By Abigail Norman/Special to the Gazette
Beth Ireland has let her hands lead her from one skill to another. Turning wood in her Roslindale studio since 1997, she has crafted enormous columns for buildings, tiny prototypes for science, and elegant vessels embedded with color and pattern. She has travelled, giving master classes at art centers around the country and making sculptures that embody playful and profound ideas–most recently, ideas about traveling and returning home. Lately, she has been creating mobile studios that double as classrooms, with collaborative art partner Jenn Moller, and taking them on the road.
Ireland’s driveway now houses a boldly wrapped van and a bright red, handmade trailer. The van contains a woodshop. Its eye-catching graphic advertises Turning Around Boston, her collaboration with Jamaica Plain’s Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts. With it, she and Moller are visiting a different Boston school or community site every day this month, teaching woodworking classes to kids.
The trailer, called “Sanctuary,” contains a studio for making wood-block prints and books. Ireland and Moller built it from the metal trailer bed upward, using sheep wool insulation and other green materials. Both vehicles have accordion-style workbenches that pull out so that classes can be held outdoors, and fold-out beds for taking the artists on the road. Ireland calls them “studios that travel.”
Turning Around Boston will reach over 500 children, each child making a pen or whistle using a ruler, saw, file and rasp. Seventeen Boston Public Schools are participating, along with Roslindale Community Center, JP’s South Street Youth Center, Roxbury Tenants Association, Boys & Girls Club and Boy Scouts Minuteman Council.
First stop, earlier this month, was South Street Youth Center.
“Our kids loved it,” said center Director Maura Ramsey. “The mixture of focus, physical activity, concentration and artistic engagement was really wonderful to behold.”
Ireland recently spent a full year traveling around the continental United States, stopping along the way to teach woodworking workshops to adults and children. Calling the project Turning Around America, she met with widespread enthusiasm for making things by hand. Last winter, she and Moller gave a talk about the project at the Eliot School, sharing the gospel of hands-on learning. The idea arose of bringing it home to Boston. Next year, Moller and Ireland will go back on the road, spreading their love of hand-work as a kind of empowerment.
The Eliot School’s Program Coordinator, Alison Croney, said, “It’s an honor to work with Beth. She’s an artisan of the highest caliber, and she really connects with kids. Our work is all about teaching children to develop skills and imagination, to develop their creativity and love what they make.”
The Eliot School sends artisans to teach woodworking and art in many Boston Public Schools and community settings, reaching 1,200 children each year with its School Partnership Program, in addition to classes in its Jamaica Plain schoolhouse.
“Turning Around Boston is a perfect compliment to our work,” Croney said.
“Turning Around Boston has been such an eye-opener. Everywhere we go we hear the same thing,” said Ireland. “Kids who have trouble focusing settle down and focus when they are making something by hand. Kids who don’t speak English speak the universal language of making things. Kids have given us the broadest smiles and the greatest sense of satisfaction.”
Naomi Krakow, Principal of Ohrenberger Elementary School, in West Roxbury, said, “Our kids had a blast. I had quite a few students run up to me at dismissal to thank me for bringing the program to the school.”
The Eliot School raised funds for Turning Around Boston through a Kickstarter campaign and with sponsorships from Payne Bouchier Fine Builders and Eastern Bank.
Turning Around Boston and “Sanctuary” are on view at 33 Ashfield St. as part of Roslindale Open Studios, Nov. 2 and 3, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. The Eliot School’s Roslindale Arts Initiative is also presenting a Student Art Exhibition as part of Open Studios, Saturday only, at Roslindale Community Center.
The writer is the director of the Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts.