in 1993. Patients were relocated, buildings demolished, and what remained were split between the local prison and the University of Connecticut. The prison closed, but the university made good use of the old, red brick buildings.
David Woods, then dean of the School of Fine Arts, moved the Puppet Arts program out there.
“It was a mess when we got here,” says Professor Bart Roccoberton, director of the program. “There were students who just said, ‘I’m not going out there.’ They thought there were ghosts.” He smiles. Behind him hang the frozen faces and empty hands of idle marionettes. He acknowledges them with nod. “The only ghostly presences here are those.”
There are masks, hand puppets, shadow puppets, marionettes, and larger-than-life-sized papier mâché characters from China, Cambodia, Turkey, Greece, and Indonesia. There’s an impressive library, a fabric room, a chem room, and a workshop. Each student has his or her own workspace in a large studio.
Surrounded by imagination, Roccoberton inspires, assists, motivates, and helps make dreams come to life.
“Wait. I get this.”
This is what Susan Clinard said during her first sculpture class when she was 19, and clearly, she did. She has established herself as an accomplished and powerful artist, exhibiting her work in galleries, public parks, and private collections worldwide.
She’s worked in studios from DC to Chicago, but Clinard may have found her forever home in Hamden, Connecticut. It’s a 200-year-old barn designed and built by Eli Whitney, creator of the cotton gin.
“Look here,” she says, pressing a hand flat against a stone wall. “This is an original wall. Some of the barn was destroyed during storms. But this is original.” Several of Clinard’s wooden people trudge across that wall, carrying pain, horror, courage, terror, curiosity, and strength—emotions that appear in all of her work. It seems to conflict with her infectious good humor and sunny smile.
“I feel the hurt around us,” she says. “It’s not like this comes from inside.” She touches her chest. “It comes from out there.” Clinard directs her glance at the ceramic vase she made to honor and celebrate the six teachers who died protecting their students in Newtown.
“Before I moved in, I asked if I could scavenge for materials.” Clinard moves through the space with the comfort of ownership and the respect of a grateful guest. “I found beams and leather straps and objects that have been held in other hands, other lives. There’s something alive about that, something I can use in my work.”
Clinard splits her time between her work and teaching others how to create works of art from stone, metal, ceramics, and wood across the street at the Eli Whitney Museum. “And paper,” adds Bill Brown, director of the museum. “You should see what she can do with crumpled-up paper. It’s not what you think of when you think papier mâché!”
Of course not. Clinard is not what you think of when you think sculptor. She’s docent, artist, historian, and passionate messenger of the human condition.
The generic looking three-story brick building commands the space of a city block on a dead-end street off Route 7 in Norwalk. The name above the door doesn’t help any. Firing Circuits? Some kind of electrical contracting company? Unless you’re connected in some way to the art world, you’d have no idea that the space houses galleries and studios for over two dozen artists.
Karen Vogel, one of the original artists to occupy the building, gestures toward the windows in her studio. “The light,” she says. “And I love the building’s sense of history and its gritty quality.” The windows look out over a parking lot to the backs of buildings in an industrial park. No trees. But the sun pours in like magic. “And the high ceilings,” she adds. “Space and air.”
The light, the space. This building once housed artists of another sort. This was a lace factory.
Englishman Bernard Blore moved to Norwalk in 1910, bringing with him intricate patterns to create the lace that had already seduced Europe. He worked at this very building, which was at that time Dresden Laceworks. Women crossed and twisted bobbins of cotton thread here until machines took over. But World War I made any German-sounding brand anathema, and so the business became Connecticut Lace Works. Blore had worked his way up to vice president, and the lace-making industry continued until 1970, when the business finally, quietly, ended.
The building was empty for years. In time, along came artists searching for empty spaces.
At Firing Circuits, the halls are cavernous. Artists-in-residence display their work: sculptures, wall hangings, paintings, and photography. The rest of the space is divided into individual studios.
In Vogel’s studio, she has installed her printing press. Here she explores different printmaking and painting techniques on paper and canvas. Her latest series of prints are powerful graphics of letters, color, and numbers referencing architectural, typographical, and geometric shapes. “I love the capital letter G. It’s got everything,” she says, tracing the graceful loop and pausing on the turn of the familiar 45-degree angle.
Another series exposes her “other” life as a landscape designer. These prints show cast iron gates through which we can see ivy and bending stems and flowers. “A restless balance,” Vogel says. “I see it around me. In my work, I want to replicate the tension.”
“They call this part of Greenwich Chickahominy,” says Barbieri. “Named after a battle during the Civil War, fought on the banks of the Chickahominy River in Virginia.”
Farmland yielded to a wave of Italian immigrants, mostly stonemasons, who settled there around the turn of the century, followed by families from Poland, Hungary, Russia, Chile, and Brazil. This is where Barbieri paints. And paints and paints. Portraiture and nautical charts, turtles, sea horses, sand dollars, mermaids, and fish. “I’m fascinated by the sea and its creatures,” she says. “Especially octopuses. They’re strange. Elegant and creepy at the same time. Kind of sexy, really.”
Barbieri’s studio is in a small brick building built in 1928, but with its high ceilings, there’s plenty of room to display her work—most of which is big. Some pieces are over five feet wide and just as tall, with incredible detail. Easy to get lost in. Although she paints a wide variety of subject matter, everything can somehow be traced back to the sea. Even the series of astrological signs. She started with Scorpio. The other two water signs of the zodiac, Cancer and Pisces, are already begun. The handsome model for the portrait that looks so much like Lord Byron is a swimmer.
In some works, she has combined her love of literature with the subject of her painting, meticulously lettering words and phrases of her favorite poets and novelists across the canvas.
Canvas is not enough. Barbieri is also a master at the art of fresco secco—painting on panels of dry plaster—sometimes with silver or gold leaf. Other fresco secco work is commissioned and painted on the walls of private homes.
“I don’t work to make my paintings realistic,” says Barbieri. “I may start with an event in history, but I’ll alter it, add something. I want to create a sense of mystery and wonder.”
Image Credits: Adam Coppola