The Art of Island Living
With a new creative space, Featherstone Center for the Arts continues to enrich the Martha’s Vineyard community
Photography courtesy of Featherstone center for the arts
Tucked among acres of preserved land, Featherstone Center for the Arts has served as an escape, artistic starting block and community unifier for the island of Martha’s Vineyard for almost a quarter century. The events, affordable classes and programs it consistently presents provide a creative setting for year-round islanders, seasonal residents and tourists alike to explore artistic expression, discover new passions and connect with the Vineyard’s artistic community.
Featherstone was born from the bones of Featherstone Farm, a 25-acre family-owned horse farm run by the Stevens family. Mary Stevens, an artist herself, helped establish Featherstone Center for the Arts on the land. In 1966, a small arts group, Meetinghouse Center for the Arts, became Featherstone Center for the Arts with the purchase of six acres of farm land, creating the space for the new art center campus. The original horse barns and farm buildings were repurposed as classroom and studio space; the old breeding mare barn became a pottery studio, the family farmhouse a gallery. “Our old printmaking studio was in the horse stalls,” recounts Ann Smith, executive director of Featherstone. “We still have the horse stall doors in the classrooms and the old horse barn was also part of our darkroom.”
However, as Featherstone continued to grow, their ability to serve an expanding client base grew strained due to the limited amount of space at their disposal—their 700-square-foot pottery studio could no longer effectively accommodate the ceramics program, the most popular medium on campus. As many non profits are forced to recognize, the demands to scale and the resources to accommodate rarely intersect neatly.
For their 15th anniversary in 2011, the Center began taking steps to remedy their lack of available, workable space. “We finally decided that we would do a campus master plan with hope that by 2016—our 20th anniversary—we could break ground on a new building that would really showcase the island art we are missioned to highlight,” says Smith.
The renovation was initially planned to occur in two phases, the first focusing on expanding the pottery studio and the second, a new barn to contribute gallery space. Squash Meadow Construction, a local construction company on Martha’s Vineyard, was contracted to complete the first phase. Featherstone’s expansion, however, was expedited thanks to a generous anonymous donation. The $3 million donation, $1 million of which was meant specifically for the barn, enabled Featherstone to combine the projects and build both phases together.
Squash Meadow, with the specialization they offer in modular and energy efficient construction practices, was enlisted to complete the entire project. The renovation was designed and built utilizing modular construction, all while prioritizing efficiency and stability. Although the renovation is not formally certified, it is essentially a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building in terms of environmental sustainability, meaning that the structure is both cost and resource effective.
The pottery studio, which has space for both pottery and jewelry design, was completed in July of 2017; the 2,400-square-foot barn, with its 1,500 square feet of gallery space, was completed a month later. Together, the construction tripled the size of Featherstone’s campus. Throughout the process, Featherstone remained true to their mission. “We are active and creative 365 days out of the year,” Smith explains. “In the course of those seven months that we were building, we never closed one day. We continued to operate. It was hard to do, but rewarding.”
The impact of both the pottery studio and Art Barn has since been transformational for Featherstone. The barn specifically, has proven truly meaningful, both professionally as well as personally.
“We have a beautiful conference room that we never had before,” says Smith. “We hold a lot of our writing workshops, staff meetings and community meetings there. We now have administrative offices and two large classroom spaces. One is the drawing studio—27 feet by 27 feet. That’s obviously dedicated to drawing, especially our life-drawing program. And then we have a second, twin classroom that’s really devoted to painting. We offer instruction in watercolor, oil and pastel painting, as well as mixed-media collage and acrylic painting.”
In addition to increased creative and administrative space, the barn is the home of Featherstone’s Francine Kelly Gallery. “It’s named after my mother who was the executive director before me and really transformed Featherstone,” Smith says with evident pride. “When she came in 2003, Featherstone was open two days a week from like 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. She made it a year-round community arts center with year-round shows, and year-round events.”
The Francine Kelly Gallery now facilitates the 15 shows, professional and community based, Featherstone curates annually. Each show runs for three weeks, and is community-themed in some facet—for instance the community youth art show, featuring their partnership with the Garden Gate Child Development Center, a local preschool, is complemented by work contributed by Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s art students.
The exterior of the barn further enables Featherstone’s ability to highlight and celebrate community through the arts. Their gardens are situated right next to a large outdoor display and deck space, which is used both for parties and as a resting area for visitors, particularly those attending their very popular weekly Flea and Fine Arts Market, which features 80 vendors during the summer season.
Also on the property, Featherstone houses an outdoor stage which has hosted musical and dance performances as well as poetry readings. These popular events had to be postponed for construction, but are anticipated to return to the Center in some form. Events such as the “Potter’s Bowl,” an event focusing on the Island’s ceramics artists, and Columbus Day Weekend’s “The Art of Chocolate,” are examples of how Featherstone brings the Vineyard community together to support creativity, community and the Center itself.
Due to the Center’s proximity to preserved conservation land for the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, Featherstone’s outdoor campus space is a popular choice for picnicking, hiking and other outdoor family activities. “We have a beautiful, lush campus,” says Smith. “If you drive up the hill you really enter this peaceful pastoral environment. It’s just really a lovely place to hang out, as well as see art, as well as make art, as well as to be creative.”
The recent expansion has amplified Featherstone’s ability to serve families of all ages. Featherstone offers classes and summer art camp for children starting at just three years old. “We are the hub of creativity for all generations,” says Smith. “This is a place where the love of learning continues no matter what the age.” Children ages 13 and older have full access to any of Featherstone’s adult classes, in addition to the Center’s “Toddler and Up” children’s programs.
Featherstone’s truly impactful renovation has enhanced their ability to live out their commitment to Martha’s Vineyard. “Our purpose is ‘creating community through the arts,’ and I think we live that and model that every day,” says Smith. “Our mission is to engage and enrich and connect our community through the power of art and creativity, and I think we just do that so well.”
To learn more about the Featherstone Center for the Arts