BY SHIRLEY O’SHEA
Danielle Newell, director of The Smithy art galleries and community arts center on Pioneer Street in Cooperstown, exudes a confidence in her vision for the organization she serves that one rarely encounters in these times.
“There is so much wonderful stuff that can happen, so why not make it happen?” she said recently to the Crier, more a statement of her leadership style than a question about what is possible.
Newell said that, since she assumed the directorship of The Smithy in May 2010, she has been impressed by “how brilliant and how talented, enthusiastic and passionate (about the arts) people are here. There are a million little diamonds tucked in between the trees. It’s been very surprising, the number of artists” with whom she’s come into contact in the Cooperstown area.
Newell is seeking to make The Smithy a place where local people of all backgrounds and levels of experience in the arts can cultivate their own vision, through appreciating the creations of others and becoming creators themselves.
When Newell, whose background is in acting, theater education and stage management, first came to The Smithy, she found that her artistic mission and that of The Smithy “fit perfectly _ to make arts accessible,” she said. “We do a lot of community arts events.”
Newell cited The Smithy’s current documentary film series, “Under Our Feet,” which is concerned with environmental and social justice issues, a class that Newell led last winter, “Books We Love to Watch,” which “focused on adaptations” of books to films, and a “very popular and well attended” concert series, as examples of programming that has been developed withthe larger community in mind. A large part of The Smithy’s outreach is its class offerings in pottery, painting and drawing and theater. The Smithy has four eight-week sessions, in fall, winter, spring and summer, and classes are geared to adults and children.
This fall’s classes began on Sept. 26, with adult pottery taught by Sandee Alpernon Monday afternoons and Tuesday evenings, Karla Andela on Tuesday afternoons, Rick Marchant on Wednesday mornings, and Dory Dawson, on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings and afternoons.
Children and high schoolage classes this fall are available in painting and drawing on Mondays, from 3 to 5 p.m. Children’s pottery classes are taught on Tuesdays from 2:45 to 4:15 p.m. or 4:30 to 6 p.m., and on Thursdays from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturdays features a “Mom or Dad & Me Pottery” class, from 10 a.m. to noon.
The Glimmer Globe Acting Studio, established by Newell and functioning under the auspices of The Smithy, offers classes in children’s acting on Wednesdays from 3:15 to 5:15 p.m., and teen acting on Thursdays, from 3:15 to 5:15 p.m. Wednesdays also features a class on character development for students ages 14 and up, which meets from 7 to 8:30 p.m., and on Thursdays, a class on audition technique for students ages 14 and older meets from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Character Development and Audition Technique are on a drop-in basis.
This fall also has special workshops available, including “Composites — Large Structures” with Dory Lawson on Oct. 16 and 23 from 1 to 5 p.m., and a workshop that has already run, “Feast-Ware” with Elizabeth Nields.
A recent innovation in the pottery offerings at The Smithy has been “Open Studio,” in which “students pay for studio space, glaze, kiln and materials,” according to Abbey Koutnik of Oneonta, who leads the program, if indeed it can be called a program.
“It’s a new concept that I think is terrific,” she said. Students at Open Studio work independently on pottery projects, and are able to ask questions of Koutnik, who has been affiliated with The Smithy as a student and teacher for 13 years.
“(Open Studio) is not teacher-led. People come and go,” Koutnik said.
Students can combine a pottery class with Open Studio and received a reduced tuition for Open Studio.
“I’ve been doing this for at least 15 years,” said Sandee Alpern, who teaches pottery for adults at The Smithy. “Some of my students have been with me for quite a few years.
“What I think is exciting about our ceramics program is that it cuts across a lot of boundaries,” Alpern added.
People of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, locations and experiences in art come together in her classes to create with mud, and those differences “become irrelevant when you’re all working toward the same goal,” Alpern remarked.
“Everyone’s wearing sloppy clothes. We’re all there in muddy shirts and dirty pants. Visually you can’t see who’s well-educated” and who comes from less privileged circumstances.
Yet, while learning to make pottery together, “a very lovely sense of community develops,” Alpern said. She said when students are “elbow deep in mud, it’s all fine. We all concentrate on helping each other. We get to know each other.”
In her class, Alpern explained, “We do mostly functional ware. People come into (the class) wanting to learn how to operate a potter’s wheel.”
Functional, or thrown pottery, according to Alpern, is made on a potter’s wheel and includes “vessels for use at home — vases, bowls and plates. I am most interestedin things that function with food,” Alpern said. “I love the fact that I can make things that I can use to serve food on. They are not simply beautiful. When I pick up my hot tea, it’s in something I made. I like that combination of function with beauty.”
Students also make hand-built, “fine art” pieces, or sculpture, in Alpern’s class.
Alpern defines a fine art piece as an object that “adds beauty to the home.” Hand-built pottery is made “using a slab or coil (of clay) as the process,” Alpern said. “Do we produce fine art? If yes, that is wonderful, but if no, that’s O.K.,” Alpern said. Working in the studio “helps you recognize why a piece of pottery is art,” she added. “Itry to help students figure out how to make what they want.
I answer ‘how’ questions, not ‘what’ questions. I don’t want to impose my aesthetic on my students.”
Alpern’s professional background is in educational psychology.
“I taught in the elementary school in Cooperstown, and in the gifted and talented program for 10 years,” she said. Her father was a part-time sculptor.
“My first introduction to clay was watching my dad work. I don’t have formal training (in pottery-making),”she said. Alpern has acquired a background in working with clay through “workshopping” in a variety of places and trialand error at home.
“I have a home studio with a wheel and kiln. I try to learn from everybody. We have a nice collaborative atmosphere (at The Smithy),” she said.
“I think if you make mistakes, you define something better,” Alpern continued. “We often learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. Learn something!”
Children’s pottery teacher Jeannette Westcott’s background is in elementary education, but she minored at art while at Wheelock College in Boston. As a youngster, she said, “I loved clay. I was really fortunate to be able to do clay from grades two to 12. One little boy told me, ‘I’ve never been able to do (clay) in school.’ I never met a kid that doesn’t enjoy working with clay despite its challenges,” Westcott said.
The Smithy asked Westcott to teach their children’s class, which typically has four to five, and occasionally up to 15 students.
“The Smithy gallery is an awesome community,” Westcott said. “It belongs to all of the artists who work here.”
When beginning a session with her young students, Westcott said, she tells them, “You are an artist here. This is your studio, and you must care for it.”
Westcott’s class is a “basic introduction into what clay is, and what we do in an art studio,” she explained.
“They need to know what clay does,” she said.
She said that she teaches them that “sometimes I make the clay what I want it to be, and sometimes the clay determines what the final product will be.
“These are good life lessons for people, too,” Westcott said.Westcott said she really loves teaching at The Smithy.
“I always wanted to be an art teacher. You can learn about science through clay,” she said, explaining that a student must understand the physical properties of clay to produce a successful piece.
“With clay, you have to learn to accept your mistakes.
Sometimes your least favorite piece becomes your favorite,” she said. Abbey Koutnik started taking classes at The Smithy 13 years ago, and became a pottery instructor there, working with “older kids, in their upper middle teens — whoever signs up,” she said.
“I was an art education major in college. I had taken classes in pottery at SkidmoreCollege. When I was there, there were a lot of entrenched (faculty), and the most interesting professors were not there during my four years. (However) there were a lot of great people who were there for two years. There was a terrible pottery teacher, very full of himself.
“(But) at The Smithy, (the teachers) were really great,” Koutnik said. “They helped me learn the basics. The teachers were very oriented to helping people who’d never done pottery before. I have not had a bad teacher at The Smithy. They are committed to students.”
As well as teaching, Koutnik said she is taking pottery classes with The Smithy’s Rick Marchant. Koutnik explained, “I find you can always learn, no matter what level you’re at. I really appreciate the wealth of ideas (at The Smithy, and the opportunity) to look at what everybody’s doing.” Koutnik said, “I teach the wheel and I teach hand-building. We always do a number of projects. I try to focus on what the kids want to do. I give space, information and I encourage.”
The teachers for all age groups at The Smithy, Koutniksaid, pretty much follow the same style. “We teach specific skills and allow the students to move in whatever direction their interest is taking them,” she said.
Koutnik said that instructors give demonstrations and move around the studio, providing one-on-one support and guidance.
The pottery-making process, according to Koutnik, starts with clay, which is a particular type of soil; it holds its shape and slides.
“You shape it. You can handbuild or use the wheel. Once you’ve created your piece, you have to create your foot (base).
Once you have that, if you’re going to do any decoration, such as handles you do it at that point. The shaped, dried mud, called greenware, goes through an initial low fire. The temperature is (lower), and it goes for less time,” she said.
After this first firing, the piece is called bisque, Koutnik said. “Then you can add glaze,” she explained. “Glaze is not paint. It is a combination of minerals and elements of glass. Different combinations produce different colors and effects.”
Then, the piece is fired again, at a high fire for stone ware, which can withstand use in an oven or microwave, or at a low fire, which is less durable and used for making inexpensive mugs and pottery items, according to Koutnik.
“It chips easily,” Koutnik said.
“If you’re buying original pottery, you’re getting an amazing deal, given the whole process,” Koutnik added.
When Newell took the reins at The Smithy a year and a half ago, she said was excitedto have the opportunity to do things that she loves and make theater available to the community.
Newell came to Cooperstown from Manhattan, where she had worked as a theater and film actor and stage manager. A member of Actors’ Equity, Newell began to manage theaters and founded an acting studio in New York City, as well as taught theater in schools and other organizations. “I wanted to move up here to be closer to family,” she said.
While impressed by thevibrant community of artists and arts patrons in the area, Newell realized that there was “nothing that’s straight-up theater,” she said. She set out to do something to remedy that.
Even before joining The Smithy, Newell had conceived of the Glimmer Globe Acting Studio, which is now “housed under” The Smithy, she said.
“The acting studio will be growing in the not too distant future,” she said.
Newell said she plans for the studio to bring theater to the Cooperstown Theatre Festival, in the old theater on the upper west side of (Otsego) Lake.
“I’m working with the owner to start using (the theater) regularly,” she said.
The studio has done “a couple of different productions for the high school and community. I want theater running constantly,” she said.
She said she envisions the Glimmer Globe performing “short plays with kids, new works and Shakespeare.” Newell teaches acting to children and teens at Glimmer Globe studio.
“I so thoroughly enjoy working with the kids,” she said. “(They are) not just learning about how to be on stage.
They are learning empathy and developing confidence and self-esteem. Children really have a rough go of it, and I’m well aware of the kind of bullying (that takes place).”
When doing theater, Newell says, the children “are workshopping these issues and understanding motivation and coping in the world.” Newell says she is helping her young students to understand “the human condition,” which she finds most rewarding.
In addition to her ambitions for theater in Cooperstown, through The Smithy’s auspices, Newell wants to add more book-making classes to the The Smithy’s schedule, and to continue the film programming that she instituted last winter as well the Community Art Nights, which are free to the public.
In order to find out about The Smithy’s upcoming schedule of classes, fees and opportunities for financial assistance, and ways to help students pay for classes, and about other programming and, gallery hours, visit www.smithypioneer.org.