Joe Barnes’ dream of a creative hub for artists celebrates 50 years of reality

  • The Barnes Gallery at Leverett Crafts & Arts. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Pottery waits to be fired at the Leverett Crafts & Arts in the lower level pottery area. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Paintings by Walter Burnham at The Barnes Gallery at Leverett Crafts & Arts. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Leverett Crafts & Arts Executive Director Walter Burnham talks with Alice Scheffey, one of the original members. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Potter Phyl Gerber talks with Leverett Crafts & Arts board member Mitchell Mulholland in the lower level pottery area. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Portraits of people involved in the evolution of the Leverett Crafts & Arts. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Tubling Lioness sculpture by Steve Saxenian at The Barnes Gallery at Leverett Crafts and Arts. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Pottery by Phyl Gerber at The Barnes Gallery at Leverett Crafts & Arts. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The Leverett Crafts & Arts building in Leverett. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Wednesday, September 13, 2017


Recorder Staff

Studying old photos up on a gallery wall, the elder statesman was taken back to the days when these walls just held the remains of a former chicken coop, rallied by one man’s vision.

“Is that Joe Barnes there?” said Alice Scheffey smiling, squinting at the photo of the man who started it all. A founder of Leverett Crafts & Arts, her mind drifted back to the 1960s while standing in the exhibition celebrating the center’s 50th anniversary this year.

On Sunday, there will be a special reception in honor of the anniversary with music and food from 1 to 6 p.m. It’s free and open to the public.

Scheffey just happened to be getting an early look. She’s one of the oldest living movers and shakers who helped to fulfill Joe Barnes’ goals of this center in the heart of the small village. Sharp in the mind, and still sturdy in body, Scheffey thought back to those days.

“He was a magnetic person,” she said. “Everyone fell in love with him.”

Barnes, a well-known crafter with metals in the region at the time, had purchased a building in downtown Leverett that once was a mill, creating boxes to ship everything from sticks of butter to stacks of gifts. Later, it was turned into a chicken coop, eventually lining the interior with fertilizer from the chickens that would later be slaughtered.

The place was in disarray, but Barnes wanted to make it into a place where people could come and make and learn traditional crafts and arts.

“He had the vision,” she said. “That’s what it really was — to turn this place, which was a mess, into a haven for artists.”

Yet Barnes would never see the completion of it, because he died suddenly of lung cancer in 1964.

Scheffey and other artists who had moved to the area at the time would go on and finish the project at a time in the 1960s when, “everything was very exciting and possible in those years ... we were making the world better,” she said.

‘Best that it’s ever been’

Now, 50 years into its existence as a nonprofit, the building, which dates back to 1903, holds 18 studios, all filled with artists renting out the space at the “LCA.”

Perhaps at its peak today, the space had struggled — something that anyone who has been involved with it over the years will echo throughout the gallery halls.

In the 2000s, Walter Burnham, a friend of the center and fellow musician with a carpenter background, was asked to be the executive director of a place in “desperate need of some tender loving care.”

“There was a point when it was pretty lonely in here,” Burnham said. “People were cold when they came into this building, so they weren’t really encouraged to use their studios too much. There were a few brave souls that stuck it out. I used to sit in my office and be doing the books and it’d be like tumbleweed junction in here.”

Around 2008, the place started to turn the corner — fundraising, writing grants, receiving matching fund allotments from the town and the state, eventually getting listed as a historic building. They replaced the front roof and are still hoping to replace the back.

They changed out windows originally from University of Massachusetts and its first women’s college dormitory. They added heaters and sinks to many of the studios, and finally were able to afford to pay the electric bill.

“Having seen it when I’ve moved to town in 1973, it’s at the best that it’s ever been,” studio-holder Louise Minx said. “It feels the best, it looks the best, it’s functioning the best, it’s financially the most stable — don’t you think?”

“Oh, absolutely,” grant writer and historian Mitchell Mulholland replied, while sitting in Minx’s studio, natural light flooding in.

“I think it’s at it’s best, which is wonderful for it’s 50th anniversary,” Minx said.

Celebration exhibition

The exhibition, on display now Fridays through Sundays from 1 to 6 p.m. and running until the end of the month, shows off the rich history of the building, including moments remembering when African Americans were residents of the town and a major part of the old mill.

The exhibition also displays the work of current and former artists, from paintings to pottery and much in between. The history of the building is as much a central element to the LCA as the artists that occupy it now.

“People see this old industrial building sitting in the middle of this fancy community and think it’s sort out of place,” Mulholland said. “But it isn’t, because back then this was the main employer, and is the reason that the center of the town exists. It’s just amazing it didn’t fall down.”

More than a hundred years after being built and fifty years after starting to become what it is today, Leverett Crafts & Arts is just starting to hit the crest of Barnes’ goals.

“I’m just so grateful to this group for keeping and hanging on. It’s been quite a struggle,” Scheffey said. “They’ve taken it the furthest of anybody. It’s beautiful to see something come into it’s true self — or it’s dreamt of possibility.”

Visit Leverett Crafts & Arts and Barnes Gallery at 13 Montague Road in Leverett. To learn more, visit: www.leverettcrafts.org

Reception and gala

The 50th anniversary celebration on Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m. will include:

1:30 to 3:30 p.m.: Live music with Danse Café and Cynthia Thomas

2 p.m.: Name That Volunteer with board member Mitch Mullholland and presentation about the history and founders of Leverett Crafts & Arts

2:30 p.m.: Name That Artist with current resident artists and a presentation about the early artists and craftspeople