The Eliot School of Fine and Applied Arts has seen dramatic, positive change in the past ten years. A celebration of that progress and three Jamaica Plain residents who were key to building the programs and stability of the local nonprofit took place last month at a supporter’s home in JP.
Long-time board members Charlie Fox and Marilyn Mase were recognized for more than 10 years service each. In addition, Abigail Norman, who was hired by them and the rest of the board to be the director 10 years ago, was honored for overseeing the renaissance.
It was announced that special funds in each of their names, including two scholarship funds in honor of the board members, have been created in recognition of their contributions.
The Eliot School on Eliot Street in the Monument Square Historic District of JP marked its 340th anniversary last year. Just last month the school received the Champion of the Arts Advocacy Award for its School Partnership Program with the Boston Public Schools from Arts|Learning, a nonprofit that promotes art education in public schools in Massachusetts.
“One of the oldest continuously running educational institutions in the country,” offers dozens of classes ranging from painting to woodworking for children and adults.
Some basic numbers provided by the school say a lot about the organization’s transformation from struggling to thriving in a decade. “In the 2005-06 school year, 387 people took Eliot School classes: 36 children and 351 adults. COMPASS School, then located behind Blessed Sacrament Church, sent two classes of six teens each over to the wood shop to take classes each week.
“In the most recently completed school year, 2015-16, 1,500 people took classes: 440 children and 960 adults. And through school and community partnerships, Eliot School instructors taught an additional 2,000 children throughout Boston through weekly art and woodworking classes in 15 schools and nearly 30 libraries and community centers.”
“Amazingly, the school still follows its mission from the time in the 19th century when it broke away from the school system and struck off on its own: to satisfy that human desire to create,” Norman said.
Norman said she remembers meeting with Fox and Mase, who were then board co-chairs, several times a month after she was hired, “in the dusty wood shop, and we puzzled our way through those years of intense growth. Together, we figured out staffing, budgets, bylaws and programming,” she said.
At last month’s event Fox and Mase praised Norman’s leadership. Fox recalled that the board was “not optimistic” about the future when Norman became director. “Our charge to her was to stop the financial bleeding… Well, Abigail did that and a whole lot more,” he said.
Fox, an architect who has also been active in the Jamaica Pond Association and the JP Neighborhood Council Zoning Committee in the past, described how the Eliot School reengaged with the Boston Public Schools to provide art and manual training under Norman’s leadership. He said the staff she has hired is “smart, committed, and excited to be involved… Curriculum in house has become more focused.”
He added that fundraising from private donors and granting agencies has become integral to the school.
Mase, an artist who has exhibited widely and an adjunct design professor at Wentworth Institute of Technology, said this week, “Even with all this growth, added courses, and new teachers, the personality of the school that we all love has not changed.”
She described her experience stumbling upon the Eliot School years ago when she was just out of art school and how great the convenient, affordable classes, Superintendent Charlie Sandler, and woodworking teacher John Earley were.
“The staff continues to create the same creative and welcoming place it was when I first met [them],” she said.
According to Norman, both Fox and Mase brought “an extensive network of friendships” to the school. Both served on the Program Committee, helping to figure out how to expand course offerings. That was also when the now thriving School Partnership Program between the Eliot School and the Boston Public Schools started growing.
Mase and Fox chaired significant committees that played key roles in the maturation of the Eliot School.
Mase chaired the original Scholarship Committee, founded with an anonymous donation that has seen many more donations since, spearheading the creation of rules and criteria.
Fox chaired the Facilities Committee, which steered the school through a major bundle of renovations including the restoration of the cupola, replacement of eaves and gutters, replacement of all the electricity and lighting, removal and rebuilding of the wood shop floor, the addition of the shed, use of the annex basement, new storage closets throughout the building, and many other details.
Though they are cycling off the board, both honorees will continue to be active as Trustees Emeriti, Mase on the Scholarship Committee and Fox on the new Space Committee, which will take the school through a plan for facilities expansion in the next period.
The school still needs to expand and improve its space, Norman said. She listed goals: to create handicapped access, proper stairs, a waiting room for parents and modern bathrooms and “a more beautiful landscape” and to “clean up temporary parts” added before WWI.
“That’s going to take community participation, and I promise we will create many opportunities to communicate with you, neighbors, and supporters as we make those plans over the next few years,” she told the crowd at the celebration.
For more information about the Eliot School, its achievements, programs and plans, and how to support them, go to eliotschool.org.
Sandra Storey is founder and former publisher and editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette. She is on the Advisory Council and Scholarship Committee of the Eliot School.