By Marykate Smith Despres | Photography by Nikki Gardner
“It’s like being a part of a family,” says Laurie Wheeler of the Shelburne Arts Cooperative. The close-knit feeling created by the co-op is impressive given its size and scope: It has grown from eight founding members in 1998 to over 60 members today, the majority of whom live in Franklin County, though membership extends throughout the Valley.
The co-op members attend each other’s weddings and baby showers, band together to support each other when someone is sick or facing hardships, and regularly participate in local fundraisers and community events. Wheeler shows me a picture the LeWitticists, co-op members who won Best Dressed Team in their Sol Lewitt-inspired outfits at last year’s Mary Lyon Foundation Community Spelling Bee.
Wheeler, who works with discarded books, magazines, and other recycled paper to make altered book sculptures and paper bead jewelry, also serves as one of Shelburne Falls’ librarians. She is modest when about talking about her work (“People can’t believe I do that with books,” she says, a librarian through and through), but she buzzes with excitement and awe as she points out pottery, fiber art, jewelry, and paintings around the shop. She notices the way fiber artist Sandy Tobin uses color in her quilts and admires how mixed media artist Nina Rossi “pushes the envelope.”
Making, showing, and selling work can be a solitary pursuit for many artists and artisans, but the co-op offers an alternative. “The co-op is about other people, and sharing,” Wheeler says. “There’s a lot of vibrance here.”
Of the co-op’s 60 plus members, 25 are working members, taking on more responsibility by working shifts at the shop, serving as officers, or hanging and then striking each month’s group or solo show. All work sold on consignment, and working members receive a larger percentage of their sales than nonworking members. The more an artist puts into the co-op, the more she gets out, but there are more than financial benefits to being an active member.
“I think it’s healthy to be around a lot of art and to absorb what everybody’s doing,” Sandy Dennis, painter and shop curator, tells me. Nestled into the same storefront in downtown Shelburne Falls for 18 years, the walls and shelves of the co-op have become increasingly full, but Dennis says that the co-op always welcomes new artists to apply. The co-op members meet monthly to vote on new members, who are juried in based how their work fits in the shop, both aesthetically and literally—wall space, in particular, is hard to come by.
Though space is tight, the Shelburne Arts Cooperative continues to honor Julie Hall Rock, one of the founding members and “revered leader” who has since passed, but was largely responsible for keeping the co-op running smoothly in its early days. Cards and prints of her paintings are housed in a corner of the shop. “She is still represented,” says Dennis, who credits Hall Rock with convincing her to join the co-op 16 years ago. “We’re like a family.”